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Families Count 2024 is now available

Celebrating Chosen Family Within the LGBTQ+ Community

Gaby Novoa

February 18, 2021

This February 22, 2021 is Chosen Family Day, a national observance of the significant relationships among those in the LGBTQ+ community.1, 2 Families formed by choice, and with intention, play a vital role in the lives of many LGBTQ+ people, where close relationships provide care, affirmation and a sense of belonging.

Research shows that marginalization due to one’s sexual orientation or gender identity has been linked to higher rates of family rejection, mental health challenges, substance abuse and exposure to violence among LGBTQ+, compared with their heterosexual and/or cisgender counterparts.3 These vulnerabilities are further amplified for those with intersectional identities, such as one’s race, class, religion or dis/abilities. Chosen families, friendships and positive community connections are therefore essential, as social connectedness is a key factor in well-being and resilience.4

Chosen families face more barriers yet serve many of the same functions of biological families

Fondation Émergence, a non-profit organization in Quebec that supports and serves the LGBTQ+ community through education and awareness-building, champions the importance of chosen family.5 Julien Rougerie, Program Manager with the organization, asserts that the roles within chosen and biological families are often identical: providing love, support, care and connections.

The difference for family who are not blood-related, however, is that their roles are often impeded by more barriers, such as the lack of formal recognition of such ties as valid or “legitimate.” Research has shown, for example, that LGBTQ+ seniors in long-term care homes are sometimes not able to get access or certain permissions for their loved ones when protocols and regulations are not inclusive to those who do not fall under “traditional” conceptualizations of a family member. Moreover, the fear of disclosing one’s sexual orientation can sometimes prevent an individual from identifying their partner or spouse. When institutions, such as health care or long-term care systems, do not acknowledge these diverse family formations, they block pathways of necessary care and connection.

One study found that, apart from their partner, 59% of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults aged 50 and over indicated that friends are the first people they contact in emergencies, whereas only 9% say that they contact a “family member.”6 Rougerie notes that LGBTQ+ older adults commonly share experiences of estrangement or distance from their biological families, as they grew up in sociocultural and political contexts in which there existed more stigma and sanctions around queerness. Reliance and interdependence with chosen family therefore take on additional significance among LGBTQ+ older adults, whose chosen family often become their caregivers in later life.

Chosen family and well-being are interconnected

In preparing for Chosen Family Day, the Vanier Institute asked people who identify as LGBTQ+ to share what these connections mean to them. Many of the responses and reflections highlighted themes of solace, security and strength:

“Chosen family is moving forward in my life. It’s feeling like I have agency in the experience of fraternity, trust and companionship. It’s building networks that are strong, like the points and spirals on a spider web.” 


“To me, chosen family is the community of support with which you surround yourself. It’s the relationships you hold closest – whatever their nature is – and where you feel unquestionably at home.” 


“Chosen family is wholehearted, wholesome, safe, strength, shared resources, shared emotions, uplifting habits, community, shared creation (such as through food), communion and ritual.”  


“For me, chosen family is a group of people that you can turn to when you face hardships or have something to celebrate, and they can be there for you without judgement, especially when it comes to queer aspects of life such as dating or gender identity. It’s not really about seeing each other all the time or even being best friends, it’s knowing that you can confide and find comfort in someone and be assured that they love you AND your queerness, not despite it.” 


“Chosen family mean there’s always an extra chair, and it’s for you.” 


“Chosen family to me is reclaiming something that you didn’t have before.” 


“Having a chosen family is an extension of self-love. The active choice to surround myself with people who love and support me is the most significant way that I can appreciate and value myself.”


“Chosen family is like a big family gathering but without uncomfortable chairs, heavy air (heavy with secrets) and weird unspoken rules about when to speak. Instead, we are talking about a web of people who bob in and out of my life. I look to them and they look out for me. It’s not all smooth sailing – they teach me hard lessons (like how to avoid jealousy and how to deal with grief). In the light moments and in the rough ones, I’m so grateful for my chosen family.” 


“Chosen family is a place without judgement. It’s where you feel safe and true to yourself. It’s a place ‘where you don’t have to shrink yourself, to pretend or to perform.’”7


“Chosen family are those who help you sustain an environment of peace where you can show up as your authentic self.”


“To me a chosen family is one connected above all by trust and a kind of loyalty that is easy because it recognizes and anticipates change and growth.” 

Special thanks to all those who took the time to share.

 Responses have been edited for punctuation.

 Gaby Novoa, Families in Canada Knowledge Hub, Vanier Institute of the Family


  1. Friends of Ruby – an organization focused on supporting the progressive well-being of LGBTQI2S youth through social services and housing – launched Chosen Family Day in February 2020. Link: https://www.friendsofruby.ca/.
  2. Nathan Battams, “In Conversation: Lucy Gallo on Chosen Family Day and LGBTQI2S Youth,” The Vanier Institute of the Family (February 2020).
  3. Jonathan Garcia et al., “Social Isolation and Connectedness as Determinants of Well-Being: Global Evidence Mapping Focused on LGBTQ Youth,” Global Public Health (October 2019). Link: .
  4. Ibid.
  5. Fondation Émergence. Link: .
  6. Fondation Émergence, “Ensuring the Good Treatment of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Older Adults” (2018). Link:.
  7. The quoted words are lyrics from the song “Family” by Blood Orange.


Diblings Asking “Who Am I?” – Searching for Answers, Finding More Questions

Sara MacNaull and Nora Spinks

August 13, 2020

“Who am I?” is an age-old question. A growing number of people around the world who are looking at this question, through a family lens, are discovering that they are part of a unique, emerging family relationship, as a “dibling.” The term dibling, which stems from “donor sibling” or “DNA sibling,” is someone with whom you share genetic material – from at least one or both parents – resulting from reproductive technologies or fertility treatments.

