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Jen and Scott Lawson relax in a park near their Grimsby, Ontario home with their four children, Sept. 1, 2012. The only thing Jennifer Lawson can't seem to write into her family's daily calendar is free time.Patrick Dell/The Canadian Press

The family is not what it used to be.

While politicians may champion family values and tout their family-friendly policies, a report from Statistics Canada shows the lives of Canadian families are too complex for a one-size-fits-all approach.

Statistics offer a clarity not often found in political debates or business pitches directed at families: They can show a country the way it is, not how it is imagined or desired to be. Census numbers are fluid and describe change as it happens – tradition, wishful thinking and partisan ideology have no part in the making of these new numbers, and the new ideas that come from them.

The aim in the report released Wednesday is to describe the conditions under which Canadians actually live rather than sort out who most effectively pairs off and procreates according to a religious, social or economic ideal. For policy makers and private-sector number crunchers, the data should force a rethinking of older, exclusionary models that limit the understanding of Canadian families and their needs.

With inclusivity as its goal, Statistics Canada has drawn a portrait that incorporates the fullest possible range of Canadian family life: same-sex parents, common-law families, single-parent households, stepfamilies in all their variations, grandparent-run families where parents are absent, multigenerational families, foster children and their households.

To emphasize the pluralistic nature of the Canadian family in its report, the government agency supplied a page-long set of definitions to explain the new, extended range of the term – and then added a flow chart to make more sense of a concept that has clearly outdistanced traditional definitions.

The conventional image of the family presented in politics and advertising glosses over the nuances of family that are increasingly apparent in daily-life encounters. Social standards and private behaviours and household compositions have deviated so far from the conventional model that it has now become a risky thing to make assumptions in the schoolyard or the playground about what constitutes someone else's family – let alone the values that go with it.

The preliminary awkwardness of sorting out how colleagues, classmates, clients and random acquaintances structure their home life has now been recognized though the census data. We can say with greater confidence that nothing should be assumed about other people – which is either exciting or challenging, according to your taste.

Here is the official statisticians' basic definition of the family, which shows how hard it should be to generalize about this concept: "A census family is composed of a married or common-law couple, with or without children, or of a lone parent living with at least one child in the same dwelling. Couples can be of the opposite sex or the same sex."

The census family occupies an expansive reality immune from the narrowing definitions imposed by moralizers, political opportunists and 1950s nostalgists. Clearly it's a definition that's in constant flux, as the quiet reference to same-sex couples shows. But then the historical definitions of "family" have always been more elastic than the more rigid guardians of the term like to think.

So the Statistics Canada family portrait incorporates the image of both the multigenerational family (a household that contains three or more generations) and the skip-generation family, where grandparents care for grandchildren without the presence of parents in the home. It is a picture that is very modern at the statistics-gathering level, yet timeless in its sense of human adaptability. You are left to wonder about the stories of ambition and loss and affection and domestic tension that go with those categories, and how the concept of family is wonderfully and necessarily fluid as circumstances change, for better and for worse.

Stepfamilies are included, of course – easy divorce completely remade the concept of the family, turning old values inside out – but even within that category, the flow chart separates both the simple version (where the children in the family date from a previous relationship) and three more complex versions that create the recognizable blended clans where describing who's who in the family tree takes 15 minutes of lively dinner-party analysis.

The 2011 census provided a good opportunity to measure the presence of same-sex couple families following the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2005 – 64,575 such families were counted, an increase of 42.4 per cent from the 2006 census. But in its efforts to capture the full complexity of Canadian family life, Statistics Canada may have inadvertently got caught up in another outburst of modern social transformation: Some transient workers who left behind their families to work in Alberta's oil patch were apparently counted as same-sex couples simply because they were living together as roommates and happened to be married – just not to each other.

In the end, same-sex couples account for just 0.8 per cent of all couples in Canada, which may not be a significant enough number to alter entrenched attitudes. But the message of the Statistics Canada report is that there is no longer a big picture: The new reality of the Canadian family lies in the fine details.