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Census definitions of family and children over time

Historically, family-related changes in the census questionnaires and to census concepts have followed societal changes.Note 47 Over the period examined in this document, modifications have been implemented to the definitions related to children and families (see Table A1 for a summary).

Prior to the 1941 Census, there was no consistent definition of a family, and little distinction was made between the household and family units in census publications from 1901 to 1931. In the 1871 to 1911 censuses, for example, boarders, lodgers, employees and other unrelated people were considered family members provided they were residing in the same household.Note 48 In 1979, the evolution of the concepts of census family and children in census families was documented as follows: Note 49

There have been changes over the years in the definitions of ‘family’ and of ’children’ in families in the Canadian census, and in the tabulation of statistics based on these definitions. Reasonably comparable statistics on Canadian families exist since 1941, when the ’census family’ concept was introduced. By far the larger part of family data in the Canadian census is prepared and published according to this concept, which also provides reasonably comparable statistics on children 0 [to] 24 years of age, living at home.Note 50

The census family definition used in the Canadian census since 1941 defines a family as generally consisting of “[…] a husband and wife (with or without children who have never married, regardless of age), or a lone parent, regardless of marital status, with one or more children (who have never married, regardless of age) living in the same dwelling.”Note 51

Since 1956, the Canadian census has also prepared and published data according to the ‘economic family’ concept. An economic family is defined as “two or more persons resident in the same household and related by blood, marriage or adoption”.Note 52

In the 1976 Census, the universe of census families was limited to families in Canadian private households only, and excluded families in collectives and in households abroad. However this change in coverage has not significantly altered the comparability of the statistics on families and children.Note 53

In the Canadian census publications from 1941 [to] 1971, children in census families were generally considered as sons and daughters of all ages who had never married and were living at home. Children who had ever been married, regardless of age, were not considered as members of their parents’ family, even though living in the same dwelling. Unmarried sons and daughters, 25 years of age and over, living at home on the census date were considered as children in a broad sense and appeared only in a few tabulations. Most tables featuring statistics on children referred to those 0 [to] 24 years of age. Included as children also were adopted and stepchildren, foster children for whom no pay was received, as well as guardianship children or wards under 21 years of age, residing in the same dwelling.Note 54

[In the 1976 Census], a reassessment of concepts, tabulation methods, enumeration procedures and coverage led to a number of changes. These were designed to improve the quality of the statistics on families and children. The conceptual changes in particular were intended to make the statistics on children accord faithfully with the literal meaning of “children” inherent in the census concepts used. The elimination of some household members previously tabulated as children in families,Note 55 the procedural change in the enumeration of certain young adults away at school, and the limitation of the family and children statistics to private households in Canada only, are not considered to unduly affect the comparability of the data on children 0 [to] 24 from 1941 [to] 1976, since such changes are taken account of where necessary, that is, where they might make a significant different in the interpretation of statistics.Note 56

The concept of a census family remained unchanged between 1976 and 1996. This is despite a terminology change in 1991Note 57 and retroactive availability of data on common-law partners and common-law couples back to 1981.Note 58

Along with the new millennium, there came several expansions to the definition of census families, and correspondingly, the definition of children living within those families.  The 2001 Census broadened and further distinguished the concept of children in census families to include the following:

  • Children in a census family who were previously married (as long as they are not currently living with a married spouse or common-law partner). From 1941 to 1996, they had to be 'never married'.
  • Children living with two common-law parents who are of the same sex—a concept that was broadened in 2006 to include same-sex married parents.
  • A grandchild living in a three-generation household whose parent (middle generation) has never married is, contrary to previous censuses, considered a child in the census family of his or her parent, provided the grandchild is not living with his or her own married spouse, common-law partner, or child. From 1976 to 1996, the census family usually consisted of the two older generations.
  • A grandchild of another household member, where no middle-generation parent is  present, is now considered a child in the census family of his or her grandparent, provided the grandchild is not living with his or her own spouse, common-law partner, or child. From 1976 to 1996, such a grandchild would not be considered a member of a census family.

