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Canada, like many other industrialized countries, has experienced many social, economic, legislative and cultural changes over the past century. These changes have affected many aspects of everyday life, including family circumstances and living arrangements. While always influenced by the broader social context of various historical periods, the living arrangements of children over the last 100 years have been characterized by diversity and fluidity.

The Canadian census of population has long been used to examine the living arrangements of children. As society has evolved so too have the concepts, definitions and indicators related to children that are used in the census (see Appendix for details including historical comparability).Note 1 As a result, the census provides both an extensive time series and a unique lens to examine the family arrangements and circumstances of children in Canada over time.

This article examines the family structure and living arrangements of children in Canada using census data from 1901 to 2011. Specifically, four eras reflecting major shifts in family living arrangements are considered: the early 20th century, the baby boom, the late 20th century, and the current millennium to date. Among the topics examined are the particular family structures of children over time, including two-parent families of different configurations, female and male lone-parent families, and the number of children in families. Other aspects of children’s lives are also explored when relevant in a given time period (for example, mortality, education and labour force participation in the early 20th century). In addition to providing a time series of children’s living arrangements in Canada over the past century, this article extensively documents the historical comparability of child and family-related census concepts.

Examining children’s past and current living arrangements helps shed light on how their family circumstances are affected by the societal conditions of a particular era and how they might continue to evolve in the future. Additionally, it will be shown that some issues frequently considered as modern phenomena have actually been present and of interest for many decades. Finally, understanding the evolution of diversity in children’s living arrangements provides a broadened context for program and policy development related to today’s children and families.


  1. Unless otherwise indicated, children will be considered age 24 and under in census families in private households.
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