Families Count 2024: new resource on family structure now available

Families Count 2024 is now available

Report: COVID-19 and Parenting in Canada

September 3, 2020

In June 2020, the Vanier Institute prepared the report Families “Safe at Home”: The COVID-19 Pandemic and Parenting in Canada for the UN Expert Group Meeting Families in Development: Focus on Modalities for IYF+30, Parenting Education and the Impact of COVID-19. Now available in English and French, this report highlights family experiences, connections and well-being during COVID-19, as well as the current resources, policies, programs and initiatives in place to support families and family life.

Families “Safe at Home” details federal, provincial and territorial resources created to offset, mitigate or alleviate the financial impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on families. In addition to government responses, a summary is provided of the diverse range of available services that support families from pre-parenthood to adolescence and that serve parents across Canada, including those who belong to Indigenous, 2SITLGBQ+ and newcomer communities.

The Expert Group Meeting was organized by the Division for Inclusive Social Development (DISD) of the UN Department of Economic and Social affairs (UN DESA), where experts from diverse fields from around the world connected virtually to discuss COVID-19 impacts, assess progress and emerging issues related to parenting and education, and plan for upcoming observances of the 30th anniversary of the International Year of the Family (IYF).

Families “Safe at Home”: The COVID-19 Pandemic and Parenting in Canada

Nora Spinks, Sara MacNaull, Jennifer Kaddatz

Toward the end of 2019, news began to spread around the world about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Like many other countries, Canada was facing the possibility of weeks and months with families living in isolation in their homes, changes to school and work schedules, and unknown impacts on family connections and well-being.

In 2020, global citizens around the world are living in and adapting to new ways of life while remaining “safe at home” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Canadians have been striving to respect physical and social distancing guidelines implemented by our governments and based on the recommendations of public health officials since March 10, 2020. For many families, the past three months have included parenting in close quarters with high levels of uncertainty and unpredictability while managing work commitments, fulfilling care responsibilities inside and outside the home, and homeschooling children of all ages. Despite the inability to plan and the unknowns about what the next few weeks and months might look like, most families are maintaining good physical and mental health, taking care of one another and weathering the storm with their neighbours and communities at a distance.

During these unprecedented times, the Vanier Institute of the Family has adjusted its focus to understanding families in Canada in a time of drastic social, economic and environmental change. The daily activities of individuals and families in Canada, what they are thinking, how they are feeling and what they are doing are all important factors to be addressed and understood in the short, medium or long term.

Accordingly, representatives from the Vanier Institute were co-founders of the COVID-19 Social Impacts Network, a multidisciplinary group of some of Canada’s leading experts along with some of their international colleagues. The network has identified important issues, key indicators and relevant socio-demographics to generate evidence-based responses addressing the social and economic dimensions of the COVID-19 crisis in Canada. As well, to understand the experiences of families during the pandemic, the Vanier Institute has internally mobilized knowledge from other available sources, including quantitative data from both government and non-governmental agencies, such as Statistics Canada and UNICEF Canada, as well as qualitative information from individuals, families and organizations across the nation. Analyses of these findings illuminate characteristics of family life both before and during the pandemic, providing insight into what Canadians fear and what they look forward to after public health measures are lifted.

Consistent with its core principles, the Vanier Institute honours and respects the perspectives of diverse families by applying a family lens and Gender-based Analysis Plus (GBA+), whenever possible.1 By examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and any of its associated “costs and consequences,” including fertility patterns, parenting, family relationships, family dynamics and family well-being, the Institute mobilizes knowledge to those who study, serve and support families to make sound evidence-based decisions when designing and implementing policies and programs for all families in Canada.

COVID-19 Pandemic Experience in Canada

As of May 31, 2020, 1.6 million people have been tested for COVID-19 in Canada (approximately 4.5% of the total population). Among them, 5% have tested positive for the virus, with 8% resulting in death.2 Seniors in long-term care facilities who have died of COVID-19 represent approximately 82% of all deaths linked to the virus.3

Families are like all other “systems” during the pandemic – their strengths and weakness are magnified, amplified and intensified as relationships, interactions and behaviours adapt to changes in routine, habits and experiences. Family connections, family well-being and youth experiences have all been dramatically affected.

Family Connections

  • Approximately 8 in 10 adults (aged 18 and older) who are married or living common-law agreed that they and their spouse were supporting one another well since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic (Fig. 1). This figure varies only slightly for those with children or youth at home (77%) compared with those without children under the age of 18 in the household (82%).4
  • Fewer than 2 in 10 adults in committed relationships said they had been arguing more since the start of the pandemic (Fig. 1).5
  • Six in 10 parents reported they were talking to their children more often than before the lockdown began.6
  • When young kids were in the house, adults were almost twice as likely as those with no children or youth at home to have increased their time spent making art, crafts or music.7

On the other hand…

  • One-third of adults said that they were very or extremely concerned about family stress from confinement.9
  • 10% of women and 6% of men were very or extremely concerned about the possibility of violence in the home.10, 11
  • About 1 in 5 Canadians had senior relatives living in a nursing home or facility, with 92% of females and 78% of men being very or somewhat concerned for their health.12

Family Well-Being

  • More than three-quarters of Statistics Canada’s crowdsource participants reported either very good or excellent (46%) or good (31%) mental health during pandemic, in a survey conducted April 24–May 11, 2020.13
  • Nearly half (48%) of Statistics Canada’s crowdsource participants said that their mental health was “about the same,” “somewhat better” or “much better” than it had been prior to the start of the pandemic.14
  • About half of adults said they felt anxious or nervous or felt sad “very often” or “often” since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis.15
  • Regardless of age group or week surveyed, women expressed being more afraid than men that they would contract the virus or that someone in their immediate family would contract it (Fig. 2).16

  • Canadians were more afraid of a loved one contracting COVID-19 than they were of contracting it themselves. Adults who were “very” or “extremely”concerned about:
    • their own health: 36%
    • health of someone in household: 54%
    • health of vulnerable people: 79%
    • overloading the health care system: 84%18, 19
  • More than 4 in 10 of adults living with children under the age of 18 in their home said they “very often” or “often” have had difficulty sleeping since the beginning of the pandemic.20
  • When asked to describe how they have been primarily feeling in recent weeks, Canadians were most likely to say they were worried (44%), anxious (41%) and bored (30%); fully one-third (34%) also said they were “grateful.”21
  • Women were considerably more likely than men to report experiencing anxiety or nervousness, sadness, irritability or difficulty sleeping during the pandemic.22
  • Adults across all age groups continued to exercise during the pandemic, as two-thirds of adults aged 18–34 reported that they were exercising equally as often or more often during the pandemic than they were before it started. The figures were similar for adults aged 35–54 (62%) and aged 55 and older (65%).23
  • Younger adults (aged 15–49) were more likely to report an increase in junk food consumption than older adults.24
  • Food banks saw a 20% average increase in demand, with some local food banks, such as those in Toronto, Ontario, seeing increases as high as 50%.25
  • More than 9 in 10 people aged 15 and older said that the pandemic had not changed their consumption of tobacco nor cannabis.26 Just under 8 in 10 reported that the pandemic had not affected their drinking habits.27

Youth Experiences

  • Youth aged 12–19 said they got most of their information about COVID-19 and public health measures from their parents.28
  • Older youth, aged 15–17, were more anxious than younger youth, aged 12–14.29
  • Among youth aged 15–17, 50% reported that the pandemic had had “a lot” or “some” negative impact on their mental health, compared with 34% of youth aged 12–14. Approximately 4 in 10 youth aged 12–17 reported “a lot” or “some” negative impact on their physical health.30
  • Approximately half of children and youth across all age groups missed their friends the most while in isolation.31
  • Though 75% of youth claimed to be keeping up with school while in isolation, many were also unmotivated (60%) and disliked the arrangement (57%) (i.e. online learning; virtual classrooms).32
  • Many youth said they were doing more housework or chores during the pandemic.33
  • Older teens (aged 15–17) were having more difficult sleeping, feeling more anxious or nervous, sad and irritable. Younger teens (aged 12–14) were more likely to feel happy than older teens (Fig. 3).34

