Family | The Canadian Encyclopedia



There is no such thing as "the Canadian family." Membership in a family, the activities of those members in and out of the household, and the relationship among members varies with economic conditions and also with regions, historical periods, SOCIAL CLASS, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity.


There is no such thing as "the Canadian family." Membership in a family, the activities of those members in and out of the household, and the relationship among members varies with economic conditions and also with regions, historical periods, SOCIAL CLASS, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity. Yet most people eat, sleep, work, procreate, recuperate, learn, love, laugh, cry and die within what most would agree is a family. While the variations are in many ways endless, there is usually a dominant pattern, one that is more common than others in each region and time. In examining those patterns, however, it is important not to confuse common with necessary, normal or natural.

Two significant trends have affected the Canadian family throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century: there has been a trend toward smaller households and for the first time, the 2006 census enumerated more unmarried people aged 15 and over than legally married people.

Canadian families are also becoming more diverse. More than one-third of all families were married couples with children, but there has been an increase in the proportion of lone parents (15.9%) and common-law couples (15.5%), and the largest increase was one-person households (26.8%).

Historical Aboriginal Families

Before the arrival of the Europeans, family patterns among Canada's Aboriginal peoples were enormously varied, as were the subsequent interpretations of those patterns by scholars. While some of the many societies and language groups functioned as nomadic hunting bands, others had complex organizations for agriculture, fishing and hunting. Family structures reflected the varying economic conditions. Agricultural societies frequently engaged in the co-operative production and preparation of food, and provided collective child care and other "family activities." Women did much of the farming and men often lived with their wives' relatives ("matrilocal residence") after marriage.

Among fishing communities on the Pacific coast, on the other hand, separation of property was often practised, there were greater social differences within the group, and women moved in with their husbands' relatives ("patrilocal residence"). There was a division of labour by age and gender, but the specific tasks assigned to each group were different from community to community. In many of these families, women exercised a considerable amount of power and contributed directly to the survival of the group. What are often considered modern trends - premarital sex, adoption of children, divorce and trial marriages - were not uncommon among the Aboriginal people, particularly in seminomadic societies.

European Influences

With the arrival of the Europeans, economic conditions and family structures altered, but the variety remained. The organization of rival fur-trading companies led to the formation of different family relationships between European and Aboriginal people. The temporary stations of the NORTH WEST COMPANY often permitted only short-term liaisons, the Aboriginal women being left to tend their MÉTIS offspring. The HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY, however, had permanent posts and allowed or encouraged relatively stable relationships to develop, at least with regard to officers of the company. What today would be called common-law marriages were frequently established, and some of the children - but rarely the wives - were taken back to England when the officers returned home. These practices, and the introduction of private property, disrupted family patterns within Aboriginal societies, discouraged co-operative production, and created single-parent households.

While fur traders spread through the west, in the central and eastern regions of the country Europeans were establishing more settled agricultural communities and, along with them, different kinds of families. Patterns from the Old World were adapted to the new economic, social and physical conditions. From the beginning of NEW FRANCE some people survived by working for the government, for the fur-trading companies, for the church, or as independent artisans, but an increasingly dominant group produced most of what they needed for survival by working the land. Women, men and children laboured together to grow or to make the necessities of life. Men held most of the legal power in these families, but the mutual economic dependency that existed in most households contributed to the women's strength.

The scarcity of women, combined with the fact that their work was essential to household survival and that - except for a career as a nun or work as a domestic - marriage offered practically the sole means of support, meant that almost all women married. As a result of the high casualties of war, disease, accidents and death in childbirth, few marriages lasted long. Unlike the custom in France, widows and widowers did not wait long to remarry; consequently, many households contained children from two or more marriages and often unmarried adults of both genders as well. Women born in Canada married early, especially if their families were poor, but those who immigrated were often prevented from marrying at a younger age by long contracts for domestic service. These early marriages, the need for labourers in agricultural communities, the high proportion of children dying at birth or in their early years, the lack of contraception (seeBIRTH CONTROL) and the religious proscription against it, all contributed to the high birthrates, especially among those families working the land (seeMARRIAGE AND DIVORCE).

