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Canada Divorce and marriage data crucial for understanding Canada’s public health, researchers argue

Andrea Mrozek, program director at Cardus, seen in Ottawa on Mar. 4, 2013.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

A chorus of researchers is calling for Statistics Canada to reinstate its annual publication of marriage and divorce rates, arguing numbers on the country’s marital health are vital for understanding housing, child care and public health.

Divorce and marriage are among the dozens of data gaps The Globe and Mail identified in the course of a months-long investigation into the crucial things Canada doesn’t know about itself. Statscan stopped collecting marital data more than a decade ago.

The socially conservative think-tank Cardus presented two federal cabinet ministers with a petition signed by more than 30 scholars, activists and public intellectuals on Friday, urging the government to bring the numbers back.

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The petition is addressed to Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development – which oversees Statscan – and David Lametti, the new Minister of Justice, whose department is responsible for divorce law. Mr. Bains and his ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

The lack of these figures is another example of the nationwide data deficit uncovered by The Globe. The absence of data can stifle business innovation, leave Canadians in the dark about their health care and prevent governments from understanding whether their policies are working.

The country suffers from an “incredible dearth of information” about Canadian households, said Marina Adshade, an economics lecturer at the University of British Columbia who signed the petition. “The household is the fundamental unit of the economy, and in this country we have no idea what that unit looks like. And as a result, we really don’t understand the economy.”

That blind spot is bad enough, she argued, but it’s also part of a larger pattern of poor public data that leaves the country and its leaders clueless about the country’s biggest challenges.

“There’s a whole range of trends on things happening in our world that we just know nothing about,” she said. “We’re just not very good at understanding ourselves.”

Canada enacted its first federal divorce law in 1968, making the practice easier and rapidly reshaping Canadian society, as unhappy couples rushed to dissolve their vows. Given the seismic impact of the legislation, Statistics Canada began gathering data on divorces the following year and published annual reports beginning in 1972.

For the next four decades, the country had a clear statistical picture of how many Canadians were ending their marriages and why – along with the rate of marriage itself, which the agency and its forebears had tracked since 1921. The picture was intriguing: a similar, but not identical, decline in marriage and rise in divorce to those seen in many other Western countries since the 1970s.

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In 2011, though, that all changed. Facing budget cuts, Statscan announced it would no longer be publishing annual data on the marriage and divorce rates; the last figures available were for 2008. The information would still exist in raw form – divorce numbers are housed in an unpublished Justice Department registry, while provinces record marriages – but Statscan would no longer be gathering the data, comparing it across jurisdictions and making it public.

Researchers cherished the numbers: They included variables such as the average age of marriage and the reasons for marital breakdown. And these facts were being used to yield insights into Canada’s policy future: not just the romantic state of the nation, but what kind of housing to build, how much childcare the country was likely to require and the prospective need for senior care.

When it announced the decision, Statscan estimated reinstating the collection would cost $250,000. Critics say the savings were penny wise, pound foolish.

“As far as cutbacks go, it was a drop in the bucket – like, very, very little money,” said Andrea Mrozek, a program director at Cardus. “That’s kind of a hilariously small sum for the federal government.”

There is still data on marriage and divorce available through the census, but it is only conducted every five years. More frequent, accessible data would be useful for researchers trying to understand the lay of the land in Canadian society – and could produce economic benefits down the road.

“It’s an important picture,” said Lydia Miljan, associate professor of political science at the University of Windsor, who also signed the Cardus petition. “It does tell a story about how society changes.”

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Perhaps more importantly, she noted, it can tell policymakers what challenges are coming. A rising divorce rate, for example, might raise the urgency of stronger child-care policies.

Marriage and divorce data can also signal shifts in the economy, said Murtaza Haider, associate professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management.

“Any change in divorce frequency, or divorce trends, right away would have an impact on housing,” he said, noting more divorced people could increase the demand for single-person dwellings. It could also affect consumer spending, by requiring divorced parents to buy two sets of video game consoles, say, or going on separate vacations.

Given the relatively small cost of collecting the numbers – $250,000 at last estimate – "You ask yourself, ‘Is it worth it?’” Mr. Haider said. “That’s probably less than the average settlement in a divorce in Canada.”

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