COVID-19 Pandemic Response in Canada

Since March 2020, the provincial, territorial and federal governments have announced diverse benefits, credits, programs, initiatives and funds to support families across Canada. The purpose of these recent resources is to offset, mitigate or alleviate the financial impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on families during this period of uncertainty, including the following:

Temporary Increase to the Canada Child Benefit (CCB)

The Canada Child Benefit (CCB) is a tax-free monthly payment made to eligible families to help with the cost of raising children under the age of 18. The amount of the benefit varies depending on the number of children, the age of the children, marital status and family net income from the previous year’s tax return. The CCB may include the child disability benefit and any related provincial and territorial programs.36

For families already receiving the CCB, an additional $300 per child was added to the benefit in May 2020. For example, a family with two children received $600, in addition to their regular monthly CCB payment, which could be up to a maximum of $553.25 per month per child under the age of 6 and $466.83 per month per child aged 6–17.37, 38

Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB)

In April 2020, Canada’s federal government established the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to support workers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CERB provides $2,000 every four weeks to workers who have lost their income as a result of the pandemic. Eligibility includes adults who have lost their job or who are sick, quarantined or taking care of someone who is sick with COVID-19. It applies to wage earners, contract workers and self-employed individuals who are unable to work. The benefit also allows individuals to earn up to $1,000 per month while collecting CERB.39

As a result of school and child care closures across Canada, the CERB is available to working parents who must stay home without pay to care for their children until schools and child care can safely reopen and welcome back children of all ages.

As of early May 2020, more than 7 million Canadians had applied for CERB since its introduction.40

Mortgage Payment Deferral

Homeowners across Canada who are facing financial hardship due to lack of work or decreased income during the pandemic may be eligible for a mortgage payment deferral of up to six months.

The payment deferral is an agreement between individuals and their mortgage lender, which includes a suspension of all mortgage payment for a specified period of time.41

Special Good and Services Tax Credit

The Goods and Services Tax credit is a tax-free quarterly payment that helps individuals and families with low and modest incomes offset all or part of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) or the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) that they pay.42

In April 2020, the federal government provided a one-time special payment in April 2020 to those receiving the Goods and Services Tax credit. The average additional benefit was nearly $400 for single individuals and close to $600 for couples.43

Temporary wage top-up for low-income essential workers

The federal government is providing $3 billion to increase the wages of low-income essential workers. Examples of essential workers (though variable by province or territory) may include health care professionals, long-term care facility employees and grocery store employees.

Each province or territory is responsible for determining which workers are eligible for this support and how much they will receive.44

Emergency Relief Support Fund for Parents of Children with Special Needs (Province of British Columbia)

To support parents of children with special needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government of British Columbia created a new Emergency Relief Support Fund. The fund will provide a direct payment of $225 per month to eligible families from April to June 2020 (three months).

The payment may be used to purchase supports that help alleviate stress, such as meal preparation and grocery shopping assistance; homemaking services; caregiver relief support and/or counselling services, online or by phone.45

COVID-19 Income Support Program (Province of Prince Edward Island)

In April 2020, the Government of Prince Edward Island announced financial support for individuals whose income has been impacted as a direct result of the public health state of emergency, as well as additional protocols to keep residents safe.

The COVID-19 Income Support Program will help individuals bridge the gap between their loss of income and Employment Insurance (EI) benefits or the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) by providing a one-time, taxable payment of $750.46

Support for Families Initiative (Province of Ontario)

In April 2020, the Government of Ontario announced direct financial support to parents while Ontario schools and child care centres remain closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new Support for Families initiative offers a one-time payment of $200 per child aged 0–12 and $250 for those aged 0–21 with special needs.47

Emergency Allowance for Income Assistance Clients (Northwest Territories)

For Income Assistance clients registered in March 2020, the Government of the Northwest Territories provided a one-time emergency allowance to help with a 14-day supply of food and cleaning products as the stores have them available.

The Income Assistance (IA) program is designed for residents who are aged 19 and older and who have a need greater than their income. The emergency allowance received by individuals was $500 and for families it was $1,000.48

Parenting in Canada: Government Priorities, Policies, Programs and Resources

The Government of Canada and the provincial, territorial and Indigenous governments provide support to parents in Canada in myriad ways. In addition to the supports provided to assist families during the COVID-19 pandemic, as described in the previous section, a selection of current priorities, policies, programs and resources that are current and existed pre-pandemic are highlighted below.

Early Learning and Child Care

Early learning and child care needs across Canada are vast and diverse. The Government of Canada is investing in early learning and child care to ensure children get the best start in life. As a first step, the federal, provincial and territorial Ministers responsible for early learning and child care have agreed to a Multilateral Early Learning and Child Care Framework. The new Framework sets the foundation for governments to work toward a shared long-term vision where all children across Canada can experience the enriching environment of quality early learning and child care. The guiding principles of the Framework are to increase quality, accessibility, affordability, flexibility and inclusivity. A distinct Indigenous Early Learning and Child Care Framework was co-developed with Indigenous partners, reflecting the unique cultures and needs of First Nation, Inuit and Métis children across Canada.49, 50

Before- and After-school Care

Canada’s federal government priorities currently include working with the provinces and territories to invest in the creation of up to 250,000 additional before- and after-school spaces for children under the age of 10, at least 10% of which would allow for care during extended hours. Priorities also include decreasing child care fees for before- and after-school programs by 10%.51

Just for You – Parents

“Just for You – Parents” is a federally created web-based list of resources for parents on topics, including alcohol, smoking and drugs; child abuse; childhood diseases and illnesses; educational resources; family issues; healthy living; mental health; parenting tips (childhood development); school health; and work–life balance. Each topic includes a range of subtopics that direct parents through links to the most up-to-date information available in Canada on issues of importance to them and their children.52

Guaranteed Paid Family Leave Program

In 2019, the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development was tasked to work with the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion to improve and integrate the existing Employment Insurance-based system of maternity and parental benefits and work with the province of Quebec on the effective integration with its own parental benefits system.53

  • Maternity and Parental Benefits Administered through the Employment Insurance (EI) program in Canada (excluding Quebec), maternity and parental benefits include financial support (i.e. income replacement for eligible workers) to new mothers and parents following the birth or adoption of a child. The number of weeks and amount paid to each parent varies depending on the type of benefit, number of weeks and maximum amount payable (as determined by the government).54 In Quebec, the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP) administers the maternity, paternity, parental and adoption benefits. The amount received by parents is also dependent on the type of benefit, number of weeks and maximum amount payable (as determined by the provincial government). In 2019, the average weekly standard parental benefit rate in Canada reached $464.00 per month.55, 56

Modernizing Canada’s Federal Family Laws

On June 21, 2019, Royal Assent was given to amend Canada’s federal family laws related to divorce, parenting and enforcement of family obligations. The first update to family laws in more than 20 years, this initiative will make federal family laws more responsive to the needs of families through changes to the Divorce Act, the Family Orders and Agreements Enforcement Assistance Act, and the Garnishment, Attachment and Pension Diversion Act. The majority of the amendments to the Divorce Act will come into force July 1, 2020, while amendments to the other Acts will take place over two years. The legislation has four key objectives: promote the best interests of the child; address family violence; help to reduce child poverty; and make Canada’s family justice system more accessible and efficient.57

Provincial and Territorial Child Protection Legislation and Policy

The federal, provincial and territorial governments of Canada recognize the importance of surveillance in providing evidence about the contexts, risk factors and types of child maltreatment to inform policy, program, service and awareness interventions. Through their child welfare ministries, the provincial and territorial governments are responsible for assisting children in need of protection; they are also the primary source of administrative data and information related to reported child maltreatment. Preventing and addressing child maltreatment is a complex undertaking that involves the engagement of governments at all levels and in various sectors, including social services, policing, justice and health. At the federal level, the Family Violence Initiative brings together multiple departments to prevent and address family violence, including child maltreatment. The Department of Justice is responsible for the Criminal Code, which includes several forms of child abuse. As the Criminal Code currently stands – which has been debated by advocates and parents alike – section 43 legally allows for the use of corporal punishment on children by select individuals as long as does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.58, 59