Although remarriage was strongly encouraged, religious beliefs and the desire for legitimate children to inherit the property in these settled communities accounted for the strong sanctions against premarital and extramarital sex, especially for women. Marriages were frequently arranged, for the wealthier to ensure the protection of their property, and for the poorer to ensure their own survival.

Later Influences

The British, and many of the other European settlers who came later, brought with them a firm belief in private property and self-reliance, but those who worked the land formed families that were similar in many ways to those of New France. The household was the place where the majority of goods and services were produced. Therefore, for most people - even those earning wages - home and workplace were one. Households were large, including as they often did an average of four or five children, hired help, single relatives and paying boarders. Few contained grandparents because most people did not live to be elderly and because many children left at an early age. In these early agricultural communities, the differences in family assets and resources tended to be small because almost everyone worked the land for a living.

Historical Division of Labour

Labour was divided by gender and age. Women centred their activities around the house, performing highly skilled and visible tasks such as baking bread, preserving food, and making soap, candles and clothes. In addition to bearing primary responsibility for teaching children to read and write and for the family's health care, women also frequently tended the vegetable gardens and the small animals, looked after the milking, and worked in the fields at sowing and harvest times. Men tended the larger animals, constructed furniture and buildings, slaughtered animals, felled and chopped trees, and planted and harvested the fields. Children worked alongside their parents, carrying out the more menial tasks and learning the skills necessary for survival. While this meant that men were actively involved in child rearing, infants were primarily cared for by women, older children and the hired help. And while women sometimes did "men's work," men rarely did any "women's work" other than looking after older children. In English common law, men were the decision makers, although women and children had some basis for power, because they contributed in obvious and visible ways to the maintenance of the household.

The physical distances between many of these households meant that entertainment was mainly a family affair. Even in more populated areas, social gatherings tended to involve the entire family, allowing the parents to supervise many of their children's contacts with others. In these households, the selection of marriage partners was less likely to be arranged formally. The idea of romantic love was gaining popularity, but economic and family considerations were still the most important factors in many decisions to marry, and marriages, particularly among wealthier families, often required parental approval.

Contemporary Families

It was not until the early part of the 20th century that what came to be called the "traditional" family - mother at home, father in the labour force, children at school and no other hired help or related individuals - appeared as the dominant family form in Canada. For a time, this kind of family structure was popularly regarded not only as ideal but also as universal and the way we all used to be. By 2006 the census reported that for the first time, Canada had more couples without children (43%) than with children (41%). Twenty years earlier, more than half of all families were couples with children. With the increase in common-law couple families, a growing proportion of children under age 15 lived with common-law parents (15%); however the majority of children lived with married parents (66%) or a lone parent (18%). This census also was the first to count same-sex married couples: almost 1% of all Canadian families comprised same-sex couples and approximately 17% of same-sex couples were married couples.

Contemporary Canadian families are experiencing a significant change in that the transition to adulthood is taking longer to complete and "adult children" are living with their parents longer or returning to their families after their initial departure. One reason for this change is home ownership: the likelihood of becoming a homeowner increases proportionally with the age at which the person left home, but only to a certain point. Children who leave the family home at a very early age (16-17) and those who leave when they are older (28-30) have the lowest rates of home ownership. The factors that precipitate a child's return to the family home include the end of a relationship or finishing studies; however, these children are no less likely to become homeowners than those children who never returned to live with their parents. Another important reason for a delayed transition to independent living is that children, especially females, are staying in school. Today, Canada's young adults are participating in a more competitive labour market than their earlier cohorts and with greater financial insecurity the delays in family formation are increasing. In 2006, 43.5% of young adults (20 to 29 years) lived with their parents.


Although there is not a "typical" family, there are several generalizations that describe Canadian families. Most Canadians marry; for first marriages, brides and grooms are in their early thirties (men 34.3 and women 31.7 years old), and share similar education, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Most of these couples have children, and most children are born and raised in two-parent households. The children are usually born to women who are in their late twenties to mid thirties, and births to women 35 and older are nearly four times higher than a generation earlier. Since most women complete their childbearing within a short period of time, the children are separated in age by only a few years. While there is little information available on the sexual practices and attitudes of these families, the numbers and spacing of children clearly indicate that most couples practise some form of birth control. Although most women now hold paying jobs for much of their lives and although there have been some important moves towards greater equality in the household, women still do most of the HOUSEWORK.

