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In Brief: COVID-19 IMPACTS on Distribution of Household Tasks

Vanier Institute’s In Brief Series: Mobilizing Research on Families in Canada

Diana Gerasimov

March 1, 2021

STUDY: Zossou, C. “Sharing household tasks: Teaming Up During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” StatCan COVID-19: Data to Insights for a Better Canada, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 45-28-0001 (February 15, 2021). Link:

Since the start of the pandemic, public health measures in response to COVID-19 have impacted families across Canada and how they navigate responsibilities related to work, school and everyday life. Factors that include mobility restrictions, daycare closures and cancelled extracurricular activities, coupled with a rapid transition to remote work and online learning, have shifted family routines, roles and relationships, such as how domestic tasks are divided in the household.

During the early months of the pandemic, 68% of Canadians reported being satisfied with the way their household tasks were divided with their spouse or partner. However, the proportion of satisfaction varied greatly based on the age and sex of respondents.

  • A higher proportion of individuals 55 years of age and older (74%) reported being satisfied with the division of domestic tasks compared with those younger than 55 (63%). This difference was more apparent in women: 57% of women younger than 55 reported satisfaction with the division of household tasks compared with the 72% of women aged 55 and up.
  • 16% of women were dissatisfied with task distribution during the pandemic compared with 9% of men.
  • Women were more satisfied when they shared the tasks equally (80%) or when their partner took full responsibility (82%), compared with when they had to take care of it themselves (50%), regardless of the nature of the task.
  • 86% of individuals in partnerships reported the same level of satisfaction with the division of household tasks as before the pandemic.
  • 8% of Canadians reported being more satisfied with the division of domestic chores during the pandemic than before.

Types of household tasks

  • 56% of Canadians living as a couple reported that the laundry was primarily completed by the woman, compared with 16%, who said the man mostly undertook the task.
  • 48% reported that the woman prepared the meals, while 16% said this task was mostly undertaken by the man.
  • 30% of men did the grocery shopping during the pandemic, doubling from 15% in 2017.
  • When there was at least one child younger than 6 in the household, the proportion of men doing the grocery shopping increased from 30% to 42%.

Despite women balancing work and family life more than ever, they do most of the household chores. Although women are less likely to be mainly in charge of laundry and meals during the pandemic compared with 2017, no notable changes were observed in their participation in other household chores.

Diana Gerasimov holds a bachelor’s degree from Concordia University in Communication and Cultural Studies.


COVID-19 IMPACTS: Families and Housing in Canada

Nadine Badets, Gaby Novoa and Nathan Battams

July 21, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted families and family life across Canada, with economic lockdowns and physical distancing measures affecting the social, economic and environmental contexts associated with family well-being. Housing is no exception: prospective homebuyers are seeing a real estate cooling down in the face of uncertainty, while physical distancing measures are not easily actionable for many families living in crowded or unsuitable housing.

The COVID-19 lockdown has considerably slowed Canada’s real estate market

Most major cities in Canada (16 of 27) had little or no change to new housing prices in April 2020. However, sales of new homes and resales of older homes across Canada all declined significantly during the height of the pandemic. Builders surveyed by Statistics Canada in April 2020 reported a decline of almost two-thirds (64%) in sales of new homes when compared with the same month in 2019. The Canadian Real Estate Association reported a 58% decline in home resales in April, year over year.1

In light of the closure of economies and significant loss of jobs, the provinces and territories have issued eviction bans and payment suspensions to support renters. The Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation (CMHC) has also urged all landlords, including those with CMHC insurance or financing, to abstain from evicting renters during the COVID-19 pandemic.2 However, as the pandemic restrictions begin to lift, many people and families in Canada could be faced with evictions and/or owing large amounts of money for missed rent.

Demand for homeless shelters increased dramatically during lockdown

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, challenges with housing accessibility and affordability was unequally and excessively prevalent among certain groups within Canada, including newcomers and refugees, racialized groups, LGBTQ2S people, seniors, Indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities and/or mental health conditions.3

Homelessness4 is particularly concerning during the pandemic, as it exposes people to unsafe living conditions with severe consequences for physical and mental health, and makes it challenging to abide by new public health orders such as physical distancing.

Whether people are moving from home to home (often referred to as “hidden homelessness”), spending time in shelters,5  living transiently and sleeping in various places, or a combination of these, those experiencing homelessness are often in close proximity with multiple people and with little to no access to the necessary resources for recommended hygiene practices.6

In 2014, it was estimated that at least 235,000 people in Canada experience homelessness in a given year and around 35,000 are homeless on a given night. Individuals usually spend an average of 10 days in shelters, and families usually spend twice that amount of time.7 Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, shelters in Canadian cities have reported increased use by new and familiar clients;8 however, due to physical distancing restrictions, shelters have had to drastically reduce the number of beds and spaces they offer, which has left many without a place to stay.9, 10

Increases in reports of domestic violence,11 abuse12 and mental health concerns13 have also left many individuals and families with no place to stay. Many shelters have increased support to the homeless by creating spaces in community centres, hotels and permanent housing, though they lack the financial capacity to meet the increased demand for shelter services.14, 15

Housing issues in First Nations and Inuit communities are related to increased COVID-19 risk

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, Indigenous leaders and peoples have been calling attention to the continuing devastation from tuberculosis in First Nations and Inuit and communities, reminding Canada that COVID-19 is not the only pandemic they are facing.16, 17

In 2017, Inuit had a rate of 205.8 cases of tuberculosis per 100,000 people, and First Nations (on reserve) had 21.7 cases per 100,000. Tuberculosis was also high among immigrants, with a rate of 14.7 among those born outside of Canada, whereas for Canadian-born non-Indigenous people the rate was 0.5 per 100,000.18 As of April 19, 2020, the only Inuit region to report COVID-19 cases is Nunavik, with 14 cases (5 recovered and 9 active).19 Among First Nations, data collected through communities show that, as of May 10, 2020, there were 465 cases of COVID-19 and 7 deaths.20

In 2016, Inuit living in Inuit Nunangat21 (the Inuit homeland) were more likely to live in crowded households22 (52%) and in homes in need of major repairs23 (32%).24 Unsuitable housing is also prevalent in some First Nations, where issues such as household crowding (27%)25, 26 and homes in need of major repairs (24%)27 are much higher than for non-Indigenous people in Canada (9% and 6%).28

Household crowding aggravates the risk of catching infectious respiratory diseases like tuberculosis and COVID-19, the latter of which is considered to be even more contagious than tuberculosis.29 Poor housing conditions have been directly associated to quality of health and well-being, with studies showing increased risk of the spread of infectious and respiratory diseases, chronic illness, injuries, poor nutrition, violence and mental disorders.30 Household crowding also complicates – and potentially negates – physical distancing and the isolation of sick people within a household. Homes in need of major repairs can pose health hazards in a variety of ways. In particular, the ongoing lack of sufficient access to water infrastructure in some First Nations poses additional risks of infection and transmission.

Multigenerational households face more obstacles to physical distancing

Multigenerational households are an important part of many families in Canada, as they can facilitate care and support between generations and allow some parents to save money on child care, and facilitate intergenerational learning.31 Between 2001 and 2016, multigenerational households were the fastest-growing household type in Canada, increasing by 38% to reach nearly 404,000 homes.32

These types of households may face unique barriers to social distancing, taking into account the seniors within the home who are considered among the populations most vulnerable to the virus.33

In 2016, 11% of immigrants lived in multigenerational households,34 as did 5% of non-immigrants.35 Indigenous children aged 0 to 14 years were often more likely to live in multigenerational households36 with 13% of First Nations children, 13% of Inuit children and 7% of Métis children, than non-Indigenous children (8%).37

Sustainable Development is intertwined with housing

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many aspects of housing in Canada, and intensified pre-existing inequalities among marginalized communities across the country. As Canada has committed to the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which address factors such as poverty (SDG 1), health and well-being (SDG 3) and reduced inequalities (SDG 10), housing will be an important component of policy responses and conversations on this topic, which is of particular importance in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nadine Badets, Vanier Institute on secondment from Statistics Canada

Gaby Novoa is responsible for Communications at the Vanier Institute of the Family.

Nathan Battams is Communications Manager at the Vanier Institute of the Family.



  1. Statistics Canada, “New Housing Price Index, April 2020,” The Daily (May 21, 2020). Link: .
  2. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, “COVID-19: Eviction Bans and Suspensions to Support Renters: The Latest Updates on Eviction Moratoriums Related to COVID-19” (March 25, 2020). Link: .
  3. Homeless Hub, “Racialized Communities” (n.d.). Link:.
  4. Homelessness can be described as being very short-term (being unhoused for a night or so), episodic (moving in and out of homelessness) or chronic (long-term). For more information, see the Homeless Hub website. Link:.
  5. Shelters include emergency homeless shelters, violence against women shelters and temporary institutional accommodations. For more information, see the Homeless Hub website. Link:.
  6. Jennifer Ferreira, “The Toll COVID-19 Is Taking on Canada’s Homeless,” CTV News (May 22, 2020). Link:.
  7. Stephen Gaetz, Erin Dej, Tim Richter and Melanie Redman, “The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016,” Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (2016). Link: (PDF).
  8. Ferreira, “The Toll COVID-19 Is Taking on Canada’s Homeless.”
  9. Nicole Mortillaro, “‘It’s Heartbreaking’: Homeless During Pandemic Left Out in the Cold – Figuratively and Literally,” CBC News (April 17, 2020). Link:.
  10. Matthew Bingley, “Coronavirus: Toronto Officials Call for Provincial Pandemic Plan for Shelters to Avoid ‘Mass Outbreaks,’” Global News (April 20, 2020). Link:.
  11. Cec Haire, “Increase in Domestic Violence Calls Persists Throughout Pandemic, Says Non-Profit,” CBC News (July 2, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/32eJp3p.
  12. Public Health Ontario, “Rapid Review: Negative Impacts of Community-Based Public Health Measures During a Pandemic (e.g., COVID‑19) on Children and Families” (2020). Link: https://bit.ly/307gxY8 (PDF).
  13. Aisha Malik, “CAMH Expands Virtual Mental Health Services Amid COVID-19 Pandemic,” MobileSyrup (May 4, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/3gVt73i.
  14. Mortillaro, “‘It’s Heartbreaking’: Homeless During Pandemic Left Out in the Cold – Figuratively and Literally.”
  15. Ferreira, “The Toll COVID-19 Is Taking on Canada’s Homeless.”
  16. Olivia Stefanovich, “COVID-19 Shouldn’t Overshadow Ongoing Fight Against TB, Inuit Leaders Say,” CBC News (April 12, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/3doVTr3.
  17. John Borrows and Constance MacIntosh, “Indigenous Communities Are Vulnerable in Times of Pandemic. We Must Not Ignore Them,” The Globe and Mail (updated March 21, 2020). Link: https://tgam.ca/2YYhTDY.
  18. M. LaFreniere, H. Hussain, N. He and M. McGuire, “Tuberculosis in Canada, 2017,” Canada Communicable Disease Report (February 7, 2019). Link: https://bit.ly/2CrvRq9.
  19. Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services, “COVID-19: 14th CONFIRMED CASE IN NUNAVIK,” News Release (April 19, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/2OnScIb (PDF).
  20. Courtney Skye, “Colonialism of the Curve: Indigenous Communities and Bad Covid Data,” Yellowhead Institute (May 12, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/37W5kgi.
  21. Inuit Nunangat is composed of four Inuit regions: Nunatsiavut (Northern Labrador), Nunavik (Northern Quebec), Nunavut and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (Northern Northwest Territories). Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, “Inuit Nunangat Map” (updated April 4, 2019). Link: https://bit.ly/2WgN4de.
  22. Statistics Canada (2016 Census of Population) calculates crowded households as an indicator of the level of crowding in a private dwelling. It is calculated by dividing the number of persons in the household by the number of rooms in the dwelling, and dwellings with more than one person per room are considered to be crowded. Statistics Canada, “Persons per Room,” Dictionary, Census of Population, 2016 (May 3, 2017). Link: https://bit.ly/2AZDJyT.
  23. Major repairs are defined by Statistics Canada (2016 Census of Population) as including defective plumbing or electrical wiring, and dwellings needing structural repairs to walls, floors or ceilings. Statistics Canada, “Dwelling Condition,” Dictionary, Census of Population, 2016 (May 3, 2017). Link: https://bit.ly/3erBnam.
  24. Thomas Anderson, “The Housing Conditions of Aboriginal People in Canada,” Census in Brief (October 25, 2017). Link: https://bit.ly/316qpmR.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Statistics Canada, “Housing Conditions,” Aboriginal Statistics at a Glance: 2nd Edition (December 24, 2015). Link: https://bit.ly/37Ue8ne.
  27. Anderson, “The Housing Conditions of Aboriginal People in Canada.”
  28. Vanier Institute of the Family, “Indigenous Families in Canada,” Facts and Stats (June 2018).
  29. Olivia Stefanovich, “COVID-19 Shouldn’t Overshadow Ongoing Fight Against TB, Inuit Leaders Say.”
  30. Housing as a Social Determinant of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Health” (2017). Link: https://bit.ly/2DoQ3JV (PDF).
  31. Asfia Yassir, “Having Grandparents at Home Is a Blessing,” South Asian Post (March 4, 2018). Link: https://bit.ly/2WhlrR5.
  32. The Vanier Institute, “2016 Census Release Highlights Family Diversity in Canada” (October 25, 2017).
  33. Caroline Alphonso and Xiao Xu, “Multigenerational Households Face Unique Challenges in Battling Spread of Coronavirus,” The Globe and Mail (March 21, 2020). Link: https://tgam.ca/2O9ss24.
  34. Defined by Statistics Canada (2016 Census of Population) as households where there is at least one person living with a child and a grandchild.
  35. Statistics Canada, “Admission Category and Applicant Type (47), Immigrant Status and Period of Immigration (11B), Age (7A), Sex (3) and Selected Demographic, Cultural, Labour Force and Educational Characteristics (825) for the Population in Private Households of Canada, Provinces and Territories and Census Metropolitan Areas, 2016 Census – 25% Sample Data,” Data Tables, 2016 Census (updated June 17, 2019). Link: https://bit.ly/312VGHv.
  36. Defined as living in a household with at least one parent and one grandparent.
  37. Statistics Canada, “Family Characteristics of Children Including Presence of Grandparents (10), Aboriginal Identity (9), Registered or Treaty Indian Status (3), Age (4B) and Sex (3) for the Population Aged 0 to 14 Years in Private Households of Canada, Provinces and Territories, Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations, 2016 Census – 25% Sample Data,” Data Tables, 2016 Census (updated June 17, 2019). Link: .


