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Women in Canada: Families and living arrangements, 2011

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Released: 2015-11-10

Most women aged 15 and older lived in a census family in 2011, primarily as part of a couple. Data from the third chapter of the publication Women in Canada: A Gender-based Statistical Report, now available online, show that of the 56% of women in couples, most are married spouses. But there has been a shift over the last several decades toward an increased proportion of common-law partners.

Of the 14 million women aged 15 and older in 2011, 45% lived with their married spouse, while 11% lived with their common-law partner. In comparison, in 1981, 56% of women lived with their married spouse, while 3.8% lived with their common-law partner.

For men, 47% were married spouses in 2011, while 12% were common-law partners. That compares with 1981, when 58% of men were married spouses and 3.9% were common-law partners.

Being part of a common-law union was more prevalent in particular regions of Canada. In 2011, Nunavut (25%) had the highest proportion of women in common-law unions, while the Northwest Territories (20%) and Yukon (17%) also had high proportions. The territories have both a proportionally larger Aboriginal population as well as a younger population than elsewhere in Canada, and each of these characteristics is associated with a greater tendency to be in a common-law union. The share of women in Quebec (21%) living with a common-law partner in 2011 was nearly twice as large as for Canada overall (11%). Regional trends for male common-law partners were similar.

Divorced or separated

The introduction of the Divorce Act in 1968 and the amendment in 1986 made the process of ending a marriage easier. Over the past 30 years, the share of women aged 15 and older who had a legal marital status of divorced or separated more than doubled, from 5.9% in 1981 to 13% in 2011. For men, the share increased from 4.3% in 1981 to 10% in 2011.

There has been a declining trend, however, in the share of women and men under age 50 who were divorced or separated, perhaps reflecting a decreasing proportion of legally married young adults and an increasing proportion of people who never marry, many of whom choose to form common-law unions.

In contrast, the proportion of women and men aged 50 and older with a legal marital status of divorced or separated has been increasing. About one-fifth of women and men aged 55 to 59 in 2011 were divorced or separated, about three times the share observed in this age group in 1981. Among the divorced or separated population, the dissolution of the relationship might have occurred much earlier in life.

Lone-parent families and stepfamilies

In 2011, lone-mother families represented 13% of all census families, while lone-father families accounted for 3.5%. As the share of couples with joint custody has risen, so does the chance that a child of divorced or separated parents could be residing with the father. From 2006 to 2011, lone-father families grew more rapidly than lone-mother families.

Women were more likely than men to have custody of their children. Not only were women more likely than men to be lone parents, they were also more likely to bring their biological or adopted children into a stepfamily.

As a result, of the 510,800 women in stepfamilies, 66% had only their biological or adopted children in the home, 19% had only the children of their spouse or partner, and 15% had both their biological or adopted children as well as those of their spouse or partner. For men in stepfamilies, 26% had only their biological or adopted children in the home, 43% had only the children of their spouse or partner, and 31% had both their biological or adopted children, as well as those of their spouse or partner.

Multiple unions

About one-fifth (20%) of the population aged 15 and older had been part of more than one union—married or common-law—over the course of their lifetime. There was little difference in the proportions among women and men under age 65. For women aged 25 to 34, the share was 16%, and it was relatively stable for women aged 35 to 64, at between 25% and 28%. The share then declined for those aged 65 to 74 (19% of women and 26% of men) and aged 75 and older (13% of women and 18% of men).

Other living arrangements

One-fifth of both women and men aged 15 and older in private dwellings lived either alone, with non-relatives only—that is, as roommates, lodgers or boarders—or with relatives.

Most women who were not living with family members lived alone, although the patterns varied with age. In 2011, among people aged 20 to 54, a lower proportion of women lived alone than did men. For example, at age 40 to 44, 7.3% of women and 13% of men lived alone. By their mid-to-late fifties, more women than men lived alone, with the gap increasing throughout the senior years. By ages 65 to 69, 24% of women and 15% of men lived alone, and at age 80 and older, 51% of women and 23% of men lived alone.

The higher life expectancy of women compared with men largely explains the sex differential in living alone at older ages. Consequently, the median age of women living alone was 61.9 years in 2011, while for men it was 50.4 years.

In addition to the population living in private households, 613,100 people in Canada lived in collective dwellings in 2011: 356,300 women and girls and 256,800 men and boys, accounting for 2.1% of the total female population and 1.6% of the total male population.

  Note to readers

In this study, data from the censuses of population, the 2011 National Household Survey, vital statistics – births database, and the General Social Survey are used to examine family and living arrangements of women in Canada.


The article "Families and living arrangements," is now available online as part of the Women in Canada: A Gender-based Statistical Report publication (Catalogue number89-503-X) series. From the Browse by key resource module of our website, choose Publications.

The publication Women in Canada: A Gender-based Statistical Report, seventh edition (Catalogue number89-503-X), is now available from the Browse by key resource module of our website under Publications. It is a collaborative effort of Status of Women Canada and Statistics Canada.

Contact information

For more information, contact us (toll-free 1-800-263-1136; 514-283-8300;

For more information on Women in Canada, contact Pierre Turcotte (613-854-1622;, Social and Aboriginal Statistics Division.

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