People’s curiosity about their origins has been ignited thanks to the mass digitization of historical documents and increased access to records, including birth records, immigration papers and marriage certificates. The growing availability and affordability of DNA testing has meant more people are spitting into a tube or swabbing a cheek and sending off their genetic material for analysis. Pop culture has provided a mirror of this trend in society through television shows such as Who Do You Think You Are?, Long Lost Family, Genealogy Roadshow, Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Ancestors in the Attic. Fictitious TV dramas profiling diblings – such as Sisters in Australia or its American remake, Almost Family – are also generating popular interest in the dibling phenomenon.

According to estimates published in MIT Technology Review1 in 2019, more than 26 million people have submitted their DNA to the four leading commercial ancestry and health databases (e.g. AncestryDNA and 23andMe). As a result, family lore is being rewritten, family mythology is being debunked, decade- or century-old questions are being answered, subsequent questions are being asked, and some previously unknown facts are being revealed. Truth is coming to light about ancestors who had once been hailed as heroes, only for DNA or genealogy to reveal that there was more to the story than what had been passed down from one generation to the next, such as a sister who’s actually a mother or a father who’s not a blood relative.

Debunking family lore

Family lore often glamourizes, exaggerates, or even covers up the truth – including socially unacceptable behaviour, crimes, or dishonour brought upon the family. Family lore reduces stigma, helps foster public acceptance or changes family members’ perceptions of a person or event. Consider the story shared at a recent Listening Tour event hosted by the Vanier Institute about a revered late uncle:

“The participant’s great-grandmother’s brother – a fearless countryman, who was well-respected – was a hard-working farmer and fiercely protective of his family. Family lore claims he was thrown from his horse on his way to help a neighbour during a terrible storm and died tragically on the side of the road, not to be found for days. Since his death he has been hailed as a hero, though now-accessible records reveal that your uncle was an alcoholic and had had several run-ins with the law. His death – though still tragic – was, in fact, the result of a late night at the local watering hole.”

And, just like that, the truth is revealed, family stories and identities altered, and the perceptions of others changed, all as a result of access to DNA testing and to public and genealogical records. Our ancestors could never have imagined what would exist one day – for all to see.

A new type of “family”

For M. (name withheld to protect privacy), submitting her DNA for testing was just for fun. Though she had recently learned, in her 30s, that the dad she had always known was not her biological father, she had no desire to find the latter. However, like many others, she took the test, shipped it off and waited. When the results arrived, there were no real surprises. Her ancestors came from the countries she expected and easily explained certain physical characteristics. However, within hours, she started receiving notifications that revealed “close DNA matches” from around the world. Within days, the number kept increasing, eventually exceeding 30 – that is, 30 biological half-siblings, previously unknown to her, now confirmed through DNA testing.

“It was quite overwhelming, to be honest,” M. stated in a recent interview with the Vanier Institute of the Family. “I never imagined I’d find anyone who was related to me, except for perhaps a distant cousin. I had no reason to think I had multiple diblings.”

M.’s family story may seem unique, yet she is not alone in her experience or discovery. Many others are finding new or lost relatives, sometimes asking their parents or extended family awkward questions, and considering tough decisions about whether to foster new relationships with their diblings.

Delaying motherhood in Canada

Families in Canada, like elsewhere, are diverse, complex and ever evolving. Families are formed through various means, such as birth, adoption, coupling, uncoupling or by choice. In Canada, the fertility rate, or average number of children per woman, has been steadily decreasing since 2009, reaching a low point in 2018, at 1.5 children, compared with 3.94 in 1959).2, 3

Women across the country are increasingly waiting longer to have children. In fact, the fertility rates of women in their early 20s and late 30s flipped over the past 20 years. In 2018, the fertility rate in Canada for women aged 20 to 24 stood at 33.8 live births per 1,000 women, down from 58 per 1,000 in 2000, while the fertility rate in Canada for women aged 35 to 39 was 57.1 live births per 1,000 women, nearly double the rate in 2000 (34 per 1,000).4, 5 Given that many women are delaying having children – either by choice or circumstance – the mean age of mothers at time of delivery was nearly 31 years of age in 2018 (30.7 years), a trend that has been on the rise since the mid-1960s.6, 7

Motherhood and reproductive technology

The choice to delay motherhood for women may be the result of focusing first on post-secondary education and career development – continuing a long-term trend observed over the past several decades.8 Sometimes circumstance – not choice – is the driving factor, such as for those who have not met a partner with whom they want to have a child. As a result, some women are choosing to embark on the journey solo, with recent figures showing that the proportion of babies born to single (never married) women in 2014–2018 (the most recent years in which data is available) hovers around 30%.9, 10 This road to motherhood may include the use of reproductive technologies or adoption, either domestically or internationally (within countries and jurisdictions that allow women to adopt without a partner).

Among couples, reproductive technologies and adoption are becoming more common routes to parenthood – particularly among LGBTQ couples. Since the 1980s,11 the proportion of couples who experience infertility has doubled, now 16% (or roughly 1 in 6 couples). These couples may choose insemination or invitro fertilization with the use of a sperm donor or egg donor, or both, which come with their own DNA and physical traits. For adoptees or adults who do not have information or a relationship with one or both biological parents, DNA testing provides an opportunity to reveal ethnicity, cultural background and affiliations, country of origin and close or distant relatives. As M. stated:

“At first, I was reluctant to engage with any of these DNA matches. Part of me questioned the accuracy of the testing and I had so many more questions than when I started. I was confused as to how I was connected to these people. Within a few days of getting my results, I had to turn off the notifications on my phone. I just couldn’t keep up with all of them. This process led to even more soul-searching. I really had to think about and decide whether I was interested in getting to know these people, whether I was willing to put in the time, learn about them, share things about myself and my life, and genuinely foster relationships. Eventually, I went for it. I began replying to messages, receiving pictures and learning about how each one of my diblings came to be. Each story was so unique. All of a sudden, these 30+ strangers and I were trying to piece together a giant, global puzzle.”

