The real Canadian family


Focus on Adoption magazine

Michelle and David Huck married in 2000, and since then life has been a blur of backpacks, lunch kits and homework.

As parents to Indira, 10, Soleil, 9, Saul, 8, and Samuel, 6, the couple’s Calgary life is one long domestic balancing act — and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

"We’re at the dance studio, we’re playing the piano before school — it’s a gong show," Ms. Huck said.

Indira and Saul are the Hucks’ biological children, while Samuel was adopted from Sierra Leone and Soleil from Ethiopia. The Hucks have met both of their adopted children’s biological mothers and consider them part of their extended family.

The Hucks are a typical Canadian family — in that they don’t fit the definition of what once passed for typical. But the results of a new poll conducted exclusively for Postmedia News and Global TV suggest public perceptions of what makes up a family lag behind the reality around kitchen tables across the country.

For example:

  • Couples without children now outnumber those with children in Canada, but fewer than half of Canadians believe a married or common-law couple with no children counts as a family. A similar minority considers a same-sex married couple and their children to be a family.
  • For the first time, there are more unmarried than married people in Canada, according to the most recent census data (2006), and common-law families — particularly those with children — are the fastest-growing family type in Canada. Yet poll results from Ipsos Reid show that while 80% of Canadians believe two married, heterosexual parents and their children constitute a family, just 66% consider a common-law couple and their children to be a family.

Today, the Vanier Institute of the Family releases Families Count, an encyclopedic book of Canadian family trends and statistics published every five years. The release coincides this year with National Family Week in Canada.

"When people are asked to think about families, they think about their own families; they think back to what their family looked like," said Clarence Lochhead, executive director of the Ottawa-based research and advocacy organization.

There’s "no question" that families have changed profoundly over the past 50 years, the report says, but it also highlights surprising stability lying beneath the surface.

In 2006, the most recent year for which census data are available, 85% of Canadians lived with a relative — similar to the nearly nine in 10 who were living with family when it came time for the 1901 census count. The proportion of people living in married or common-law families has held steady at about 84% over the past few decades, census data show, although the proportion of married couples is declining while the ranks of common-law couple families are growing rapidly.

Vanier Institute research conducted by Reginald Bibby, a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge who has extensively studied Canada’s Baby Boomers and up-and-coming millennial generation, revealed that people’s family aspirations remain buoyant in the face of upheaval and change. Fully 90% of those aged 15 to 19 said they expect to get married, Mr. Bibby found in the "Canadian Hopes and Dreams" project in 2004, and 88% said they expected to stay with the same partner for life.

Public perception hasn’t quite caught up to contemporary family life, but our collective notions of what families used to be and how they have changed are equally misguided.

"I think we have a very, very bad historical sense of what family looked like in the past, what it did, how it functioned," said Robert Glossop, former executive director of the Vanier Institute.

Lone-parent families may be increasingly common but they’re nothing new, he said. That family type was widespread in the 1930s, he said, although in that era it was created most often by death or family desertion during the Great Depression rather than through divorce.

"We didn’t invent single-parent families. They’ve always been part of the cultural fabric of Canadian society," Mr. Glossop said. "There was a period when Canadians thought that was a function of feminism in the late ‘60s and kids growing up and overthrowing the traditional family, as though lone-parent families had never existed before."

If there is one constant in the shifting, changing family portraits of Canada and other countries over the past century, the experts agree it’s the family’s adaptability and elasticity in weathering these changes and remaining intact.

In Calgary, meanwhile, Ms. Huck still can’t get used to the adulation of strangers she suspects might be influenced by celebrity adoption stories.

"It’s kind of cute. I think people idolize the adoption process or people who adopt," she said. "I’m like, ‘We’re just a family. I yell at my kids,’ but I get quite nice comments."

Material reprinted with the express permission of: "POSTMEDIA NEWS", a division of Postmedia Network Inc.