Food Insecurity and Family Finances During the Pandemic

Nadine Badets

June 12, 2020

The COVID‑19 lockdown and ensuing economic repercussions have created a significant amount of financial stress for families in Canada. Between February and April 2020, about 1.3 million people in Canada were unemployed, with approximately 97% of the newly unemployed on temporary layoff, meaning they expect to go back to their jobs once the pandemic restrictions are relaxed.1

Research has shown that financial insecurity can severely limit access to food for low income families and exacerbate socio-economic inequities.2 Other factors, such as health and disability status, level of social support and the limited availability of certain food products, also contribute to food insecurity during the COVID‑19 pandemic.

Financial inequities intensified during physical distancing and economic lockdown

Overall, 5.5 million adults in Canada have either been affected by job loss or reduced work hours during the COVID-19 lockdown, meaning these people and their households have a significant reduction in income for necessities such as food and shelter.3 In 2018, about 3.2 million people lived below Canada’s official poverty line,4 and the economic impacts of the pandemic have likely increased these numbers.

The pandemic is also amplifying existing financial inequities.5 In Canada in 2015, the national prevalence of low income was 14%, however it was much higher among some groups, such as immigrants (Arab, West Asian, Korean, Chinese), Indigenous Peoples (First Nations people, Inuit, Métis), and Black people.6, 7 These groups were more likely to be living with low income before the COVID‑19 lockdown, and have been more likely than others to report that the pandemic has had a negative effect on their finances. According to recent survey data from the Vanier Institute of the Family, the Association of Canadian Studies and Leger,8 over half of visible minorities (51%) had a decrease in their income during the lockdown, and Indigenous peoples (42%) were most likely to report having difficulty meeting financial obligations, such as being able to pay bills on time.9, 10

Food banks across Canada have seen surges in use since the beginning of the COVID‑19 pandemic

Prior to the COVID‑19 pandemic, Food Banks Canada estimated that food bank use across the country had stabilized, with 2019 having almost the same number of visits as 2018, remaining at levels similar to 2010. In the month of March 2019, there were close to 1.1 million visits to food banks across Canada, with more than 374,000 visits for feeding children.11

Statistics Canada estimates that in 2017–2018 about 9% of households (1.2 million) in Canada were food insecure, meaning  they struggled financially to get food and did not have enough for all household members to eat regular and nutritious meals.12, 13 As with financial insecurity, food insecurity disproportionately affects certain population groups in Canada. For example, in 2014 food insecurity among Black people (29%) and Indigenous people (26%) was more than double the national average (12%).14

Research has consistently found that people living in remote and Northern communities are more likely to experience food insecurity, such as Inuit communities in Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland.15 It has also been found that Indigenous populations living in urban areas experience high levels of food insecurity. In 2017, 38% of Indigenous peoples 18 years and older living in urban areas were food insecure.16

Since the COVID‑19 pandemic started, Food Banks Canada reported that there has been an average increase of 20% in demand for services from food banks across the country, alarmingly close to the 28% increase seen during the Great Recession. Projections by Food Banks Canada estimate that demand could continue to rise to between 30% and 40% higher than pre-pandemic levels. Some food banks – such as The Daily Bread in Toronto, one of the largest food banks in Canada – have seen increases of over 50% in use.17

Increases in grocery sales associated with the receipt of financial support through CERB

Early in the pandemic (late March to early April 2020), 63% of people reported that they stocked up on essential groceries and pharmacy products as a precaution.18

Grocery sales across Canada saw a sharp increase in March 2020, rising 40% toward the end of the month and continued to remain high in mid‑April.19 The delivery of federal financial supports for unemployed people, such as the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB),20 appear to be directly linked with an increase in grocery sales, which is likely helping to mitigate food insecurity for some Canadians.21

However, CERB currently only allows recipients to claim the benefit four times for a total of 16 weeks. As July 2020 approaches, many Canadians will be using up their final installment of CERB, and not all will be eligible to be transferred to EI, which could have a serious impact on food insecurity in Canada.

Single parents and seniors with low levels of social support struggle the most to get groceries

Physical (social) distancing measures have also created new barriers for individuals and families trying to navigate new rules of when, how and with whom they can or should buy groceries. For some, such as seniors, single parents, people with disabilities and those who have (or are caring for someone with) compromised immune systems, having limited finances and little social support can seriously restrict access to food.

In 2017–2018, single parents with children under 18 years reported the highest levels of food insecurity in Canada. Female single parents had the highest rate of food insecurity at 25%, followed by male single parents at 16%.22 This compares with 12% among men and women living alone, 7% of couples with children under 18, and 3% of couples without children.23

Physical distancing measures can be particularly complex for single parents without access to child care, who may have to decide between bringing children to grocery stores, thereby breaking physical distancing rules and potentially exposing children to the virus, or turning to organizations like food banks for support.24

Seniors living with low income are less likely to have a high level of social support (77%) compared with seniors living in high income (89%). In periods of isolation such as the current lockdown, access to essentials like food can be challenging, especially for low income seniors who are ill, concerned for their health or unable to get groceries on their own due to physical or financial restrictions.25

Hoarding of certain foods limits supply and access for low income families and food banks

The COVID‑19 pandemic brought a series of panic-buying trends around the world, most notably of hand sanitizer and toilet paper.26 Many grocery stores and pharmacies have had their stock of certain food items depleted several times during the pandemic.

In mid-March 2020, sales of dry and canned foods in Canada surpassed those of fresh and frozen foods. Rice sales rose 239% compared with the same period in 2019, sales of pasta rose by 205%, canned vegetables by 180% and sales of infant formula by 103%.27 Shelf-stable foods such as these are usually a major part of food bank products,28 but are more difficult to come by during the pandemic and thus limit supplies for food insecure families.29

More research is needed to better understand the effects of the pandemic on hunger, nutrition and food insecurity in households across Canada in order to support and develop programs aimed at reducing inequities in access to food.

To find a food bank nearby or make a donation, visit the Food Banks Canada website.

Nadine Badets, Vanier Institute on secondment from Statistics Canada



  1. Statistics Canada, “COVID‑19 and the Labour Market in April 2020,” Infographics (May 8, 2020). Link: .
  2. Visit the PROOF Food Insecurity Policy Research website for more on food insecurity and social inequities. Link: .
  3. Statistics Canada, “COVID‑19 and the Labour Market in April 2020.”
  4. Statistics Canada, “Health and Social Challenges Associated with the COVID‑19 Situation in Canada,” The Daily (April 6, 2020). Link:.
  5. Learn about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on inequalities in Canada, see Canadian Human Rights Commission, Statement – Inequality Amplified by COVID-19 Crisis (March 31, 2020).
  6. Statistics Canada, “Visible Minority (15), Income Statistics (17), Generation Status (4), Age (10) and Sex (3) for the Population Aged 15 Years and Over in Private Households of Canada, Provinces and Territories, Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations, 2016 Census – 25% Sample Data,” Data Tables, 2016 Census (updated June 17, 2019). Link:.
  7. Statistics Canada, “Aboriginal Identity (9), Income Statistics (17), Registered or Treaty Indian Status (3), Age (9) and Sex (3) for the Population Aged 15 Years and Over in Private Households of Canada, Provinces and Territories, Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations, 2016 Census – 25% Sample Data,” Data Tables, 2016 Census (updated June 17, 2019). Link:.
  8. The survey, conducted by the Vanier Institute of the Family, the Association for Canadian Studies and Leger, on March 10–13, March 27–29, April 3–5, April 10–12, April 17–19, April 24–26, May 1–3 and May 8–10, 2020, included approximately 1,500 individuals aged 18 and older, interviewed using computer-assisted web-interviewing technology in a web-based survey. All samples, with the exception of those from March 10–13 and April 24–26, also included booster samples of approximately 500 immigrants. In addition, from about May 1 to 10, there was an oversample of 450 Indigenous peoples. 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.
  9. It is important to emphasize that there is a great deal of diversity within visible minority groups and Indigenous populations, all groups have unique and distinct experiences of financial and food insecurity, as well as histories, geographies, cultures, traditions, and languages.
  10. For more on the impact of the COVID-10 pandemic on immigrant families and First Nations people, Métis and Inuit, see Laetitia Martin, Families New to Canada and Financial Well-being During Pandemic (May 21, 2020) and Statistics Canada, “First Nations people, Métis and Inuit and COVID-19: Health and social characteristics,” The Daily (April 17, 2020). Link: .
  11. Food Banks Canada, “Hunger Count 2019.” Link: .
  12. Ibid.
  13. Statistics Canada, “Household Food Security by Living Arrangement,” Table 13-10-0385-01 (accessed May 27, 2020). Link: .
  14. Health Canada, Household Food Insecurity in Canada: Overview (page last updated February 18, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/30JLCDh.
  15. Valerie Tarasuk, Andy Mitchell and Naomi Dachner, “Household Food Insecurity in Canada, 2014,” PROOF Food Insecurity Policy Research (updated May 12, 2017). Link: https://bit.ly/3eJ0mpl (PDF).
  16. Paula Arriagada, “Food Insecurity Among Inuit Living in Inuit Nunangat,” Insights on Canadian Society, Statistics Canada catalogue no. 75-006-X (February 1, 2017). Link: https://bit.ly/2maW9oN.
  17. Paula Arriagada, Tara Hahmann and Vivian O’Donnell, “Indigenous People in Urban Areas: Vulnerabilities to the Socioeconomic Impacts of COVID‑19,” STATCAN COVID‑19: Data to Insights for a Better Canada (May 26, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/2zuTgWT.
  18. Beatrice Britneff, “Food Banks’ Demand Surges Amid COVID‑19. Now They Worry About Long-Term Pressures,” Global News (April 15, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/3boEHRe.
  19. Statistics Canada, “How Are Canadians Coping with the COVID‑19 Situation?,” Infographic (April 8, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/2WKdx21.
  20. Statistics Canada, “Study: Canadian Consumers Adapt to COVID‑19: A Look at Canadian Grocery Sales Up to April 11,” The Daily (May 11, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/3cj58Jz.
  21. In April 2020, Canada’s federal government established the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which provides $2,000 every four weeks to workers who have lost their income as a result of the pandemic. This benefit covers those who have lost their job, 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. 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. Government of Canada, “Canada’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan.” Link: https://bit.ly/2AhY1DD.
  22. Statistics Canada, “Study: Canadian Consumers Adapt to COVID‑19: A Look at Canadian Grocery Sales Up to April 11.”
  23. Statistics Canada, “Household Food Security by Living Arrangement.”
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ottawa Food Bank, “COVID‑19 Response Webinar – The First 5 Weeks” (May 13, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/2AWXF55.
  26. Kristyn Frank, “COVID‑19 and Social Support for Seniors: Do Seniors Have People They Can Depend on During Difficult Times?,” StatCan COVID‑19: Data to Insights for a Better Canada (April 30, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/3biLMmp.
  27. Statistics Canada, “Canadian Consumers Prepare for COVID‑19,” Price Analytical Series (April 8, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/2WO1r86.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Food Banks Canada, “Support Your Local Food Bank.” Link: https://bit.ly/3gqmYwG.


Family Finances and Mental Health During the COVID‑19 Pandemic

Ana Fostik, PhD, and Jennifer Kaddatz

May 26, 2020

In March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic suddenly brought social and economic activities to a halt across Canada, with data showing serious impacts on labour market activity. Recent estimates from Statistics Canada show that 1 million fewer Canadians were employed in March than in February, and the usual labour market activity of 3.1 million Canadians was affected (i.e. worked fewer hours or lost their job).1

According to survey data for April 10–12, 2020 from the Vanier Institute of the Family, the Association for Canadian Studies (ACS) and Leger,2 38% of men and 34% of women aged 18 and older said that they lost their job temporarily or permanently, or experienced pay or income losses, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, 27% of men and 25% of women reported a negative financial impact (i.e. ability to pay mortgage or rent and/or their bills).

Not surprisingly, Statistics Canada recently found that adults who suffered a major or moderate impact of the pandemic were much more likely to report fair or poor mental health than those who were less impacted (25% and 13%, respectively).3

Data collected in mid-April by the Vanier Institute of the Family, the Association for Canadian Studies and Leger show that younger adults have been particularly affected: more than half (52%) of those aged 18–34 reported a negative impact on their labour market activity (job or pay/income losses), compared with 39% of those aged 35–54 and 21% of those aged 55 and older. This is reflected in the shares of adults experiencing immediate negative financial outcomes, which were reported by 33% of adults under 55 and 15% of those over 55.

Adults in financial difficulty are more likely to report mental health issues

Among the core working age population (aged 18–54), just over half reported feeling anxious or nervous (53%), irritable (49%) or sad (48%) often or very often during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Vanier Institute/ACS/Leger survey. Four in 10 reported difficulty sleeping (40%) and having mood swings (40%) often or very often.

Among those who experienced immediate negative outcomes, such as not being able to pay rent or mortgage and/or their bills, about 6 in 10 reported anxiety or nervousness (63%), irritability (60%) or sadness (57%) often or very often, whereas half said they have had difficulty sleeping (50%) or experience mood swings (52%) often or very often (fig. 1).

Women in financial difficulty suffer from mental health issues in higher shares than men

According to the 2018 Canadian Community Health Survey, women were slightly less likely than men to report excellent/good mental health (66% and 71%, respectively).4 During the coronavirus pandemic, however, Statistics Canada found a much larger difference, at 49% of women and 60% of men.5

Vanier Institute/ACS/Leger survey data show women aged 18–54 reporting specific mental health issues often or very often in much larger shares than men of the same age. About 6 in 10 women reported experiencing anxiety or nervousness, irritability or sadness often or very often, compared with 4 in 10 men. Similarly, about half women experienced difficulty sleeping or mood swings often or very often, compared with 3 in 10 men (fig. 1).

This difference by gender in reporting mental health issues is maintained even when examining the proportions of men and women who suffered immediate negative financial outcomes and those who did not. For instance, three-quarters of women (76%), compared with half of men (51%), who had difficulty paying mortgage or rent and/or their bills reported feeling nervous or anxious often or very often. Almost 7 in 10 women in financial difficulty experience irritability (67%) or sadness (67%), compared with about half of men in the same situation (53% and 48%, respectively) (fig. 1).

About 6 in 10 of women in financial difficulty (55% and 62%) suffered difficulty sleeping and had mood swings often or very often, compared with 4 in 10 men in the same situation (45% and 42%, respectively) (fig. 1).

Adults with financial difficulties report similar mental health issues, whether living with young children or not

If women are significantly less likely than men to report positive mental health during the pandemic, even when financial outcomes are controlled for, what factors might be at play in creating these gender differences? Could these mental health challenges be related to family responsibilities?

An analysis of the April 10–12, 2020 data indicates that heightened symptoms of poor mental health do not appear to be linked to the presence of children in the home. Women who live with children aged 12 and younger in the household report experiencing anxiety (69%), irritability (60%), sadness (59%), difficulty sleeping (51%) and mood swings (51%) often and very often in similar proportions as women who do not live with children (63%, 57%, 60%, 47% and 48%, respectively). Men who live with young children also report these problems in similar proportions as those who do not (fig. 2).

Among women in financial difficulty, there is little difference in the share reporting any of these mental health problems whether they have young children living in the household or not. This is also true among women who did not experience immediate negative financial outcomes: living with children aged 12 and under in the household does not appear to make a difference (fig. 2).

Analysis of self-reported mental health status shows that some of the differences by gender persist when controlling for province of residence, age, financial difficulty, job/pay loss, presence of children aged 12 and under, household income, marital status and educational attainment. Controlling by these variables and compared with men who are in financial difficulty, women in financial difficulty are about twice as likely to suffer from anxiety, sadness or mood swings. Among adults who have not suffered financial negative outcomes, there are no significant differences between men and women in mental health outcomes once controlling for these factors.

While this analysis could not pinpoint potential reasons why women are more likely than men to report poor mental health symptoms, future research may seek to focus on psychological differences between women and men in crisis situations in order to determine whether or not women and men react differently in crisis situations or when there is an immediate threat to personal or family health and well-being. More research on the impact of gendered aspects of household work and caregiving, including the mental burden associated with these types of unpaid work, might also shed light on these differences.

Ana Fostik, PhD, Vanier Institute on secondment from Statistics Canada

Jennifer Kaddatz, Vanier Institute on secondment from Statistics Canada


  1. Statistics Canada, “The Impact of COVID-19 on the Canadian Labour Market,” Infographics (April 9, 2020). Link: .
  2. A survey by the Vanier Institute of the Family, the Association for Canadian Studies and Leger, conducted March 10–13, March 27–29, April 3–5, April 10–12, April 17–19 and April 24–26, included approximately 1,500 individuals aged 18 and older, interviewed using computer-assisted web-interviewing technology in a web-based survey. All samples, except for the March 10–13 and April 24–26 samples, also included booster samples of approximately 500 immigrants. 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.
  3. Statistics Canada, “Canadian Perspectives Survey Series 1: Impacts of COVID-19 on Job Security and Personal Finances, 2020,” The Daily (April 20, 2020). Link: .
  4. Leanne Findlay and Rubab Arim, “Canadians Report Lower Self-Perceived Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” STATCAN COVID-19: Data to Insights for a Better Canada, Statistics Canada catalogue no. 45280001 (April 24, 2020). Link: .
  5. Ibid.


Families New to Canada and Financial Well-being During Pandemic

Laetitia Martin

May 21, 2020

In 2015, the 193 Member States of the United Nations Organization, including Canada, adopted 17 sustainable development goals. Over a 15-year time frame, the plan aims to “end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere.”1 Eradicating poverty is ranked first because of the extreme vulnerability that it causes, especially in a time of crisis such as the pandemic that we are experiencing now.

Given this period of increased vulnerability, it is even more important to monitor the evolving economic situation and well-being of the most disadvantaged families. Whether one thinks of Indigenous, immigrant, single-parent or other types of families facing poverty, analyzing regularly updated data is vital to follow developments in the situation. In this way, our public decision makers will be able to implement effective policies and programs to reduce poverty, even in a time of crisis.

Based on data from the 2016 Census, almost 1 in 3 immigrant children (32.2%), one of the most economically vulnerable groups in the country, lives in poverty.2 What are the economic difficulties currently facing these families?

Three out of 10 immigrants had difficulty meeting their immediate financial obligations

In a time of pandemic, the entire population may experience financial losses, regardless of the prior level of economic vulnerability. Data collected during a recent survey conducted over a six-week period by the Vanier Institute of the Family, the Association for Canadian Studies and Leger show this clearly.3

Regardless of their immigrant status, nearly 4 to 5 out of 10 respondents stated that they had experienced a decrease in their income because of the pandemic. Immigrants were represented to a higher degree, however, among those for whom this decrease in income caused difficulty in meeting their short-term financial obligations (fig. 1). In the first weeks following implementation of social distancing measures, almost 3 out of 10 immigrants (29%) stated that they had difficulty paying their rent or mortgage due to the crisis. This was almost 1 out of 10 persons higher than their Canadian-born counterparts (20%). The gap appears likely to persist over the coming weeks.

Similarly, a greater proportion of foreign-born versus Canadian-born individuals experienced other short-term financial difficulties, such as paying bills on time. These financial stress indicators make the foreign-born population all the more vulnerable when they encounter difficulty meeting their basic needs, such as having a roof over their heads and accessing related public services, the minimum needed for their well-being and that of their family.

More than 1 out of 2 immigrant parents experienced a loss of income

Looking more closely at the economic impact of the crisis on immigrant families, one sees that the negative effects were immediate (fig. 2). In late March, more than 1 out of 2 immigrant parents stated that they had experienced a loss of income because of the pandemic, resulting in a reduced capacity to assist other family members financially. This support might not only have proven even more useful during this difficult time, but its decrease might also have a snowball effect within the most economically vulnerable ethnic communities.

Downward trends of immigrant parents experiencing immediate financial difficulties

On a more positive note, trends observed over recent weeks have shown a decrease in the proportion of immigrant parents who experienced immediate financial impacts. After reaching a high during the first week of April, the proportion of immigrant parents who had difficulty paying their rent or mortgage, as well as those who had difficulty meeting their other financial obligations, decreased by more than 15 percentage points in the following four weeks. While it is too early to determine the precise cause of the decrease, these results suggest that businesses that have adapted in an ongoing effort to maintain services despite distancing rules, coupled with the financial measures put in place by governments, may be helping lessen the economic vulnerability of immigrant families in the immediate term.

Financially vulnerable immigrant families visit the grocery store more often

Beyond direct financial impacts, economic vulnerability can also limit the ability to adopt certain behaviours that promote good health. For example, some parents of immigrant families may have to make difficult choices between the basic needs of their family and the resources they have to reduce their exposure to COVID-19. Furthermore, some economically vulnerable families do not have any credit cards to shop online, cannot pay the added cost imposed by grocery stores for delivery or packaging of items, or do not have the necessary financial resources to buy provisions to last them over several days. Not to mention that it might be more difficult for individuals without a car to transport a large amount of provisions on foot or on public transit.

These constraints might explain why twice as many immigrant parents who experienced immediate financial difficulties (46%) went to the grocery store more than once a week, compared with their Canadian-born counterparts, who had not experienced the same difficulties (23%) (fig. 3). No significant difference was observed between the two groups regarding compliance with other safety measures, such as social distancing and frequent hand washing, which suggests that this increased exposure cannot be explained by a lack of awareness.

In instituting sustainable development goals in 2015, the 193 States around the world recognized that “inequality threatens long-term social and economic development.”4 Often called a land of immigrants, Canada nevertheless remains a country in which immigrant families face a high risk of economic vulnerability. Data collected at the start of the pandemic show that inequalities persist in a time of crisis. Immigrants are harder hit financially in the immediate term than their Canadian-born counterparts.

Six weeks of collecting weekly data would seem to bear witness to a national resiliency or capacity to adapt to this extraordinary situation by mitigating certain negative effects. The downward trend in the prevalence of immigrant families that experienced difficulty paying their mortgage or rent, or meeting their other financial obligations, can be seen as a positive. But if the past weeks have taught us one lesson, it is that the situation changes rapidly in a time of pandemic. It is therefore more important than ever to closely monitor the situation and to be sure to identify, in a timely manner, the needs of the most vulnerable families, be they Indigenous, immigrant, single-parent or other. Eradicating poverty is an even greater challenge in a time of crisis.

Laetitia Martin, Vanier Institute on secondment from Statistics Canada


  1. United Nations Organization, “Sustainable Development Program,” Sustainable Development Goals. Link: https://bit.ly/35ZOi07.
  2. Statistics Canada, Data Products, 2016 Census, Data Tables, Statistics Canada catalogue no. 98-400-X2016206. Link: .
  3. The survey, conducted by the Vanier Institute of the Family, the Association for Canadian Studies and Leger on March 10–13, March 27–29, April 3–5, April 10–12, April 17–19, April 24–26 and May 1–3, 2020, included approximately 1,500 individuals aged 18 and older, interviewed using computer-assisted web-interviewing technology in a web-based survey. All samples, with the exception of those from March 10–13 and April 24–26, also included booster samples of approximately 500 immigrants. 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 compahttps://bit.ly/3mQFdPdrative purposes, a probability sample of 1,512 respondents would have a margin of error of ±2.52%, 19 times out of 20.
  4. United Nations Organization, “Reduced Inequalities: Why It Matters,” Sustainable Goal #10: Reduced Inequalities. Link: https://bit.ly/3mQFdPd (PDF).


Work and Family: The Impact of Mobility, Scheduling and Precariousness

Elise Thorburn, PhD (Memorial University)

There is an immense shift underway in the workforce across Canada that is clear to many people who are working and to those who are looking for work. In recent years, there has been a rise in unstable and precarious employment, as well as a growing number of jobs with long commuting times and those involving long travel times during work. Furthermore, the use of shift-scheduling technology – which automates labour distribution in a workplace – is increasing across a variety of sectors. These evolving contexts can have a significant impact on workers and their families.

The use of shift-scheduling technology – which automates labour distribution in a workplace – is increasing across a variety of sectors.

A recent study conducted as part of the On the Move Partnership1 surveyed and interviewed union representatives and union members in Canada to explore how they manage unpaid family care responsibilities along with their often erratic work schedules and long or arduous commutes. The goal was to explore how these workers reconcile the rhythms of work and life in increasingly mobile and precarious sectors, and what unions are doing to foster harmony for these workers and their families.

Research from On the Move has shown that a large but difficult-to-document number of Canadians work in municipalities, provinces and even countries far from their homes and families, and their employment-related mobility often follows complex and nuanced patterns.2 These workers often invest considerable time and other resources managing and negotiating the impacts of this mobility.

This study focused on two particular types of mobility:

1. Lengthy and/or complex commuting, such as jobs that involve travelling an hour or more each way per day to the place of work (including the time it takes to drop off or pick up children, spouses, parents, etc.).

2. Mobility during/for work, such as jobs in which workers move around from worksite to worksite throughout the day, as with personal support workers or homecare nurses.

These categories aren’t exclusive; for some workers, these two categories – long commutes and mobility throughout the day – overlap. Study participants were all in the Greater Toronto Area, and they either worked in or represented employees within in the home health care sector, the airport and airline sector, or the higher education sector. While these workplaces differ greatly in the wages, skill sets and demographics of the workers, their diversity serves to highlight how the issues presented here can appear in different settings with different employee characteristics.