Nobody’s Perfect

Introduced nationally in 1987 and currently owned by the Public Health Agency of Canada, Nobody’s Perfect is a facilitated parenting program for parents of children aged 0–5. The program is designed to meet the needs of parents who are young, single, or socially or geographically isolated, or who have low income or limited formal education, and is offered in communities by facilitators to help support parents and young children. It provides parents of young children with a safe place to build on their parenting skills, an opportunity to learn new skills and concepts, and a place to interact with other parents who have children the same age.60

Aboriginal Head Start in Urban and Northern Communities

The Aboriginal Head Start in Urban and Northern Communities (AHSUNC) Program is a national community-based early intervention program funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada. AHSUNC focuses on early childhood development for First Nations, Inuit and Métis children and their families living off-reserve. Since 1995, AHSUNC has provided funding to Indigenous community-based organizations to develop and deliver programs that promote the healthy development of Indigenous preschool children. It supports the spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical development of Indigenous children, while supporting their parents and guardians as their primary teachers.61

Parenting in Canada: Pre-Parenthood to Adolescence62

For expectant parents (or those considering parenthood), the months leading up to the birth or adoption of a child can be exciting and overwhelming. There are many things to prepare for – including the unexpected – in advance of the little one’s arrival. Support in Canada often includes regular and free visits with an obstetrician-gynecologist, a midwife or other registered health care professionals to ensure healthy growth and development. Programs and services are also available in communities across Canada to prepare and plan for parenthood.

  • 2SITLGBQ+ Family Planning Weekend Intensive This two-day program is structured to explore pathways to parenthood and strategies for achieving one’s vision of kinship and family. Participants are encouraged to ask questions, gather information and build community, while exploring topics such as co-parenting, multi-parent and single parent families, pregnancy, kinship struggles and self-advocacy. (LGBTQ+ Parenting Network)
  • Preparing for Parenthood Geared toward parents-to-be, this program offers information about how to remain healthy during pregnancy and what to expect during the early days and weeks of parenthood. (EarlyON Child and Family Centres)
  • Mommies & Mamas 2B/Daddies & Papas 2B This 12-week course is geared toward gay/lesbian, bisexual and queer men/women who are considering parenthood. The course includes resources and discussions to explore practical, emotional, social, ethical, financial, medical, legal, political and intersectional issues related to becoming a parent. Topics explored include co-parenting, surrogacy, parenting arrangements, non-biological and adoptive parenting, fertility awareness, pre-natal care options and legal issues. (LGBTQ+ Parenting Network)

Newborns and Infants

Caring for a newborn or infant comes with many triumphs and challenges. For parents, programs and services are offered across the country, many free of charge, including visits with pediatricians and registered health care professionals. Postnatal care services vary across regions and communities, which may include informational supports, home visits from a public health nurse or a lay home visitor, or telephone-based support (e.g. Telehealth) from a public health nurse or midwife.63 Organizations across the country also offer drop-in programs for parents, grandparents and caregivers to support healthy child development and attachment.

  • Roots of Empathy At the heart of the program are an infant and parent who visit a local classroom every three weeks over the course of the school year. Along with a trained Roots of Empathy Instructor, students observe the baby’s development and feelings. This program provides opportunities for parents and infants to take part in teaching emotional literacy and empathy to children aged 5–12, while strengthening their own bonds to each other. (Roots of Empathy)
  • Parenting My Baby Tailored to new parents to provide opportunities to learn, participate in discussions on various topics related to infancy, child development and parenting, as well as opportunities to meet fellow new parents. (EarlyON Child and Family Centres)
  • Bellies & Babies This drop-in group is geared toward pregnant women and new parents with babies from birth to one year. The group provides individual and peer support for pregnant women and postnatal mothers and provides resources and support to new parents. Resources include topics such as the importance of early secure attachment, nutrition, breastfeeding, mental health, infant development and parenting. (Sunshine Coast Community Services Society)
  • Young Parents Connect This informal support group is geared toward parents and parents-to-be under the age of 26. It provides an opportunity to meet other young parents, ask questions and share concerns. Each session also includes a fun, interactive activity for children and parents together. (EarlyON Child and Family Centres)

Toddlers and Preschoolers

Programs for toddlers and preschoolers include a variety of activities to engage both children and their parents to support healthy child development and parent–child attachment. Programs may include drop-in activities, such as those offered by the Boys and Girls Club of Canada or through municipal recreation centres. The drop-in program – offering dancing, story time, arts and crafts and much more – provides opportunities for parents, caregivers and grandparents to take part in learning activities to create, explore and play. Drop-ins welcome moms, dads, grandparents and caregivers, while also providing opportunities to meet and connect with others within the community.

  • Parenting Skills 0–5 This online parenting class is designed for families experiencing challenges, providing parents with a foundational understanding to raise their children during the first five years. Topics in this class include child development and personality, discipline, sleep and nutrition. Parenting skills classes are also available for parents with children aged 5–13 and 13–18. (BC Council for Families)
  • Fathering Tailored to fathers, including new dads, those experiencing separation or divorce, teen dads and Indigenous dads, this series of resources provides information on how to navigate the various stages of childhood while providing practical tips in support of both fathers and their children. (BC Council for Families)
  • Dad HERO (Helping Everyone Realize Opportunities) This project consists of an 8-week parenting course (offered in select correctional institutions in Canada) and a Dad Group both inside the facility for incarcerated fathers and in the community for fathers who were previously incarcerated. This project was designed to educate and teach fathers about parenting, child development and growth, and their role in their children’s lives. Dad HERO provides parenting education and support connecting fathers with their children and improve their mental health and well-being. (Canadian Families and Corrections Network)

School-Aged Children

As children begin and progress through the formal education system in Canada, they encounter various people (i.e. peers, educators) and influences (i.e. social media). Programs and services for parents of school-aged children provide practical tips, informative resources and opportunities to meet and engage with fellow parents in their communities.

  • Parenting School-Age and Adult Children This resource was created to support newcomer parenting programs and address some of the challenges that newcomer parents and caregivers may have with parenting in Canadian society. The goal of the program is to gain effective communication skills, better understand the Canadian school systems and create a safe space for parents and caregivers to address their questions and concerns relating to children integrating into the wider Canadian society and culture. (CMAS)
  • Positive Discipline in Everyday Parenting This workshop series promotes non-violent discipline and respects the child as a learner. It is an approach to teaching that helps children succeed, gives them information and supports their growth from infancy to adulthood. (EarlyON Child and Family Centres)
  • Newcomer Parent Resource Series Available in 16 languages (e.g. Urdu, Arabic and Russian), this resource series explores various topics of interest tailored to meet the unique needs of immigrant and refugee parents of young children. Topics include Keeping Your Home Language, Guiding Your Child’s Behaviour, Helping Your Child Cope with Stress, Children Learn Through Play, and Listening to and Talking with Your Child. (CMAS)
  • Parenting after Separation: Meeting the Challenges This six-week program is geared toward parents who have recently experienced separation from their partner. Parents meet once a week to discuss the challenge associated with parental separation and divorce and learn practical strategies to support their children. (Family Service Toronto)
  • Foster Parent Support This program provides direct, outreach-oriented support to foster parents/caregivers and the children/youth in their care. Support workers work directly with the family in their home, in the community or via phone. This program is intended to be flexible in meeting the unique needs of each foster family and can offer a variety of supports, including teaching conflict resolution skills, de-escalation techniques, collaborative problem solving and using strength-based and trauma-informed approaches. (Boys and Girls Club of Canada)


Parenting a teen can be challenge, especially in the rapidly evolving era of technology. Adolescence can also be a difficult time for teens who may be questioning their identity, their purpose and envisioning their goals for the future. Programs for parents of teens recognize the importance of supporting children through adolescence as they transition into adulthood.