Overall, between 1996 and 2001 there was a 1.0% increase in the number of children aged 24 and under in census families based on the new 2001 concept, while there would have been a decrease of -0.3% in the number of children during this period had the concepts remained constant.  Among children aged 24 and under in lone-parent families, there was an 11.3% increase between 1996 and 2001 based on the new 2001 concept compared to an increase of 5.5% had the concept remained unchanged. Consequently, historical comparisons for census families, particularly for lone-parent families, must be interpreted with caution as a result of these conceptual changes.

Beginning with the 2011 Census, a child living with two parents could be further classified as living in either an intact family or in a stepfamily. A stepchild is defined as a child in a couple family who is the biological or adopted child of only one married spouse or common-law partner in the couple. A stepfamily is a couple census family with at least one such child.

Additionally, in 2011, a distinction could be made between those living in a simple stepfamily or a complex stepfamily.Note 59  A simple stepfamily refers to a couple family in which all children are the biological or adopted children of one and only one married spouse or common-law partner and whose birth or adoption preceded the current relationship. There are three types of complex stepfamilies—a couple family in which there is at least one child of both parents and at least one child of only one parent; a couple family in which there is at least one child of each parent and no children of both parents; and a couple family in which there is at least one child of both parents and at least one child of each parent.

Throughout this document, the term ‘child’ refers to biological or adopted children aged 24 and under living in the same dwelling as their parent(s) in private households, unless otherwise stated. Historical comparability is the main reason for the age restriction, as information on children aged 24 and under has been released for most censuses. In addition, the age restriction on children gives some sense of the dependency of a child on their parent(s). 

Notably, not all individuals generally considered to be children are classified as ‘children’ in census families. In the 2011 Census, for example, 89.2% of the population aged 24 and under living in private households were children in census families, while the remaining 10.8% lived in other arrangements. 'Foster children', who are considered 'other relatives' in an economic family,Note 60 have not been considered ‘children' in census families since 1976. Since 1941, the proportion of the population aged 24 and under in private households that were living outside of census families has not exceeded 20.7%.

The term 'child' may be used in other contexts, such as young adults who live in the parental home, which is based on the economic family status definition of child, i.e., the son or daughter of the economic family reference person. These adult children may be in the parental home accompanied by a married spouse or common-law partner or children of their own.

Census definitions of living arrangements are restricted to co-residential living arrangements. Immediate family members living in separate households are not counted as part of the same census family. As is the case today, the ‘snapshot’ of living arrangements taken on Census Day does not fully capture the living arrangements of individuals over the course of their childhood years.


  1. Che-Alford, J., C. Allan and G. Butlin. 1994. Focus on Canada: Families in Canada, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 96-307E, Prentice Hall Canada.
  2. Gauthier, H. 1971. The Census Definition of Family: 1871-1971, Population and Housing Research Memorandum no. PH-FAM-1, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 1570E.
  3. Wargon, S.T. 1979. Children in Canadian Families, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 98-810.
  4. Wargon, 1979. pages 11 to 12.
  5. Wargon, 1979. page 12.
  6. Wargon, 1979. page 13.
  7. Wargon, 1979. page 12.
  8. Wargon, 1979. page 13.
  9. This included the exclusion of household members, designated as children in all censuses previous to that of 1976, but where (it was shown in an unpublished 1971 evaluation report) there was not, in fact, a direct parent-child relationship as required by the census family definition. Such children were, for example, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, etc., who were under 21 years of age. Unrelated wards, foster or guardianship children whether or not pay was received by the designated guardian, were classified and tabulated in 1976 as lodgers rather than as children in families. In 1971 and all censuses dating back to 1941 they had been classified as children if no pay was received.
  10. Wargon, 1979. page 14.
  11. The Census Dictionary of 1991 states (page 124): “In previous censuses, the term ‘husband-wife families’ covered both the families of now-married couples and those of common-law couples.”
  12. The Census Dictionary of 1996 states (page 124): “Data on common-law couples have only been available [as a subset of all couples] since 1981.”
  13. For more information on stepfamilies, see the 2011 Census analytical document Portrait of Families and Living Arrangements in Canada, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 98-312-X-2011001.
  14. Foster children have been ‘other relatives’ in the economic family since 2006 even though they were not published separately until 2011.  From 1976 to 1996, foster children were considered ‘lodgers’ in the economic family.
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