A Short History


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“The Vanier Institute of the Family can be compared to a Royal Commission established to investigate and learn all there is to know about the families of Canada in a world of change. But since the need for knowledge and study will continue as long as we inhabit the globe, this Royal Commission will never be discharged.”

Governor General Georges Vanier, 1964

Editorial caricature by Blaine MacDonald, Hamilton Spectator

The Vanier Institute of the Family began its work in 1965 immediately following the Canadian Conference on the Family convened at Government House by Their Excellencies, Governor General Georges P. Vanier and Madame Pauline Vanier. That founding conference brought together distinguished men and women from all walks of life, each of whom knew that the contribution of families is vitally important and ultimately shapes the world in which we live.

Governor General Vanier’s vision to create an enduring organization dedicated to the cause of our society through the family was supported by the leadership of renowned Canadian neuroscientist, Dr. Wilder Penfield. Basic to his commitment to the role of the Vanier Institute of the Family was his belief that the family shapes us as individuals and ultimately serves as the essential cornerstone of our society.

It was the combination of Vanier’s vision, Penfield’s determination and the support of Lester B. Pearson that succeeded in creating a legacy for the Canadian people. The tangible expression of that legacy took the form of a $6-million endowment fund, representing the generosity of governments, foundations, businesses, faith groups and individuals. Thanks to wise investing, these funds have grown over the years and continue to support the core programs of the Institute.

Complementing the vision and determination of its principal founders was the scholarship of Dr. Frederick Elkin. In 1964, in order to equip those who took part in the Canadian Conference on the Family, Elkin undertook to survey the state of knowledge about Canada’s families. His research resulted in the now classic text entitled The Family in Canada, an account of present knowledge and gaps in knowledge about Canadian families.

During its first years of operation, the Institute sought to fill some of the gaps in knowledge that Elkin had identified and, in the process, opened new avenues of investigation, which included, among others, the first Canadian studies of family violence, single-parent families, the diversity of family forms, divorce and its consequences. The lessons derived from these studies equipped the Institute to move beyond scholarship as it made its early contributions to policy discussions and legislative frameworks about such topics as family law reform, divorce legislation and immigration policy.

The Vanier Institute of the Family Comes of Age

The exploratory work and early studies carried out in the formative years led to the definition of two primary contentions articulated in 1972 by then president of the Institute, Beryl Plumptre, namely:

  • The Vanier Institute must be thoroughly in touch with family life of all kinds, not the ideal of the family, but the reality of the family as people live it.
  • The Vanier Institute must be concerned with the impact of the family and its surrounding social structures on each other.
Since that time, the Institute has, on this foundation, established itself as an independent and balanced voice for Canada’s families. Guided by its Board of Directors, which draws upon the commitments and talents of Canadians from all walks of life and from all parts of the nation, the Institute has worked bilingually with, and on behalf of, researchers, elected officials, policy-makers and analysts, teachers and students, family service agencies and professionals, businesses, non-governmental organizations and Canadian family members themselves.

In its efforts to focus attention on the importance and significance of family life, the Institute has, over the years, monitored the evolving patterns of family formation and functioning. In doing so, it has adopted the following definition of family to guide both its research and policy analysis. According to this now often-cited and influential definition, a family is:

         …any combination of two or more persons who are bound together over time by ties of mutual consent,
         birth and/or adoption or placement and who, together, assume responsibilities for variant combinations
         of some of the following:

  • Physical maintenance and care of group members
  • Addition of new members through procreation or adoption
  • Socialization of children
  • Social control of members
  • Production, consumption, distribution of goods and services
  • Affective nurturance – love
This definition of family emphasizes the functional roles of families – “what families do” in the service of their individual members and the larger society. It directs our attention toward the work and accomplishments of people who commit themselves to one another over time as distinct from where they live or how they are related to one another. It is an inclusive definition that acknowledges and respects heterosexual and same-sex couples, lone-parent families, extended patterns of kinship, step-families and blended families, couples with children and those without, the commitments of siblings to one another and the obligations and affection that unite the young and the old as their lives weave together. People in families provide for and care for one another; they teach and discipline; they are financially, economically and psychologically dependent upon one another; and they love one another. Within families, we encounter the opportunity and responsibility to act not just as isolated individuals, but as spouses and lovers, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters.