  • Parents Together This is an ongoing professionally facilitated education and group support program for parents who are experiencing challenges while parenting a teen. This program helps parents address their feelings (e.g. guilty, isolation) and provides opportunities to develop new skills and knowledge that can help decrease conflict in the home between parents and their teen. (Boys and Girls Club of Canada)
  • Transceptance This is an ongoing monthly peer support group for parents and caregivers of transgender youth and young adults. The support provides support and education, reduces isolation and stress, and shares information, including strategies for dealing or coping with disclosures. (Central Toronto Youth Services)
  • Parenting in the Know This 10-week education and support program to learn more about adolescent development, teen mental health and other common issues that parents experience. Local guest speakers, community resources, practical ideas and connections with others experiencing similar issues help parents feel better equipped to parent their teen. (Boys and Girls Club of Canada)
  • Families in TRANSition (FIT) This 10-week program is geared toward parents/caregivers of trans- and gender-questioning youth (aged 13–21) who have recently learned of their child’s gender identity. The program provides support to parents/caregivers to gain tools and knowledge to help improve communication and strengthen their relationship with their youth; learn about social, legal and physical transition options; strengthen skills for managing strong emotions; explore societal/cultural/religious beliefs that impact trans youth and their families; build skills to support their youth and family when facing discrimination, transphobia and/or transmisogyny; and promote youth mental health and resilience. (Central Toronto Youth Services)

Looking Ahead

Families are the most adaptive institution in the world. They are resilient, diverse and strong.

As countries around the world begin to focus on the post-pandemic future, families and family experiences will continue to evolve and adapt. Parents may return to work outside the home, when children return to school and child care, and many will continue to work remotely. Some extracurricular activities will return, while classes like martial arts may continue to be delivered online.

While predicting the future has never been easy, the impact and realities of the global pandemic on families is not yet known, and programs and services may require adjustments in order to support the physical, mental, emotional and social well-being of parents and their children through a trauma-informed lens. Though many families may have been safe at home, some experienced an increase in violence, stress, isolation and anxiety.

Policy and program development, benefits, resources, supports and services will require a comprehensive understanding of families in Canada, their experiences and aspirations; thoughts and fears; and hopes and dreams during this period in time which has evolved and may forecast what lies ahead. The research and innovation behind the many initiatives, including those included in this paper, will help guide evidence-informed decisions; the development, design and implementation of evidence-based programs, policies and practices; and evidence-inspired innovation at all levels of government, community organizations, workplaces and faith communities to ensure families in Canada thrive now and into the future.

Nora Spinks is CEO at the Vanier Institute of the Family.

Sara MacNaull is Program Director at the Vanier Institute ofthe Family.

Jennifer Kaddatz is a senior analyst at the Vanier Institute of the Family.

Published on June 23, 2020


This report was originally published on June 23, 2020 on the UN Department of Economic and Social affairs (UN DESA) website as part of the Expert Group Meeting on Families in Development: Focus on Modalities for IYF+30, Parenting Education and the Impact of COVID-19. This event was organized by the Division for Inclusive Social Development (DISD) of UNDESA to convene diverse experts from around the world virtually to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on families, assess progress and emerging issues related to parenting and education, and plan for upcoming observances of the 30th anniversary of the International Year of the Family (IYF).

Appendix A: Organizational and Program Overview

Founded in 1977, the BC Council for Families (BCCF) has been developing and delivering family support resources and training programs to professionals across the province of British Columbia as a way to share knowledge and build community connections. The BCCF offers online classes, resources and programs to support parents and children from infancy to adulthood.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada offer educational, recreational and skills development programs and services to children and youth in communities across Canada. The Clubs strive to provide safe, supportive places where children and youth can experience new opportunities, overcome barriers, build positive relationships and develop confidence and skills for life. Many Clubs also offer programs and services to parents to support child development and attachment.


Founded in 1992, Canadian Families and Corrections Network (CFCN) aims to build stronger and safer communities by assisting families affected by criminal behaviour, incarceration and reintegration. Their work includes developing resources for children, parents and families to understand the correctional system and process in Canada and to support families as they manage the experience of having a loved one incarcerated.


The Central Toronto Youth Services (CTYS) is a community-based, accredited Children’s Mental Health Centre that serves many of Toronto’s most vulnerable youth. Their programs and services meet a diversity of needs and challenges that young people experience, such as serious mental health issues; conflicts with the law; coping with anger, depression, anxiety, marginalization or rejection; and issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.


Founded in 2000, CMAS focuses on caring for immigrant and refugee children by sharing their expertise with immigrant serving organizations and other organizations in the child care field. They currently identify gaps in service and work to create solutions; establish and measure the standards of care; and support services for newcomer families through resources, training and consultations.


EarlyON Child and Family Centres provide opportunities for children from birth to age 6 to participate in play and inquiry-based programs, and support parents and caregivers in their roles. The goal of the EarlyON is to enhance the quality and consistency of child and family programs across Ontario.


For more than 100 years, Family Service Toronto has been supporting individuals and families through counselling, community development, advocacy and public education programs. This includes direct service work of intervention and prevention such as counselling, peer support and education; knowledge building and exchanging activities; and system-level work, including social action, advocacy, community building and working with partners to strengthen the sector.


Founded in 2001 and housed at the Sherbourne Health Centre (in Toronto, Ontario), the LGBTQ+ Parenting Network supports lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer parenting through resource development, training and community organizing. The Network coordinates a wide range of programs and activities with and on behalf of LGBTQ parents, prospective parents and their families, including newsletters, print resources, support groups, social events, research projects, advocacy and training.


For more than 30 years, Roots of Empathy has strived to build caring, peaceful and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults. The goals of Roots of Empathy are to foster the development of empathy; develop emotional literacy; reduce levels of bullying, aggression and violence; promote children’s pro-social behaviours; increase knowledge of human development, learning and infant safety; and prepare students for responsible citizenship and responsive parenting.


Since 1974, Sunshine Coast Community Services Society (SCCSS) has provided services for individuals and families along the Sunshine Coast (British Columbia). Programs are focused around child and family counselling; child development and youth services; community action and engagement; domestic violence; and housing.


