Skip navigation

The changing face of the Canadian family

“We are family,” sang Sister Sledge back in 1979, but today what form that family takes is undergoing tremendous change, with important implications for society.


When Trevor Macdonald and his partner Ian applied for their newborn’s birth certificate in April 2011, “we had to check off the ‘mother’ box for me,” Mr. MacDonald relates. “There was no other option on the form,” which the Winnipeg couple submitted along with an essay of explanation. Other than that, he says, “we have run into no barriers” in terms of being legally recognized as baby Jacob’s parents.

As a transgender person born with female anatomy, Mr. MacDonald gave birth to their son and was able to breastfeed him – with the support of La Leche League Canada – despite having had breast reduction surgery. He recently made national headlines as the “breastfeeding dad” who inquired about becoming a La Leche League leader. Within weeks of Mr. MacDonald’s story going public, the international organization embarked on a review of its policy that only breastfeeding mothers could be group leaders.

While Mr. MacDonald’s situation is unusual, academics who study changing family structures agree that the pace of change has been breathtaking. Governments, policy-makers and organizations such as La Leche League have been hard-pressed to keep up with the new realities: the rise of same-sex unions; an increase in the number of lone-parent families; the popularity of common-law arrangements; expanded family networks created by step families; reproductive technology and all the associated issues around parentage; and now breastfeeding dads and the rights of people like Mr. MacDonald to have their chosen gender reflected on official government documents.

“People live their lives in all kinds of complicated ways as, indeed, they always have, but the law does not capture that particularly well,” says political scientist Lois Harder, a professor and associate dean of research and graduate studies at the University of Alberta. Many of the laws and policies designed to support Canadian families are still rooted in another era, Dr. Harder observes in a research report, After the Nuclear Age, commissioned last year by the Vanier Institute of the Family. “Despite the fact that the traditional nuclear family is now a minority family form in Canada, it continues to define the norm of family life.” In 2011, couples with children at home comprised 39 percent of Canadian households.

That last statistic was from the release in September of the most recent data on families collected during the 2011 census. As governments and policy-makers pore over the wealth of data, they are looking to Canada’s top researchers for insights on how to respond to the increasingly diverse needs of contemporary Canadian families.

As holder of the Canada Research Chair in Social Statistics and Family Change, McGill University sociology professor Céline Le Bourdais has been looking at family life in flux – including the rise in lone-parent families and stepfamilies, and the degree to which greater marital instability affects children’s lives. The recent census data show that married couples, with or without children, still form the predominant family structure in Canada, accounting for two-thirds of all families. However, the proportion of common-law couples and lone-parent families is increasing, to 17 percent and 16 percent of all families, respectively, in 2011. Stepfamilies, counted for the first time in the 2011 census, represent about one in eight two-parent families with children. One out of every 10 children aged 14 and under lives in a stepfamily.

Dr. Le Bourdais says the increased number of separations and the popularity of common-law unions, particularly in Quebec, have led to drastic changes in the traditional family structure.

“New partners, step-parents, step-children, half-brothers or half-sisters extend the family network, but will these relationships be strong enough to ensure that everyone receives the support they need?” According to a recent report from Statistics Canada, 21 percent of parents in stepfamilies identified financial concerns as the main source of stress in their daily lives, nearly twice the proportion of 12 percent among parents in intact families.

In the course of her research, Dr. Le Bourdais has uncovered different dynamics between different family types – and these differences have profound implications, especially for the children of those unions in the event of separation. Cohabiting couples, for instance, tend to share the income-earning and household responsibilities more equitably than do married couples, “so we thought if they have been more egalitarian, then probably after they separate, they will be more involved,” she says.

On the contrary, “What we found, to our dismay, was that separated men from cohabiting unions were less likely to be maintaining contact with their children after separation.” They have the same rights and obligations towards their children as men whose marriages have dissolved, “but they do not have the same behaviour.”

As a demographer, Dr. Le Bourdais is interested not only in the care and support of society’s most vulnerable youngest members, but also in what will happen to society’s oldest as the baby boomers age. “Who is going to be there for them in the future?” she asks. “If you have, for example, biological children from different unions, are you likely to keep contact or receive support equally from all of those children? Research shows that, when there are children from the second union, the children from the first union will tend to lose contact with the parent and will be less likely to support.”

This is a field of interest for U of Alberta’s Dr. Harder as well. “It used to be that we didn’t have public pensions and children were supposed to ensure the financial well-being of their senior parents. We don’t do that anymore, but my suspicion is it could come back,” Dr. Harder says. “Given that we have a Conservative [federal] government, I will be intrigued to see if we don’t start to have some emphasis on the responsibility of children to their elders.”

Informally, it is already happening – and families could use more support from the various levels of government rather than less, says Nora Spinks, chief executive officer of the Vanier Institute of the Family. Municipal governments, for instance, have been slow to revisit housing bylaws to reflect the reality of multiple generations of families living together under one roof – with unemployed or under-employed young adults moving back in with their parents for financial reasons, competing for spare-room space with their dependent grandparents.

“You have kids in the basement or mom in a nanny suite and in a lot of places, that’s still illegal,” Ms. Spinks says. “Households designed for multi-generations will start coming on the market in a few years. Meanwhile, families will have been doing this for a decade by the time the architecture catches up.”

On the other hand, the federal government has taken a more flexible approach to family definition by including the designation of “like family” for the purposes of the compassionate care benefits program, Dr. Harder notes. This allows caregivers to receive short-term employment insurance benefits while they take care of gravely ill close friends or neighbours, as well as immediate and extended family members – including step-grandparents, a spouse’s grandparents, current or former foster parents or foster children, or a spouse’s current or former foster parents or wards.