Connecting with your diblings

For M., deciding to connect with her new family members included creating a list of pros and cons. The pros included the excitement of discovering the biological traits that stood out, whether others had the same interests or aptitudes as she did, and getting the chance to meet people from around the world – all of whom had the same starting point. The cons included managing her own expectations about what and how the relationships would develop (would they be forced or organic?), dealing with how her family would react to this discovery, and taking into account the feelings of the sibling she had grown up with. It also meant considering what all this meant for her biological father’s family, since, thanks to the DNA testing, it revealed that he had been married, and fathered and raised children in the area where she was currently living. She ultimately decided that the pros outweighed the cons, and within a few short months, an in-person meeting of some of the local diblings took place:

“The night before the gathering, I didn’t sleep a wink. I was so nervous about what I would learn and wondered whether I had made a mistake. And yet, upon arrival at the venue, I was struck by how familiar some of the other faces were, as if I had seen them before or met them before in a different context. I also couldn’t help but notice that some of us had some very similar features, more so than I had expected. Though the first few minutes felt a bit like speed dating or an awkward job interview, the conversation began to flow quite easily afterwards. Since then, we have met several times and are planning a diblings retreat where all of us come together from around the world.”

Though M.’s DNA discovery has a happy ending so far, others who have unlocked the DNA mystery door have dealt with unfortunate or difficult experiences. In a world where access, privacy, Big Data and DNA are colliding at a rapid pace, it is too soon to tell what the next few years will reveal about people’s personal histories and ancestry. All we can do is try to prepare ourselves for the unknown, the questions, the answers and the family stories, and whether we should decide to embark on the journey to discover “Who am I?”

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

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

This article was originally published in Canadian Issues (Spring/Summer 2020), reprinted with permission from The Association for Canadian Studies. Link: https://bit.ly/2XWmWF9.


    1. Antonio Regalado, “More Than 26 Million People Have Taken an At-home Ancestry Test: The Genetic Genie Is Out of the Bottle. And It’s Not Going Back,” MIT Technology Review (February 11, 2019). Link: .
    2. Claudine Provencher et al., “Fertility: Overview, 2012 to 2016,” Report on the Demographic Situation in Canada, Statistics Canada catalogue no. 91-209-X (June 5, 2018). Link: .
    3. Statistics Canada, Crude birth rate, age-specific fertility rates and total fertility rate (live births) (Table: 13-10-0418-01) (page last updated May 22, 2020). Link:.
    4. The Vanier Institute of the Family, “Mother’s Day 2019: New Moms Older, More Likely to Be Employed Than in the Past” (May 8, 2019).
    5. Statistics Canada, Crude birth rate, age-specific fertility rates and total fertility rate (live births).
    6. Statistics Canada, Mean age of mother at time of delivery (live births) (Table: 13-10-0417-01) (page last updated May 22, 2020). Link:.
    7. Claudine Provencher et al., “Fertility: Overview, 2012 to 2016.”
    8. The Vanier Institute of the Family, “Mother’s Day 2019: New Moms Older, More Likely to Be Employed Than in the Past.”
    9. Statistics Canada, Live births, by marital status of mother (Table: 13-10-0419-01) (page last updated May 22, 2020). Link: .
    10. This figure may also include women who are living common-law and who are therefore partnered but not legally married.
    11. Public Health Agency of Canada, Fertility (page last updated May 28, 2019). Link:.


Published on August 13, 2020

What’s in a Name? Defining Family in a Diverse Society

Alan Mirabelli

For more than 50 years, the Vanier Institute of the Family has served as a national resource dedicated to exploring and understanding Canada’s diverse families. During this time, the Institute has sought to enhance and mobilize knowledge through research that documents the richness and complexity of families, family life, and family experiences, expectations and aspirations. A central component of this research has been the functional definition of family used by the Institute since the late 1980s.

The Vanier Institute defines a family as any combination of two or more persons who are bound together over time by ties of mutual consent, birth and/or adoption or placement, and who together assume responsibilities for variant combinations of some of the following: physical maintenance and care of group members; addition of new members through procreation, adoption or placement; socialization of children; social control of members; production, consumption, distribution of goods and services; and affective nurturance (i.e. love).

The Vanier Institute needed a definition that allowed people to have a discussion rather than an argument over what constituted a “family.” Inclusiveness was the key to achieving this; the definition needed to apply to everyone’s experience of family, regardless of their history, nationality, socio-economic status, ethno-racial background, sexual orientation or family type. But the definitions being used by organizations and individuals at the time tended to reflect the personal family of whoever was providing the definition. They were projecting their own experience of family into a public policy sphere or into a sociological or community discussion.

The Vanier Institute needed a definition that allowed people to have a discussion rather than an argument over what constituted a “family.” Inclusiveness was the key to achieving this.

This is understandable, as people’s perceptions of social institutions are shaped by their own upbringing and surroundings. But since families aren’t homogeneous (even in the Vanier Institute’s early years, when there was less diversity in the structure and composition of families than today), this approach to defining families left many out of the discourse, such as sole-support families, blended families and families with LGBTQ2I+ parents. Rather than focusing on what families look like, the Institute instead decided to create a definition based on what families do, regardless of the particular structure of the family or who performs roles within.

The deliberate broadness of the Vanier Institute’s definition of family sparked some controversy at first. After some of the Institute’s early documents were released, one of the first questions asked by members of the media was whether it included families with LGBTQ2I+ parents – and the answer was, without hesitation, yes. Yes, because the definition is about people who engage in the task of raising the next generation, regardless of who they are. This initial controversy may have been inevitable, but it was necessary if the Institute was going to take an inclusive approach.

