Canadian families as a whole are surviving – although not doing as well as before

The headlines in papers and announcements from broadcasters on Stastics Canada’s report Family Portrait: Families, Marital Status, Households and Living Arrangementsdeclared the traditional family nearly dead. Reporters pointed to census data that shows for the first time in Canadian history, “more than one-half of the adult population was unmarried” and that most Canadian households are not comprised of the tradtional family of mother, father and two children. That’s true as far it goes, but the barely hidden glee that the traditional family is dead that underpinned the tone of most media coverage betrayed an ideological slant that might have led them to miss the real story, which is that traditional households remain the norm even if society and the makeup of the family is changing.

According to the 2006 census, married-couple families accounted for 68.6 per cent of all families, down from 70.5 per cent in 2001.

Statistics Canada found that the number of married-couple families grew by “only” 3.5 per cent from 2001 to 2006, compared to a 19 per cent “surge” in common-law couple families and a nearly 8 per cent increase in the number of lone-parent families.

So what did the media run with? This is the part of the press release that the media jumped all over: “For the first time, the census enumerated more unmarried people aged 15 and over than legally married people.” The National Postheadline blared: “Married couples in the minority.” The Globe and Mailtrumpeted, “Canadians redefine the family.” Globereporter Caroline Alphonso said the census data revealed the “dramatically shifting nature of Canadian society, with profound changes in the notion of the so-called traditional family.”

There is a shift, but it is not nearly as stark as many believe.

Family Portraitfinds that more than half – 51.5 per cent – “of the adult population were unmarried; that is, never married, divorced, separated or widowed, compared with 49.9 per cent five years earlier. Conversely, only 48.5 per cent of persons aged 15 and over were legally married in 2006, down from 50.1 per cent in 2001.”
But that statistic is not what it appears to be. According to information requested by The Hill Times, the unmarried figures include more than 1.3 million children aged 15-17 – a cohort that in most provinces cannot in most circumstances legally marry. If you take these 1.3 million teens living at home out of the picture, a majority of adults (51 per cent) are still married. So, the Post headline that married couples are in a minority is incorrect – unless you want to count more than a million people who are not even old enough to vote.

Furthermore, while Statistics Canada counts 1.4 million widowed individuals as single, their presence can hardly count as undermining traditional marriage.

The census study does show that marriage is losing its popularlity. There are nearly three million separated or divorced adults in Canada. The proportion of common-law couples rose from 13.8 per cent to 15.5. In 1986, such couples accounted for just over 7 per cent of all families. Quebec is leading the way on common-law relationships, where co-habitating couples account for more than one-fifth of all families. Nearly one in four common-law couples in Canada live in either Montreal or Quebec. If you dig deep enough, you’ll realize that Quebec’s numbers skew Canada’s overall statistics; take out La Belle Province and married couples make up an even larger proportion of households.

That is not to say that all is well. Singe-person households account for nearly 12 per cent of all “families,” with 2.1 million children being brought up primarily by either their mother or father.

Family Portraitalso revealed that few homosexuals are getting “married.” Since gay “marriage” was legalized, just 7,465 homosexual couples were formally “married” out of the 45,300 homosexual pairings officially registered as living together. Same-sex “marriages” represent only 0.6 per cent of all couples in Canada, a number in line with international norms. In New Zealand, same-sex couples make up 0.7 per cent of households and in Australia, the comparable figure is 0.6 per cent.

The week before StatsCan released its figure, a Canadian Press-Harris Decima poll found that 53 per cent of Canadians thought “marriage is something that has become … less important in Canadian society.” Still, when asked about their own lives, 42 per cent said marriage was more important to them personally than they used to think. Exactly half of respondents thought that children benefited from being brought up in a traditional, two-parent family.

Pollster Bruce Anderson told CP, “Many Canadians feel that marriage is a good and important institution,” although they “are comfortable with the fact that not everyone needs to feel the same way.”

That storyline – a diversity of family makes and models – was another dominant theme in the media in days following the release of the study. The Toronto Starreported, “More couples are choosing baby first, wedding later,” with “the separation of marriage and childbirth … a fairly recent phenomenon.”  Margaret Wente’s Globe and Mailcolumn was headlined, “So, who needs marriage anyway?” Wente pondered the question, “Why has marriage become optional?” although she sides with marriage as a good thing. The Montreal Gazette’s editorial noted that, “The Canadian family has changed dramatically” as “Canadians have decided en masseto leave behind the 1950s model of the family.”

What is evident, though, from looking at the statistics closely, is that while the traditional family’s popularity is declining, most people – adults and children – are part of a traditional family for some time during their lives, even if the moment-in-time snapshot of the census does not capture this fact.