Families Count 2024: new resource on family structure now available

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Anil Arora – #FAM2019 Keynote Address

Anil Arora, Chief Statistician of Canada

Keynote Address, Families in Canada Conference 2019

Delivered in Ottawa, Ontario on March 27, 2019


I would first like to thank the Vanier Institute of the Family for inviting me to participate in this timely and important conference. I am pleased to be here today among you to take part in and to contribute to your discussions on the theme of families in Canada. I am equally eager to learn more about you over the course of the next two days.

Today, I will touch on three key ideas:

One of Statistics Canada’s primary objectives is to ensure that we put our data back into the hands of Canadians who share their lives with us by responding to our surveys and allowing us to assess their experiences and analyze their responses.

We sincerely appreciate all your tireless work as academics, policy-makers, service providers, the media, charitable organizations and, in particular, the Vanier Institute. You all help us to ensure that good evidence is used in improving the well-being of families.

In recent weeks, we launched a new “Family Matters” series, highlighting new findings on the Canadian family from the 2017 General Social Survey on Family and other data sources. The “Family Matters” series has been a partnership with the Vanier Institute, providing us with expert advice in terms of framing our analyses to maximize accessibility by the public. This series complements a broad range of data releases and ongoing research at Statistics Canada and the partnership with the Vanier Institute is helping us better understand Canadian families. We look forward to continuing the momentum and deepening our collaboration.

Embracing Big Data means engaging in new ways with our partners to improve our knowledge of family well-being. Another concrete example of partnership is a multi-year government initiative currently underway, aimed at better understanding how to help Canadian children get the best start in life and better support Canadian families.

Statistics Canada is working in partnership with Employment and Social Development Canada on an extensive Program of Research and Data Development on Early Learning and Child Care that will result in greater insights. Our federal partners, such as ESDC, are also enthusiastic about finding new and innovative ways of using and creating new data and working together to fill important data gaps on Canadian families.

Making the most of Big Data is also bringing different disciplines together within our agency: there is greater collaboration and partnering across specializations on family research, with analysts across the agency working together.

This is critical as we search for new data sources that can help us learn more about Canadian families. Statistics Canada recently launched an internal Family Analysis Working Group, to complement the Vanier Institute’s goal of launching a Family Research Network following this conference.

Sharing information across specializations and with our partners and increased collaboration in a cross-cutting manner is crucial in better understanding aspects of Canadian society and how it continues to evolve. These are tangible examples of how partnerships and collaboration are integral to modernizing our approach to capture, analyze and release data and insights about Canadian society and Canadian families.

Let us look now at the changes that have occurred within Canadian families in recent decades. It is striking to see how trends and new issues regarding the family reflect more broadly the state of society, the economy and culture in Canada. Clearly the family, in all its diversity, is truly at the heart of Canadian life, influencing and being influenced by major societal trends. At the time of Confederation in 1867, Canadian families were very different; for example, they often included several generations of the same family living under the same roof. In addition to the parents and children, there were more distant relatives, foster children, domestic staff, workers and even boarders.

It is estimated that, in 1901, approximately one family in three included individuals other than parents and children, compared with less than one family in 10 today. Little by little, we have witnessed the “nuclearization” of families. Parents and children are more likely to live on their own today, without any other individual in the household.

At the turn of the 20th century, Canada was in the midst of what is referred to as a “demographic transition” from an era of relatively high deaths and births to one of improved population health, longer life expectancy and increased family planning.

At the same time, Canada became a major receiver of international immigrants: in 1913, new immigrants accounted for more than 5% of the population, the highest rate observed since Confederation and considerably higher than the rate Canada welcomed most recently in 2018 (just under 1% of the population). This affected the regional and ethnic distribution of the population, primarily the growth of cities. These new Canadians brought with them different customs of family life, further diversifying the characteristics of families across the country.

Because of evolving modes of production during the early part of the 20th century, families were more likely to move to cities. Jobs in production and factories led to a growing dependency of households on wages, bringing with them changing attitudes about family size. Children who had been largely seen as productive members of the household came to now be viewed as dependents. The total fertility rate in Canada decreased from an estimated 6.6 children per woman in 1851 to 2.6 children per woman in 1937.

At this time of great societal upheaval, it was a very different time for children in particular: censuses from the early 20th-century published tables on the wage earnings of children as young as 10 years of age. In that era, children’s earnings were important to the economic security of many families across the nation: children in families were responsible for 12% of all family earnings in 1931. This later changed as compulsory schooling laws and child labour legislation were introduced across Canada.

As a result of these major legislative changes, children found themselves in a very different position than their parents. In fact, the 1921 Census reported that three-quarters of children who were attending school had parents who were illiterate.

The difficult times of the two world wars and the Great Depression affected families in a myriad of ways. In 1921, close to 1 in 10 children aged 15 and under had experienced the death of at least one parent, and 4% had experienced the death of both parents. People married later and had relatively fewer children during these eras, reflecting the challenges in raising a family during difficult economic times.