The Vanier Institute’s definition is not about the status of the adults looking after the child. It’s a family if there is a set of relationships over time with individuals looking after the needs of another. It’s not about a marriage per se, but rather the commitment made – it could be common-law, sole-support or any number of family structures. The definition doesn’t require children, but it does require at least one relationship between an adult and another person – a relationship over time, which signifies that a commitment has been made. How it’s made and what specific form it takes is independent of the definition.

Rather than focusing on what families look like, the Vanier Institute instead decided to create a definition based on what families do.

It was in the years leading up to the 1994 International Year of the Family, as governments were searching for definitions of family for use in public policies that involved or affected families, that the value of the functional definition became clear. Up until this point, people were still trying to justify either a nuclear family or one that reflected their own familial experience, rather than trying to find a general approach that captures a better picture of all families. The Vanier Institute’s definition then started showing up in textbooks in the mid-1990s and has since become one of the most commonly cited definitions used in family research nationally.

The definition leads to interesting discussion when one realizes that all families (even if they happen to look alike) do the same things, we may just do them differently. One hundred years ago, people fed their families first by growing the food, then canning or preserving it, then cooking it and then finally serving it to other family members. In later generations, people fed their families by going to the store, buying the food, cooking it and then putting it on the table in front of family members. Now, we may also go to restaurants to buy prepared food and then eat it with our families. Today’s grocery stores, which are selling as much prepared food as raw ingredients, are the next iteration of how we’re feeding our families in a modern context. This shows that families can fulfill the same basic function of providing nourishment while doing so in different ways. It’s all just another way of saying that families are dynamic, constantly performing the same functions but adapting how they do so in response to ever-changing social, economic and cultural contexts.

This definition was also meant to show that the relationship between families and society is a two-way street. Families are shaped by and react to social, economic and cultural factors, but they have an impact on these same forces as well. They create changes at the micro level by making decisions about family aspirations, labour market participation (or the lack thereof) and the consumption of goods and services. Collectively, these changes over time create change at the macro level, as institutions and organizations react to patterns of behaviour among families. Families are not simply the recipient of policies, whether it’s government policies or employment policies – they engage, resist and/or modify them based on their immediate and personal needs. So there’s a constant negotiation and renegotiation between family and culture. They are agents of change, but at the same time they are compliant to the norms of culture to some extent.

“The Vanier Institute must be thoroughly in touch with family life of all kinds, not the ideal of the family but the reality of the family as people live it.”
– Beryl Plumptre (former Vanier Institute president), 1972

The Vanier Institute’s definition demonstrates that, throughout time, there is consistency in terms of what families do to the benefit of their members and to the benefit of society, which has an expectation that families are preparing young people for the economy and the society that they are going to encounter. Society benefits through the future contributions of children, who grow to become the next generation of employees, taxpayers and community members.

Due to its recognition that families are diverse, complex and dynamic, the Vanier Institute’s definition facilitates discussion about families and family life without pitting the interests of one family against another. This was a problem we regularly experienced before this definition was created – there were judgments being made about one type of family versus another due to their structure or composition, which was hurtful to the families being talked about and hurtful to our culture. As Dr. Elise Boulding once said, there isn’t enough love in the world for us to reject loving relationships, whatever their form. So, by looking at what families do, it’s easier to take an appreciative stance rather than a critical one, and it’s a reminder to the culture that when families and parents begin, the culture continues.

In a sense, all of those points in the definition don’t just describe family but also the community that surrounds the family. They have a role in every one of those functions because they pick up where the family leaves off. It’s a very inclusive definition for a reason – it’s a way of saying we all have a responsibility and it’s shared. We are creating not just individuals but also a culture through an agglomeration of families who are performing these tasks on behalf of the society.

Alan Mirabelli was a devoted member of the Vanier Institute team for more than 30 years, serving as Executive Director of Administration and Director of Communications.

Originally published as a Transition article in December 2015.

Republished with updated biographic note on August 21, 2018.

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: .

A Snapshot of Family Diversity in Canada (February 2018)

For more than 50 years, the Vanier Institute of the Family has monitored, studied and discussed trends in families and family life in Canada. From the beginning, the evidence has consistently made one thing clear: there is no single story to tell, because families are as diverse as the people who comprise them.

This has always been the case, whether one examines family structures, family identities, family living arrangements, family lifestyles, family experiences or whether one looks at the individual traits of family members, such as their ethnocultural background, immigration status, sexual orientation or their diverse abilities.

Building on our recent infographic, Family Diversity in Canada (2016 Census Update), our new Statistical Snapshot publication provides an expanded and more detailed portrait of modern families in Canada, as well as some of the trends that have shaped our vibrant and evolving family landscape over the years. Based on current data and trend analysis, this overview shows that diversity is, was and will continue to be a key characteristic of family life for generations to come – a reality that contributes to Canada’s dynamic and evolving society.

Highlights include:

  • According to Statistics Canada, there were 9.8 million Census families living across Canada in 2016.
  • 66% of families in Canada include a married couple, 18% are living common-law and 16% are lone-parent families – diverse family structures that continuously evolve.
  • Among Canada’s provinces, people in Quebec stand out with regard to couple/relationship formation, with a greater share living common-law than the rest of Canada (40% vs. 16%, respectively) and fewer married couples (60% vs. 84%, respectively) in 2016.
  • In 2016, 1.7 million people in Canada reported having an Aboriginal identity: 58% First Nations, 35% Métis, 3.9% Inuk (Inuit), 1.4% other Aboriginal identity and 1.3% with more than one Aboriginal identity.
  • In 2016, 22% of people in Canada reported that they were born outside the country – up from 16% in 1961.
  • In 2016, more than 1 in 5 people in Canada (22%) reported belonging to a visible minority group, 3 in 10 of whom were born in Canada.
  • 73,000 same-sex couples were counted in the 2016 Census, 12% of whom are raising children.
  • In 2016, there were nearly 404,000 multi-generational households in Canada – the fastest-growing household type since 2001 (+38%).
  • In 2011, 22% of Inuk (Inuit) grandparents, 14% of First Nations grandparents and 5% of Métis grandparents lived with their grandchildren, compared with 3.9% of among non-Indigenous grandparents.
  • In 2014, 1 in 5 Canadians aged 25 to 64 reported living with at least one disability. Disability rates were higher for women (23%) than men (18%).
  • More than one-quarter (27%) of Canadians surveyed in 2014 said religion is “very important” in their lives.
  • One-quarter of Canadians reported “no religious affiliation” in the 2011 Census (most recent data available), up from 17% in 2001.


