Canada's total fertility rate dropped to its lowest point in more than a century of data-keeping in 2022, hitting just 1.33 children per woman, Statistics Canada said Wednesday.
The 7.4 per cent decline in the rate from 2021 to 2022, the agency said, was the steepest drop since the 7.6 per cent decline from 1971 to 1972, which took place at the height of the baby bust following the 1946-1965 baby boom.
The 1971-1972 decline also took place three years after Parliament passed legislation that legalized birth control pills and therapeutic abortions.
The trend of decreasing fertility rates affected all provinces to varying degrees. Fertility rates were highest in Saskatchewan (1.69), Quebec (1.49), and Alberta (1.45) and lowest in B.C (1.11), Nova Scotia (1.18), and Newfoundland and Labrador and P.E.I., both of which recorded a rate of 1.22.
StatsCan said the pattern of decline from 2020 to 2022 — an initial drop, then an increase, followed by a second drop — is similar to what many other countries experienced, "suggesting the COVID-19 pandemic may have temporarily disrupted fertility behaviours" around the world.
While every G7 country apart from the United States posted a decline in fertility in 2022 (the U.S. rate actually rose slightly to 1.67), Canada's "decrease was one of the largest among high-income countries," Statistics Canada said.
Despite that decline, Canada's fertility rate was still higher in 2022 than the rates in South Korea (0.78), Spain (1.16), Italy (1.24) and Japan (1.26).
Comparable countries with higher fertility rates include France (1.8), the United Kingdom (1.52) and Germany (1.46).
Sarah Brauner-Otto, the director of McGill University's Centre on Population Dynamics, told CBC News that people are acutely aware of problems and challenges affecting the rest of the world, which lead to feelings of uncertainty about the future.
"We're all experiencing the same sort of economic situation and with globalization, political situations are quite similar," she said.
Delaying decision to have first child
Canada's fertility rate has been sliding since 2009.
Statistics Canada said that Canada's five lowest annual total fertility rates were recorded over the last five years: 2022 (1.33), 2020 (1.41), 2021 (1.44), 2019 (1.47) and 2018 (1.51).
"It is low but it does seem to be a continuing trend that we're seeing so I think it shouldn't be so surprising to us demographers, people who have been thinking about this for a while," Brauner-Otto said.
The average age of mothers at childbirth also changed significantly between 1976 (when it was 26.7) and 2022, when it hit an average of 31.6.
Brauner-Otto said the declining fertility rate can be explained in part by more women and couples choosing to delay having their first child.
"Given the COVID-19 pandemic initiated a period of public health crisis, as well as economic and societal shocks, it is possible that a segment of the population responded to this period of widespread uncertainty via their childbearing choices," Statistic Canada said Wednesday.
At the start of the pandemic, women of childbearing age delayed or dropped plans to have children due to illness, while couples who lived apart may have had more difficulty planning to conceive, the agency said.
StatsCan said pandemic related factors that could hypothetically influence fertility rates include pandemic-related travel restrictions and lockdowns also affected the fertility rate by prompting people to delay marriages and reducing social contacts, making it harder for young adults to find partners.
The agency also said that health concerns, heightened stress and mental illness brought on by the pandemic also led some women to delay or abandon plans to have children.
Financial issues facing new families, such as increases in the cost of living and job losses brought on by pandemic lockdowns, also led many to delay having children, Statistics Canada said.
"I think that the pandemic made people a little more uncertain about what the world is going to be like," Brauner-Otto said. "When there is a lot of uncertainty, fertility tends to be lower. People aren't eager to go and start families when they are not sure what their job prospects are going to be like."
Brauner-Otto said there's no need to worry about population decline because Canada's "incredibly vibrant immigration system" was responsible for 98 per cent of the country's population growth last year.
To reverse the trend, Brauner-Otto said, governments need to address underlying social issues that may be prompting people to put off having children.
"Whether it is uncertainty, whether it's financial strain, whether it's difficulty in getting housing ... I think that this fertility decrease is a symptom of these bigger social problems," she said.