  1. GBA+ is an analytical process used to assess how diverse groups of women, men and non-binary people may experience policies, programs and initiatives. The “plus” in GBA+ acknowledges that GBA goes beyond biological (sex) and socio-cultural (gender) differences. We all have multiple identity factors that intersect to make us who we are; GBA+ also considers many other identity factors, such as race, ethnicity, religion, age, and mental or physical disability. Link: https://cfc-swc.gc.ca/gba-acs/index-en.html
  2. Government of Canada. “Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19): Outbreak Update” (May 31, 2020). Link: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/2019-novel-coronavirus-infection.html
  3. Marc Montgomery, “COVID-19 Deaths: Calls for Government to Take Control of Long Term Care Homes,” Radio-Canada International (May 25, 2020). Link: https://www.rcinet.ca/en/2020/05/25/covid-19-deaths-calls-for-government-to-take-control-of-long-term-care-homes/
  4. A survey by Leger, the Association for Canadian Studies and the Vanier Institute of the Family, conducted weekly starting in March (beginning March 10–12), through April and May 2020, included approximately 1,500 individuals aged 18 and older, interviewed using computer-assisted web-interviewing technology in a web-based survey. Some weekly surveys included booster samples of specific populations. Using data from the 2016 Census, results were weighted according to gender, age, mother tongue, region, education level and presence of children in the household in order to ensure a representative sample of the population. No margin of error can be associated with a non-probability sample (web panel in this case). However, for comparative purposes, a probability sample of 1,512 respondents would have a margin of error of ±2.52%, 19 times out of 20.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Statistics Canada. “Canadian Perspectives Survey Series 1: Impacts of COVID-19,” The Daily (April 8, 2020). Link: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200408/dq200408c-eng.htm
  10. Ibid.
  11. Though data varies, reports have claimed that consultations by the federal government reveal a 20% to 30% increase in violence rates in certain regions which is supported by organizations such as Vancouver’s Battered Women Support Services that has reported a 300% increase in calls related to family violence during the pandemic. Links: ,
  12. Survey by Leger, the Association for Canadian Studies and the Vanier Institute of the Family.
  13. Statistics Canada. “Canadians’ Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic” (May 27, 2020). Link: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200527/dq200527b-eng.htm
  14. Ibid.
  15. Survey by Leger, the Association for Canadian Studies and the Vanier Institute of the Family.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Canada’s healthcare system is publicly funded, which means that all Canadian residents have reasonable access to medically necessary hospital and physician services without paying out-of-pocket. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/canada-health-care-system.html
  20. Survey by Leger, the Association for Canadian Studies and the Vanier Institute of the Family.
  21. Angus Reid Institute. “Worry, Gratitude & Boredom: As COVID‑19 Affects Mental, Financial Health, Who Fares Better; Who Is Worse?” (April 27, 2020). Link: http://angusreid.org/covid19-mental-health/
  22. Survey by Leger, the Association for Canadian Studies and the Vanier Institute of the Family.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Statistics Canada, “Canadian Perspectives Survey Series 1: Impacts of COVID-19.”
  25. Beatrice Britneff, “Food Banks’ Demand Surges Amid COVID-19. Now They Worry About Long-Term Pressures,” Global News (April 15, 2020). Link: .
  26. On October 17, 2018, the use of cannabis for recreation and medicinal purposes among adults became legal in Canada. https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/cj-jp/cannabis/
  27. Michelle Rotermann, “Canadians Who Report Lower Self-Perceived Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic More Likely to Report Increased Use of Cannabis, Alcohol and Tobacco,” StatCan COVID-19: Data to Insights for a Better Canada (May 7, 2020). Link: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/45-28-0001/2020001/article/00008-eng.htm.
  28. The Association for Canadian Studies’ COVID-19 Social Impacts Network, in partnership with Experiences Canada and the Vanier Institute of the Family, conducted a nation-wide COVID-19 web survey of the 12- to 17-year-old population in Canada from April 29 to May 5. A total of 1191 responses were received, and the probabilistic margin of error was ±3%. Link: https://acs-aec.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Youth-Survey-Highlights-May-21-2020.pdf
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Angus Reid Institute. “Kids & COVID-19: Canadian Children Are Done with School from Home, Fear Falling Behind, and Miss Their Friends” (May 11, 2020). Link: http://angusreid.org/covid19-kids-opening-schools/
  32. Ibid.
  33. The Association for Canadian Studies’ COVID-19 Social Impacts Network.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Canada Revenue Agency. “Canada Child Benefit” (April 8, 2020). Link: https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/child-family-benefits/canada-child-benefit-overview.html
  37. Government of Canada. “Canada’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan” (May 28, 2020). Link: https://www.canada.ca/en/department-finance/economic-response-plan.html
  38. Government of Canada. “Canada Child Benefit: How Much You Can Get” (January 27, 2020). Link: https://www.canada.ca
  39. Government of Canada. “Expanding Access to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and Proposing a New Wage Boost for Essential Workers” (April 17, 2020). Link: https://www.canada.ca/en/department-finance/news/2020/04/expanding-access-to-the-canada-emergency-response-benefit-and-proposing-a-new-wage-boost-for-essential-workers.html.
  40. Catherine Cullen and Kristen Everson, “Canadians Who Don’t Qualify for CERB Are Getting It Anyway – And Could Face Consequences,” CBC News (May 2, 2020). Link: https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/cerb-covid-pandemic-coronavirus-1.5552436
  41. Government of Canada. “Canada’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan.”
  42. Government of Canada. “GST/HST Credit – Overview” (May 28, 2020). Link: https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/child-family-benefits/goods-services-tax-harmonized-sales-tax-gst-hst-credit.html
  43. Government of Canada. “Canada’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan.”
  44. Ibid.
  45. Province of British Columbia. “Province Provides Emergency Fund for Children with Special Needs” (April 8, 2020). Link: https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2020CFD0043-000650
  46. Government of Prince Edward Island. “Province Announces Additional Income Relief, Stricter Screening Measures for Travelers” (April 1, 2020). Link: https://www.princeedwardisland.ca/en/news/province-announces-additional-income-relief-stricter-screening-measures-travelers
  47. Government of Ontario. “Ontario Government Supports Families in Response to COVID-19” (April 6, 2020). Link: https://news.ontario.ca/opo/en/2020/04/ontario-government-supports-families-in-response-to-covid-19.html
  48. Government of Northwest Territories. “Backgrounder and FAQs | Income Security Programs” (n.d.). Link: https://www.gov.nt.ca/sites/flagship/files/documents/back_grounder_faq_income_assistance_measures_en.pdf
  49. Employment and Social Development Canada. “Early Learning and Child Care” (August 16, 2019). Link: https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/programs/early-learning-child-care.html
  50. Government of Canada. “Indigenous Early Learning and Child Care Framework” (September 17, 2018). Link: https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/programs/indigenous-early-learning/2018-framework.html
  51. Government of Canada. “Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Mandate Letter” (December 13, 2019). Link: https://pm.gc.ca/en/mandate-letters/2019/12/13/minister-families-children-and-social-development-mandate-letter
  52. Government of Canada. “Just for You – Parents” (April 20, 2020). Link: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/healthy-living/just-for-you/parents.html
  53. Liberal Party of Canada. “Choose Forward: More Time and Money to Help Families Raise Their Kids.”
  54. Financial Consumer Agency of Canada. “Maternity and parental leave benefits” (August 17, 2017). Link: https://www.canada.ca/en/financial-consumer-agency/services/starting-family/maternity-parental-leave-benefits.html
  55. Government of Québec. “Québec Parental Insurance Plan: What Types of Benefits Are Available to Me?” (May 30, 2017).
  56. Government of Canada. Employment Insurance Monitoring and Assessment Report for the Fiscal Year Beginning April 1, 2017 and Ending March 31, 2018 (June 1, 2019). Link: https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/programs/ei/ei-list/reports/monitoring2018.html
  57. Department of Justice. “Strengthening and Modernizing Canada’s Family Justice System” (August 29, 2019). Link: https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/fl-df/cfl-mdf/01.html
  58. Government of Canada. Provincial and Territorial Child Protection Legislation and Policy – 2018 (May 13, 2019). Link: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/publications/health-risks-safety/provincial-territorial-child-protection-legislation-policy-2018.html#2
  59. Kathy Lynn, “The Canadian Debate on Spanking and Violence Against Children,” The Vanier Institute of the Family (November 15, 2016).
  60. Nobody’s Perfect. Parent Information (n.d.). Link: http://nobodysperfect.ca/parents/parent-information/
  61. Public Health Agency of Canada. “Aboriginal Head Start in Urban and Northern Communities (AHSUNC)” (October 23, 2017). Link: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/health-promotion/childhood-adolescence/programs-initiatives/aboriginal-head-start-urban-northern-communities-ahsunc.html
  62. Additional information about the organizations mentioned in this section that deliver programs or services to parents can be found in Appendix A.
  63. The Vanier Institute of the Family. “In Context: Understanding Maternity Care in Canada” (May 11, 2017).


Families in Canada Conference 2019–2020 Updated Report Now Available!

(March 20, 2020) Over the past year, the Vanier Institute of the Family hosted the Families in Canada Conference 2019–2020 – a national, pan-Canadian conference and regional satellite events co-hosted by university partners across Canada. These events provided delegates with opportunities to enhance family research capacity and leverage the momentum of existing projects and initiatives under way in Canada. Participants gathered to connect with others who study, serve and support families to form robust knowledge and resource networks, and to collaborate and share interdisciplinary research and cross-cultural/cross-sectoral insights on families in Canada.

In August 2019, the Vanier Institute published a report for the Families in Canada Conference, featuring recaps of these exciting and catalytic events. Now, following additional asynchronous satellite events held in late 2019 and early 2020, we’re releasing the final, updated Families in Canada Conference 2019–2020: Conference Report.

Available below, the conference report provides an inspiring and visually engaging overview of this exciting series of events, which includes photos taken in Ottawa and the satellite events, feedback highlights from delegates and stakeholders, and new content about the two asynchronous satellite events held at the University of Calgary and Concordia University.