Unpaid idle time can represent “time taken from family”

One of the impacts of modern shift-scheduling practices and mobility is a greater amount of unpaid idle time for these diverse types of workers: time when they are not at home but not officially on the clock. Many of them referred to this as time taken from family, and it can have an impact on family finances. For example, if an employee was paying for child care but stuck with unpaid idle time, it could actually result in negative earnings. One airport worker, for example, recalled being scheduled for a shift that began at 2:30 a.m., but the last bus to leave from his neighbourhood to work left at midnight. Therefore, he regularly arrived at work an hour or more before his start time to ensure he was on time, and would then sleep or wait around at the airport – unpaid – until his shift began.

Home health care workers with long waits between clients also experience unpaid idle time, as reported by Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Barbara Neis.3The workers in their study were paid only for direct care time and the travel time between clients, regardless of how long they had to wait between scheduled visits. For example, one personal support worker said:

I start at 9:30 in the morning, work with a client for two hours, and then wait until 1:30 to see another client. When it’s not cold outside I sometimes sit on a park bench, but most of the time I find a Tim’s or a mall to sit in. I don’t have money to buy coffee at Tim Hortons every day while I wait for another shift to begin, but I am too far from home to go back there.

Her mobility between clients pulled her far from her home in her unpaid time, and for workers like her with children in daycare or with babysitters, that two hours of unpaid time between patients represented even greater negative earnings.

Aside from lost or negative earnings, idle time also represents unpaid time away from family. Some workers reported trying to resolve this lost family time by multi-tasking – for example, some parents of older children often “parent by phone” during long commutes, in idle time between clients or as they moved between worksites. One union representative in the home health care sector spoke of a member who texted constantly with her daughter throughout the workday. Another spoke of workers talking to their children about general life issues through meal preparation, homework and while commuting. During long commutes or drives between clients, the phone becomes a lifeline to more engaged parenting for many, helping to alleviate some of the stress of “leaving your children alone when you would not otherwise,” as one worker put it.

Aside from lost or negative earnings, idle time also represents unpaid time away from family.

University workers in the study reported that long commutes to rigidly scheduled classes can serve as time to catch up on sleep or to engage in preparatory work, reading or marking student papers. One university worker with a very young child, whose commute often stretched to more than 3.5 hours, said that the travel time by train was often the only time he could find to catch up on uninterrupted sleep. That said, he and other university workers also found that the long commutes and rigid schedules were the cause of significant mental health issues and troubled familial and social relationships.

Mobility and scheduling can affect employee and family well-being

The mental health ramifications of precarious work, as well as work with extended commuting and demands of child care, are well documented.4 The convergence of scheduling and mobility, paired with the responsibilities of family, had a negative impact on the mental health and well-being of interviewed university workers (e.g. stress, fatigue, anxiety). One said that his mental health was severely impacted by the pressures of the commute and the schedule, causing things at home to become “bad.” He noted, “I was feeling so very desperate earlier in the fall, even just seeking therapy became difficult.” The convergence of scheduling, onerous mobility and family care responsibilities made finding the time and energy needed to manage his mental health was an insurmountable task. The schedule and commute mitigated the rejuvenating aspects of his work, and he said exhaustion was very common by the end of the term. As well, maintaining his social circle outside of his immediate family was almost impossible and, he noted, “It [took] intense planning to even schedule a haircut.”

Accessing child care – quality, affordable child care that works for non-traditional schedules – is a major issue for mobile workers.

Another university and union worker noted that the time spent on transit exacerbated exhaustion and made the transition for children from daycare or school to home that much more fraught. “You are tired and cranky, and so is your child,” she said, and “you are never really able to honour the schedule of your child or yourself, which leads to you feeling guilty and just bad.” The need to always be up early and rushing to a long and onerous commute also caused her to have residual anxiety issues – issues she says stayed with her long after she left that particular job. “I always feel like everything is being done at the last minute and I’m constantly anxious about that,” she explained. The anxiety that she felt had an effect on her children, she believed, giving them their own sense of urgency or anxiety, and the feeling that the adults around them – those that are caring for them – are constantly in a state of heightened stress. This mirrors what Stephanie Premji found in her research on precarious immigrant workers in Toronto – the worry about work-related economic insecurity caused the children of these precarious workers to become depressed and it contributed to familial stress.5

Other union representatives and workers I spoke to also noted that family responsibilities and mobility paired with schedules that are out of one’s control increased their unpaid caring labour in the home, which in turn contributed to social isolation and the loss of support networks. They also spoke of their frustration in being unable to address or alter the situation they felt trapped in – they could not move closer to their workplace because it may often change, for example, or because they could not afford to live in areas with better employment opportunities. Other On the Move researchers have found that many aren’t able to overcome these barriers and improve their labour market experiences (and hence mental health) over time.

Non-standard work hours often don’t align with child care availability

All of the worksites in this study operate on non-traditional, often 24-hour schedules. Non-standard work hours include a variety of now-common schedule possibilities and working patterns – from slightly extended hours (beginning from 6 a.m. and ending around 7:30 or 8 p.m.) to later shifts (e.g. those that last until 11 p.m. or later) as well as full overnights and weekends.6

Non-standard hours of work have been steadily increasing in Canada, and Statistics Canada reports that the period from 2005 to 2015 saw a growing shift from traditional to more flexible, non-standard work schedules.7 Yet both transit systems and child care centres have been set up to meet the needs of a standard 9-to-5 work schedule, and have done little to change over this same time period. Many of the interviewed workers and union representatives said that the standard hours of transit and child care conflicted with the rhythms of their workplaces, meaning that daycare centres – formal, regulated and licensed to ensure quality and safety – were not an option for them.

Accessing child care – quality, affordable child care that works for non-traditional schedules – is a major issue for mobile workers. For many low-income, precarious workers on non-standard schedules, informal child care providers are the only accessible option. Such providers may be available by negotiation at a moment’s notice and during non-traditional hours, leading to situations of “trickle-down precarity.” These workers may also supplement child care providers with occasional help from family, friends and neighbours, or rely entirely on them – one union representative and worker at Toronto Pearson International Airport noted that his wife’s parents moved into their home for five years to care for their young children while he and his wife worked non-standard schedules for an airline.

For many immigrant workers, the social support systems they may have had in their home countries are absent, and thus accessing child care becomes a significant source of anxiety.

However, this reliance on family is not an option for everyone. For many immigrant workers, the social support systems they may have had in their home countries are absent, and thus accessing child care becomes a significant source of anxiety, especially as mobility and scheduling disrupt the rhythms of necessary care work in their home.8 Even with formal child care, long commutes and worker mobility paired with unpredictable or non-standard schedules can have emotional and mental health impacts on workers who engage in unpaid caring labour at home. One worker noted that her schedule and commute paired with traffic meant she was often arriving very close to the daycare’s closing time and, she noted, “There is the horrible shame of being the last person to pick your kids up.”

This was especially acute for women workers, who felt that their tardiness to collect children from care was a reflection of their quality as a parent. This shame and even fear is not entirely unwarranted: while most daycares have fines for picking children up after closing time – often in the range of $1 per minute – in 2016, a daycare in Etobicoke, Ontario instituted fines as high at $300 per hour, as well as a possible call to Children’s Aid Society if no parents or emergency contacts could be reached.9

One worker noted that punitive measures such as these are an enormous source of stress for her as she commutes between worksites on the subway, because while underground she has no cellphone access. She continually fears a subway delay or breakdown, since she would not be able to call and alert the daycare if she was going to be late. For her, this is a source of anxiety and stress that does not end when her commute does, but that carries with her into her interactions with her children and at home. Thus, to add to the sense of shame, anxiety and stress associated with mobility, family and non-standard schedules, the possibility of losing access to one’s children entirely is introduced, as well as the potential complication to immigration applications if Children’s Aid Society is ever involved.

Non-standard work scheduling can be complex and time-consuming

The challenges of non-standard work schedules, mobility and limited incomes, and the friction between schedules and child care, means that workers often spend unpaid time outside of work scheduling and coordinating work and family responsibilities, which further encroaches upon family time. In her research on call centre workers in Quebec, Karen Messing found that parents made use of eight different babysitting resources to fill caregiving needs over a two-week period, and spent considerable unpaid leisure time trying to switch shifts with co-workers to make up for the rest.10

When some workers cannot harmonize their schedules, commutes and family responsibilities, the only option may be to take fewer shifts or remain in casual positions – even if they are entitled to a full-time or permanent job.

When some workers cannot harmonize their schedules, commutes and family responsibilities, the only option may be to take fewer shifts or remain in casual positions – even if they are entitled to a full-time or permanent job. Some union representatives said their members in the home health care sector, for example, “choose” to remain in more precarious positions, because family life simply cannot be coordinated around work life. But as one mentioned, “It’s a tricky thing to say when it’s a choice and when it’s an obligation.” Another union representative said, “I’ve seen people quit entirely over this,” and reiterated that if not quitting, remaining casual was often a way that workers sought to assert more control over their work schedule and life.

Questions remain on mobility and the “duty to accommodate”

One avenue to support those balancing work and family responsibilities has been the human rights codes. In the Canadian Human Rights Act and in all provincial acts aside from New Brunswick (where reviews to add the ground are ongoing), “family status” is considered a prohibited ground for discrimination.11 This means that employers have a “duty to accommodate,” which means that employers “have an obligation to adjust rules, policies, or practices to enable you to participate fully.”12 But “family status” and “duty to accommodate” are ill-defined across the human rights acts and codes in Canada, and accommodation does not guarantee a new or similar position with similar wages for a worker, or reassignment to a job with similar duties and a more amenable schedule. As well, accommodation requests can be rejected due to “undue hardship” on the part of the employer, the definition of which is equally vague.

Awareness of the duty to accommodate as an avenue for mitigating the impacts of scheduling on work and family was low among workers and union representatives, and few had tried to use the legislation. Among those who had attempted to make use of family status accommodations, some representatives for home health care workers, for example, said that the legislation had not been particularly useful to them, suggesting that its relative lack of usefulness “speaks to certain biases within the document around what people’s relationships to the employer are.”

One union representative in the study explained that a member of their union had been moved from her position due to layoffs in the organization. The new position the member was bumped into required hours and commuting times that would not allow her to be home for her child either before or after school. As a single parent, newly immigrated and without extended family in the country, she had no one to share caregiving responsibilities with, and so her union made an accommodation request on her behalf. The employer made an undue hardship claim, and then offered the member a different position with significantly reduced hours. Weighing her hourly wage against the cost of child care before and after school meant that the original job with more hours wasn’t going to be financially worth it, so in the end, the member simply “didn’t have a choice,” according to the union representative. As a result, the member “had to take the reduced hours and now struggles financially.” Another union representative with a similar case said that this is “an example of how the system means well but operates on the basis of older forms of employment relationships.”

It remains unclear how mobility specifically converges with human rights code recommendations around the duty to accommodate.

Further, it remains unclear how mobility specifically converges with human rights code recommendations around the duty to accommodate. Can a homecare worker or any other worker request a schedule that takes commute time and work time in relation to family status into account? Can a worker cite rush-hour traffic or winter travel or transit delays and overcrowding as part of a duty to accommodate application? Can poor transit options converging with inconvenient schedules be grounds for a request for accommodation? Can workers cite the likelihood of commuting times from certain work schedules causing increased child care late-pickup fees? These are questions that have no clear answer in the current human rights legislation but are serious concerns for workers today.

Unions adapting to evolving work and family contexts

What emerges from this research is that workers in jobs across multiple sectors have complex lives and multiple, evolving demands on their time. The voices of union representatives and workers presented here highlight the need for labour representatives to begin to consider mobility and care work as an aspect of their negotiations, especially as it converges with increasingly erratic, unpredictable and around-the-clock work schedules.

What emerges from this research is that workers in jobs across multiple sectors have complex lives and multiple, evolving demands on their time.

Several union representatives who were involved in collective bargaining said that they often felt at an impasse, unsure of how to deal with the impacts of work on their members’ after-work lives. Because there seemed little in the way of other options, most union representatives put the focus on increasing wages for workers, so as to alleviate some of the stressors of mobility and unpaid care work. But a focus on wages to the exclusion of other options may allow untenable situations for some workers to persist.

There are some interesting examples of possible models for unions to consider. One worker who was active in his union said that all gains cannot be won at the bargaining table, and that workers and unions need to build relationships with non-unionized workers, their neighbours and community members, and community-based organizations to help build holistic solutions to the problems mobile workers on erratic schedules with caregiving responsibilities face. He cited the example of the Toronto Airport Workers Assembly (TAWC), which is made up of unionized and non-unionized airport workers, and partnered with community environmental and transit groups to ultimately win a reduced rate on the UP Express train line to the airport. Originally priced at $27.50 per ride, the efforts of the TAWC in alliance with community partners contributed to the decision to lower the price to $3.50 for airport workers and $12 for regular riders.

As well, the Ontario Human Rights Code recommends considering inclusive design in workplaces.13 Usually understood as “Universal Design,” inclusive design asks employers to consider the ways that workplaces can become more family-friendly. How are schedules, workloads and descriptions of work designed, and how can the beneficial elements of mobile work on flexible schedules be emphasized while the negative impacts are mitigated? How might inclusive design be implemented within collective agreements is a question union leaders could begin to consider as the landscape of work continues to shift and change.

Elise Thorburn is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Sociology at Brock University and a researcher with the On the Move Partnership. On the Move is a research project involving the Vanier Institute of the Family and universities across Canada and abroad investigating workers’ extended travel and related absence from their places of permanent residence for the purpose of (and as part of) their employment.

Published on August 21, 2018



  1. The On the Move Partnership (OTM) is a project of the SafetyNet Centre for Occupational Health and Safety Research at Memorial University. It is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council through its Partnership Grants funding Opportunity, Innovate NL, CFI and multiple universities and community partners. This research was also supported by an internship with the Vanier Institute of the Family.
  2. Learn more on the On the Move Partnership website. Link: .
  3. Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Barbara Neis, “On the Move and Working Alone: Policy Implications of the Experiences of Unionised Newfoundland and Labrador Homecare Workers,” Policy and Practice in Health and Safety, 13(2) (January 2016). Link:.
  4. Stephanie Premji, “‘It’s Totally Destroyed Our Life’: Exploring the Pathways and Mechanisms Between Precarious Employment and Health and Well-being Among Immigrant Men and Women in Toronto,” International Journal of Health 48(1) (January 2018). Link:
  5. Ibid.
  6. Shani Halfon and Martha Friendly, Work Around the Clock: A Snapshot of Non-Standard Hours Child Care in Canada (Toronto: Childcare Resource and Research Unit, 2015). Link: https://bit.ly/2K4vyDZ.
  7. Statistics Canada, “Labour in Canada: Key Results from the 2016 Census,” The Daily (November 29, 2017). Link: .
  8. See Stephanie Premji, “Precarious Employment and Difficult Daily Commutes,” Relations Industrielles / Industrial Relations, 72(1) (January 2017).
  9. Amanda Ferguson, “Etobicoke Daycare Hikes Late Fees for Parents Who Don’t Pick Up Kids on Time” City News Toronto (October 4, 2017). Link:.
  10. Karen Messing, Pain and Prejudice: What Science Can Learn About Work from the People Who Do It (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2014).
  11. Learn more with Family Caregiving in Canada: A Fact of Life and a Human Right (Vanier Institute of the Family, 2016).
  12. Canadian Human Rights Commission, What Is the Duty to Accommodate? (n.d.). Link:.
  13. Ontario Human Rights Commission, Inclusive Design and the Duty to Accommodate (Fact Sheet) (n.d.). 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


Modern Family Finances: Income in Canada (January 2018)

Much like families themselves, family finances in Canada is a topic characterized by diversity, complexity and perpetual evolution. Family income is no exception. 2016 Census data shows that households across Canada receive income from a variety of sources, and these economic arrangements change over time as families adapt and react to social, economic, cultural and environmental forces.

The complex and multi-faceted nature of family finances can make it a difficult topic to fully comprehend. No measure of family finances exists in isolation, and all are interconnected: if a family’s income is too low, then it may be impossible for them to build savings; if expenses are too high, debt may be just around the corner; if debt is too high, it can reduce family wealth – and so on. However, much can be learned about the whole of finances by examining the topic through a family lens.

Every family household has its own unique constellation of income sources that they manage to fulfill their obligations at home and in their communities. These arrangements typically aren’t static – they evolve throughout the life cycle as family circumstances change, along with the resources available to them.

To explore this topic in further detail, the Vanier Institute has published .

Highlights include:

  • In 2015, the total median household income in Canada was approximately $70,300 before taxes ($61,300 after taxes), and $34,200 before taxes (just under $30,900 after taxes) for individuals.
  • Household income included revenue from a variety of sources, including employment income (approximately 71% of Canadians received employment income), investments (30%), CPP/QPP benefits (23%), OAS/GIS benefits (18%), the Canada Child Tax Benefit (11%), Employment Insurance benefits (9%), social assistance (5%) and more.
  • Incomes are lower than the national average and low-income rates are higher for women; First Nations, Inuk (Inuit) and Métis people; immigrants (particularly for recent immigrants and non-permanent residents); visible minorities; and persons living with disabilities.
  • In 2015, nearly one-third (32%) of married or common-law couples in Canada received “fairly equal” incomes, although, on average, women earned an estimated $0.87 for every dollar earned by men.
  • Debt is consuming a smaller share of household income than in previous decades, with the share of income devoted to servicing the interest on household debt falling from 10.8% in 1991 to 6.4% in 2015.
  • One in five (19.8%) seniors in Canada (1.1M) reported that they worked at some point in 2015 – nearly twice the rate recorded in 1995 (10.1%).
  • Many Canadians of all ages plan to keep working to ensure sufficient income as seniors, with more than one-third (36%) reporting in 2014 that ongoing employment earnings are a part of their financial retirement plan.

Income in Canada is a part of the Vanier Institute’s Modern Family Finances series, which addresses particular topics such as income and expenditures; savings and debt; and wealth and net worth. Subsequent editions in this series will focus on unique experiences such as family finances among military and Veteran families, families on the move, and families living with disability.

This bilingual resource will be updated periodically as new data emerges. Sign up for our monthly e-newsletter to find out about updates, as well as other news about publications, projects and initiatives from the Vanier Institute.

A Snapshot of Families and Food in Canada

Food is at the heart of family life. A biological necessity for our survival and well-being, food is also much more than that. What we choose to eat is often more than just a matter of personal preferences and whims; in many instances, what we eat reflects our cultural, community and family identities. Sometimes, our choices are made for us based on the availability and accessibility of food.

Regardless of the context, families adapt and react to ensure that dietary needs are being met. Some families have many opportunities to eat together, and these family meals provide a setting where family dynamics and relationships often “play out,” whether it’s in the delegation of cooking roles, discussing an upcoming family vacation or arguing over who has to do the dishes. Sometimes families – particularly those with busy schedules or high mobility – opt to eat meals “on the go.”

explores the evolving relationships between families and food in Canada, including research and statistics about family meals, eating patterns, nutrition, food security and more.

Highlights include:

  • More than 6 in 10 Canadians (62%) surveyed in 2017 said they eat dinner as a family at least five times per week.
  • More than one-quarter (26%) of Canadians surveyed in 2017 agree with the statement, “My work–life balance does not permit me to prepare and/or eat my meals at home.”
  • The most recent data indicates that 12% of households across Canada (1.3 million) experienced food insecurity in 2014, home to 3.2 million people.
  • More than half (52%) of Inuit living in Inuit Nunangat1 aged 25 and over lived in food-insecure households in 2012.
  • In 2015, households across Canada spent an average $8,600 on food, an increase of 9.9% since 2010.
  • 4 in 10 of those who said it’s become more difficult to afford groceries said they’ve been choosing less healthy options in the aisle to manage the rising prices.
  • According to a 2017 study, more than three-quarters of Canadians aren’t meeting Canada Food Guide recommendations for fruit and vegetable consumption, with a resulting estimated economic burden to society of is $4.39 billion per year.
  • More than 863,000 people across Canada accessed food banks in March 2016 alone (40% of whom lived in family households with children), 28% higher than in 2008.
  • Research shows that the widespread malnutrition experienced by Indigenous children in Canada’s residential school system has had (and continues to have) a multi-generational impact on the health and well-being of their children and grandchildren, contributing to higher rates of chronic conditions.

This bilingual resource will be updated periodically as new data emerges. Sign up for our monthly e-newsletter to find out about updates, as well as other news about publications, projects and initiatives from the Vanier Institute.


This Statistical Snapshot publication is dedicated to David Northcott, CM, OM, retired Executive Director of Winnipeg Harvest Food Bank and a founder of both the Canadian Association of Food Banks and the Manitoba Association of Food Banks. David recently completed his second full term on the Vanier Institute Board of Directors, where his enthusiasm, dedication to family well-being and generous heart has had an impact on the entire Vanier Institute team.



  1. From Statistics Canada: “Inuit Nunangat is the homeland of Inuit of Canada. It includes the communities located in the four Inuit regions: Nunatsiavut (Northern coastal Labrador), Nunavik (Northern Quebec), the territory of Nunavut and the Inuvialuit region of the Northwest Territories. These regions collectively encompass the area traditionally occupied by Inuit in Canada.” Link: .

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

A Snapshot of Women, Work and Family in Canada

Canada is home to more than 18 million women (9.8 million of whom are mothers), many of whom fulfill multiple responsibilities at home, at work and in the community. Over many generations, women in Canada have had diverse employment experiences that continue to evolve and change. These experiences have differed significantly from those of men, and there is a great deal of diversity in the experiences among women, which are impacted by a variety of factors including (but not limited to) cultural norms and expectations, family status, disability and a variety of demographic characteristics.

To explore the diverse and evolving work and family experiences of women in Canada, the Vanier Institute of the Family has created . This publication is a companion piece to our Fifty Years of Women, Work and Family in Canada timeline, providing visually engaging data about the diverse work and family experiences of women across Canada.

Highlights include:

  • The share of all core working-aged women (25 to 54 years) who are in the labour force has increased significantly across generations, from 35% in 1964 to 82% in 2016.
  • Employment rates vary among different groups of core working-aged women, including those who are recently immigrated (53%), women reporting an Aboriginal identity (67%) and those living with a disability (52% to 56%, depending on the age subgroup).
  • On average, women without children earn 12% more per hour than those with children – a wage gap sometimes referred to as the “mommy tax.”
  • Nearly one-third (32%) of women aged 25 to 44 who were employed part-time in 2016 said that they were working part-time because they were caring for children.
  • 70% of mothers with children aged 5 and under were employed in 2015, compared with only 32% in 1976.
  • In 2013, 11% of all recent mothers inside Quebec and 36% in the rest of Canada, respectively, did not receive maternity and/or parental leave benefits – a difference attributed to the various EI eligibility regimes in the provinces.
  • 72% of all surveyed mothers in Canada report being satisfied with their work–life balance, but this rate falls to 63% for those who are also caregivers.
  • 75% of working mothers with a flexible work schedule report being satisfied with their work–life balance – a rate that falls to 69% for those without flexibility.

This bilingual resource will be updated periodically as new data emerges. Sign up for our monthly e-newsletter to find out about updates, as well as other news about publications, projects and initiatives from the Vanier Institute.

Download from the Vanier Institute of the Family.


Published on May 9, 2017

Infographic: Women, Caregiving and Work in Canada

Caregiving is a fact of life and a common family experience in Canada. At some point in their lives, most family members have provided – or will provide – care to a family member or friend with a long-term health condition, disability or aging need. However, Canadians don’t share a single narrative or caregiving experience, as social, economic, cultural and environmental factors shape who is expected to provide care, what kind of care they provide and the consequences of managing caregiving in addition to paid work.

And while the gap between women and men has lessened over the past generation, caregivers have historically been disproportionately women, and this remains true today. Research also shows that on average, women in Canada devote more time to caregiving tasks than men and are more likely to experience negative consequences as a result of their caregiving.

Our new infographic explores family caregiving and work in Canada with a focus on women.

Highlights include:

  • 30% of all women in Canada reported that they provided care in 2012.
  • Women aged 45 and older reported having spent an estimated 5.8 years providing care throughout their lives, compared with 3.4 years for men.
  • Women are significantly more likely than men to report having spent 20 hours or more per week providing care (17% and 11%, respectively).
  • An estimated 72% of women caregivers aged 45 to 65 in Canada are also employed.
  • Women reported experiencing a variety of employment impacts as a result of their caregiving responsibilities: 30% reported missing at least one full day of work; 6.4% retired early, quit or lost their paid job; and 4.7% turned down a job offer or promotion.
  • Estimates show that women caregivers in Canada lost an aggregated $221 million in wages annually between 2003 and 2008 due to absenteeism, reducing work hours or leaving employment entirely.
  • Among women caregivers who have access to flexible work arrangements, half (47%) feel they cannot utilize these options without it having a negative impact on their careers.


Download the infographic from the Vanier Institute of the Family.

Lived Experience: Understanding Families Affected by Incarceration

Farhat Rehman

Incarceration has an impact on thousands of families across Canada. When a person is sentenced to time in prison, their families are often profoundly affected; they are separated from a son, daughter, sibling, parent or other relative. Feelings of stigma, guilt and shame are common, and can be compounded when the sentenced family member is also living with a mental health condition – a reality for many incarcerated individuals and their families.

My family life has been profoundly affected by incarceration ever since my son was sentenced in 2001. When the chasm of the prison system had swallowed him up, the world appeared dark with no hope of seeing daylight. Our lives took a drastic turn on that ominous day. Our family’s lives and relationships were forever changed.

As a mother, I couldn’t help but wonder over and over again why my son had committed such a serious criminal act. Why did his mind work this way? What could have been done to prevent this catastrophe? Why, after years of treatment in the mental health system, had he still fallen through the cracks? What could I have done differently that would have prevented this crime from taking place and tearing apart two families? Since then, there have been daily reminders as I speak to him and visit him in prison. For us, his family, the impact of my son’s action have sunk in gradually over time. The nightmare of prison has played havoc with his mental health conditions with all the ups and downs of a roller coaster, and it’s become a constant source of worry for our family.

The nightmare of prison has played havoc with his mental health conditions with all the ups and downs of a roller coaster, and it’s become a constant source of worry for our family.


Incarceration affects family relationships, family traditions and family futures

As we have learned, in-person visits can be traumatic for the visitor. When visiting someone in prison, you have to first pass through layers of security such as the ion scanner (a drug-scanning device known for detecting false positives). Otherwise, you risk being turned away, which can seriously impact the inmate’s prison life.

There is no occasion that is celebrated as a family where I don’t feel my son’s absence. The festivities, the good food and laughter lack the genuine happiness that can come from family gatherings. This is never really talked about openly.

Family members will occasionally ask about my son and he may receive birthday cards from family and friends, but there is a kind of hesitation to discuss such a sad subject and ruin a festive atmosphere. The fact a family member has not been seen among you for almost 16 years registers low on the Richter scale of family life.

These days, as I contemplate the possibilities of the future, I wonder if this will be the time that my son will be able to start to turn his life around. Will he convince the authorities that he is deeply remorseful and resolved to never offend again? Will he be seen as worthy of being allowed to be paroled out of prison and into the community, where he can start the long process of healing and repairing the ravages of a lengthy period of incarceration? Will he be able to reintegrate himself into our family, one that misses him terribly but has adapted to life in his absence?

The love and light of support gets families through

While I contemplate these questions daily, I am grateful for the support of those around me. When my son – and my family – first began our journey with the justice system, I felt like I was travelling down an uncharted road. Despite being well connected to community, there was no real support I could turn to where others would understand what it was like to have a son in prison.

Despite being well connected to community, there was no real support I could turn to where others would understand what it was like to have a son in prison.

In November 2010, a community activist and expert connected to the Church Council on Justice and Corrections and a crisis worker at the John Howard Society (JHS) introduced me to ‬another mother with a son in prison. We all met for the first time at JHS in December 2010 – three mothers coming together with common experiences and goals.

From this shared experience, Mothers Offering Mutual Support (MOMS), a support group for women, was born. The first formal MOMS meeting occurred on December 15, 2010. Our meetings take place at the local JHS building, during the first Thursday of the month. JHS has generously donated this space to us so we can meet in a location with privacy.

We now total more than 45 members, all of whom feel immensely grateful to be able to come together and climb out of the black hole we fell into when our children were convicted of an offence resulting in their incarceration. Now we come together to support each other and find ways to help them in a meaningful and constructive way. Mothers whose sons have completed their sentence or are on parole continue to support and guide the new members who join the group.

A loving family on the outside can play an important role in advocating, financially supporting and providing loving contact to offset the indelible ravages of incarceration. Through MOMs, we are able to support each other as we support our incarcerated children.

A loving family on the outside can play an important role in advocating, financially supporting and providing loving contact to offset the indelible ravages of incarceration.

The harsh realities of incarceration are with us, but together we encourage each other to take one day at a time. We have been working to ensure the justice system facilitates rehabilitation and education, with a focus on physical and mental well-being and supporting our sons or daughters while they serve their sentences and plan for their futures. This has provided us with opportunities to engage in dialogue with government and community leaders about human rights. Policies and programs benefit from understanding our lived experiences and our perspective as mothers. We have been encouraged by increased public awareness of these issues.

As you can imagine, for some moms and family members, issues of stigma and safety keep us fearful of speaking out publicly, even though we are worried sick and lose sleep thinking about the condition of our children. We do not want to add to our shame and worry by being on the receiving end of insensitive or negative comments.

As mothers affected by incarceration, we meet regularly to share our experiences and our shock, pain and heartbreak. Working together gives us energy to focus on strategies to equip ourselves with knowledge and best practices to keep ourselves and our loved ones hopeful and healthy. We are determined to achieve humane and just treatment for our loved ones in prison as we work together to strengthen the ties that bind us in our struggle as families affected by incarceration.


Farhat Rehman is co-founder of Mothers Offering Mutual Support (MOMS), a support group for women with incarcerated family members.

Published on March 14, 2017

Supporting the Health of Mothers and Their Babies in the Context of Incarceration

Dr. Ruth Elwood Martin and Brenda Tole

When a friend told Ruth Elwood Martin that there was a need for a part-time family physician to work in a women’s correctional centre, her immediate thought was that there was no way she could work in a prison clinic. She perceived that it was the lowest kind of medical job, only for those doctors who were unable to find any other type of work.

Ruth is not sure what drew her to start practising medicine in a prison, but she did. On that first day in 1994, she felt like she was visiting another planet, passing through those gates, experiencing another world and learning from the people inside it. Ruth saw more pathology and more tragic medical diagnoses than she had seen in a year in her regular family practice in Vancouver’s West Side.

In the clinic, women told her about traumatic events they endured as children, young teenagers and women. Ruth would put down her pen, bearing witness to their lives, and listen to medical and social histories she could not imagine enduring. That first day in her new position changed Ruth’s life forever and she knew that prison health would become her calling. Ruth has often reflected that if she had been dealt the same childhood cards as the women she met, she might be sitting in their chairs.

In 2003, Brenda Tole was assigned to oversee the remodelling of an older facility that had housed provincially incarcerated men and to open it as the “Alouette Correctional Centre for Women” (ACCW), a medium-security facility to house provincially sentenced women. If you are a parent with school-aged children, you will have noticed how the school principal greatly influences the overall ethos of a school. In a similar manner, the warden of a prison influences the ethos of the institution, which in turn influences the overall health of the inmates.

From the day it opened in 2004, Brenda shaped the tone and ethos of ACCW. She maintained that if you expect both staff and incarcerated individuals to treat each other with respect, they will rise to meet those expectations, at least most of the time. That’s how she planned and that’s how she ran ACCW, not on the basis that 1% of the population may breach those expectations.

Brenda knew that the more she gave people opportunities, the more they valued the opportunities and responded positively. The more she gave responsibility to the women for doing things themselves, and the more she talked with the staff about her plans, the better the situation would be for everyone.

During a meeting of key health care players planning for health care delivery at the new ACCW, Brenda met Sarah Payne, the director of Fir Square at BC Women’s Hospital, a maternity unit for substance-using mothers. Babies who remained with moms at Fir Square had positive health outcomes compared with the health of babies that were taken away from their moms at birth.1 Sarah asked Brenda to consider the possibility that babies born to incarcerated mothers who came to the BC Women’s Hospital for their delivery might return with their mothers to ACCW, in order to foster breastfeeding, attachment and nurturing.

Separation through incarceration negatively affects the health of new mothers and their infants

With peer-reviewed academic literature growing on the subject, Brenda had good reason to consider this proposal. Evidence shows that one of the most compelling motivators for incarcerated women is pregnancy and their children. International correctional practices that promote contact between women and their children have shown benefits for both. Positive results have been seen in visits, email, tapes, telephone calls and letters. Children of incarcerated women are negatively impacted if the contact with their mother is limited or absent. Although it is accepted around the world that nursing infants and/or small children benefit from remaining with their incarcerated mothers, this was rarely seen in Canada at that time.

Many incarcerated women have dependent children. Worldwide, an estimated 6% of incarcerated women are pregnant while serving prison time.2 An estimated 20,000 children each year are affected by the incarceration of their mothers in Canada,3 where women tend to be held in correctional centres that are large distances from their children and families due to the limited number of correctional facilities for women across the country.

The provision of mother–child units to women in prison who have given birth to their infants while incarcerated is considered normal practice in most countries in the world. Published reports of such units exist for 22 countries, including England, Wales, Australia, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, some US states, Kyrgyzstan, Ghana, Egypt, Mexico, India and Chile.4, 5, 6

One of the reasons for keeping incarcerated mothers with their newborn babies is that it facilitates breastfeeding, which the World Health Organization reports has health benefits for the infant and new mother.7 According to international health experts, babies should be exclusively breastfed until they are six months old if possible, and then continue to be breastfed on demand until they are two years of age. Babies who are not breastfed may be at increased risk for diabetes, allergies and gastrointestinal and respiratory infections.8

In addition to the well-known health and nutritional benefits, some research has shown that breastfeeding can contribute to psychosocial development9 – the associated physical contact, eye contact and the quality of feeding promote mother–child attachment. However, establishing and maintaining breastfeeding on demand is not possible unless mothers and babies can be housed together with 24-hour contact.

Typically, mothers who return to prison without their babies after giving birth are prescribed milk-binding pills and are often prescribed antidepressants. In this situation, many mothers experience profound grief and debilitating guilt, despair and hopelessness. Many resort to substance use as a coping strategy. 

Mother–child unit developed to support well-being of incarcerated mothers and their babies

In 2005, Brenda asked Ruth, “As the prison physician, what is your opinion about the idea of incarcerated women who deliver babies in hospital being able to return here with their babies?” Ruth felt it was the most sensible idea she had heard in years, and she then expanded her prison medical practice to perform new roles, such as newborn examinations, breastfeeding coaching and addressing medical questions about newborns.

Through collaboration and partnership with several other ministries and community agencies, a mother–child unit was developed at ACCW based on the best interests of the child. With the support of Corrections Branch Headquarters, the ACCW health care team, correctional staff (both managers and frontline staff) and other provincial ministry personnel, it was decided ACCW could facilitate the return of mothers and babies to ACCW when recommended by BC Women’s Hospital and agreed to by the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), who had final authority over the placement of the child.

The decisions to place the mother and child together at the correctional facility were made by an interdisciplinary team consisting of the key staff from BC Women’s Hospital, ACCW health care, ACCW administration and the MCFD. If the mother was Indigenous, the pertinent Indigenous communities were consulted, when applicable. The mother and her family were included in all stages of this process. The support and services that Fir Square offered the mother before and after the birth fostered the mother’s confidence in parenting and in participating in the planning of her future and that of her baby. All checks and balances were put in place to ensure that ACCW was a safe and positive environment for the mothers and babies, with the cooperation of the mothers, other incarcerated women and correctional staff.

Incarcerated women who gave birth and who were deemed by MCFD able and willing to provide appropriate parental care were allowed to keep their infants in their care while in prison. During the initiative’s duration (2005–2007), 13 babies were born to incarcerated mothers, nine of whom lived in prison with their mothers and stayed there until their mother’s release. Eight babies were breastfed for the duration of their mother’s prison stay. Fifteen months was the longest stay of any infant in prison. The babies’ health and development was monitored by the community public health nurses, ACCW health care providers and MCFD social workers.

Release planning for the majority of the mothers and babies included placement at a residential supportive residence for women with substance use histories of the Fraser Health Authority, which took mothers and their young infants. The residential placement staff aimed to facilitate the transition of these women into the community.

Being involved in the initiative with BC Women’s Hospital had a profound positive effect on the women directly involved, the correctional staff and other incarcerated women, and the ministries and community agencies who partnered with ACCW.

Mother–child unit facilitates maternal involvement

Initially, other agencies and ministries were surprised and cautious regarding the proposal of the newborn babies returning to the facility with their mothers. The team at ACCW and BC Women’s Hospital took the time and facilitated many discussions and held meetings for all stakeholders to contribute to the program’s success.

Initially, the rights of the infant to be with the mother for attachment, bonding and breastfeeding was overshadowed for some by the feeling that this “privilege” should not be afforded to incarcerated mothers. As the initiative continued, the attitudes of many began to shift from cautious and guarded to comfortable and supportive. Community agencies were willing to provide supportive services to the children and mothers within the correctional facility. The collaboration reduced the need for ACCW to develop programs and services specific to the incarcerated population.

The mothers involved expressed great joy and were grateful that they could continue to breastfeed and nurture their babies at the correctional facility. They participated in parenting classes provided by a community agency through visits by the public health nurses and the MCFD worker. They also participated in health examinations by the ACCW physician to ensure the safety and health of their babies. Several of the mothers were permitted to go out into the community on escorted passes, both before and after the birth of their babies, to participate in various programs offered by community agencies that welcomed their participation.

Other women who did not have the opportunity to be with their children had to deal with the reminder of the pain they suffered as a result of being away from their own children. Seeing the babies at ACCW triggered feelings of loss, but a general feeling of hope permeated the entire population and the atmosphere at the facility was more positive in many ways. Incarcerated women wrote about their experiences as part of a prison participatory health research project, and their writing was later published in a book titled Arresting Hope.10

Seeing other ministries and agencies support this initiative had an impact on many of the incarcerated women. Most had very little trust in government agencies due to previous negative interactions. Seeing the agencies working together to ensure the babies stay with their mothers gave them a different perspective from which to view these groups. Some voiced a new interest to work with agencies to initiate contact with their own children with whom they had lost contact, or to work to improve their own lives to make a better life for their children.

For many, seeing the mothers and babies thrive at the facility and be released into the community together continued to reinforce the feeling that this initiative was not only the child’s right but also the right thing to do for the child.

Mother–child unit upheld by BC Supreme Court

In 2008, Brenda retired from ACCW and the BC Corrections Branch Headquarters shut down the prison mother–child unit. Amanda Inglis and Patricia Block, whose babies were born after the unit had closed, became appellants in a five-year legal case that led to a BC Supreme Court hearing in May 2013. During the women’s compelling testimony, Patricia told the court that there were as many as five different people caring for her daughter while they were separated. She tried to continue to breastfeed her baby while in prison, she said, but had difficulties in doing so.

At one point, her daughter’s foster mother stopped using the breast milk that Patricia had pumped because she worried it “wasn’t good milk.” Patricia had to inform the MCFD, who then ordered the foster mother to provide the breast milk to her baby. Patricia said that pumping milk in her prison cell for her newborn baby, who was then staying with relatives, gave new meaning to the phrase “crying over spilt milk.”

In December 2013, Honourable Judge Carol Ross ruled in Inglis v. British Columbia (Minister of Public Safety) that the cancellation of the mother–child unit infringed the Charter right to security of the person (section 7) of the mothers and babies affected by the decision, and that the infringements were not in accord with the principles of fundamental justice. The ruling also held that the cancellation constituted discrimination and violated section 15(1) of the Charter, the right to equality of the members of the affected groups, namely provincially incarcerated mothers who wished to have their baby remain with them while they serve their sentence and the babies of those mothers.

The judge directed the government of British Columbia to administer the Correction Act Regulation in relation to this issue in a manner consistent with the requirements of sections 7 and 15(1), and she gave six months to provide an opportunity for the government to correct the unconstitutionality of the present situation and comply with the Court’s direction.11

Guidelines developed to facilitate program adoption across Canada

The Collaborating Centre for Prison Health and Education (CCPHE) hosted a two-day working meeting in March 2014 at the University of British Columbia to generate best practice evidence-based guidelines to inform the implementation of mother–child units across Canada. Experts were invited to present during four panel discussions entitled “The Rights of the Child,” “The Correctional Context,” “Pathways and Programs” and “Evaluation.”

Thirty stakeholder organizations were invited to contribute to the writing of the guidelines by selecting delegate representative(s) to participate in the working meeting. Delegates included those from BC Corrections Branch, Correctional Service Canada, New Zealand Corrections and Women in2 Healing (formerly incarcerated mothers).

The CCPHE contracted Sarah Payne to write an initial guideline framework based on her analysis of the meeting proceedings. A “content analysis” method was used to ensure that all themes developing from the meeting data were captured in the emergent guidelines. As a final stage, international resources and research publications, which had been presented by experts as evidence during the working meeting, were reviewed.

The resulting Guidelines describe 16 guiding principles and best practices required for optimal child and maternal health inside a correctional facility, including the correctional context, pregnancy, birth, education, correctional and medical care, discharge planning and community partner engagement. Delegates from BC Corrections Branch and Correctional Service Canada, who attended the writing meeting, incorporated the Guidelines’ principles and best practices into their respective organizations’ policies and procedures.

Follow-up evaluations of the mother–child unit currently under way

The ACCW mother–child unit was established on the principle that babies should accompany their mothers back to the ACCW, which was supported by the 2013 BC Supreme Court ruling that deemed it unconstitutional to separate the two. Currently, the “new” BC provincial program and the federal program (as well as programs in the U.S.) are based on the principle that it is a privilege for the incarcerated mother rather than a right: incarcerated pregnant women have to submit an application and go through a difficult, stressful and protracted approval process.

Some infants now currently reside with their mothers in federal women’s correctional facilities across Canada. However, bringing babies to live with their mothers inside provincial correctional facilities has been slow, even though a refurbished mother–child unit opened in July 2014 at ACCW. More education and understanding about the cultural, epigenetic, legal and permanent health impacts of a decision to remove a baby at birth can help support maternal and infant health in prisons across Canada.

A 10-year follow-up evaluation of the ACCW mother–child unit that ran from 2005 to 2007 is currently under way. Through in-depth interviews with mothers whose infants lived at ACCW, this evaluation is exploring their experiences and the current health and social development of their children.

Each of the mothers interviewed to date have reported that the decision to have her baby live with her in prison transformed her life. Each woman attributed the quality and quantity of time that she spent with her baby in ACCW to making a positive long-term impact on the mother–child relationship, and each reported that she now has an exceptionally close relationship with her child. Each woman also spoke very affectionately about her child’s attributes, with kindness and a caring nature as foremost.



  1. Ronald R. Abrahams et al., “Rooming-in Compared with Standard Care for Newborns of Mothers Using Methadone or Heroin,” Canadian Family Physician 53:10 (October 2007), .
  2. Marian Knight and Emma Plugge, “The Outcomes of Pregnancy Among Imprisoned Women: A Systematic Review,” BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 112:11 (December 2005), doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-0528.2005.00749.x.
  3. Alison Cunningham and Linda Baker, Waiting for Mommy: Giving a Voice to the Hidden Victims of Imprisonment. London, ON: Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System, 2003.
  4. Helen Fair, “International Profile of Women’s Prisons,” World Prison Brief (February 7, 2008), .
  5. Kiran Bedi, It’s Always Possible: Transforming One of the Largest Prisons in the World. New Delhi: Stirling Paperbacks, 2006.
  6. Women’s Prison Association, “Mothers, Infants and Imprisonment: A National Look at Prison Nurseries and Community-Based Alternatives,” Institute on Women & Criminal Justice (May 2009), .
  7. World Health Organization, “Infant and Young Child Feeding,” Fact Sheet (September 2016), .
  8. Health Canada, “Nutrition for Healthy Term Infants: Recommendations from Birth to Six Months,” A joint statement of Health Canada, Canadian Paediatric Society, Dietitians of Canada, and Breastfeeding Committee for Canada (2013), .
  9. Grace S. Marquis, “Breastfeeding and Its Impact on Child Psychosocial and Emotional Development,” Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development (March 2008), http://bit.ly/1cESBkC.
  10. Ruth Elwood Martin, Mo Korchinski, Lyn Fels and Carl Leggo, eds., Arresting Hope: Women Taking Action in Prison Health Inside Out. Inanna Publications, 2014.
  11. Inglis v. British Columbia (Minister of Public Safety), 2013 BCSC 2309 (SC), H.M.J. Ross, .

Dr. Ruth Elwood Martin is a Clinical Professor in UBC’s School of Population and Public Health and recipient of the 2015 Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case.

Brenda Tole is the former warden at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women from the time it opened in 2004 until her retirement in 2008.


Published on February 7, 2017

Modern Motherhood: The Unique Experiences of Women with Physical Disabilities

Lesley A. Tarasoff

There is very little research concerning pregnancy, labour, birth and motherhood among women with physical disabilities and women with disabilities more broadly. While most women face a variety of social and emotional pressures to have children, research has found that women with disabilities have a very different experience, as they are often pressured not to have children. Many of these girls and women experience “training against motherhood” as soon as they are diagnosed as having a disability. Despite these pressures, there are many women with physical disabilities who are also mothers. Although in Canada it is difficult to determine just how many women with physical or mobility-limiting disabilities are mothers, data from the United States suggests that they are becoming mothers at similar rates to women without disabilities.

As part of a long-term project, a diverse group of women with physical or mobility-limiting disabilities in the Greater Toronto Area have been interviewed about their experiences during the perinatal period – pregnancy, labour, birth and early motherhood. Drawing on other research studies and preliminary findings from this project, this article looks at some of the unique experiences of women with physical disabilities during the perinatal period.

While most women face a variety of social and emotional pressures to have children, research has found that women with disabilities are often pressured not to have children.

There are many misconceptions about women with physical disabilities, including the idea that they cannot or should not become mothers. Women with physical disabilities are often on the receiving end of disability and reproductive “microaggressions.” Initially conceptualized with regard to racial and ethnic minority groups, microaggressions refer to “the brief and commonplace, daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative … slights and insults on the target person or group.” Disability or ableist microaggressions include things such as exclusion, messages of undesirability, messages of burden, assumptions, pity and astonishment (e.g., the realization that a person with a disability is capable of achievements).

For women with disabilities who are pregnant or who are mothers, these ableist beliefs and patterns of behaviour are often compounded with what some call reproductive microaggressions. These can be direct, such as denying privacy by asking when a woman will have a baby, or indirect, such as expressions of gratitude for having a “healthy child.” Underlying many reproductive microaggressions is reproductive privilege (i.e., the traditional idea or ideal of which women should be mothers [read: white, middle-class, heterosexual, women without physical disabilities]), together with the idea that motherhood is the most exalted form of identity for women.

Jane, one of the research project participants – a married and employed mother of two with a spinal cord injury – shared her thoughts about her perinatal experience. While it was positive overall, largely thanks to her strong advocacy skills and a great team of health care providers, she still experienced a number of negative social interactions commonly experienced by women with physical disabilities in the perinatal period. Sometimes these interactions were overtly discriminatory and negative, such as when a stranger on the sidewalk told her she “shouldn’t be allowed to have children.” Other times, the microaggressions were less explicit. Like many women with physical disabilities, Jane found that many people didn’t see pregnancy as a possibility for her or recognize her as being pregnant as they might have with other women. She often encountered subtle reactions of surprise (astonishment) to her pregnancy and status as a mother while in public spaces such as waiting rooms. Sometimes the microaggressions she described took the form of differential treatment, such as the time she was asked in a grocery store whether she had her daughter “naturally” – noting that it’s unlikely a mother without a disability would have been asked the same question.

Research suggests that women with physical or mobility-limiting disabilities are becoming mothers at similar rates to women without disabilities.

Microaggressions at the intersection of disability and reproduction can also take the form of denying identity or personality by asking a mother without disabilities “Is that your baby?” or of desexualizing women with disabilities through comments such as “I can’t believe you have a baby.” These comments were occasionally directed at Jane, who said that many people she encountered assumed that she had adopted. Microaggressions sometimes take on a patronizing form, such as when people say they feel “inspired” by women with disabilities who decide to have children. Finally, microaggressions also include assumptions of helplessness and infantilizing remarks directed at these mothers, such as asking “Do you need help with your baby?”

Despite the assumption that spinal cord-injured women are able to give birth only via Caesarean section, research reveals that they can have vaginal births. “Everyone still thinks that I had a C-section,” says Jane, acknowledging this misconception.

Indeed, a growing body of research indicates that many women with physical disabilities experience fertility no differently than their counterparts without disabilities and they are capable of becoming pregnant and experiencing vaginal delivery. Though limited, there is some research concerning the pregnancy outcomes of women with physical disabilities. Some of this research suggests that expectant mothers who have physical disabilities may experience common symptoms of pregnancy more severely, and that pregnancy can temporarily or permanently “alter the course” of the disability.

Perinatal outcomes among women with physical disabilities vary depending on the type and severity of their disability. “As much as I want to say that my pregnancy was the same as everyone else’s,” Jane says, “I do admit that there probably were higher risks of complications with mine to a certain degree.” For instance, she noted that her mobility worsened during the course of her pregnancy – a change that she says wasn’t fully recognized by care providers. Indeed, studies reveal that health care providers generally do not know a great deal about the interaction of pregnancy and disability. Jane cited an example of her nurses not knowing a lot about the different catheter options.

Likewise, many of the women with physical disabilities who were interviewed, including Jane, reported feeling frustrated with the lack of perinatal information available to them and often experienced feelings of isolation because it was difficult to find others to share their experiences with. “I found it very frustrating that there is so little research. So any question I had, nobody could give me an answer,” she says. “It was always like, ‘We don’t really know. We’re not really sure.’” In addition to informational barriers, many women with physical disabilities report encountering inaccessible care settings. Jane cited examples such as places with bathrooms or showers she couldn’t access or fit her wheelchair into.

Disabled or not, at one time or another, everybody needs assistance, and it is rare that someone really, truly raises a child single-handedly.

Exploring how women with physical disabilities experience the perinatal period will provoke an interrogation of the self, of what is “normal” and what accessibility is, as well as what independence looks like. Parents with disabilities, like all parents, are creative and adaptable. In many cases, formal resources and supports are not available or accessible, and so some parents with disabilities may rely on unconventional resources and other supports to fulfill their roles effectively. At one time or another, everybody needs assistance whether they have a disability or not, and it is rare that someone really, truly raises a child single-handedly.

Moreover, for some mothers with physical disabilities, becoming a parent takes focus away from their disability and places it on other aspects of their lives, such as the new bond between parent and child as well as the child’s imagination and creativity. As Jane puts it, “Becoming a mom is probably the best thing that I did because it totally lessened … my focus or other people’s focus on my disability. My parents ask way less about my own health; they ask more about the kids.”

In particular, Jane talked about how her physical inability to do certain activities with her young son has led to opportunities to bond and play with him in other ways:

“[My son] knows that I do all the creative stuff with him, so I do all the artwork… he kind of sees us [my husband and me] as having those different [roles] … I love doing imaginative things and I think that’s important for his growing and learning … so for me what’s really boosted my confidence in parenting is that I have that ability or that gift to do that with him and the daycare has commented that he’s such a really imaginative kid…”

A number of other mothers who were interviewed shared similar stories about their relationships with their children and talked about how becoming a mother enhanced their confidence.

Many of the mothers also worried about how their children might be treated in school when other children found out that their mother has a disability: “Kids can be mean… I don’t want people to make fun of him because of me.” One mother with a congenital condition that often limits her mobility, as well as causes hearing and vision problems, arthritis and chronic pain, noted, however, that she uses her disability as a learning opportunity for her young son: “I don’t want him to make fun of anybody. I am trying to tell him that everyone is different.”

The experiences of women with physical disabilities during the perinatal period, including their parenting experiences, provide learning opportunities for all families and their children. This ongoing research project will help to develop resources for women with physical disabilities and health care providers and shed light on some of the positive experiences that they have during the perinatal period. Listening to and documenting the stories and experiences of women like Jane will be integral to this process of providing support.


Lesley A. Tarasoff is a Ph.D. candidate in Public Health at the University of Toronto. She conducts research in the area of women’s sexual and reproductive health, with a focus on women with physical disabilities and sexual minority women. For more information about her research, visit www.latarasoff.com.

Learn more:

Lesley A. Tarasoff, “We Don’t Know. We’ve Never had Anybody Like You Before”: Barriers to Perinatal care for Women with Physical Disabilities,” Disability and Health Journal 10:3 (July 2017). Link: http://bit.ly/2fmk65C.

Lori E. Ross, Lesley A. Tarasoff, Abbie E. Goldberg and Corey E. Flanders, “Pregnant Plurisexual Women’s Sexual and Relationship Histories Across the Life Span: A Qualitative Study,” Journal of Bisexuality (August 11, 2017). Link: .

Lesley A. Tarasoff, “Experiences of Women with Physical Disabilities during the Perinatal Period: A Review of the Literature and Recommendations to Improve Care,” Health Care for Women International 36:1 (July 2013). Link: .

Update: In September 2017, a community report was published based on this research into the experiences of women with physical disabilities. “Becoming Mothers: Experiences of Mothers with Physical Disabilities in Ontario” is now available to download on Lesley’s website.



, The Disabled Woman’s Guide to Pregnancy and Birth (New York: Demos Medical Publishing, 2006).

Corbett Joan O’Toole, “Sex, Disability and Motherhood: Access to Sexuality for Disabled Mothers,” Disability Studies Quarterly 22:4 (2002).

Lisa I. Iezzoni, Jun Yu, Amy J. Wint, Suzanne C. Smeltzer and Jeffrey L. Ecker, “Prevalence of Current Pregnancy Among US Women with and without Chronic Physical Disabilities,” Medical Care, 51:6 (June 2013).

Alette Coble-Temple, Ayoka Bell and Kayoko Yokoyama, The Experience of Microaggressions on Women with Disabilities: From Research to Practice and Reproductive Microaggressions and Women with Physical Limitations. Presentations at the American Psychological Association Annual Convention (August 2014).

Derald Wing Sue, Jennifer Bucceri, Annie I. Lin, Kevin L. Nadal and Gina C. Torino, “Racial Microaggressions and the Asian American Experience,” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 13:1 (2007).

, Nothing About Us Without Us: A Qualitative Investigation of the Experiences of Being a Target of Ableist Microaggressions (2013 doctoral dissertation), retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses (dissertation/thesis number 3620204).

, Maternity Rolls: Pregnancy, Childbirth and Disability (Fernwood Publishing, 2010).

, “Pregnancy in Women with Physical Disabilities,” Obstetrics & Gynecology, 117:4 (2011).

, A Provider’s Guide for the Care of Women with Physical Disabilities and Chronic Health Conditions (2005).

Published on December 3, 2015

Updated on September 25, 2017

When Cupboards Are Bare: Food Insecurity and Public Health

Nathan Battams

(Updated September 6, 2017)

Food security is an issue that is deeply intertwined with the health and economic well-being of families. It is a serious social, economic and public health concern, felt not only by the estimated 1.3 million households in Canada that reported experiencing food insecurity in 2014 (12% of households, home to 3.2 million people), but also by the communities in which they live. When families face obstacles in securing the quantity and quality of meals they need to thrive, it becomes all the harder for them to be healthy and live productive, happy lives.

When the Canadian Medical Association consulted Canadians about public health issues in a series of town hall meetings in 2013, food insecurity was identified as one of the main social determinants of health. Without a stable and healthy food supply, people are more likely to develop a range of health issues, such as heart disease, diabetes, stress and even food allergies.

While there are multiple contributing factors to food insecurity, including geographic isolation, food literacy and transportation issues, economic insecurity is at the heart of the matter.

Since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008, families have increasingly depended on food banks and other community supports for essential support securing the quantity and quality of food they need. According to Food Banks Canada, the number of people who accessed food banks across the country in March 2016 (863,492) was 28% higher than in 2008, and more than 40% of households receiving food were families with children.

Some individuals are more likely than others to experience food insecurity. Food insecurity rates were higher than the national average in 2014 for people with an Aboriginal identity () and for Black people (29%). A 2016 study also found that some households are more likely than the national average to experience food insecurity, including (but not limited to):

  • Households with children under age 18 (15.6% versus a 10.4% food insecurity rate for households without children)
  • Lone-parent families headed by women (33.5%)
  • Households in Nunavut (60%)
  • People living in rented households (25%)
  • Households with an income below the Low Income Measure (29.2%)

Research from Statistics Canada has suggested that adults experience food insecurity at higher rates than children (8.2% compared with 4.9%) because parents are protecting their youngsters from food insecurity by reducing the variety and quantity of their own meals so their children can eat better. Despite this, children across Canada are affected by food insecurity, with children and youth accounting for 36% of those helped by food banks in March 2016.

Food banks and community supports were never intended to be permanent solutions to food insecurity. Many organizations providing food to families are feeling the pressure resulting from the economic downturn. Faced with increased demand, some food banks have had to reduce the assistance they provide – a reality with serious consequences for the health and well-being of families in Canada.

There are multiple contributing factors to food insecurity, including geographic isolation, food literacy and transportation issues, but economic insecurity is at the heart of the matter. Families can’t eat when they don’t have the power to buy. Rates of food insecurity vary widely across Canada, reaching as high as 47% in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories in 2014. Some people face disproportionately high rates of low income, such as sole-support mothers and Indigenous people, and are therefore also more likely to experience higher levels of food insecurity.

Food bank users typically make do with limited financial resources, which is reflected in patterns of food bank use: nearly half (45%) of households who accessed food banks in March 2016 relied on social assistance as their primary source of income. However, Canadians who earn the majority of their income through paid labour are also accessing food banks, accounting for 15% of those assisted in the same month.

Whether it comes as a result of improving the health or increasing the wealth of Canadians, access to the quality and quantity of food we need is essential for living well and reaching our full potential.

This is an edited and updated version of an article that was originally featured in Transition magazine in spring 2013 (Vol. 43, No. 2).

Nathan Battams is responsible for publications, communications and social media at the Vanier Institute of the Family.

The Health Care Experiences of LGBTQ+ Seniors

Laura Zuccaro

Updated on September 8, 2015

With 4.9 million Canadians aged 65 and older in 2011 and close to 6,000 centenarians, Canada – like many countries – is facing an aging population.((Statistics Canada, “Age and Sex Highlight Tables, 2011 Census,” 2011 Data Products, page last updated November 23, 2016. Link: .)) Many older Canadians are managing chronic or episodic illnesses, disabilities or conditions that make for frequent encounters with the health care system. When seeking medical attention, LGBTQ+ seniors face discrimination that can act as barriers to care. The main hurdles for LGBTQ+ seniors include identifying oneself as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer, and experiencing discrimination.((Shari Brotman, Bill Ryan and Robert Cormier, “The Health and Social Service Needs of Gay and Lesbian Elders and Their Families in Canada,” The Gerontologist 43:2 (2003). Link: http://bit.ly/1ggcMmo.))

According to Statistics Canada, the use of the health care system (e.g. having a regular doctor, consultations with health care professionals and receiving preventive screening tests) by gay, lesbian and bisexual Canadians varies by sexual identity, and their health care choices differ from those of heterosexual seniors.((Michael Tjepkema, “Health Care Use Among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Canadians,” Health Reports 19:1, Statistics Canada catalogue no. 82-003-X (March 2008). Link: .)) Many seniors only discuss their sexual orientation in relation to their care, and many service providers avoid discussing issues relating to sexual orientation when making care plans. Research performed at McGill University revealed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” passive approach toward revealing sexual orientation in the health care system.((Brotman, Ryan and Cormier.))

Many seniors only discuss their sexual orientation in relation to their care, and many service providers avoid discussing issues relating to sexual orientation when making care plans.

Many gay and lesbian seniors have support from their biological families and children and grandchildren; others rely on friends considered as family, also known as “chosen families” or “fictive kin.”((Brotman, Ryan and Cormier.)) Health care providers do not always understand this broad definition of family and therefore it is common for same-sex partners to identify themselves as friends or roommates in order to avoid being treated differently. This can often make it difficult for LGBTQ+ partners to show affection or be acknowledged as the patient’s spouse.

A number of studies on gay and lesbian seniors and their caregivers have found that they may experience both actual and anticipated discrimination via homophobic or heterosexist attitudes or policies in the health care system. Actual discrimination has been reported in hospital practices surrounding visiting hours, such as LGBTQ+ caregivers being denied acknowledgement as family members when seeking to visit their partners. Anticipated discrimination could affect seniors’ willingness to reveal their sexual orientation or even access services due to prior negative experiences. Both forms of discrimination pose a challenge to both the possibilities of self-identifying as a gay or lesbian senior and receiving appropriate care.((Shari Brotman et al., “Coming Out to Care: Caregivers of Gay and Lesbian Seniors in Canada,” The Gerontologist 47:4 (2007). Link: .))

In order to address the biases within the health care system, current research has suggested that specialized services designed to engage dialogue between gay and lesbian community health professionals and enhance integration would have a significant impact on the health care experiences of LGBTQ+ seniors in Canada.((Brotman et al.)) Such services would include training sessions for health care workers on the needs of gay and lesbian seniors; hiring gay and lesbian health care workers; using gender-neutral language in discussions about identity and relationships; ensuring confidentiality; specialized facilities (e.g. Kipling Acres, a long-term care facility and gay-positive environment that provides services to seniors in Toronto), support groups or telephone support lines; and community outreach programs. These services aim to reduce the barriers between LGBTQ+ seniors and their health care providers and improve health care interactions for both the care provider and the patient.

Laura Zuccaro is a second-year medical student at the University of Ottawa.

Originally published in Transition, Vol. 44, No. 3, in July 2014.

Updated on September 8, 2015

Dads Play a Greater Role at Home: Family Life Benefits

Nathan Battams

(Updated March 21, 2016)

As Canadians prepare to celebrate Father’s Day, modern fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers are redefining what exactly fatherhood means to families and society. Canada’s 8.6 million increasingly diverse dads are taking on a greater role in their children’s lives. This evolution in fatherhood has had positive impacts inside and outside the family home.

“This is one of the biggest social changes in our time,” says Vanier Institute of the Family CEO Nora Spinks. “The ‘Leave it to Beaver’ family model accounts for fewer and fewer of Canada’s families as family forms and relationships become more diverse and complex.”

There’s no question that fatherhood has become more diverse over the past 50 years. A growing share of Canada’s dads was born outside the country, bringing with them ideas of what fatherhood means. More same-sex couples are raising children, one in five being male couples. Over the past two decades, there has been an increase in lone-parent families headed by men. The number of indigenous fathers is growing at a faster rate than those in the general population. This evolution of Canada’s family portrait means that there is no single “fatherhood experience.”

The classic father figure has traditionally been portrayed as an emotionally distant figure whose primary role was to earn the family income. This depiction overlooks the diversity that has always existed. Historically, many women have played a role in managing family finances and generating income inside and outside the paid labour force. In 1976, one-third of Canadian families with at least one child under age 16 had two earners in the paid labour force. By 2014, this accounted for 55% of these families.

A growing number of dads now play a bigger role in their children’s lives. In fact, an increasing number of dads are leaving the breadwinning to their partners altogether so they can focus on raising children. In 2014, 11% of single-earner families with a “stay-at-home” parent had a father who was staying at home – up from only 1% in 1976.

Whether they’re working or not, fathers are spending more time with their families than in the past. According to Statistics Canada, men spent 360 minutes per workday with family members in 1986. By 2010, this reached 379 minutes. Three-quarters of surveyed Canadian dads say that they’re more involved with their children than their father had been with them.

Fathers who decide to play a greater role in the lives of their children aren’t anomalies. In a recent study comparing parental leave in Quebec with the rest of Canada, author Ankita Patnaik found that when given the option, most men embrace paternal leave. Since 2006, the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP) has offered non-transferable leave for men, making Quebec the only province where father-specific leave is available.

Patnaik found that before QPIP, Quebec fathers took an average two weeks of leave. After the parental leave policy was reformed, the average Quebec father took the full five weeks available under the paternity leave program. In addition, the share of Quebec fathers taking parental leave jumped from 27.8% in 2005 to 78.3% in 2014. Outside Quebec, only 9.4% of recent dads report taking leave.

Patnaik’s study also found that in Quebec, there was a “large and persistent impact” on gender dynamics in the three-year period following parental leave. Fathers remained more likely to do housework, while mothers were more likely to engage in paid work. Quebec dads also spent an average half-hour more per day at the family home.

Father involvement can have a positive impact on child development and well-being. Literature reviews from the Father Involvement Research Alliance (FIRA) have found many benefits of “highly involved” fathers. Children in these families experience higher levels of cognitive development and resilience. They tend to perform better in school. They also report higher levels of life satisfaction and psychological well-being.

Modern fathers continue their involvement in the lives of their children even after a marriage or common-law relationship has come to an end. More than one-third of divorced or separated parents share or alternate major decision making related to their children. Nearly one-quarter (24%) of divorced or separated parents report that their children either spend equal time living with mom and dad, or live primarily at the father’s residence.

In a 2014 report from the Involved Father and Gender Equity Project, interviews with new fathers revealed that family life benefited from their expanding involvement. Many said that their entry into fatherhood was a “transformational journey” that gave them a new outlook on life and relationships. They also reported that greater participation in housework and child-rearing promoted equality within their relationships. Many said that community supports and connections with other fathers encouraged their increased involvement.

“While modern fatherhood today consists of many diverse experiences, today’s generation of fathers is certainly taking on a greater, broader role in family life than in the past,” says Spinks. “As they’re sharing the breadwinning role, spending more time with family and taking more parental leave, these dads are changing what fatherhood means in Canada.”


Nathan Battams is a writer and researcher at the Vanier Institute of the Family