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The changing face of Canadian families

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The last two decades have seen rapid change in Canadian families, with a trend towards increasing diversity of family structures. The “traditional” family consisting of a father in the paid labour force, married to a woman who is a full-time caregiver for their children, is only one of a wide variety of family types. Some family forms are frequently overlooked. For example, the families formed by gays, lesbians and bisexuals are sometimes not recognized to be families at all. Adoptive and foster family relationships have at times been considered less valuable than other family forms.[5] As well, it is sometimes forgotten that there is a significant cultural component to the definition of the family. With the increasing diversity of Canada’s population, there are a variety of definitions of what constitutes a family beyond the nuclear family. There are, for example, a growing number of Canadian families where three generations live under one roof, a trend substantially linked to contemporary immigration patterns. [6]

Some major trends in family structure are outlined below.

Common-law unions: Common-law unions have increased dramatically over the past 20 years, and have become a significant feature of conjugal relationships in Canada. In 1981, six percent of all couples were in a common-law union. By 2001, this number had almost tripled, to 16 percent of all couples. [7] Forty-six percent of these common-law unions include children, whether born in the current union, or in a previous relationship.

Divorce: In 1997, there were 2.4 marriages for each divorce. The divorce rate peaked in the late 1980s, and gradually declined through the 1990s. Of couples who married in 1996, 37 percent could be expected to divorce. With higher rates of divorce have come higher rates of re-marriage: in 1996, at least one-third of all marriages involved at least one partner who had previously been married. [8] This means that an increasing number of children are growing up in blended families. In 1994, nine percent of Canadian children under the age of 12 were living in a stepfamily.[9]

Single parent families: There are also a growing number of single parent families: in 2001, almost one-quarter of families with children were single parent families, as compared with 16.6 percent in 1981.[10] These families are predominantly female-headed: in 1996, 83 percent of single parent families were headed by women. [11] Female-headed single parent families tend to be the most economically vulnerable of all families: in 1997, 56 percent of such families were poor, compared to 14 percent of all families.[12] Furthermore, while very young families are generally relatively vulnerable financially, most will be in straitened financial circumstances for a relatively short period of time: female-led single parent families, however, are by far the most likely of all family types to suffer persistent low income.[13] Female-led single parent families from racialized communities tend to face even greater disadvantage in accessing housing, employment, and services.

Same-Sex Couples: The 2001 census collected information about same-sex couples for the first time. According to this census, approximately 0.5 percent of all couples sharing a household are same-sex ones. Fifteen percent of households headed by lesbian couples had children; three percent of male same-sex couples reported having children.[14] Given that this was the first time that information was collected on same-sex couples, it is likely that these figures are low.

Women in the paid labour force: Nearly 70 percent of mothers with pre-school children and more than three-quarters of mothers with school-aged children are employed or looking actively for work; most of these are employed full-time.[15] One result of this increased employment has been growing levels of stress as parents struggle to juggle their multiple responsibilities. Fifty percent of working mothers, and 36 percent of working fathers report having difficulty managing their work and family responsibilities. [16]

Despite their responsibilities in the paid labour force, women still tend to be the primary caregivers for their families, including caring for children, elders, people who are ill, and those with disabilities. In 1998, almost two-thirds of all informal caregiving hours (64 percent) were carried out by women. This is due largely to their disproportionate share of responsibility for unpaid child care work.[17] Even with respect to elder care, not only do women represent over three-fifths of informal caregivers, they also spend more time on care-related tasks. [18] Women also maintain primary responsibility for most household tasks. Married mothers with children reported working an average of 10.1 hours per day in paid and unpaid work, more than any other group. About a third of these women report extreme time-stress, about twice as many as men. [19]

As is discussed later in this paper, these responsibilities have consequences for women’s status in the labour force. Women, for example, are more likely to take on part-time or casual labour, as a way to balance work and family responsibilities. U.S. studies have found that women providing care to parents consistently reduce their working hours. One result, however, is that women are more likely to find themselves in precarious, or dead-end employment. Women are also more likely than men to require time off work to respond to family needs: on average, women lose 6.9 work days per year to family responsibilities as compared to 0.9 days for men. [20]

Aging Population: In 1999, 12.5 percent of Ontario’s population was 65 years of age or older. Over the next four decades, it is estimated that the number of Ontarians aged 65 and over will double. The ratio of seniors to working-age Canadians is expected to rise sharply after 2005, when the “baby-boom” generation (those born between 1945 and 1965) begins to reach age 65.[21] This has significant implications in terms of elder care, which has already been identified as a growing need. Forty-one percent of Canadians over 65 receive informal care for a long-term health problem. [22] 1996 figures on elder care reported that more than two-thirds of informal caregivers are between the ages of 30 and 59, and over two-thirds were employed outside the home. One-quarter of informal caregivers are also caring for children under the age of 15.[23]

[5] In 1994, approximately one percent of Canada’s children were living in adoptive or foster families: Statistics Canada, “Canadian Children in the 1990’s: Selected Findings of the National Longitudinal Study on Children and Youth”, Canadian Social Trends (Spring 1997).
[6] Janet Che-Alford and Brian Hamm, “Under One Roof: Three Generations Living Together”, Canadian Social Trends (Summer 1999) 6. The number of three-generation households increased 39% between 1986 and 1996. Nearly half of these households are headed by immigrants.
[7] Statistics Canada, “Update on Families”, Canadian Social Trends (Summer 2003) 11
[8] Vanier Institute of the Family, Profiling Canada’s Families II, online: Vanier Institute of the Family<>.
[9] Statistics Canada, “Canadian Children in the 1990’s: Selected Findings of the National Longitudinal Study on Children and Youth”, Canadian Social Trends (Spring 1997).
[10] J. Jenson, A Decade of Challenges; A Decade of Choices: Consequences for Canadian Women, (Canadian Policy Research Network, Family Network, February 16, 2004) online: Canadian Policy Research Network <>.
[11] Vanier Institute of the Family, Family Facts (2004), online: Vanier Institute of the Family <>.
[12] Ibid
[13] R. Morisette “On the Edge: Financially Vulnerable Families”, Canadian Social Trends, (Winter 2002) 13.
[14] Vanier Institute of the Family Same-Sex Couples and Same-Sex Parent Families: Relationships, Parenting and Issues of Marriage (2004), online: Vanier Institute of the Family <>.
[15] Supra, note 8
[16] J. Jenson, Catching Up to Reality: Building the Case for a New Social Model, (Canadian Policy Research Network, January 2004), online: Canadian Policy Research Network,<>.
[17] N. Zukewich, “Únpaid Informal Caregiving” Canadian Social Trends (Autumn 2003) 14
[18] J.A. Frederick and J.E. Fast, “Eldercare in Canada: Who Does How Much?”, Canadian Social Trends (Autumn 1999) 26.
[19] D. Cheal, M. Luxton and F. Woolley, How Families Cope and Why Policy-Makers Need to Know (Canadian Policy Research Network, 1998) at 30.
[20] Ibid, at 34
[21] Ontario Human Rights Commission, Discrimination and Age: Human Rights Issues Facing Older Persons in Ontario, (2000) at 10, online: Ontario Human Rights Commission <>.
[22] Supra, note 16
[23] Supra, note 18


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