As family time has decreased so has the conventionality of the activities shared by family members. For example, watching television or reading may have been perceived as individual activities, however today they are often done as a family or a couple. Over the last 20 years, the time spent viewing television has increased during free time, and is the activity to which family members devote the most time on the average workday, during their free time. While family members do not necessarily interact with each other while watching television, they are nevertheless likely to be in others' company.

These dominant patterns too often become defined as the only appropriate ones. But the important variations in family forms have always existed in Canada and have provided people with as much love, support and sense of family as the most common one. For example, people have frequently lived together without being married, although few people may have known about their lack of a marriage certificate. Cultural and language, as well as race, class and regional differences often mean that, even within what appears as a common pattern, there are great variations in families and that the patterns change over time.


Changes in the Labour Market

Although most Canadians lived in rural areas until after the turn of this century, some people worked for wages from the earliest years of settlement. Both women and men frequently began life in Canada by working for someone else, often as servants or on farms, in shops, in hotels and, somewhat later, in factories, but only men held jobs in the army and in the government. At first, readily accessible land meant that there was a way out of this work and a large proportion of men married and left the paid labour force to establish their own farms. When good land was no longer available and when new technology reduced the need for workers in the fields and forest, it was primarily men who were cut off from the means of directly producing for their needs and who thus had to work for others.

A large number of single women, and women whose husbands were dead or disabled, did work for pay, but for the overwhelming majority of women, marriage meant the end of such labour at least on a regular basis. Until well into this century, most women could still contribute directly to the family's survival by growing, preserving and preparing food, making clothes and baking bread. Many also generated cash income by selling their produce, by sewing clothes, and by taking in laundry and boarders. As job possibilities expanded in the labour force, many single women rejected domestic labour in favour of the somewhat greater freedom and pay associated with other work. The decline in domestic servants coincided with changing household technology, a technology that made it increasingly possible for one married woman to do the work alone.

Child Labour and Education

Some children worked in factories and shops, or as hired help on farms or in other households, although from the 17th century on, the government restricted CHILD LABOUR. The application of these laws, combined with the declining need for labour and the increasing need for a literate labour force (which contributed to the introduction of compulsory schooling), meant that from the latter part of the 19th century, the number of employed young children dwindled. The need for children's labour in the household also decreased as fewer goods and services were produced in the household. Children became economic liabilities rather than economic assets. This, along with better health care, which meant that more children survived, contributed to declining birthrates.

These changes, which started in central Canada, gradually spread to the western and eastern parts of the country. Increasingly, families were distinguished from each other by social and class differences. Wealthier farmers and industrialists were able to send their children away to PRIVATE SCHOOLS long before compulsory public schooling was introduced, and some households could afford to pay servants long after DOMESTIC SERVICE disappeared from the majority of homes.

Changing Birthrates

The legalization and increasing accessibility of contraceptives have helped to lower birthrates, as have rising costs for raising children. Most families now have only one or two children and are having them closer together. These children are staying in school and often live in the family home longer, especially with current high youth unemployment rates. These declining birthrates and increasing education levels have in turn contributed to the rising number of women in the labour force. Most women stay in the workforce after marriage and childbirth and fewer men anticipate being the sole income earners in the household.

Family size has been decreasing; in 1921 the average family had 4.3 persons and by 2006 the size had decreased to 2.5 people. As the age at marriage has been rising, fertility rates have been falling and the age at which women have their first child has been increasing. Delayed fertility is generally linked to women's increased education and labour force participation.

Family-Work Relationship

Women's long-standing demands for fairer marital and PROPERTY LAWS were more successful as women entered the labour force in large numbers and ideas about women's place in the household changed as well. The gap between the employment levels of men and women has narrowed over the past 30 years; between 1976 and 2006, the proportion of women in the paid labour force increased from 42% to 58%. At the same time, higher unemployment rates for men may also, in some households, mean a reduction in male authority. Despite the greater independence that is associated with participating in the labour force, women continue to fight for wage parity in the workplace. The earnings ratio for full-time workers has held steady with women earning 0.72 of men's wages and since the late 1970s women continue to account for about seven out of ten part-time employees.

