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The intersection of family status with other Code grounds

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It is important to take into account the ways in which parents and children are affected by their membership in other historically disadvantaged groups. Individuals may be subjected to discrimination based on more than one Code ground, and these grounds may “intersect”, producing unique experiences of disadvantage and discrimination.

Family status is essentially about relationships. Because relationship roles and responsibilities, especially when they extend to caregiving, have historically been divided along gender lines, the ground of family status is closely related to that of sex. The experience of being in a parent-child relationship will often differ for men and women, because of the different expectations, assumptions and stereotypes about mothering and fathering. It is often assumed, for example, that women will naturally be the primary caregivers in any family. These assumptions can have significant consequences for women and men in the areas of employment, housing and services. As is discussed elsewhere, it remains the case that women generally continue to bear a disproportionate share of responsibility for caring for aging parents, young children, or family members who are ill or have disabilities, and so may have greater needs for accommodation in employment, housing or services. On the other hand, men with caregiving responsibilities may have difficulty obtaining the accommodations they require.

One’s marital status will also have a powerful effect on the experience of being in a parent-child relationship. Marital status is broadly defined in the Code as the status of “being married, single, widowed, divorced or separated and includes the status of living with a person in a conjugal relationship outside marriage”. In the case of Miron v. Trudel, [60] the Supreme Court of Canada had this to say about the situation of unmarried persons in relationships:

Persons involved in an unmarried relationship constitute an historically disadvantaged group. There is ample evidence that unmarried partners have often suffered social disadvantage and prejudice. Historically, in our society, the unmarried partner has been regarded as less worthy than the married partner. The disadvantages inflicted on the unmarried partner have ranged from social ostracism through denial of status and benefits.

A parent who is single or divorced will often experience compounded disadvantage because of the continuing social stigma associated with being a single parent, as well as the added financial, practical and emotional responsibilities of solo parenting. As is noted earlier in this paper, single mothers are disproportionately likely to experience poverty and to find themselves shut out of the housing market.

The particular vulnerability of sole-support mothers in receipt of public assistance was recognized by the Ontario Court of Appeal in Falkiner v. Director, Income Maintenance Branch.[61] The Court found that there was significant evidence of historic disadvantage and continuing prejudice against this group, noting the resentment and anger they face from others in society who see them as “freeloading and lazy”, and the history of stigmatization, stereotyping and offensive restrictions on their personal lives.

The experience of same-sex couples (whether married or living together outside of marriage) or single gays and lesbians who are parents is also unique. These parents may find themselves bearing the brunt of negative stereotypes, and may struggle to fit into structures that were not designed to include them. Gays, lesbians and bisexuals providing care for their aging parents may face unique issues in this area as well: an interesting American survey found that members of this community felt that they were expected to provide a disproportionate amount of family care because they were viewed as “single” (presumably because of the non-recognition of their partners).[62] Gays, lesbians and bisexuals may therefore find themselves in a double-bind where they need significant accommodation for their caregiving responsibilities, but have more difficulty obtaining recognition of these needs.

With the aging demographic, there is an increase in older persons with significant caregiving obligations, whether this means caring for an ailing partner, a grown child who has a disability, or providing primary care for grandchildren.[63] These caregivers may face unique challenges.

It is important to consider the complex ways in which family status intersects with the race-related grounds of the Code. Negative stereotypes about families take specific forms for various racialized groups. Research that has been done in the area of access to affordable housing suggests that sole-support families from racialized and Aboriginal communities may be the most disadvantaged of all families seeking shelter.[64] As well, some studies suggest that parents from racialized communities may be less likely to have access to the types of flexible workplace practices that are intended to assist parents in meeting both their employment and their family responsibilities.[65] The Commission has also heard of situations where stereotypes regarding single mothers from racialized communities have affected the nature and quality of the educational services their children have received.

It is also important to keep in mind the characteristics of those cared for, as well as of caregivers. For example, parents providing care for children with disabilities can face challenges above and beyond those faced by other parents, often with few appropriate, ongoing supports. These parents may have difficulty finding and retaining employment that allows them to meet their responsibilities to their children.[66]

How do gender, race, sexual orientation, and other Code grounds impact on discrimination because of family status? Are there situations not identified in this Paper where discrimination based on family status is compounded by other Code-related factors?

[60] [1995] 2 S.C.R. 418
[61] (13 May 2002) C35052/C34983, (Ont. C.A.). This decision under section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms struck down the definition of “spouse” under the Family Benefits Act, which presumed a spousal relationship as soon as a couple began living together. The definition meant that many people in receipt of social assistance were no longer entitled to receive it. The Court found that the definition discriminated on the basis of marital status, sex, and the receipt of social assistance.
[62] For a helpful and comprehensive discussion of these issues from an American perspective, see S. Cahill, M. Ellen, and S. Tobias, Family Policy: Issues Affecting Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Families, (New York: The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, 2002)
[63] In 2001, over 25,000 Canadian children between the ages of 0 and 14 were living in “skip-generation” households – that is, their grandparents were their primary caregivers. See A. Milan and B. Hamm, “Across the Generations: Grandparents and Grandchildren”, Canadian Social Trends (Winter 2003) 2.
[64] P. Khosla, If Low Income Women of Colour Counted in Toronto (Toronto: Community Social Planning Council of Toronto, 2003) at 23 and following.
[65] Debra B. Schwartz, An Examination of the Impact of Family-Friendly Policies on the Glass Ceiling, Report Prepared for the U.S. Department of Labor, Glass Ceiling Commission (New York: Families and Work Institute, 1994)
[66] Fraser Valentine, Enabling Citizenship: Full Inclusion of Children with Disabilities and Their Parents (Canadian Policy Research Networks, June 2001).

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