Modernization and Fertility: The Case of the James Bay Indians*


  • DISCLAIMER: Although the author is a member of Statistics Canada staff, the views expressed and the data used in this article are his own and do not engage the responsibility of Statistics Canada.

  • *

    The author is indebted to Professors Robert G. Potter Jr and Etienne Van de Walle, from Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania respectively, for their useful comments on the initial version of this article. He also is thankful for the constructive criticisms made by two anonymous referees and to John Kelly for his critical reading of the manuscript. The demographic survey undertaken among James Bay Indians in 1968, which provides the empirical basis for this study, was financed by a grant from Canada Council.

  • This article is a revised and extended version of a paper presented at the Session on natural fertility at the World Population Conference, Liege, 1973, organized by the International Union for Scientific Study on Population.


II a été souvent avancé, mais sans preuve empirique suffisante, que le processus de modernisation peut s'accompagner, à son stade initial, d'une augmentation du taux de fécondité, notamment grâce au relâchement des contraintes traditionnelles qui affectent la procréation. Les données d'une enquête auprès des Indiens de la Baie James semblent corroborer la théorie. En effet, elles révèlent que les intervalles intergénésiques diminuent au fur et à mesure qu'on passe des générations plus anciennes aux générations plus récentes des méres indiennes. Trois facteurs, reliés au processus de modernisation, semblent avoir contribuéà ce phénomène: (1) changement dans les habitudes d'allaitement dans le sens d'une réduction de la période ou même d'un abandon de l'allaitement naturel; (2) réduction des accidents puerpéraux, intervenue à la suite des progrès médicaux et du passage du nomadisme à un mode de vie plus stable de la société indienne dans cette région; (3) diminution des incidences des séparations prolongées des époux dans la mesure où s'améliorent les communications entre les villages et la société indienne tend à devenir sédentaire.

The theory that modernization at its initial stage may result in an increase in fertility through the relaxation of restrictive customs governing procreative behaviours of premodern societies has often been postulated, but little empirical evidence has been provided to support it. Data collected on fertility for Indians living in the James Bay area of Canada tend to confirm the validity of this theory. They reveal, for this population, that intervals between successive births tend to become shorter among younger as compared to older generations of mothers, and this is attributed to three factors related to modernization: (1) changes in lactation habits whereby an increasingly larger proportion of mothers either do not breast-feed at all, or do so for shorter periods of time than did the older generations; (2) reduction in the level of pregnancy wastage resulting both from medical progress and from the fact that hardship and pregnancy accidents to which the pregnant mothers were formerly exposed probably have diminished as James Bay Indians have shifted from a nomadic to a sedentary society; and (3) reduction in the incidence of prolonged temporary separation of spouses as the communication between home villages of spouses has improved and as Indian families have given up their nomadic mode of life.