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In the early decades of the 20th century, changes in the living arrangements of children were mostly a result of unforeseeable circumstances such as the death of a parent or other family members. The structure of children’s households was quite fluid and flexible, at times involving individuals outside of the child’s immediate family. Children were sometimes fostered, temporarily or otherwise, by grandparents, aunts, uncles and family friends when resources were strained or opportunities for education or earnings were presented.

By the middle of the 20th century, various societal changes which resulted in the baby boom also lessened the diversity of children’s living arrangements, with the vast majority of children being raised by married parents and with a large number of siblings. The latter half of the 20th century saw a return to greater diversity of children’s living arrangements and smaller families, although, unlike earlier in the century, this was mostly due to the choices of parents (to divorce or separate, or to bear less children, to bear children within a common-law relationship or outside of a relationship) and less often the result of uncontrollable circumstances.

To date in the 21st century, the census has incorporated several expansions of the concept of family, reflecting the growing societal recognition of the diversity of children’s lives. Stepfamilies, same-sex couple families and multigenerational households are examples of some of the varied family structures in which children live today.

This broad look back at children’s living arrangements in Canada shows that their experiences in family life have been affected by social and cultural changes occurring for the nation as a whole. What has remained constant is the fact that families have never been uniform; rather, families and the situations of children have always been characterized by diversity to some degree. Furthermore, some phenomena that might be considered more contemporary—lone-parent families, young adults living in the parental home, grandparents living with grandchildren, for example—have in fact been present in Canada throughout the past century.

Along with its extensive time series, the scope of family-related data in the census—covering the entire population in private households—permits the examination of a variety of characteristics and living arrangements. As seen in this study, children have always been counted in the census, although the concepts and indicators related to their family circumstances have evolved over time. Using census and other data sources,Note 46 policies and programs directed towards families can be developed which take into account the diversity of family circumstances experienced by children in Canada. Moving further into the 21st century, demographic phenomena such as delayed union and family formation, low fertility and population aging, combined with other cultural shifts, may continue to alter the familial landscape in Canada, and specifically, the living arrangements of children. Future censuses can be used to examine the living arrangements of children and to what extent family-related trends will continue or change.


  1. There are many other aspects of children’s family circumstances that were either not examined at all in this study, or were only examined in a limited way, such as family income, ethnicity, religious affiliation, immigration status (including generational status), language, housing and region of residence. Census or survey data could be used to explore these topics in greater depth for various time points.
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