Selected Statistics on Canadian Families and Family Law:
Second Edition


The Complex Family Lives of Canadian Children

Recent demographic data show that an increasing proportion of children are living in single-parent families and at an increasingly young age.Figure 9 presents the proportion of Canadian children who experienced life in a single-parent family among various birth cohorts.Specifically, it shows the cumulative percentage of children who were born to a lone parent or who had experienced their parents' separation before their last birthday.

Figure 9: Canadian Children Born to a Lone-Parent or Who Have Experienced the Separation of Their Parents, Various Birth Cohorts

Thirty years ago, almost 25 percent of children were either born to a single mother or had experienced their parents' separation before the age of 20. Half of the parents of this group had separated after the child reached the age of 10.

Children who were born 10 years later (1971-1973 cohorts) experienced their parents' separation at an even younger age. By age fifteen, 25 percent of these children had already experienced life in a single-parent family. Three times out of four, the child had experienced this before the age of ten.

Children who were born after 1983 experienced their parents' separation even earlier. By age 10, one child out of four born in 1983-1984 had experienced life in a single-parent family and nearly 23 percent of children in the younger cohorts (those born in 1987-1988) experienced the same by the age of 6.

There is little reason to suggest that these trends will slow down in the near future, since the rising proportion of children born in common-law unions face a higher risk of experiencing their parents' separation.

Children from Broken Families Come Disproportionately from Common-Law Unions

The parents' decision to live together rather than marry has far-reaching consequences for the survival of the family unit. Figure 10 presents the cumulative percentage of Canadian children, born in two-parent families, who experienced parental separation according to the type of parental union.

In the 1983-1984 cohorts, 60 percent of the children were born to parents who married without first cohabiting, and 24 percent were born to parents who married after cohabiting. Another 10 percent of children were born to cohabiting parents and for 3 percent of this group, their parents married before the child's tenth birthday. Children born to a single parent (6 percent) are not counted here.

Figure 10: Canadian Children Born in a Two-Parent Family Who Have Experienced Their Parents' Separation, According to Type of Parents' Union, 1983-1984 Cohorts-NLSCY 1994-1995

As we have seen, increasing numbers of children from broken homes were born to parents who did not marry. Figure 11 below presents the information somewhat differently by illustrating the distributions of children from birth to 11 years old and of children from broken families according to the type of parental union.

According to the NLSCY, the majority of children (fifty-two percent) were born to couples who had not lived together before marriage and another thirty-two percent were born to married parents who had first lived together. Thirteen percent were born into a common-law union that had not been formalized into a marriage at the time of the survey (See Figure 11).

Figure 11: Distribution of Children Aged 0-11 and of Children From Broken Families, According to Type of Parents' Union-Canada-NLSCY 1994-1995

For children whose parents had separated, only 30 percent came from married couples who had not lived together before marriage. A slightly greater proportion (34 percent) were from common-law couples who had not married at the time of the survey. Children born to common-law unions were clearly over-represented among children who experienced the break-up of their families.

Patterns of Separation and Divorce

Are changes in the way people enter into unions accompanied by changes in the way they end them? Are the legally married couples who are separating in greater and greater numbers doing so without ever legalizing the break-up through divorce?

The survival curves presented in Figure 12 provide data to answer these questions. These curves show, for given regions, the percentage of children from broken marriages whose parents had not divorced, according to the time elapsed since separation. Obviously, the results presented in Figure 12 are linked to the grounds under which one can obtain a divorce and regional differences in the divorce process itself, which can affect the time it takes to get a divorce.

Figure 12: Percentage of Children From Broken Marriages Who Have Not Yet Witnessed Their Parents' Divorce, According to Time Elapsed Since Separation-NLSCY 1994-1995 (Life Table Estimates)

As Figure 12 shows, in Canada almost half (47 percent) of the children from broken marriages had not seen their parents divorce after three years of separation and this percentage was still 28 percent after five years of separation. One may well ask whether the couples who have not divorced after five years will ever obtain a divorce.

Apart from Quebec, the proportion of children in different regions of the country whose parents had not yet divorced after five years did not vary greatly from the national average. Figure 12 shows that in Quebec, only 74 percent (as compared to 94 percent in Ontario) of children from broken marriages had not seen their parents divorce after one year and this percentage drops to 21 percent after five years.