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IMPLICATIONS FOR THE ITALIAN COMMUNITY IN CANADA

Anno 2 Numero 12 Dicimbre 1985

by Dr. Frank Trovato
Department of Sociology, University of Alberta, Edmonton

Introduction

Canada is a multicutural nation. People from diverse sociocultural origins and linguistic traditions are allowed to practice and promote their unique heritage. Although this is well known, a more subtle dimension of cultural heterogeneity in Canada's population has to do with what I call demographic reality of a multiethnic society. In this brief article, I will outline the prevailing demographic trends facing Canada as a whole, and the possible implications of demographic change for the viability of the Italian-Canadian community in the future.

Demographers are primarily concerned with the study of population composition and change. The factors responsible for alteration of the size and characteristics of a population are fertility, migration and mortality. A population will change only to the extent that any of these three components change either singly or in combination. For example, if a population experiences sustained declines in fertility rates, while mortality and migration remain unchanged, its size will eventually decline. However, a population will grow when fertility rises and mortality and migration remain constant. An ideal scenario for long term increments in population occurs when fertility is high, mortality declines and net migration rates are positive. Further thought on the possible inter-relationships for fertility migration and mortality will lead one to recognize that there are a variety of complex possibilities concerning the future of any population with respect to decline, stability, or growth. The paths to any of these three possible futures are inextricably tied to what happens in the present demographic context.

Where we stand demographically in Canada

Canada's population now stands at about 25,000,000. Under prevailing fertility and mortality conditions, the nation's population will stabilize at around 30,000,000. in the year 2010. Some projections suggest that in the long term we could be faced with the prospect of a declining population- a frightening possibility as we are not accustomed to living in a society with a declining population.

There are only two things that could alter the prospects of population decline. The first is a return to higher fertility; the second is increased international immigration to Canada. Mortality will not have a dominant effect on population size because further gains in life expectancy will be slow. The current life expectancy is 74. The estimated life span is about 85 years, and this level of longevity will take many years to achieve due to the increasing prevalence of degenerative causes of death such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Thus, mortality will continue to decline, but at a relatively slow pace, which means that ultimately, fertility and international migration levels will be the important determinants of future population growth in Canada. Significant gains in fertility rates seem unlikely. The current birth rate now stands at 15 per 1000 population; or stated in terms of the average number of children a women has during her childbearing years, it is approximately 1.6. This level of reproduction is considered below replacement; that is, a population with a fertility rate below 2.1 on the average, is not having enough children to ensure continued replacement of the generations.

The factors accounting for the rapid downfall in fertility since the early 1960's are multifaceted and complex, and they cannot be adequatelv covered in this short article. It seems clear, however, that the baby boom phenomenon of the post-war years has been replaced by a baby-bust. Today it is rare for couples to have more than two children. Statistics and surveys show that most couples desire and plan to have small families. Furthermore, with changing lifestyles and increasing emphasis towards self-fulfillment, many couples are consciously opting for childless marriages. It seems that men and women have become increasingly concerned with careers and individual lifestyles which contravene a strong commitment to having large families.

Concerning immigration, the average annual number of persons entering Canada is about 100,000 (although this varies from year to year). If the fertility scenario delineated above persists into the future, it is clear that a declining population can only be averted by changing our immigration laws to allow more foreigners into our nation.

Demographic realities facing the Italian Community in Canada

What is the demographic situation among Italian Canadians? It is not possible to provide a definitive answer in this brief article. However, there are several developments that may be elaborated with special reference to the demography of Italian Canadians to allow a few important generalizations. I will discuss mortality, fertility and migration, in that order, and then I will proceed to discuss the social demographic trends that will, in my view, shape the future prospects for the survival of a distinct Italian community in Canada.

Mortality

It is not certain what is the mortality level of Italians in Canada, as detailed studies concerning this demographic aspect of Italians are lacking. It seems reasonable to assume, however, that Italians do not differ significantly from the overall population with respect to life expectancy. Canada is an advanced nation which provides extensive health care for its population. There is no substantive reason to suggest that Italians benefit less than the average person from our health care system. Therefore, we can assume that mortality among the Italians in Canada follows the same pace of decline as that of the general population. The crude death rate in Canada is now 7 per 1000 population- one of the lowest in the world.