Published on March 20, 2020

Report: Symposium on Women and the Workplace

In May 2019, the Vanier Institute of the Family participated in a two-day symposium hosted by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, where 240 leaders and champions of workplace gender equality and diversity from across Canada shared and discussed leading practices to inspire and advance women’s participation in the workplace.

A report based on these catalytic conversations is now available, and it provides strategies and resources employers can use to advance women’s participation in the workplace with a focus on three key components to advancing workplace gender equality and diversity in Canada:

  • Increasing awareness about gender equality and challenging widespread myths
  • Changing structures instead of people
  • Adopting an intersectional approach to gender equality in the workplace

Women and the workplace – How employers can advance equality and diversity – Report from the Symposium on Women and the Workplace is now available on the ESDC website (also available in PDF format).


The Impact of Post-Traumatic Stress on Canadian Armed Forces, First Responders and Their Families

Supporting Families of Serving and Retired Members of the Canadian Armed Forces and First Responders Living with Post-Traumatic Stress is a report based on a roundtable convened by Medavie between Wounded Warriors Canada, the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Vanier Institute of the Family that took place in February 2019. The report explores the challenges faced by families impacted by post-traumatic stress (PTS) experienced by first responders and serving or retired members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Though there is a growing awareness of the risk of PTS and the potential of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), families often lack the support they need to both help their loved one and address the impact on their own health and their daily lives.

While PTSD is most often used in public discussion, categorizing it as a disorder means it is a clinically diagnosed condition. During the roundtable, and subsequently throughout this report, the concept of PTS is the focus, as it includes those who experience symptoms but may not have a formal diagnosis.

Families are often the first source of support an individual living with PTS will turn to and they can play a key role in ensuring their loved one receives care. Family members who may feel the impact of PTS on their lives include adult children, parents, siblings and spouses. They may need to adjust, adapt and respond to expanding and/or evolving roles at home and/or changing behaviours, moods and attitudes exhibited by their loved one. Individuals and families need tools to help them communicate their experiences, emotions and feelings with each other to address the impact that PTS is having on their lives.

Access to resources for mental health support across military and first responder communities varies, with more funding for programs aimed solely at the individual experiencing PTS. CAF has been developing nationally accessible programs for serving and retired members and, to an increasing degree, their families.

Download the report Supporting Families of Serving and Retired Members of the Canadian Armed Forces and First Responders Living with Post-Traumatic Stress

Download the media release


Published on August 27, 2019

What Does the Term “Military Family” Mean?

Download What Does the Term “Military Family” Mean? A Comparison Across Four Countries (PDF)

Defining “family” is important for family research and the provision of services, benefits and programs to Canadians and their loved ones. The same is true for military families, who have unique experiences that warrant focused attention from policy-makers and health officials, such as a higher degree of family mobility, separation and risk.1

In recent years, there has been significant growth in the body of research on military families – facilitated by organizations such as the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR) – that reveals significant variation between countries in how they determine who is included in their definition. This can have a significant impact on our understanding of military families, since the definitions used in research (and therefore the nature and subject of the research itself) often vary. It can also have a direct impact on these families, since definitions can control access to services and benefits through eligibility criteria.

Research shows that families play a crucial role in supporting the health and well-being of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel and, in turn, their contributions support CAF operational readiness – realities that have been highlighted by the National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman.2 However, definitions of “military family” used in international research vary, and much of the Canadian research adheres to “traditional” ideals of family structure despite the evolution and increasing diversification of families over the years.3

In 2017, the Vanier Institute of the Family partnered with CIMVHR and a variety of researchers from Canada and abroad to compare the different definitions of “military family” being used by researchers and policy-makers in other allied countries (United Kingdom, United States, Australia and Canada). The resulting report, What Does the Term “Military Family” Mean? A Comparison Across Four Countries, explores the impact of these definitions on research and access to services.

Download What Does the Term “Military Family” Mean? A Comparison Across Four Countries (PDF)

Published on August 1, 2018



  1. Learn more in A Snapshot of Military and Veteran Families in Canada. Link: .
  2. National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman, On the Homefront: Assessing the Well-being of Canada’s Military Families in the New Millennium (November 2013). Link: .
  3. Learn more in A Snapshot of Family Diversity in Canada. Link: .

Family Perspectives: Death and Dying in Canada

Death is a natural part of life, but many Canadians are hesitant to have essential conversations about the end of their lives. The Vanier Institute of the Family seeks to change this with the publication of, a conversation catalyst intended to spark dialogue in households, workplaces and communities across the country by exploring death and dying through a family lens.

Family Perspectives: Death and Dying in Canada examines the evolution of death and dying in Canada across generations, the desires and realities of families surrounding death and dying, the role of families in end-of-life care and its impact on well-being. Through current data and trend analysis, interviews with caregivers and families, and reflections on hospice volunteering from author Dr. Katherine Arnup, this study discusses death and dying within the current and emerging social, cultural and policy landscapes.


– Hospice palliative care can play an important role in helping dying people and their families, yet most Canadians don’t receive any.

  • Palliative care benefits up to 85% of dying people at the end of their lives.
  • An estimated 16% to 30% of Canadians receive some form of palliative care, depending upon where they live.
  • Three-quarters (74%) of surveyed Canadians report having thought about end-of-life care, but only one-third (34%) have actually had a conversation with a family member. 

– Medical assistance in dying (MAID) is having an impact on the conversation on death and dying in Canada. 

  • Since June 2016, more than 2,600 people across Canada have obtained medical assistance in dying.
  • More than one in eight seniors in Canada (12%) say they or a family member have talked to a health care provider about access to MAID.

– Death is becoming less taboo in Canada, thanks to care providers and community initiatives. 

  • Hospice staff and volunteers, death doulas and other end-of-life practitioners are providing diverse forms of support to many families in Canada, including facilitating advance care planning and discussions about end-of-life care, coordinating care and providing grief support.
  • “Death Cafés” are helping people across Canada to gather and discuss their thoughts about death and dying.

“While many people are hesitant to talk about death and dying with their families and health care providers, some of the silence surrounding death and dying in Canada has been broken – a step in the right direction,” says Dr. Arnup. “Talking about death with family, planning for what we hope for and supporting others can help us to see that death is a natural part of life that is not inherently undignified, and to appreciate the present, thereby enriching our lives.”

“Birth and death are among the few universal family experiences,” says Vanier Institute CEO Nora Spinks. “Many Canadians and their families are hesitant to discuss death despite the importance of these conversations in providing and arranging for the care of loved ones at the end of life. It is our hope that Family Perspectives: Death and Dying in Canada helps to move the conversation forward as we recognize and celebrate National Hospice Palliative Care Week.”



Published on May 7, 2018


In Context: Understanding Maternity Care in Canada

If it takes a village to raise a child, it certainly takes one to bring a child into this world. New and expectant mothers receive care from many people throughout the perinatal period, and the networks and relationships that support them can play a major role in ensuring the health and well-being of new mothers and their newborns.

Childbirth is a milestone, an exciting time when the family grows and a new generation begins. It’s also a period of significant child development – a time of great vulnerability but also of great opportunity to benefit from healthy nurturing.

The experience of pregnancy, childbirth and postnatal care continues to evolve through the generations. Rates of maternal mortality (women dying as a result of pregnancy and childbirth), maternal morbidity (women developing complications as a result of childbirth) and infant mortality all saw significant declines throughout the 20th century following medical advances and improvements in maternal care, nutrition and general living standards.

Maternal and Infant Mortality in Canada

Maternal mortality dropped from 508 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1931 to 7 per 100,000 in 2015.

Infant mortality rates fell from an average of 76 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1931–1935 to 4.9 per 1,000 in 2013.

In the 1800s to the mid-1900s, maternity care in Canada typically took place in the local community and birth occurred in the home, with families and midwives routinely providing care to new and expectant mothers. However, with the development of medicare throughout the 20th century, births and maternity care gradually moved into hospitals and medical clinics, with care being delivered primarily by medical professionals such as doctors and obstetricians – a trend sometimes referred to as the “medicalization of childbirth.”