In keeping with the second of the contentions articulated by Plumptre in 1972, the Vanier Institute of the Family has also sought to understand and focus attention on the inter-related economic, political, social, technological and cultural institutions and practices that constitute the context within which family members seek to fulfill their obligations to one another and to the larger community. The Institute assesses how these institutional practices promote or impede the well-being of persons, families, communities and, ultimately, the nation.

It is practically a truism to acknowledge that the one constant in life is change. And, without doubt, the strategic and program themes to which the Institute has turned its attention over the years reflect how families have adapted – sometimes well and sometimes at great cost – to the changing environments in which they live. Among the central preoccupations of the Institute have been:

  • Diversity of family forms (including trends in marriage, divorce, common-law unions, remarriage, adoption, fertility and family size, teenage pregnancy, ethnic diversity and patterns of family formation and functioning, geographical mobility, religious affiliation, lone-parent families and step-families)
  • Demographic change, societal aging, intergenerational relationships and intergenerational policy priorities
  • Historical patterns of family formation and functioning
  • Family as Educator, family life education
  • Evolution of family law
  • Family functioning and economic provisioning (including trends in family incomes, expenditures, savings and debt; labour force participation of men and women; the significance of informal domestic and community production; unemployment; child and family poverty; non-standard employment)
  • Time-use among Canadian family members and time stress
  • Balancing work lives and family lives and employer responses to work–family conflict
  • Effects of television on patterns of family interaction
  • Effects of computers, the Internet and communications technologies on patterns of family interaction
  • New reproductive technologies
  • Contemporary family values
  • Indicators of child development outcomes
In addressing these and other program themes (see current Research Plan), the Vanier Institute of the Family continues to serve the Canadian public as a trusted source of accurate information on family trends, providing commentary and interpretation about the challenges confronting families and those who work to strengthen and support them.

On an annual basis, the Institute responds to hundreds of requests for interviews and information from journalists, teachers, students, researchers, policy analysts and members of the public.

In carrying out its program of work, the Institute has enjoyed the support and partnership of many individuals, community groups, corporate sponsors, foundations and government departments, both federal and provincial. We count ourselves fortunate to have benefited from the financial contributions and strategic advice of those with whom we have worked, such as:

  • The Laidlaw Foundation
  • The Birks Family Foundation
  • The Edper Group Foundation
  • The Henry White Kinnear Foundation
  • The Marjorie and Gerald Bronfman Foundation.
  • The Donner Canadian Foundation
  • The Lawson Foundation
  • The Royal Bank of Canada
  • The Bank of Montreal
  • The National Bank of Canada
  • Health Canada
  • Human Resources and Skills Development Canada
  • Alberta Family and Social Services
  • Manitoba Family Services
  • New Brunswick Health and Community Services
  • Nova Scotia Ministry of Social Services
  • Conseil de la famille et de l’enfance du Québec
The Institute has also enjoyed the collaboration of numerous community groups, national non-governmental organizations and professional associations. Among those with whom we have partnered on various projects are:

  • British Columbia Council for Families
  • Canadian Council on Social Development
  • Canadian Home Economics Association
  • Statistics Canada
  • Media Awareness Network
  • Nova Scotia Council for the Family
  • TV Ontario
  • Women’s Television Network
  • CBC
  • National Children’s Alliance
  • Social Sciences and Humanities Research Foundation
  • Fonds Québecois de la recherche sur la nature et les technologies
  • Gouvernement du Québec (in preparation of the politique familiale du Québec)

Since 1965, the Vanier Institute of the Family has endeavoured to promote the well-being of Canada’s families. It has benefited tremendously from the guidance, dedication and counsel provided by the members of its Boards of Directors and officers. It is a privilege to welcome you as you join with us in charting the course of the Institute in the years to come.