The Canadian Family: Redefining Inclusion (video)

On June 22, 2017, Vanier Institute CEO Nora Spinks participated in the 2017 Speaker Series – The Canadian Family: Redefining Inclusion. Hosted by Roots of Empathy, this event brought together leaders and educators to discuss diversity, inclusion and modern families in Canada.

One of Roots of Empathy’s organizational goals is to foster inclusiveness. In this engaging and catalytic panel discussion, Nora Spinks joined Zeena Al Hamdan (Programs Manager, Arab Community Centre of Toronto), Paul Cormier (Assistant Professor, Lakehead University, and member of the Lake Helen First Nations, Red Rock Indian Band), Tesa Fiddler (Indigenous Education Resource Teacher, Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board) and panel moderator Cheryl Jackson (Director of Communications, Roots of Empathy) to explore and discuss what this means for families in Canada.

Watch The Canadian Family: Redefining Inclusion on the Roots of Empathy YouTube Channel.


Published on July 26, 2017

Infographic: Family Diversity in Canada 2016

International Day of Families is approaching on May 15, a special day to recognize the importance of family to communities across the globe. Parents, children, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins and the friends and neighbours we care for (and who care for us) all make unique and valuable contributions to our lives, our workplaces and our communities.

As we reflect on Canada’s 9.9 million families, one thing that’s clear is that there’s no such thing as a cookie-cutter family. Families are as diverse and unique as the people who comprise them, and they are all an essential part of Canada’s family landscape.

For this year’s International Day of Families, we’ve created an infographic providing a “snapshot” of modern families in Canada that highlights some of the many ways families are diverse:

  • 67% of families in Canada are married-couple families, 17% are living common-law, and 16% are lone-parent families – diverse family structures that continuously evolve
  • 464,000 stepfamilies live across the country, accounting for 13% of couples with children
  • 363,000 households contain three or more generations, and there are also approximately 53,000 “skip-generation” homes (children and grandparents with no middle generation present)
  • 1.4 million people in Canada report having an Aboriginal identity (61% First Nations, 32% Métis, 4.2% Inuit, 1.9% other Aboriginal identity, 0.8% more than one Aboriginal identity)
  • 360,000 couples in Canada are mixed unions,* accounting for 4.6% of all married and common-law couples
  • 65,000 same-sex couples were counted in the 2011 Census, 9.4% of whom are raising children
  • 68,000 people in Canada are in the CAF Regular Forces, half of whom have children under 18

As His Excellency The Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, expressed at the Families in Canada Conference 2015, “Families, no matter their background or their makeup, bring new and special patterns to our diverse Canadian tapestry.” Join us as we recognize and celebrate family diversity, from coast to coast to coast.


* Statistics Canada defines a mixed union as “a couple in which one spouse or partner belongs to a visible minority group and the other does not, as well as a couple in which the two spouses or partners belong to different visible minority groups.”

Language, Labels and “Lone Parents”

Victoria Bailey

Lone parent, single parent, one-parent family, independent parent, non-married parent, alone parent, autonomous parent: the words or terms used to identify, or self-identify, adults who parent independently are diverse and subjective, and they have evolved over the years. While our choice of labels may seem trivial, language is powerful and loaded – it shapes how we see the world and the people in it. These familial terms, and the respective ideas they aim to convey, are at best blurry. What can seem like a valid category to one person may be considered a stereotype by another, and these labels can carry stigma with them that has an impact on family well-being and identity – particularly for single mothers,1 who account for 8 in 10 single parents in Canada.

Many labels are used to categorize “lone parents”

Statistics Canada uses the term lone parent to identify “Mothers or fathers, with no married spouse or common-law partner present, living in a dwelling with one or more children.” They are not alone in this choice of terminology: the UK’s Office for National Statistics also utilizes the term lone parent/lone parent family, as does the UK government’s statistics website. The Australia Bureau of Statistics, meanwhile, uses the term one-parent family and Statistics New Zealand lists the term sole parent in its definitions of census family classifications but tends to defer to the same terminology as Australia in census information-related texts.

The United States Census Bureau uses a number of different terms in their definitions and reports; phrases including female householder, no husband present, single parent and lone parent are used to describe different family and/or household structures. In Engendering Motherhood, sociologist Martha McMahon frequently uses the term “unwed mother”; however, this text is now 20 years old and, once a commonly used term, “unwed mother” is now infrequently applied in either dialogue or in media content. To many people, the phrase may now seem dated, archaic and even tied to (and measured more by) religious doctrine.

In a sense, none of the terms commonly used to identify single mothers are satisfactory in their ability to capture family experiences, because they use deficit language. Lone mothers and sole mothers could suggest to some that these parents are “on their own,” without supports, while many of these parents may have rich networks of support that include family, friends, community organizations and even former partners. One-parent families suggests a similar isolation, whereas the child(ren) in these families may have two parents, even if the parents have ended their relationship. Whereas single parent/s, as with “unwed mother,” suggests a deviation from a married-parent norm, it is rare for a determining label of “married parent/s” to be used in conversation or in text unless focusing specifically on the topics of parenting and marriage.

Overall, the use of a variety of terms does seem like a more sensitive, considerate and inclusive approach that is more appreciative of complex family forms and provides options for identifying families. Whether intended or not, what the differing US Census Bureau terms and more modern, emerging phrases such as autonomous parent and independent parent do signify is that terminology related to being a single parent seems to be evolving and progressing in a way that attributes power to the parent’s choice of familial circumstance.