By the early 1980s, the vast majority of births occurred in regional hospitals, where family physicians or obstetricians were present and assisted by obstetrical nurses. Partners and other family members became largely left out of the childbirth process, often relegated to waiting rooms. Following birth, babies were placed in nurseries, separated from their mothers – a situation that was sometimes traumatic for mothers and their newborns.

Hospitals eventually started allowing the rooming in of mother and baby to facilitate mother–infant attachment and support breastfeeding for the health and well-being of both. During the rooming-in period, nurses would provide new mothers with information for the recovery period, such as instruction about breastfeeding and postnatal care. Throughout this transition in postnatal care practices, the length of time women spent in hospital after having a baby decreased significantly, from an average of nearly five days in 1984–1985 to 1–2 days after vaginal delivery today.

Today, partners are more involved in the birthing process and the perinatal period generally than in the past. Most are present for births, taking on a greater role in these first moments of their children’s lives and in the child rearing in the years that follow. It is more common for couples today to conceptualize childbirth as a shared experience, and many people use language that reflects this trend (“We’re expecting,” etc.).


What is maternity care?

Maternity/perinatal care (hereafter referred to as maternity care) is an umbrella term encompassing a continuum of care provided to the mother and child before, during and after birth. This includes prenatal/antenatal care (care during pregnancy), intranatal care (care during labour and delivery) and postnatal/postpartum care (care for the mother and newborn following birth). Since both mothers and infants undergo major changes throughout the perinatal period, maternity care entails a diverse range of health monitoring and care.

Prenatal/antenatal care (hereafter referred to as prenatal care) monitors and supports the health and well-being of mothers and the developing fetus prior to birth. Fetal health is monitored through screening and diagnostics, such as ultrasounds and blood tests. Health providers also closely track the mother’s health during this period; expectant mothers are provided with information about pregnancy, fetal development, physical comfort, testing, planning for delivery and preparing for parenthood.

Most women (87%) say they were supported by a partner, family or friends throughout the prenatal period.

According to the 2009 Canadian Maternity Experiences Survey, most women (87%) say they were supported by a partner, family or friends throughout the prenatal period. This support, as well as the care provided by health practitioners, can be particularly important during this time when many (57%) women report most days as being stressful. During pregnancy, maternal stress can have an impact on the well-being of the baby, leading to premature birth and/or low birth weight.

Nearly all expectant mothers (95%) report that they started prenatal care in their first trimester. Certain groups were more likely than others to report that they did not start prenatal care in the first trimester, however, such as women aged 15–19 years, those with less than high school education or those who live in low-income households. One of the main reasons cited for not starting care early in the pregnancy was lack of access to a doctor or health care provider.

Intranatal/intrapartum care (hereafter referred to as intranatal care) refers to the care and assistance provided to mothers during labour and childbirth. This involves facilitating the delivery itself in a safe and hygienic manner as well as monitoring the health of mother and child throughout the delivery process. This care is most often provided in hospitals, with mothers receiving care from a variety of health practitioners including obstetricians/gynecologists (reported as the main health care provider during labour and birth by 70% of surveyed mothers), family doctors (15%), nurses or nurse practitioners (5%) or midwives (4%).

Whether provided by a spouse, partner, friend, family member, midwife or doula (or some combination thereof), emotional support during this time is important. Research shows that women who receive continuous social support are more likely to have a shorter labour (i.e. fewer hours) and a vaginal birth, are more likely to report feeling happy with their labour and birth experience and are less likely to use pain medication.

Research shows that women who receive continuous social support are more likely to have a shorter labour and a vaginal birth, and are more likely to report feeling happy with their labour and birth experience.

Postnatal/postpartum care (hereafter referred to as postnatal care) supports mothers and newborns following childbirth, and involves health monitoring and routine assessments to identify any deviation from expected recovery following birth, and to intervene, if necessary.

The postnatal period accounts for the first six weeks of a child’s life – a “critical phase” in which examinations and care from health practitioners play an important role in ensuring the well-being of the mother and child, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

In their 2013 postnatal care guidelines, WHO outlines best practices including postnatal care in the first 24 hours to all mothers and babies (regardless of where the birth occurs), ensuring that healthy women and their newborns stay at a health facility at least 24 hours and are not discharged early, and have at least four postnatal checkups in the first 6 weeks following childbirth.

According to the Maternity Experiences Survey, more than 7 in 10 women (73%) rated their health as “excellent” or “very good” by 5 to 14 months postpartum. However, more than 4 in 10 women in Canada (43%) said they experienced a “great deal” of problems with at least one postpartum health issue during the first three months following childbirth, such as breast pain (16% of women), pain in the vaginal area or in the area of the caesarean incision (15%) and back pain (12%).

Postnatal support can be important in mitigating postpartum depression, which is reported by 10%–15% of mothers in developed countries. Research has shown that maternal stress during pregnancy, the availability of social support and a prior diagnosis of depression are all significantly associated with developing postpartum depression. Studies have also shown that emotional support from partners and other family members throughout the perinatal period can reduce the likelihood for postpartum depression and emotional distress for mothers and newborns.

Postnatal care services vary across regions and communities in Canada. These can include informational supports, home visits from a public health nurse or a lay home visitor, or telephone-based support from a public health nurse or midwife.

Privately delivered postnatal services have become more prevalent over the past several decades, with postpartum doulas advertising high-intensity supports such as newborn care, breast- and bottle-feeding support, child-minding services, meal preparation, household chores and more. However, these private services often involve out-of-pocket costs that can limit accessibility for some families.


Who provides maternity care?

In addition to the care and support provided by family members and friends, modern maternity care is delivered by a range of health practitioners including family physicians, obstetricians/gynecologists, nurses, nurse practitioners, midwives and birth doulas – all of whom make unique contributions in the continuum of care.

Family physicians provide care to most new mothers throughout the perinatal period and can be involved in all stages of maternity and infant care, though not all provide the full range of care. Fewer physicians across Canada are providing maternity care than in previous decades: the share of family physicians in Canada delivering babies declined from 20% in 1997 to 10.5% in 2010. Today, a growing number of care tasks and responsibilities are being delivered by other medical practitioners, such as obstetricians and midwives.

Most family physicians who report being involved in maternity and newborn care provide “shared care,” offering prenatal care to a certain point (often between 24 and 32 weeks), after which they transfer care to another provider (e.g. obstetricians, midwives or another family physician who delivers babies). Some attend deliveries, but rates vary widely between provinces and the availability of other health providers.

Obstetricians and gynecologists (OB/GYNs) are providing a growing amount of intranatal care in Canada – though not all do so, and rates vary across the provinces. With specialized knowledge and expertise in pregnancy, childbirth and female sexual and reproductive health care (including surgical training, such as caesarian sections), many also serve as consultants to other physicians and are involved in high-risk pregnancies.

Nurses constitute the largest group of maternity care providers in Canada. They can be involved throughout the entire perinatal period, providing a range of care services including childbirth education, pre-birth home care services to women in high-risk situations, assistance during childbirth and sometimes follow-up care to new mothers. Following childbirth, nurses often provide information to new mothers while preparing them for discharge, educating them about topics such as breastfeeding, bathing, jaundice, safe sleep, postpartum mental health, nutrition and more.

Nurse practitioners (NPs) are registered nurses who play a wide variety of roles in health care. They sometimes serve as primary care providers for low-risk pregnancies, performing a variety of tasks such as physical examinations, screening and diagnostic tests, and postnatal care. When providing or facilitating maternity care, NPs often work in interdisciplinary teams with other health professionals such as physicians and midwives. In hospital settings, they also work in labour and delivery units, postpartum units, neonatal intensive care units and outpatient clinics. Due to the breadth of their training and expertise, NPs play important roles in rural and remote communities, where many provide a full range of health care services.

Due to the breadth of their training and expertise, nurse practitioners play important roles in rural and remote communities, where many provide a full range of health care services.

