JustResearch no. 12

Research in Profile

Profile of Families and Children

By Dr. Cherami Wichmann [1]


Even the most cursory search of the internet reveals that all across the world the structure of families is changing. This is no less true for Canada. Over the last few decades, the prevalence of the " traditional" family, composed of a married mother and father with their biological offspring, has declined noticeably. We have seen the rise of different family structures, such as "childless couples", "single-parent families", "common-law families" and "blended families". There are major transformations, such as the merger of two families with children and there are more minor transformations, such as the addition of a step-sibling. Today's families are not a static entity. Children are born into one family type, but many will experience several transitions before they leave their parents' home. For example, children born into a single parent family may transition to a blended family, or from a common-law family to a single parent family, or one in which children live with both parents separately.

In response, policy makers, researchers and service providers have had to adjust their perspectives to accommodate these different types of families, and to take into account the increasing number of transitions that children (and adults) make throughout their lifetimes. This profile provides a snapshot of Canadian families coming in to the 21 st century. It will be interesting to see how the distribution of these family types change (or not) over the next few decades, and whether whole new family forms emerge.


One of the main sources of data on families in Canada is the Census of Population conducted by Statistics Canada every five years. Data is collected on the number and types of families, the size of families and households, country of birth, language spoken, religious affiliation, ethnic diversity, information about people from visible minorities, mobility, education, household activities, income, and paid and unpaid work. The most recent census was taken on May 15, 2001 and provides reliable information the demographic, social and economic characteristics of the Canadian population, and Canadian families. [2] The most recent Census was conducted on May 15, 2001.

The census definition of a family is a married or common-law couple with or without children or a lone-parent with at least one child living with them. Children in a census family also includes children who live with a grandparent but not with a parent.

According to the census definition, there were 8,371,020 families in Canada in 2001; 63.5% of these families had children living in the home.


The 2001 Census showed that an increasing proportion of couples are choosing to live common-law and a decreasing proportion are choosing to marry. In 2001, there were 5.9 million married couples and 1.2 million common-law couples. As Table 1 indicates, between 1981 and 2001 there was a 15% decrease in the proportion of married couples (83.1% to 70.5%) and an increase of 146% in the proportion of common-law couples (5.6% to 13.8%). The trend toward common-law relationships was strongest in Quebec, where common-law families represented 30% of all couple families in that province.

Table 1: Family Structure for Census Families, Canada 1981 to 2001 [3]
Year All Couple families Married couples Common-law couples All lone-parent families Female lone- parent Male lone- parent
2001 84.3% 70.5% 13.8% 15.7% 12.7% 2.9%
1996 85.5% 73.7% 11.7% 14.5% 12.1% 2.5%
1991 87.0% 77.3% 9.8% 13.0% 10.7% 2.2%
1986 87.3% 80.2% 7.2% 12.7% 10.4% 2.2%
1981 88.7% 83.1% 5.6% 11.3% 9.3% 2.0%
Lone-parent families

There were 1.3 million lone-parent families in 2001 [4], the majority of these (81%) being mother-headed households. Between 1981 and 2001 there was a 38% increase in the proportion of lone-parent families (11.3% to 15.7%).

Same-Sex Couples

For the first time in 2001, the Census collected information on same-sex couples in Canada. [5] A total of 34,200 same-sex common-law couples self-identified in the 2001 Census, representing 0.5% of all couples. There were slightly more male same-sex couples (55%) than female same-sex couples (45%).

Mixed Unions [6]

Analysis of Census data indicated that in 2001, approximately 3.2% of the couples in Canada were comprised of either 1) one partner from a visible minority group and one partner who was not, or 2) partners from two different visible minority groups. This represents a 35% increase from 1991 (2.6% to 3.2 %).

The people in mixed unions tend to be younger, not born in Canada, have higher levels of education and to live in large urban areas, than other couples. These persons are also more likely to be in common-law relationships rather than marriages (representing 4% of all common-law unions versus 2.9% of all marriages). However, this factor may be due mostly to their age, as common-law unions are more prevalent among young people.


As of May 15, 2001 there were 7.5 million children under the age of 19 living with census families, approximately 5.7 million of these children being under 15 years. These children were almost equally represented by gender (51% male).

Aboriginal Children

More than 976,000 persons self-identified in the 2001 Census as Aboriginal. [7] This number is 22% higher than reported in 1996. One third (33%) of Aboriginal children [8] were under that age of 15, a proportion much higher than reported for the non-Aboriginal population (19%). Overall, Aboriginal children made up 5.6% of the population under the age of 15.

Children from a Visible Minority

Just over 13% of the total Canadian population comprised persons from a visible minority in 2001. However, children and youth under the age of 15 made up a large share (24%) of the visible minority population.

Changes in Family Structure

As indicated by Table 2, over the last 20 years there has been a shift in the types of families in which children live.