As the length of the workday for men and women has increased, the amount of time spent doing unpaid labour in the home, generally referred to as housework, has declined. Although the gap is narrowing, participation rates for housework continue to be significantly higher for women than for men in all family types. Tension from the demands of employers, longer workdays, and the necessity of the "second shift" associated with family responsibilities, including an imbalance in the division of household labour, is associated with family conflict and reduced physical and mental well-being. Such changes contribute to tension in families, which can lead to violence in the home. Domestic violence is not new and it is difficult to tell how much it may have increased over time. It is clear, however, that because of the nuclear family structure, there are few individuals to witness or stop the violent acts, or to support the victims (seeCHILD ABUSE).

A recent survey indicated that Canadian workers believed the main indicator of a successful career was achieving balance between work and home life. The importance of achieving this balance ranked ahead of salary, job satisfaction and job responsibility, yet a majority of workers felt they have less and less time for their families. The amount of time spent at work is the single factor that determines the time spent with family: as work hours rise, family time decreases and the length of the average workday has increased considerably over the last three decades. In 1986, workers, on average, spent 4.2 hours per day with their spouse, children or other family members. By 2005 the average had dropped to 3.4 hours for individuals whose workday was 8-9 hours, while people who were employed/commuted for 11 hours (or more) per day spent approximately 1.8 hours on average with members of their family.

Another change in family life is a decrease in the average time spent sharing meals, which decreased from 60 minutes in 1986 to 45 minutes in 2005. Not only are meals or snacks more likely to be consumed while alone (only 17% in 1986, versus 27% in 2005), but this also partially accounts for the decline in the time that family members spend together. Also, as children delay leaving the family home, young adult-children spent the least amount of time sharing meals with family members.


Divorce is certainly more common in Canada now than in the past, particularly since the advent of the 1968 Divorce Act. Divorces today are easier to obtain. People are living longer, making "happily ever after" much longer than it ever was before. Within a decade of the passing of the Divorce Act, the divorce rate rose from 14% of all marriages in 1969 to 30% in 1975, and peaked in 1987 at 36.2%. Since then the divorce rate has decreased; in 2008, approximately 30 percent of all Canadian marriages ended in divorce. The divorce rate varies depending on how long couples have been married and is highest during the first few years of marriage. In 2003, 26.2 out of every 1000 marriages ended in divorce after three years of marriage but the risk of divorce decreased slowly for each additional year of marriage.

The rise in divorce rates and the increase in legal separations and in the number of unmarried women having children meant that the number of single-parent households increased in the latter part of the 20th century. The number of couples with children who live openly in a same-sex relationship has also risen. In the case of same-sex couples, strong prohibitions made many such couples invisible, especially in the past (seeHOMOSEXUALITY).


The growing participation of women in the labour force has helped many families to maintain their standard of living, but it has not prevented some families from living in POVERTY. Although estimates vary (depending on how poverty is defined), in 2008 almost 10% of all Canadian families were living at or below the poverty line (seeINCOME DISTRIBUTION). The majority of these households contained two parents. Nearly 30% of lower-income families had at least one adult with a post-secondary degree and almost one-third had the equivalent of one person with full-time paid employment. However, lower wages for women and women's childcare responsibilities help explain why female-headed households have a very high poverty rate. By the 1990s lone-parent mothers had a 2 in 3 chance of being poor. Women's greater life expectancy, their lower wages, lack of private pensions and disrupted employment patterns also help to explain why the majority of the elderly poor are women. At the other end of the scale, families in the top 20% of income brackets are most likely to contain a married couple (at least one of whom generally has a university degree), live in a major city, and own a home and a car. Women in these families, families that are the most likely to conform to the stereotypical but distorted image of the family, tend to be either professionals and managers with high-paying jobs, or they stay out of the labour force.

Today the majority of married women are working or are actively looking for work in the labour force. The majority of mothers with very young children are returning to their jobs outside the home after the birth of their babies, although the overwhelming majority of small children are still cared for, mainly, by their parents and other relatives.

Further Reading