Terms have changed over time, as have family experiences and realities

The use of single-parent synonyms and their attributed meanings have developed over time, reflecting ever-changing family realities. According to Statistics Canada, the proportion of lone parents in our nation is not drastically different from what it was 100 years ago, and it was nearly as high in 1931 (11.9%) as it was in 1981 (12.7%). But what does differ, is the reason behind those numbers, that is, a modern-day choice of relationship status versus a latter-day result of circumstance, often related to mortality rates. As highlighted in the Statistics Canada report Enduring Diversity: Living Arrangements of Children in Canada over 100 Years of the Census:

… diverse family living arrangements were in many cases a result of the death of one or more family members. Death within the family – of siblings, of mothers during or following complications from childbirth, of fathers serving in war, for example – was a much more common experience for young children in the early 20th century than today. In 1921, about 1 in 11 (8.9%) children aged 15 and under had experienced the death of at least one parent, while 4.1% had experienced the death of both parents.

The researchers go on to point out, “In comparison, in 2011, less than 1% of children aged 0 to 14 lived in a lone-parent family in which the parent was widowed.”

Throughout Canada’s history, there have been diverse paths to parenting independently, such as through adoption, sperm/egg donation, surrogacy, in vitro fertilization (IVF) or through separation, divorce from, or death of, a partner – or there never having been a partner in terms of a relationship to begin with. To avoid reinforcing stereotypes, it is important in any discussion about single parents to acknowledge this diversity and avoid generalization or homogenization.

Family labels can have an impact on identities

The language and terms we use to identify family forms matter, as they can carry negative connotations and meaning. An example of this can be found in the 2011 Census definition of family, in which Statistics Canada included stepfamilies for the first time:

A couple family with children may be further classified as either an intact family in which all children are the biological and/or adopted children of both married spouses or of both common-law partners or a stepfamily with at least one biological or adopted child of only one married spouse or common-law partner and whose birth or adoption preceded the current relationship.

While counting stepfamilies is a positive step toward capturing diverse family forms, the decision to contrast this with the label “intact family” could suggest, to some, that families deviating from this status are not intact, that is, not whole or complete due to lack of a partner living under the same roof as a parent and their child.

Labels such as single mother or single parent may also not be terms some people feel comfortable with. For example, in an online article entitled “Single Mother Was Not a Title I Wanted to Own. A Year Later It Still Isn’t,” blogger Mavis King writes how both she, and other mothers, do not want to be labelled as “single mothers”:

The problem with being a “single mum”… is the negative connotations it can conjure. At their worst single mums are associated with welfare, dole-bludging, unkempt and unruly kids. The single mother is just keeping it together, just scraping by. She’s not a heroine, no she’s responsible for her plight. She should have known better, should have never married him, shouldn’t have had children. And what about the kids? She’s selfish, the kids won’t do well at school, they’re worse off than their friends.

However, some parents proudly take ownership of wording that communicates their self-sufficiency. On the Wealthy Single Mommy blog, for example, Emma Johnson writes, “I feel totally fine calling myself a single mom: I float my family financially and am the primary caretaker of my kids.”

Stigma related to “lone motherhood” can affect family well-being

Negative stereotypes about single mothers such as those described by King, that is, assumptions that single mothers are struggling and irresponsible, or that their children are worse off than others, are often fuelled and reinforced in the media. A recent post-graduate study I completed focused on the representation of single mothers in Canadian news media found that coverage typically followed three main trends: a negatively biased dichotomy of representation, homogenization of single mothers and application of the term “single mother” being connected to gender-related identification of familial status rather than relevance to article information.

These depictions bolster stereotypes that can have measurable consequences. For example, in a 2011 study into rental discrimination, single mothers were found to be more than 14% less likely to be granted a positive reply to rental inquiries than a (heterosexual) couple. Similarly, women who participated in a qualitative focus group for my dissertation research reported that the stigma of being labelled a single mother had acted as a barrier that prevented them from leaving negative situations, including statements such as, “I was more scared of being a single mom than of staying in an abusive relationship.”

Family labels gloss over diverse experiences

While many texts claim that being raised in a home by single parents may predispose children to negative outcomes, some research challenges the causal relationship between growing up in a single-parent family and detrimental outcomes. As researchers Don Kerr and Roderic Beaujot point out, “Studies that do not take into account the pre-existing difficulties of children and their families have a tendency to overstate the effect of growing up in a single-parent family.” There are many circumstances in which mothers have created healthier environments for themselves and their children precisely because they ended a negative relationship to become single mothers.

Often, it seems that resources, such as money, time and community supports (i.e. extended family, friends and other community members) have a more significant impact on child and parent experience and/or outcome than a parent’s relationship status. As Jon Bernardes states in Family Studies: An Introduction, “Whilst Queen Victoria was a single parent for many years, she is not thought of as a ‘problem parent.’”

However, what is perhaps most important to note is that children tend not to care about how the census categorizes their parents, nor do they tend to repeatedly quantify any kind of relationship status distinction when speaking about their parents. While they may initially share their familial status with friends – for example, “It’s just me and my dad” or “My dad doesn’t live with us” – there’s most likely an informal, colloquial tone to this statement. It’s highly unlikely that, once this personal information is shared, any future descriptions of an event or issue linked to their parent/s includes determining terminology such as “my single father” or “my lone parent mother.” They most likely simply say “my mom” or “my dad” or “my whomever” with a sense of confident, unconditional, personal belonging and attachment marking the initial, and perhaps most crucial, signifier in that type of statement: “my.”


1 This article frequently uses the terms “single mothers” and “single parents” for consistency, but as it discusses, there are many recognized and preferred terms in use.

Victoria Bailey is a freelance writer and a student of women’s studies. She lives and works in Calgary, Alberta.



