Research on family matters

In May, Canadians will be asked to fill in a census question important to every veteran and serving military member—and their families.

“Has this person ever served in the Canadian military?”

It’s been half a century since that question was last included in the census; things have changed a little. 

Perhaps the biggest change has been an increased interest in how military service affects the families of serving members and veterans. That’s why mention of the 2021 census brought a round of applause at the online Military and Veteran Family Research symposium hosted by the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR) in February. 

This is a relatively new field of research, and knowledge gaps showed large right from the get-go. When pioneer researcher Deborah Norris of Mount St. Vincent University’s family and gerontology faculty started out, what she saw in the field was not reflected in research—and most of that came out of the United States. 

Now the Canadian Armed Forces considers family an important component of a serving member’s support network; back then families were seen as needy. Even the military concept of family—dad, stay-at-home mom and kids—did not jibe with reality of the day.

What Norris found was that military families were resilient, resourceful problem-solvers and that their relationship with the military was not dependent, but interdependent. 

Massive changes were underway. Base housing was being reduced and military families were moving into civilian communities. Servicemen—and a growing number of servicewomen—were evolving from peacekeepers to warriors. Operational tempo was increasing, meaning more frequent and longer separations for training—and increasingly dangerous deployments.

But funding for research was sparse, and projects for family support sporadic.

In 1987, DND initiated the Family Support Project, resulting in development of the 32 Military Family Resource Centres across the country, where military families have access to about 200 MFRC programs and services, said Lynda Manser of Military Family Services. Programs are tailored to the well-being of military families in each community, including parenting courses, child and youth support, and mental health programs.

Founding of CIMVHR in 2010 was a game-changer, Norris told the forum’s 300 or so participants from across the country. It fuelled the fire for research on military and veteran families. Resilience of members and their families is now part of Canada’s defence policy and the military has commissioned many family research studies.

The effect of relocation and absences on families is high on CAF’s agenda. One-fifth of regular force personnel relocate to a new province each year, meaning some 8,000 families have to uproot to new communities, find new houses, new schools, new doctors, and often, new jobs for spouses.  Researchers are now questioning whether all those transfers are necessary or could be timed better in light of family dynamics. 

Census data will provide much-needed gross data, but only families can fill in the fine details, and researchers emphasized that more families are needed for research projects. 

“It’s a critical need to get military families involved in research,” said Major Nathalie Auger, team leader of CAF’s Military Family Initiatives. 

And it’s no less important for families of veterans to catch people before they fall through the cracks. 

“Whose needs are not being met? Whose voices are not being heard?” said Nathan Svenson, VAC’s director of research. 

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