Foster children were much more common at the time, due to the death of one or both parents, or simply because, in the absence of public social welfare, the parents could not financially care for the child. In contrast, the years immediately following the Second World War were characterized by an economic boom and much industrial development.

Once again, Canadian families reflected the prosperous times: men and women married more, and at a younger age, and women started having children at a younger age than previous generations, and having more of them.

About 479,000 children were born in 1959, the highest annual number of births on record. As a result, children accounted for a relatively large share of the total Canadian population during the baby boom years – the impact of which we are experiencing today!

Paired with a strong economy, the development of the country’s infrastructure shifted toward the needs of this young generation and followed them as they aged: from the construction of primary schools in their childhood years, to the building of new universities, suburbs and jobs in their young adult years.

In the mid-20th century, cultural shifts and improvements in population health led to a period of remarkable uniformity with respect to Canadian families. In 1961, 94% of children in census families lived with two married parents – the highest proportion ever observed. While this period is sometimes referred to as the “golden era of the family,” it became clear that in many cases, greater stability in family life did not necessarily imply greater happiness or satisfaction for family members.

In the decades following the baby boom, numerous cultural developments impacted society and families in important ways. By the end of the 1960s, there was the legalization of the birth control pill as well as the growing participation of women in higher education and in the paid labour force. The declining influence of religion also affected family life. Together, these events contributed to families forming at an older age, and smaller family sizes: the average number of persons per census family decreased from 3.9 in 1961 to 2.9 in 2016. As the “dual earner” model of paid work became more prevalent among couples, parental work arrangements and the time available to spend with family changed markedly from preceding decades.

Between 1976 and 2015, the share of couple families with children, where both parents were employed, nearly doubled, from 36% to 69%. Once again, the critical impact of legislative changes on the family became clear following the introduction of no-fault divorce in 1968. The subsequent increase in the number of divorces led to more lone-parent families – parents who, unlike in the past, were more likely to be separated or divorced than widowed.

By 1991, 70% of children in lone-parent families lived with a parent who was divorced or separated, compared with 24% in 1931. Along with growing rates of separation and divorce, there was a growth in stepfamilies and more and more people choosing to live alone following a conjugal breakup.

Alternatives to legal marriage also became more widespread and culturally accepted during this era, leading to the growth of common-law unions, a form of living together as a family that more and more couples are choosing for themselves and for raising their children.

The number of common-law couples in Canada more than quadrupled between 1981 and 2016. The 21st century has witnessed a continuation of many societal trends that began in the last century. Among them are a longer transition to adulthood for many young people, evidenced by later ages of marriage or living together and having children at an older age.

These changes have been accompanied by a higher tendency to remain in, or return to, the parents’ home: In 2016, more than one in three (34.7%) young adults aged 20 to 34 were living with at least one parent. Having fewer children and living longer have created new stages in the family life cycle.

Along with an extended period of adolescence and living in the parental home, the empty-nest stage following the last child’s departure from the home is now common, whereas this was virtually non-existent for the average couple in the early 20th century. Loneliness is an important issue.

The new millennium has also seen a growing societal recognition of the diversity of family life, as evidenced by the legalization of same-sex marriage across Canada in 2005. Longer life expectancy, higher costs of living in urban areas that necessitate sharing residences and cultural practices brought to Canada with immigrants from new areas of the world have also led to multi-generational households becoming the fastest-growing household type between 2011 and 2016, echoing back to the patterns of over a century earlier.

Globalization and rapid advancements in technology and communication have expanded our definitions of families: now, perhaps more than ever before, the four walls of a household cannot always accurately capture an individual’s family situation.

While there are more people living alone than ever before, we know that many of these people have complex family histories and close connections with loved ones:

One constant we can observe over the years is the rich diversity of family life within Canada, reflecting the unique cultural, historical, regional and economic context and circumstances.

For instance:

I pointed out earlier that the big baby-boomer generation has had a significant impact on Canadian society as this generation advanced through the various stages of life. This is likely to continue in coming years with the aging of its members. Baby boomers have had fewer children, lived in common-law unions more often than preceding generations and experienced marital breakdown more often. Moreover, the ethnocultural diversity of the Canadian population has significantly increased over the past three decades. These are a few of the trends that are having an impact on the family situation of seniors, which is becoming more complex, and on the services provided to them. For example, what effect will these trends have on formal and informal support to seniors in the future? On end-of-life care?

While there will be enormous pressure for society to focus on the large group of seniors in the population in the coming decades, it will be important for Canadians to reiterate our commitment to young families and children in Canada.

What sorts of programs and policies can effectively tackle the cycle of poverty across generations? What resources can be brought to bear to address income inequalities among families? What sorts of supports do children living in stepfamilies and lone-parent families need? How can we ensure that children in new Canadian families have a good start in life? These are obviously just a small sample of the types of policy considerations arising from emerging trends in the family that must be supported with robust data and research. In our exploration of how we might use Big Data to better understand families, and improve their well-being, we will want to think about these and other challenges facing families of the future.

Thank you very much.


Edited for publication. Reprinted with permission by the Vanier Institute of the Family. (Passages in italics were delivered in French.)

Published on April 9, 2019