A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma: Bi-modal Fertility Dynamics and Family Life in French-Canadian Quebec

David Levine, Julie Savoie


Historians have struggled with an ingrained perception of what constituted the “traditional”
Quebec family at the beginning of the twentieth century. Early studies on
the demographic history of Quebec portrayed women as generators of large families,
a practice prescribed by the political elite as well as the Catholic Church. The
new social history, and most especially the recent generation of feminist-inspired
historians, has revisited and criticized the myth of the large family. Aggregated
demographic statistics would indicate that francophone families continued to produce
significantly more children than their English-speaking counterparts well into
the twentieth century, despite a longstanding experience of industrialization, urbanization
and contraception — the so-called hallmarks of modernization. Yet statistics
also make clear that, even before the onset of declining fertility in the late nineteenth
century, the majority of Quebec families did not do so, and there was in fact wide
variation in family size. The real distinctiveness of Quebec’s fertility decline was its
unique and persistent minority of very large families that disappeared virtually
overnight in the mid-twentieth century when the children of these families chose not
to continue the pattern.

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