Roderic Beaujot, professor emeritus with Western University’s department of sociology, says the changes in family structure have largely been viewed positively within society. There are “more options, choice and plurality in family questions, more equality between women and men, fewer children, with the potential to have more investments per child.”

But, “At the same time, these changes have brought new forms of inequality, and associated needs for policy adaptation. For children, there is the inequality associated with lone parenting and step-parenting. For young adults, there are differences associated with those who have received less parental and social investments.”

In a speech last year at Lakehead University, Dr. Beaujot said couples who marry and have children at a young age are more likely to separate – as are common-law couples – than those who have completed their education, married and had children later. The children of these stable, typically dual-income, families have a clear economic advantage and, often, a social advantage over children from lone-parent families and step-families.

The inequities are being exacerbated by what Dr. Beaujot calls the trend towards “assortive mating” – where highly educated and privileged people with high earning potential marry each other and, in turn, bestow advantages on their children. (Clearly, “you can’t stop competent parents from giving advantages to their own children,” he notes in a wry aside.)

“It means we have to work harder to stay at the same place with regards to overcoming inequality. If one of our goals as a society is to give advantages to those who are disadvantaged, and to try to compensate for those disadvantages, we have to work harder.”

Dr. Beaujot says the various levels of government in Canada have made headway in raising the economic status of lone parents, especially mothers, through programs that subsidize childcare and support their return to the workforce or school. But the growing divide between two-parent and lone-parent families “poses major challenges.”

And then there are the new frontiers of reproductive technology, and the rights of children who are born as a result of surrogate mother arrangements, donated sperm and donated eggs.

“That case in B.C. about non-anonymous sperm donors is going to be a big issue,” Dr. Harder says in reference to a class action suit that is working its way through the courts on behalf of sperm-donor offspring.

The lawsuit claims that the present law discriminates against persons who were conceived as a result of gamete donation. By contrast, adopted children have, by law, certain legal rights and opportunities to know about their biological parents that children conceived by way of gamete donation simply do not enjoy. “Farmers have kept better records on the artificial insemination of cattle than the physicians in B.C. have kept on people like myself,” Olivia Pratten, the representative plaintiff, said when the lawsuit was launched in 2008.

Scientific advances have also muddied the definition of maternity, Dr. Harder says. “Reproductive technologies have made it possible for three people to claim motherhood: she who intends to have and care for a child, she who contributes the genetic material, and she who gestates the embryo and gives birth.” These multiple claims provide “no clear path to resolution.”

What is clear, however, is that “the nuclear norm of monogamous, conjugal relationships and associated children offers only a partial, and perhaps inadequate, basis for defining, recognizing and respecting the close relationships that people actually understand as family,” Dr. Harder writes in her Vanier Institute research paper. “The stakes of this definitional process are high. If the people we care about and the people we care for are not readily incorporated in the laws the state sets out for us, there may be some important implications for our capacity to organize our family lives and to meet our family obligations in ways that reflect our choices.”

Back in Winnipeg, Mr. MacDonald stopped taking testosterone in order to become pregnant and give birth to Jacob. Although he retains his female reproductive organs – in part because the “bottom” surgery is expensive and risky – Mr. MacDonald identifies as a male and would like to be legally recognized as such. “But since I have not had a complete ovariohysterectomy, I am legally female. My driver’s license has an F on it, and my passport blares FEMALE in giant print,” he writes in an April posting on his blog,

Mr. MacDonald is the first to concede that his situation is complicated. “Sometimes it just takes people a little while longer to get their heads around unfamiliar ideas.” And there has been progress on the legal front, he notes, with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal recently ruling that it is discriminatory for the government to require transgender people to undergo sex-reassignment surgery before their gender can be officially changed under Ontario’s Vital Statistics Act. Manitoba is also moving on the issue of discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Still, Mr. MacDonald writes his blog under an assumed name – primarily to safeguard the privacy of his son.

Right now, as a stay-at-home dad, Mr. MacDonald says his primary focus is on his child and his partner. “Jacob is 16 months old – he is getting new teeth, perfecting walking, learning new words, and teaching me lots of toddler games. I just want to take it all in and enjoy it.”

Virginia Galt is a Toronto-based journalist who often writes about business, society and workplace issues.

The case for ‘daddy leave’

More men would feel justified in taking paternity leave if the rest of Canada followed Quebec’s lead in offering non-transferrable “daddy weeks” in addition to the parental leave entitle-ment they share with their partners, says sociology professor Andrea Doucet, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Gender, Work and Care at Brock University.

Quebec’s provision of five weeks of paid leave specifically for dads sends a signal to society that the involvement of men in infant care is important, desirable and expected, says Dr. Doucet. It “allows men to say to their workplace, ‘You know, I am taking some time off to be part of this momentous event that’s happened in our lives,’ rather than just go back to work the next day.” More than 80 percent of Quebec fathers take the special paternity leave, while elsewhere in the country, men’s take-up of parental leave has remained relatively low, in the 12 percent range, Dr. Doucet notes.

Gay marriage – no big deal

Canadian families have become far more diverse, and Canadians have become far more accepting of this diversity, says Roderic Beaujot, professor emeritus of sociology at Western University.

“We can see it especially on how there was support for the idea of same-sex marriage,” he says. Recent polls show more than 60 percent of Canadians approve.

There are more than 64,000 same-sex couples in Canada, either married or living common law, according to the 2011 Census, up by 42 percent from 2006 – but they still represent less than one percent of all couples. “Most people will not be in a same-sex marriage, but they like the idea that others who would want that have the option,” says Dr. Beaujot. However, it is still the case in most provinces that the non-biological “co-parent” of a child has to go to court to formally adopt or obtain a declaration of parentage.

Virginia Galt
Virginia Galt is a Toronto-based freelancer.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *