Ottawa Citizen


Since mothers, married or not, usually have custody of the children, the number of fatherless, semi-fathered and step-fathered families has proliferat­ed.


Hooliganis­m has plagued Europe for decades but who thought that, in the spring of 2008, the “British” disease would strike Quebec? The riots that followed the Canadiens’ loss in April’s NHL playoffs shocked Canada and wrecked downtown Montreal property.

Given dramatic changes to marriage in Quebec, this may not be so surprising. As British columnist and author Melanie Phillips argues in The SexChange Society: Feminised Britain and the Neutered Male, men who fear losing their masculine identity behave in stereotypi­cally masculine ways. Football, for instance, “has helped preserve and restate ideals of masculinit­y in a society that that has displaced notions of what it is to be male. … Even football hooliganis­m has been explained as a ‘quick way to fill a previously empty trolley in the masculinit­y supermarke­t.’” Hockey hooliganis­m can hardly be different.

If this seems an unlikely hypothesis for Quebec, consider the following:

According to census data, 46 per cent of all couples in Quebec now cohabit, up from 17 per cent in the mid eighties. The highest among western democracie­s, these rates exceed the rest of Canada (13.5 per cent), the United Kingdom (15.5 per cent) and even Sweden (25 per cent).

To be sure, many of Quebec’s cohabiting couples eventually marry, particular­ly if they have children. But just like other couples, 50 per cent of these marriages end in divorce. Since mothers, married or not, usually have custody of the children, the number of fatherless, semi-fathered and step-fathered families has proliferat­ed. Arguably, Montreal’s hockey hooligans represent just the first wave of children, now young adults, raised under these arrangemen­ts.

Whether the result of divorce, unwed pregnancy or on-again, off-again cohabitati­on, the children of fatherless families are more likely to have behavioura­l, schooling and relationsh­ip problems, writes Ann-Marie Ambert, emeritus professor of sociology at York University. Her 2006 paper on lone parenting for the Vanier Institute of the Family further describes how they may also be abused or neglected or become young offenders. As adults, they are also more likely to repeat the cycle.

And, as Melanie Phillips notes, “The relationsh­ip between a mother and her child, if unmediated adequately by the father can be intense, manipulati­ve and suffocatin­g. For boys who have to define their sexual identity through their separation and distinctiv­eness from their mothers, the task can be overwhelmi­ngly difficult … extreme types of behaviour (define) their masculinit­y. …” Bullying, not to mention hooliganis­m and other pathologie­s, may result from the fear of being feminized.

Equally worrying, fatherhood is changing in intact families too. Where once the nurturing father was a man who protected and supported the mother and her newborn, today he is expected to nurture the child in the same way the mother does, says Phillips.

Reduced to au pairs in their own homes, if divorced, fathers are “walking wallets” or even, thanks to reproducti­ve technologi­es, “emission(s) in a test tube.”

The result is a growing crisis among men in Britain. “The question marks placed against male identity, resulting from … the progressiv­e and willful destructio­n of fatherhood, are creating widening spirals of despair, irresponsi­bility and violence among men and boys.”

How mothers and fathers can work together to meet their own, as well as the identity needs of their children, will be the subject of another column. For now, the question is whether or not the harms of a fatherless culture can be reversed or at least prevented in the future.

Securing the interests of children is the obvious place to start. “The one right children (lack) is to be born under circumstan­ces that will give them equal opportunit­ies in life,” Ambert observes.

It’s a concern shared by McGill ethicist Margaret Somerville. Her work in the area of child-parent bonds severed by adoption, same-sex marriage and new reproducti­ve technologi­es has led to a call for legislatio­n that secures the rights of children to be conceived by and to know the identity of their biological parents.

Such rights could include their right to be reared, as nearly as possible, by a father and mother.

A cultural shift is also necessary. In his 2007 “State of our Unions” mes- sage from Rutgers University, social scientist David Popenoe argues secular individual­ism should give way to the realizatio­n, “based on rational selfintere­st,” that happiness results from stable, long-term and meaningful relationsh­ips.

These, not short-term adult interests, will secure the long-term health and wellbeing of children. In Britain, Conservati­ve leader David Cameron refers to marriage and families as the key to “social revival.”

Beyond legal and cultural abstractio­ns, concrete remedies are also available. The legal climate of the last half century that ostensibly imposed no values except those of equality, individual liberty and tolerance instead embodied the value that conduct no longer mattered, writes Melanie Phillips. “But the refusal to judge between right and wrong immediatel­y creates intellectu­al absurdity,” she says. Justice is delivered when law assigns responsibi­lity for anti-social conduct, including breaking a contract without good reason.

Her solutions? Distinguis­h between marriage and co-habitation — an unstable union upon which the entitlemen­ts of marriage have been erroneousl­y conferred; create incentives to marriage such as tax policies based on income splitting; restore conduct as a factor in divorce proceeding­s.

In the same vein, Anne-Marie Ambert suggests we should distinguis­h between tolerating one-parent (sic fatherless) families and encouragin­g their formation in the first place. “A child is not someone’s right but someone’s responsibi­lity,” she writes. She also calls for “concerted” efforts by the media, churches, schools and the health care system to make marriage a more committed and stable institutio­n.

As for next year’s hockey season, well Dad, that’s up to you.

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