Midwives provide primary care to expectant and new mothers throughout the entire perinatal period, and are playing a growing role in modern maternity care in Canada. They provide a range of care services, including ordering and receiving tests, accompanying women at home or in birthing centres, admitting women for hospital births, as well as assisting with breastfeeding, the early days of parenting and monitoring postpartum healing. Midwives work collaboratively, consulting with, or referring to, other medical professionals when appropriate.

The role of midwives has evolved over the past several decades, with a growing number assisting in all settings where care may be needed – at home, in the community and in hospitals, clinics or health units. There has been increasing emphasis on specialization and training, as midwives have become recognized by and incorporated into most (but not all) provincial/territorial health care systems across the country.

Doulas provide non-clinical/medical support, working with new mothers and their families as well as health care practitioners such as physicians, midwives and nurses. Doulas are not regulated; they focus largely on emotional and informational support, and they do not provide direct health care or deliver babies.

There are different types of doulas for different stages in the childbirth process. Antepartum doulas provide emotional, physical and informational support during the prenatal period. This can include informing new mothers and their families about support groups, techniques for enhancing physical comfort and helping with home care tasks such as errands and meal preparation. Birth doulas support new mothers and their partners during labour and delivery, including emotional and informational assistance and supporting physical comfort. Postpartum doulas support new mothers after the baby is born, providing information about topics such as infant feeding and soothing techniques, and sometimes helping with light housework and childcare.

Perinatologists provide care in the event of high-risk pregnancies (e.g. pregnancy in the context of chronic maternal health conditions, multiple births or genetic diagnoses). They are trained as OB/GYNs and then receive specialized education to facilitate complicated pregnancies. OB/GYNs refer patients to perinatologists when needed, but continue to work collaboratively to support maternal health.


Unique experiences: childbirth in rural and remote areas in Canada

Maternity care in rural and remote areas (including Canada’s northern regions) faces unique challenges due to distances from medical facilities and specialized equipment, less peer support for care providers, as well as a limited number of physicians available for on-call services, and fewer caesarean section and anaesthesia capabilities/services compared with urban centres.

Rural maternity care is most often provided by teams of family physicians, nurses and midwives – in fact, in some communities, they’re the only health practitioners providing maternity care. Rural family physicians are far more likely to provide obstetrical care than their urban counterparts, though over the past several decades, many rural communities have seen a reduction in the number of family physicians providing maternity care and closures of maternity wards.

Due to the limited availability of maternity care providers and services in rural and remote regions, many expectant mothers travel to urban centres to give birth. According to a 2013 report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, more than two-thirds of rural women in Canada (67%) report that they gave birth in urban hospitals, 17% of whom travelled more than two hours to deliver their babies. Rates are far higher in the North: two-thirds of surveyed mothers in Nunavut and half of those in the Northwest Territories report that they gave birth away from their home community.

Two-thirds of surveyed mothers in Nunavut and half of those in the Northwest Territories report that they gave birth away from their home community.

This has an impact on the well-being of many Indigenous women living in northern regions, many of whom have had to fly to hospitals far from their homes, land, languages and communities to receive maternity care at tertiary or secondary care hospitals (see Indigenous Midwifery in Canada textbox). When surveyed, the majority of mothers reported that leaving home to have their babies was a stressful experience and that it had a negative impact on their families. In April 2016, the federal government announced that it would provide financial compensation to allow someone to travel with Indigenous women who need to leave their communities to give birth.

The number of community hospitals offering obstetrical care in northern regions has fallen since the 1980s. However, a number of birthing centres have opened to fill this care gap, such as in Puvirnituq (Nunavik), Rankin Inlet (Nunavut) and in Inukjuak (Quebec). These facilities have helped women with low-risk pregnancies remain in their communities; however, those with complications or requiring a caesarian birth often still have to travel to give birth.


Unique experiences: new and expectant mothers new to Canada

Canada is home to many immigrant families, which have represented a growing share of the total population. In 1961, 16% of people in Canada reported that they were born outside the country – a rate that increased to 21% by 2011.

Immigration has an impact on the maternity experiences, such as when women decide to have children. Research shows that immigrants have relatively fewer births in the two-year period before migration, which is often followed by a “rebound” in fertility afterward. According to researchers Goldstein and Goldstein, “Fertility preferences of movers may more closely resemble those of the destination country than those of the source country even before they arrive.”

Studies have explored a number of reasons why fertility can be affected by the immigration experience, including temporary separation of spouses during the migration process, a conscious decision to delay childbearing until access to supports such as child allowances is ensured and economic disruption during migration and in the early period (while parents are securing paid employment).

Recent immigrants are significantly more likely than their Canadian-born counterparts to live in multi-generational households (those with three or more generations living under one roof); 21% of immigrants aged 45 and older who arrived in Canada between 2006 and 2011 reported that they live in shared homes, compared with 3% of the Canadian-born population. As such, new and expectant mothers in multi-generational homes may benefit from having more family members nearby to provide care and support.

With regard to accessing maternity care services, research has shown that many immigrant women generally have the opportunity to receive the necessary maternity care services, but rates of satisfaction with maternity care vary greatly across Canada. Some report having faced barriers to accessing and utilizing maternity care services, including (but not limited to) a lack of information about or awareness of the services (sometimes the result of language barriers), insufficient support to access the services (i.e. navigation of the health care system) and discordant expectations between immigrant women and service providers. In some areas, doulas provide valuable emotional, informational and navigation support to immigrant women during the perinatal period.

Social support (e.g. from family, friends and community members) has been identified by immigrant parents as a key factor in accessing maternity care. This circle of support can play an important role in connecting new and expectant mothers from outside Canada with maternity care, and can work with health care and service providers to ensure these women receive “culturally congruent and culturally safe” maternity care.


Maternity care: supporting Canada’s growing families

Pregnancy and childbirth are major life events, not only for new mothers, but also for their families, friends and communities. While there have been many changes in family experiences over the generations regarding pregnancy, childbirth and the postnatal period, there have also been some constant threads: the value and importance of quality care, the diversity of experiences across Canada, and the joy and excitement that can accompany this memorable and life-changing milestone.



This content was reviewed by Dr. Marilyn Trenholme Counsell, OC, MA, MD, retired family physician and former Lieutenant Governor (New Brunswick), former Minister of Family (N.B.) and Senator (N.B.).

All references and source information can be found in the PDF version of this article.

Published May 11, 2017

Understanding the Impact of Fort McMurray Wildfires on Foreign National Family Caregivers

The recent wildfire in northern Alberta, which began in early May and has only recently been brought under control, has had a profound impact on Fort McMurray and its surrounding communities. Approximately 2,400 buildings were destroyed, including many family homes and businesses, and the fire ravaged nearly 600,000 hectares of land. Many of the families in the region have experienced significant trauma due to their losses, the evacuation of more than 80,000 people and the overall impact on the community.

Live-in caregivers (foreign nationals living in Canadian homes and employed to provide child or adult care) working in and around Fort McMurray have been strongly affected by these events. These people comprise a unique and important workforce that is highly educated and experienced, and are “crucial to bridging work–family relations for their employers, especially those who work in the oil sands industry,” notes Dr. Sara Dorow, Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Alberta in Live-in Caregivers in Fort McMurray: A Socioeconomic Footprint.

Dorow explores the impact of the wildfire on the caregiver workforce in a new study, Caregiver Policy in Canada and Experiences after the Wildfire: Perspectives of Caregivers in Fort McMurray, which reports on findings from an online survey of 56 live-in caregivers working in and around Fort McMurray.

Key findings include:

  • Caregiver evacuees are experiencing emotional and financial stress as a result of uncertainty with regard to their continued employment and housing – realities that are “tied together” through dependency on a single employer.
  • The fire has caused stress over the disruption to their pathway to permanent residency, which requires the completion of 24 months or 3,900 hours of work.
  • Despite these experiences, many expressed gratitude for the emergency relief funds and donations they have received from employers, friends, family and the community. Few report having applied for Employment Insurance.

The study was carried out as part of On the Move, a research partnership that includes the Vanier Institute of the Family and 40 researchers from across Canada and around the world. This partnership investigates how employment-related geographic mobility (E-RGM) affects households and communities, and how E-RGM influences and impacts Canadian prosperity.