Quebec anglo fathers dads English-speaking

More empathy for Quebec fathers, more resources for English-speaking ones

Higher rates of mental health problems and poverty, plus difficulty accessing support services, paints an alarming picture for anglo dads in Quebec according to a new study.

A newly released study on vulnerability in the context of paternity conducted among 2,119 Quebec fathers, 420 of whom are from English-speaking communities, shows vulnerability rates that are higher among anglophone dads.

The results are particularly concerning when one considers post-pandemic increases in difficulties accessing healthcare services and documented higher rates of mental health problems. Erroneous stereotypes often associated with the English-speaking community in Quebec only serve to amplify the above issues.

According to the survey by SOM last March, on behalf of the Regroupement pour la Valorisation de la Paternité (RVP) in partnership with the Community Health and Social Services Network (CHSSN), nearly one in five English-speaking fathers (19%) have a high psychological distress index, a measure associated with greater vulnerability. Among French-speaking fathers, this number is at 12%.

Moreover, 11% of English-speaking fathers in Quebec say they have experienced suicidal ideation in the past year, a proportion almost twice that of francophone fathers (6%). 

English-speaking fathers in more distress  

“It’s not surprising to me that there are differences between the two linguistic communities because that’s consistent with other research we’ve done related to other target populations, for example youth or early childhood,” says Russ Keuber, director of programming for the CHSSN. “Usually, you find a couple decimal points higher here and there, but we’re talking about double the numbers here. I didn’t think it was that bad. And I’ve been working in this field in Quebec for close to 20 years. These are alarming rates. It’s why we really want to get this message out.” 

The RVP groups together more than 250 organizations that aim to raise awareness about the challenges of fatherhood and ways to introduce issues of paternal care into public policy. When the RVP conducts provincial-wide studies, the CHSSN works with them to have a sample size of English speakers so they can observe what’s happening in their community. 

“They’ve conducted a variety of studies related to fathers in Quebec over the past three to four years, observing the effects of COVID, co-parenting, the use of psychosocial services,” explains Keuber. “This latest survey is a continuation of all that, and in many of the categories, English-speaking fathers are unfortunately not faring as well.” 

A compilation of similar surveys conducted in 2018, 2020 and 2021, and recent public data published by the Pole of expertise and research on men’s health and well-being (PERSBEH), produced similar findings. English-speaking men were found to be less likely to have access to a family doctor and fewer said they had access to services that meet their health needs. They were also more likely to indicate they wanted to consult a psychosocial worker but were unable to do so.

Childhood violence more present 

Childhood violence is what most worries psychology researcher Carl Lacharité, at l’Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR), who provided the scientific direction of the study. 

“Six out of ten English-speaking fathers report having experienced some form of violence in their family environment during childhood or adolescence, and this doesn’t only refer to minor physical violence: Four out of ten respondents stated they had been victims of psychological abuse, three out of ten reported major physical violence and one out of six sexual assaults. For these three forms of violence, the rates are 1.2 to 2.7 times higher among English-speaking fathers in comparison to French-speaking fathers. The differences are very significant,” noted the researcher.

According to Lacharité, traumatic childhood events (referred to as adverse childhood experiences) are recognized by research as one of the experiences with the greatest impact on the propensity to become a victim of violence or perpetrate it. They also reduce an individual’s chances of living a healthy life and developing to their full potential.

“If you grow up living in harsh socioeconomic circumstances, you have more obstacles to overcome,” Lacharité says. “You know the saying, ‘You can’t give what you haven’t received?’ It’s not true. You can give what you haven’t received, but it requires far more effort and requires far more social support. And lack of services can be problematic and a significant barrier towards receiving support and a huge component of the problem.” 

“More fathers with high psychological distress is not surprising,” says Lacharité. “We kind of expected this kind of result. What we found surprising was the contribution of what we refer to as ‘adverse childhood experiences’ and for anglophone fathers this aspect appears to contribute more to their psychological distress compared to francophone fathers. This we found somewhat surprising.” 

The researcher considers the sample size of over 2,000 participants and the sub-sample of 400 anglophone fathers to be good sample sizes for the purposes of the study and to draw conclusions from.

Contradicting popular stereotypes about Quebec’s English community 

The survey results, says Keuber, defy stereotypes often associated with English-speaking communities, such as privilege. “There’s this notion that English-speaking Quebecers are rich, enjoy higher income and education,” he explains. “In fact, Statistics Canada census results show quite the contrary. The community is much more vulnerable in terms of poverty levels, education and the overall socioeconomic environment they are living in. There are some regions in Quebec where the English-speaking community is indeed well off, but that’s decreasing all over in the regions and in certain pockets on the island of Montreal. You add on results that show English-speaking fathers experiencing higher psychological distress and double the rate of suicidal ideation and it’s concerning. Socioeconomic status, we think, has a big part to play in that.” 

According to Keuber, the survey results call for a greater acknowledgement that services must be adapted to their specific needs, especially in regions where isolation is greater.

“There appears to be a greater sense of isolation with English-speaking men because of language barriers,” he says. “Cultural barriers and language barriers create more social isolation in the English-speaking community in general. The isolation on its own and the lack of awareness of services available to you, those two things play a significant role in increasing the vulnerability of an English speaker. Service providers should do what they can to adapt their services to meet the needs of an English-speaking clientele.”

Lacharité believes there are many factors at play. “These (survey) results may communicate many things,” he says. “The fact that fathers probably don’t have direct access to physicians who are able to speak to them in their own language… In many cases and in certain areas, physicians aren’t available at all. And if they live in rural areas, it’s even harder to access. And it might even indicate a lack of confidence that this person (the professional) will be able to help me. 

“This is not an easy thing, for an English-speaking father to find someone they have confidence in,” he continues. “Language includes many types of experiences. Language involves a specific mentality, a way of thinking, it includes cultural elements. It’s not only that I’m not confident this professional will be able to understand me in my language, but it’s also that I don’t feel confident that even if this professional understands the language that I’m speaking, they may not be able to understand the rest of it. It’s not just communication but understanding where you’re coming from. Talking about your vulnerabilities in a language other than your own is a strange experience.” 

“You can go change your car tires, for example, and receive service in French and you can get by just fine,” says Keuber. “But when it comes to mental health services, everybody really requires them in their mother tongue. Those are just not as widely available in Quebec. There is a lack of English-language mental health services and the English community by default either doesn’t access them or maybe it falls on a family member when they should have gone to a professional.” 

How to better improve available services 

CHSSN’s main mission is to help service providers such as healthcare services, psychosocial services, suicide prevention services and CLSC psychosocial services throughout the province improve and adapt their services to meet the needs of the English-speaking population. “Research like this is important,” says Keuber. “Why are rates for suicidal ideation two times higher for English-speaking fathers compared to French-speaking fathers? These aren’t little differences, so when you look at that, the CHSSN has a lot of work to do to continue working with service providers to understand why that’s happening and how to address it.” 

Another significant difference found in the survey was the percentage of childhood or adolescent violence that English-speaking men reported. Research demonstrates that early childhood violence and suicidal ideation and psychological distress in the future are often connected. 

“I think programs and support dedicated to men and fathers throughout the province should do their best to adapt their services to better reach an English-language clientele,” Keuber says. “I think that’s a real key. If you’re offering a support group for men, could there also be one that’s being offered bilingually or in English? And promoted and targeted to the English-speaking community?”

One third of the English-speaking population in Quebec has a language other than English or French as their mother tongue and often seeks services in English. The CHSSN helps equip service providers with the tools, resources and knowledge required to reach them. 

“There are over one million English speakers in the province,” Keuber says, “and approximately 30% of them fall into this category. We can go in and help with the adaptation of services, equipping those professionals who are doing their best but sometimes English services are overlooked, or sometimes they lack a bilingual staff person. We can help them adapt their services to better reach the English-speaking community, which is more and more diverse all the time.” 

Fathering is also hard

“The fact that these fathers are reporting psychological distress,” says Lacharité, “is a way of telling us it’s difficult to play this role. It’s difficult because of what I’ve experienced in my childhood and teenage years, but it’s also difficult because of the kind of support I have at my disposal right now. This combination of adverse childhood experiences and lack of availability, accessibility and quality of professional services can create an explosive situation for those fathers.”

Professional support can come from psychologists, social workers, physicians and even their children’s teachers. Support from family and the father’s social network is also essential. 

“Many professional services come into place when you have children,” says Lacharité, “but for fathers many of these services sometimes appear not to be as welcoming to them. And for anglophone fathers there are far more obstacles when it comes to their rapport with professional services.”

“When we work on violence prevention services for men, and anger management issues, which often lead to domestic violence, it has a direct impact on women and children,” says Keuber. “It’s all important. Women’s health needs are at an all-time high, too. What we’ve seen with the pandemic is that people in general, regardless of their age or gender, people who are vulnerable are even more vulnerable now across the line, and men are no different.” 

Fighting traditional notions of masculinity

“There are several social misconceptions at work here,” says Lacharité. “The first one is that women are still thought of as primary caregivers to children, but in many western countries in the last 30 to 40 years, women have invited men to share the responsibilities and tasks and the situation has evolved. Men are more involved now, especially in Quebec.” 

While numerous studies conclude that women continue to carry a far heavier load when it comes to the division of childcare and household chores — a burden only amplified during the COVID pandemic — it’s also true that men have taken on more, especially men in this province. A 2021 Leger survey conducted for RVP, comparing father involvement across Canada, indicated that parental involvement was much higher in Quebec. Public policies like parental leave have had a lot to do with encouraging more men to play a larger role in their children’s lives and redefine fatherhood. 

“But there is still this misconception that taking care of children is a woman’s job,” says Lacharité. “And that’s often an obstacle to father involvement.” 

Traditional concepts of masculinity also come into play with regards to some men’s reticence to seek help.  

“While younger generations of men are a lot more engaged in the work of sharing parental responsibilities,” Lacharité says, “many of them still have these masculine stereotypes that a man should be strong, a man should not ask for help. When you’re dealing with parental responsibilities, you need support, you need help.” 

What often ends up happening, according to the psychology researcher, is that most men concentrate their support regarding their parenting role around the relationship with the child’s mother. 

“The mother becomes their main support figure,” he says. “But when things aren’t going well, they automatically lose their support. And these kinds of stereotypes around masculinity do not invite men to build other social links, so they feel a lot more isolated. And feeling isolated in a parenting role is not a good thing.” 

Helping those who need support 

The idea that people who need help can’t access it doesn’t sit well with those involved in this study. 

“There are isolated and vulnerable men who need to be helped,” Keuber says. “You can create the service but if they have mistrust and don’t reach out, or if they have lack of awareness that services are even there, you don’t know they exist and they don’t know you exist. Just because someone isn’t reaching out doesn’t mean they’re not there. Because the census numbers show us that they are.” 

At the end of the day, it’s not about blame, it’s about better access to help. 

“It’s not just about pointing out failures in our system and the lack of services to English-speaking Quebecers,” says Keuber. “It’s about pointing out how we, as a society, can all benefit by making sure that those who need help are able to get it.” 

“This survey is a call towards empathy for men and fathers,” says Lacharité. “This is not only a call for the government to do things differently, but it’s also a call for society to be more empathetic. Fathering is as complex as mothering. How do we also care for fathers?” ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.