Our History

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The Vanier Institute of the Family: Our History

“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
Speech given at Sydney, Nova Scotia, May 25, 1966
Excerpt from Vanier: Soldier, Diplomat and Governor General
by Robert Speaight

The Early Years

The Formative Years

The Vanier Institute of the Family Today

The Early Years

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 Canada’s renowned neuroscientist, Dr. Wilder Penfield. Fundamental 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.
Georges and Pauline Vanier
The combination of Vanier’s vision, Penfield’s determination and Lester B. Pearson’s support succeeded in the creation of a legacy that they left to 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. These funds, well-invested, 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 resulted in the first Canadian studies of family violence, single-parent families, the diversity of family forms and 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 Formative Years

The exploratory work and initial studies carried out in the early years led to the definition of two primary contentions articulated in 1972 by the 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.
Beryl Plumptre
The Institute has since established itself, on this foundation, 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 monitored the evolving patterns of family formation and functioning over the years. 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 “inclusive” definition of family emphasizes not only what families look like but equally what they do in the service of their individual members and the larger society. This definition directs attention toward the work and accomplishments of people who commit themselves to one another over time – to what people do as distinct from where they live or how they are related to one another. It is a definition that acknowledges and respects heterosexual and same-sex couples, lone-parent families, extended patterns of kinship, stepfamilies and blended families, couples with children and those without, the commitments of siblings to each other 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 children; 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 interrelated 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 programmatic themes to which the Institute has turned its attention reflect how families have adapted – sometimes well and sometimes at great cost – to the changing environments in which they live. Some of 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, ethnic diversity and patterns of family formation and functioning, geographical mobility, lone-parent families and stepfamilies)
  • 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 provision (including trends in family incomes, expenditures, savings and debt; labour force participation; 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
  • Managing work and family from both the employees’ and employers’ perspectives
  • Effects of media and other technology on patterns of family interaction
  • Health and well-being of family members; child development and aging

Having addressed these programmatic themes, the Vanier Institute of the Family has served Canadians as a principle source of information and insights on family trends. The Institute has provided balanced commentary and interpretation about family trends and the challenges confronting families and those who work to strengthen and support families.

On an annual basis, the Institute responds to hundreds of requests for media interviews and information from teachers, students, researchers, policy analysts and members of the public. The Institute has used the information it has assembled and the knowledge it has created as a foundation for its various publications. For a list of our publications, please visit our website at www.vanierinstitute.ca and look for our annual update (e.g., 2014 Update). This one-pager, which outlines our publications for the year, is available in January after the year it summarizes.

The Vanier Institute of the Family Today

In 2000–2001, the Board of Directors of the Vanier Institute of the Family renewed its sense of vision and mission with a commitment to: Make families as important to the life of Canadian society as they are to the lives of individual Canadians.

The Vanier Institute of the Family is more than a “think tank.” It is, rather, an organization that works to serve the public interest through public education. As such, the Institute engages a diverse range of Canadians in consideration of significant family trends and issues.

To succeed in meeting the goals of its programs, projects and events, the Institute must wisely steward its financial resources and continually seek to supplement the revenues from its endowment fund with additional funds that are provided by external funders as a contribution to the endowment fund, to support the core budgets of the Institute or to sponsor a specific project or program of activities. 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.