The Place of the Family in Times of Social Transition, Part 2

Dr. Elise Boulding was a founding thinker behind the work of the Vanier Institute, a family sociologist and author whose work informed (and continues to inform) our understanding of families and family life. In 1981, she delivered a public lecture that was published by the Vanier Institute entitled The Place of the Family in Times of Transition: Imagining a Familial Future, which explores the role families play in the lives of individuals and society at large. While she delivered these words more than three decades ago, much of the content is timeless and still provides insight into how families serve as a cornerstone of our ever-evolving society.

The following is the second of two excerpts from this lecture. The full lecture can be downloaded by following the link at the bottom of the page.

Every family is a “micro-society”

We can think of each family or each familial grouping as a micro-society choosing a life path. We have discussed, at the Vanier conference over the last two days, lifestyle options. We have talked about the fact that most people really don’t have many choices in their lives. There are so many constraints, so many things one can’t do, so many opportunities that are not available because of age, sex, education, economic background, whatever. Each family, in effect, given the resources and opportunities available to it, makes choices about the kind of micro-society it wants to be. At its best, that is what the family is, a culture-choosing entity. The industrial family doesn’t do this on its own, however. There is no such thing as a familial group in isolation.

Think about an evening at home, when you draw down the blind, shut the door and settle in for a quiet family evening just by yourselves. Look at the activities that are being carried on; you are on the telephone engaged in “community networking”; you are planning a meeting, writing messages or notes about meetings; or you are reading up for some kind of personal project. At least, you are reading newspapers or watching TV to see what’s going on in the world, making shopping lists or deciding when family members need their next medical checkup, or maybe you are thinking about the next PTA meeting at school.

In short, a host of things go on inside the family setting that have to do with the community itself and with the quality of civic life. When you are out in the community, on the other hand, a lot of what you are doing is creating the quality of your family life. If you are at school expressing concern about the music or language program, or the way arithmetic is being taught, you are concerned about the quality of your child’s life. This is part of family life. It’s as a family person that you are concerned, and you are concerned not only for your own child but for other children.

Wherever we are in the community, we are constructing our family life out there. So much of the quality of our family life depends on whether we have a neighbourhood shopping centre, whether there is a mall in the downtown area, where the bus routes go, whether we have public transportation. All of these things impinge on family life. What we do in the community we also do for our family, and what we do for our family we also do for the community. The family is an interface between the public and the private.

Families provide nurturance to individuals and communities

Society requires human beings who are able to engage in nurturant acts for survival. They must be men and women. As long as nurturance is defined as women’s work, remains women’s role, society is to remain rigid and crisis-prone. Nurturance has to be a task that is jointly shared by men and women. The capacity to identify and act on the needs of others, to think about the neighbourhood, begins in early childhood. The training for nurturance, the learning, the skills, the listening, the evaluating of the response of the other comes in the family. The family isn’t the only place we learn it, but it is a very important place. Extending that process into more places in the community, creating environments where other families can have their stresses lessened so that they too can begin to engage in this kind of sharing-caring is absolutely essential if the work of professionals in social design is to have any use.

Whatever is done in terms of planning and resource redistribution at the county, state and national level has to relate to these capacities, however weak or however strong they are, that are developing inside individual families. To a depressing extent we don’t notice the kinds of help that people give each other, and therefore we don’t build on the human capacities that are already present. We put in professionally designed human services that don’t connect with the nurturance that already goes on.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to an adequate acknowledgement of the role of the family in society is that helping behaviour and nurturance is considered women’s stuff. It’s thought of as looking after babies and seeing that husbands’ slippers and pipes are laid out. We have, in short, some very poor imagery about the work of nurturance. In fact, nurturance is intimately connected with the conditions under which human beings engage in any kind of learning. What nurturance does is allow a person to be open and vulnerable so that new information can be absorbed, new mental arrangements made of facts about the outside world. That is what happens in learning. If we don’t have places where we can be vulnerable and open, we can’t learn anything. The reason we learned so little in school is that we were scared to death of teachers and we were scared to death of tests. The family at its best is the setting for that kind of openness and learning, a social group in which we learn to accept the uses and values of vulnerability.

The family is a training ground for the future

The family is both a training ground and a metaphor for the kind of society we want. We can take the skills and the analytic capacities that are developed in the course of making judgments about what’s needed in a growing family and in a growing neighbourhood, and carry them from sphere to sphere and level to level as we move from the local to the planetary. I do not mean to oversimplify; conflicts arise, needs and wants differ everywhere. However, the mode of caring, the attitude of nurturance, the willingness to be vulnerable is always appropriate to the human condition at all times and places.

The full lecture can be downloaded here.

The Place of the Family in Times of Social Transition, Part 1

Dr. Elise Boulding was a founding thinker behind the work of the Vanier Institute, a family sociologist and author whose work informed (and continues to inform) our understanding of families and family life. In 1981, she delivered a public lecture that was published by the Vanier Institute entitled The Place of the Family in Times of Transition: Imagining a Familial Future, which explores the role families play in the lives of individuals and society at large. While she delivered these words more than three decades ago, much of the content is timeless and still provides insight into how families serve as a cornerstone of our ever-evolving society.

The following is the first of two excerpts, the second of which will be published on the Vanier Institute blog next week. The full lecture can be downloaded by following the link at the bottom of the page.


Families and society adapt and react to each other

Each era invents the familial forms it requires. The particular family form consisting of mother, father and children, which we tend to think of as “the family” in our age, is one of those forms. There have always been single-parent households, there have always been extended-family households and there have always been households composed of people who were not related to each other but grouped together because economic, political and social conditions made the grouping useful.

The family is the adaptive mechanism in society that helps us get over the rough spaces as we move from one era to another. It provides elasticity in the social order so we can stretch and contract, make shifts in size, grouping and organizational patterns. The family is a setting in which we can create the other, the different, the alternative. It is both the adaptor and the creator of the new. The family is an instrument for imagining futures.