Fertility

We know more about the fertility of Italians in Canada than their mortality trends. In general, they have below average fertility levels - a reality which often runs counter to common belief. For example, according to the 1971 census, the average number of children ever born to women of Italian ethnic origin was 2.50, while it was 2.60 among women of all other ethnic origins. In the 1981 census, the corresponding levels were computed as being 2.20 and 2.05 respectively. Thus we have evidence of low and declining fertility levels much like the pattern pertaining to Canada as a whole.

The implications of these trends are far reaching, but their impacts will not manifest themselves until some time in the future. As fertility declines and stabilizes at a low level, the numerical size of the Italian community will decline. This, however, could be averted by increased immigration from Italy or from other nations where Italians are situated. The reality of Italian immigration to Canada in recent times is such that few Italian nationals are entering our nation; and at the same instance, an increasing number of Italian Canadians are leaving Canada permanently to return to Italy. In fact, for the first time in history, the 1980's present us with a scenario where a greater number of Italians are leaving rather than entering Canada. If this trend continues and Italian immigration remains low, the Italian community will lose an important source of numerical replenishment making any prospect for continued growth rather limited.

Other social demographic developments

Although the long term demographic situation does not appear promising there are other developments of a sociological - demographic nature that seem to pose further threats to the continuity of the Italian community in Canada.

One important phenomenon is what sociologists refer to as exogamy, or more commonly known as intermarriage. Over time there has been a definite increase in the number of exogamous marriages among persons of Italian origin. An increasing number of Italians in Canada are marrying persons of non-Italian ethnicity. Statistics from past censuses demonstrate this phenomenon. For example, among native born persons of Italian descent, in 1961 and 1971, the propensity to intermarry was roughly 80%. We have not yet computed intermarriage statistics from the latest census, but we are likely to see some increase in the level of exogamous marriages among Italians.

Ethnic intermarriage is considered by sociologists to be a critical dimension of assimilation. To the extent that exogamy continues, Italians may become increasingly assimilated.

A related phenomenon to intermarriage language retention. Statistics from past censuses in Canada show that an increasing number of Italians have been opting for English as the language most often spoken in the home. Furthermore fewer persons of Italian ethnicity state that their mother tongue (the language first learned and still understood) is Italian. By themselves these trends do not necessarily indicate assimilation and the loss of Italian culture, but placed in a context of increased intermarriage, declining fertility and low international immigration, they need to be taken with some degree of concern.

Another social demographic phenomenon relates to internal migration- the movement of people within Canada. This is virtually an unknown area of research concerning the Italian community, but some speculative comments may be drawn on the basis of data from from the 1961,197-1 and 1981 censuses. First, Italians are more educated now in comparison to 1960 and 1971. This is understandable; Italians have become an established community and over the decades their socioeconomic position has significantly improved. Families are encouraging their children to attend college and university and therefore the second and third generations are moving into the professions in significant numbers.

Increasing education and professionalization have very positive implications of course, but there are latent consequences worth recognizing as well. As children of Italian parents become highly educated, and attain professional certification, they will be more likely to relocate away from their ethnic communities in search of work and opportunities in other parts of the country. To the extent that ethnic members relocate, the viability of an ethnic community is weakened in direct proportion to the number of people leaving it. Moreover, the process of upward mobility is often associated with the loss of tradition.

Conclusion

Italians in Canada must face the unfolding demographic realities: Fertility rates are low and declining; there are few Italians from Italy immigrating to Canada; rates of intermarriage are on the increase. Also, our youth have become highly educated and are gaining entry into the professions and are more likely to move away from their ethnic communities.

The implications of these trends are that numerically the Italian community may be headed for eventual decline; and socioculturally, there is the prospect of increasing assimilation which could conceivably lead to a loss of cultural identity, At the very least we should be prepared to accept the notion that in the future, to be Italian in Canada will mean something very different than what it means to be Italian in Canada today.

We need to recognize that beyond multiculturalism there are powerful demographic currents that are slowly shaping the future of ethnic communities in Canadian society.