Table 2: Percent of Children Under the Age of 15 Living at Home and Family Structure for Census Families, For Canada 1981 to 2001 [9]
Year Married Couples Common-law Couples Lone Parents
2001 69.0% 12.9% 18.1%
1996 73.2% 10.5% 16.4%
1991 79.0% 7.0% 14.0%
1986 82.8% 4.6% 12.6%
1981 85.9% 3.2% 10.9%
Children in Married or Common-law Families

In 2001, 4.6 million children under the age of 15 (81.9% of children) were living with married or common-law couples (who may or may not be their biological or adoptive parents). Between 1981 and 2001, there was a 20% decrease in the proportion of children living with married couples (85.9% to 69%) and a 303% increase in the proportion of children living with common-law couples (3.2% to 12.9%).

Factors associated with living with common-law couples in 2001 included the child's age and where the family lives: younger children and children in Quebec were more likely to live with common-law couples; older children, and those in other regions of Canada tended to live with a married couple.

Children in Lone-Parent Families

Another type of family structure in which children may live (either through birth or the death of a parent or as a result of a separation or divorce) is a lone-parent family. In 2001, just over 1 million children under the age of 15 lived in a lone-parent household. Fifteen percent of these lone-parent families were headed by fathers and 85% by mothers. For older children (15-19 years), 21% of lone-parent families were headed by fathers and 79% by mothers. The proportion of children living in lone-parent households increased 66% between 1981 and 2001 (10.9% to 18.1%)

Children Living with Grandparents [10]

Some children live with grandparents instead of parents – Statistics Canada refers to these families as "skip generation families". As of May 15, 2001, this group accounted for less than .5% of children under 15 years, or about 25,20 children.

Children in Same-Sex Families

More female than males same-sex couples had children living with them. About 15% of female same-sex couples had children compared to only 3% of male same-sex couples.

Families of Aboriginal Children [11]

Sixty-one percent of Aboriginal children under the age of 15 lived with two parents in 2001; this is far fewer than the 83% of non-Aboriginal children who lived with two parents. Conversely, twice as many Aboriginal children lived with a lone parent in 2001 as non-Aboriginal children; 35% of Aboriginal children were in lone-parent families in comparison to 17% of non-Aboriginal families. Four percent of Aboriginal children had other living arrangements (including living with relatives), whereas less than 1% of non-Aboriginal children had the same type of arrangements.


The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY), co-sponsored by Statistics Canada and Human Resources Development Canada, yields the best data about the extent of parental transitions experienced by children. [13]

A first transition for children would occur when either 1) children born into a two parent family lose a parental figure in the household (either through separation/divorce or death); or 2) children born into a single parent family gain a parental figure in the household as their parent forms a new union (e.g., step-parent). [14]

Figure 2. Number of Transitions in 1996-97 for children aged 6-13 years, NLSCY, Cycles 1 and 2 [15]

Number of Transitions in 1996-97 for children aged 6-13 years, NLSCY, Cycles 1 and 2

Figure 2 shows the breakdown of family transitions for all children aged 6-13 in 1996-97. The majority of children (80%) were born to married parents; 12.8% of children were born to common law parents and 7.2% were born to single mothers. Overall, just over one in four children experienced a family transition between their birth and 1996-97, when they were between 6 and 13 years of age. For those children born to married parents, the majority did not undergo family transitions between birth and 1996-97. That is, 82% of children with married parents had not experienced a transition up to this point; this represents 65.7% of children. Fifty percent of children with common-law parents underwent at least one transition, representing 6.4% of children. Children born to single mothers were very likely to experience at least one family transition. Eighty-three percent of children born to single mothers underwent at least one transition, representing 6% of children.

This data indicates that many children born in the 1980s lived through a family transition at a young age. Other data also indicates that many of these children will undergo more than one transition. Within the first two years of separation, more than one third of children had at least one additional "parent figure"; this number increased to two thirds after five years and to 87% after 10 years. After 10 years almost half of the children (44%) had both an additional father and mother figure as a result of transitions by both parents.


The General Social Survey of Family and Friends (Cycle 15) [17] provides some information about step-families. [18] The GSS indicates that 11.8% of couples with children living in the household are step-families (split equally between married and common-law couples). This number is up 17% from 1995. Approximately 40% of those step-families are "blended" meaning that they contain the children from one or both prior unions as well as at least one biological or adoptive child of the couple. Information from the NLSCY [19] indicates that almost one in five children (0-13 years of age in 1996-97) had at least one step-sibling or half-sibling.

How Many Children of Separation and Divorce in Canada?

As noted above, one way though which children transition into another family unit is separation or divorce. There is no single data source that accurately captures the number of children affected by separation or divorce in Canada. While the NLSCY provides some indicators that can be used to develop an estimate of the number of children, at the time of writing survey data is only available on children up to the age of 11. Nevertheless, these data have been used to estimate and extrapolate to the population between 0 and 19. A conservative estimate for 2001 of the number of children between 0 and 19 who have experienced the separation and divorce of their parents in Canada is around 2.1 million. [20], [21] This is likely an underestimation; more definitive numbers, however, are not available at this time.


Even examining the snapshot presented above, it is apparent that we cannot view the family as a single static entity. Simple analyses of the current family unit do not take into account the intricacies of reality, the history of the family and the transitions it's members have undergone. As researchers attempting to shape policy, we need to be cognizant of this fact and come up with ways to bring life to our data rather than attempt to make it fit into a two-dimensional mould. Difficult perhaps, but possibly the only way to even come close to portraying the contemporary family.