When I talk about the family, I am talking about any type of group that provides a family-type setting. I include in that category single-person households, since many single persons in a sense maintain a familial network of relationships; that too is a type of family. Anything human beings construct or nurture over time is a family. Attention to this – attention to the craftwork of human relationship – is the new emphasis in our time. The family grouping has enormous advantages for doing this crafting of persons, particularly because the family becomes an instrument for analyzing the complexity of the planet.

If you stop and think about growing up in a multi-age family group where you have older people, middle-years people and children, what you have is the most complex type of human experience possible. It comes directly from one’s own most intimate environment. Each person in a family grouping is older each day than they were the day before. People change ages almost daily, particularly when they are children. As we grow older, we start shrinking; when we are younger, we grow up. Either shrinking or growing, whatever it is, we are changing size and shape: we get heavier, we get lighter, we need different clothes, we have different friends, our aspirations change, our understandings change, our processing of information about the environment changes. Each person in a family, whether we are talking about a three- or five-person family or more, is in themselves a host of complex wishes, aspirations and needs.

The fantastic thing within the family setting is that everybody negotiates those changes every blessed day. You cannot react to the others in your family as if they were yesterday’s person without causing trouble. You will get called down immediately if you are treating a sibling or a parent or a child on the basis of what they didn’t know yesterday, instead of on the basis of what they understand today. You cannot treat them on the basis of yesterday’s understandings. They know more about the world today and they resent being treated like children, like someone who doesn’t understand. We watch the transitions from a tricycle to a two-wheeler, from the two-wheeler to the family car. Those are the big transitions. Little transitions happen every day.

In family groupings, without ever stopping to think about it, we are negotiating extraordinary changes in every person around us and changing ourselves, adapting our behaviours to others. At this moment I am making analytic statements about the process. Normally, we don’t talk about it that way.

Families are teachers of complexity

One advantage of the family as a teacher of complexity is that it provides instantaneous feedback. In the larger social system, you can do all kinds of strange things in your workplace, in the schoolroom, in the community. You may never get feedback on the mistakes you have made or the good things you’ve done. In the family, feedback comes quickly. “That was crummy!” Or “Gee, that was neat!” You get it very fast. We only learn to the extent that we get feedback on our behaviour. In this microcosm of the family, we get continuous feedback as to how good our judgments are and where everybody else is at in the family.

It sounds as if I’m talking about some ideal family where everybody understands everybody else, but I’m not. The mistakes, the fights, the conflicts, the struggles over who gets the family car, what allowance I have this year as compared to last year and all the accompanying hostility is nevertheless part of a feedback system that helps us to grow up being able to assess a rapidly shifting complex environment. Most of us don’t realize what it is we are learning in the family, however. We can carry that complexity with us out into the larger world and consciously make judgments about other people’s shifting needs and aspirations. All the time, we are drawing on knowledge we gained in the family, but we aren’t taught to acknowledge our family-based knowledge. I think we should make that acknowledgement and begin to draw on that basic learning about complexity.

The family has an enormous advantage in its size. I am involved in several projects researching how we adapt to catastrophe, such as climate change and war-incurred disasters. Every time you try to design a larger scale system that is going to meet the individual needs of all the people in it, you miss, because the more people you are trying to plan for, the more individual differences you are simply glossing over. If you look at where adaptation is occurring, whether it is flood or famine or drought or recovery from war disaster, the groups that are making the adaptations are the familial types of groupings. They are the ones that can regroup; they can redistribute roles. A family group can reorganize its way of utilizing its environment more rapidly than any other size of group. It is the ultimate adaptive group.

In every country, family skills are crucial for societal survival. The family does more than adapt, however. It is itself an instrument of change. As society struggles with new conceptions of gender roles, it is in the family unit that actual behaviour is reshaped. While it is important to change our textbooks to present more diverse images of men and women, so that not all women have aprons in our school readers, nevertheless, the practice of the sharing of work and the sharing of parenting – the practices that change the person and reshape the person – happen in the family.

Families live in a “200-year present”

A special feature of the family, apart from its size and its value as a social laboratory that makes it an instrument of change, is that its cross-generational structure provides a way of grasping social time and social process. One of the things that is true about us particularly in this era in history is that we have a very truncated sense of social progress. There is a sense that every important happening has taken place in the last 10 years. If it happened before 10 years ago, it’s ancient history. But a decade or two decades is too narrow a slice of time to give us an understanding of the nature of the changes that are taking place in society. The intergenerational nature of relationships in the family enables us to get hold of larger chunks of time.

I offer for your consideration a concept that I find very useful, that of the 200-year present. This is a very real “present” in the family context. To explain the concept: today is March 19; one boundary of the 200-year present is March 19, 1881. That is the day of the birth of the people who are celebrating their 100th birthday today. The other side of that 200-year present is March 19, 2081, which will be the 100th birthday of the babies born today. Now, you may not have any centenarians in your family, and you may not have any babies born in your family today. Nevertheless, within your extended family and among those close to your family, someone will have been born somewhere close to 100 years ago, and some child you know will be alive 100 years from now.

By thinking about that span of time as encompassing the living present reality of people you know and care about, that span of time becomes accessible. It becomes our time in a very profound sense. This 200-year span belongs to us: it’s our life space. It’s the space in which we should be thinking, planning and making judgments, evaluating, hoping and dreaming. This opening up of what we normally think of as our future and our past and making it a part of our present experience, makes changes more comprehensible.

An enormous expansion of personhood becomes possible by drawing on the life experience within the family. Many people don’t experience their family as history-in-the-present in this way. We don’t share across generations in the family to the extent that we could. I am talking about an instrument that is available to us for this kind of sharing, and shortly I will talk about how we can make it work that way. It doesn’t necessarily work that way, but when it does, it becomes an enormous strengthening force in a period of very rapid change.

The full lecture can be downloaded here.