Canada's Changing Families

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 4, 2002. Partner content is not updated.

FOR MANY PEOPLE, where and how they live is code for so much more. Say, for example, you live alone - or in the precise language of the statistician, you comprise a "single-person household.

Canada's Changing Families

FOR MANY PEOPLE, where and how they live is code for so much more. Say, for example, you live alone - or in the precise language of the statistician, you comprise a "single-person household." That tells others you never married or are divorced or widowed, that you're free to set your own schedule, that you don't buy a lot of groceries. Look at a number and variety of living arrangements and a portrait of a society as a whole starts to emerge. Statistics Canada's third release of data from the 2001 Census does just that - and more. Beyond the carefully neutral language and dry title - "Profile of Canadian families and households: Diversification continues" - is a picture of a country so different from a generation ago that it's no longer clear what the so-called "norm" is. Most Canadians still live in some sort of family unit, but the definition of family is increasingly elastic.

The actual number of "traditional" families" - legally married parents with one or more kids all living under the same roof - has remained constant from 1981 to 2001, at about 3.5 million. But as a proportion of all families, the decline has been dramatic - from 55 per cent to 41.5 per cent. During the same period, the numbers of couples without children, lone-parent families, and stepfamilies have all increased. So has the number of common-law couples, who accounted for 14 per cent of all families in 2001, more than double the proportion in 1981 - and nearly twice the proportion found in the last United States census. (Canada's larger number is thanks in no small part to Quebec - the Sweden of North America - where the prevalence of common-law couples is highest of any province at 30 per cent of all couples.)

Even as the family is changing, young adults seem more eager than ever to cling to it. Fully 41 per cent of the 3.8 million Canadians aged 20 to 29 still lived in their parents' home last year. In 1981, only 27 per cent of young adults remained at home; in 1991, 33 per cent.

The snapshot StatsCan took on May 15, 2001, brought other members of the Canadian family into sharper focus. For the first time, the census asked about same-sex partnerships. The result: last week's data counted 34,200 same-sex pairs in Canada, representing 0.5 per cent of all couples. Not surprisingly, the majority live in the bigger centres. But according to one StatsCan spokesman, his unofficial tally shows same-sex couples living in all but six of Canada's 301 federal electoral districts. Michelle Douglas, president of the Foundation for Equal Families, a group that has long lobbied for legal equality for same-sex partners, said she was thrilled to finally be counted. "I didn't have the option to represent my status before," she said, noting that as gays and lesbians see the government protecting their privacy, more will come forward on future censuses.

With families evolving so dramatically, it's not surprising other big changes are afoot. Between 1981 and 2001, smaller households represented the fastest growing type in Canada. There are now as many one-person households as there are those with four or more people. Average household size decreased during the same period from 2.9 to 2.6 persons.

But who is that .9 or .6 of a person? On the following pages, Maclean's writers and contributors put flesh on the numbers to show how Canadians are living together - and apart - at the dawn of a new century.

Family Portraits

StatsCan's 2001 census includes three main components in its definition of a "census family"-married couples, common-law couples (including same-sex couples) and single parents.

Families composed of Total families %

Married couples 5,901,425 70.5

With children at home 3,469,700 41.5

Without children at home 2,431,725 29.0

Common-law couples 1,158,405 13.8

With children at home 530,900 6.3

Without children at home 627,505 7.5

Single parents 1,311,190 15.7

Maclean's November 4, 2002