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Census will offer a glimpse into Canada’s changing family structure

How many Mom and Dad and the kids are there? And how many Mom and Dad and the kids from one marriage, the kids from the other marriage, and their own kids as well? How many Mom and Mom and the kids can be found across the land, or Dad and the kid, or Mom and Dad and the kids and the grandparents? And what is in between?

We'll know more on Wednesday, when Statistics Canada releases the 2011 census data on families.

Statscan has measured such exotic creations as "skip-generation families," "complex step families" and other alternatives to "the traditional, or what you might now call archaic" family – as Janice Keefe of Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax puts it – that make up the social fabric of contemporary Canada.

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Previous census data have already shown that the number of married parents with children is in relative decline, common-law relationships are on the increase, single-parent families are ever more common and that couples increasingly include same-sex as well as opposite-sex relationships.

The question the census will answer is: How much is changing, and how fast? "We sense anecdotally" that family patterns are becoming increasingly complex, said Prof. Keefe, who teaches family studies and gerontology, "but we don't have a good handle on how that plays out."

The census will also provide Canadians with a better picture of when children leave home and how often they move back.

And it will look at families where adult couples live with parents or grandparents. One question that intrigues Prof. Keefe is how common that phenomenon is among immigrant families compared to the general population.

The new census data will offer the first glimpse of how many same-sex couples have embraced marriage since it became legal in 2005, and how many families have foster children.

The release will provide federal, provincial and municipal governments with hard data on whether and how programs and policies need to be rethought to accommodate the many variations on the traditional family.

Statistics Canada, of course, rigorously avoids making value judgments. It will be for each Canadian to decide whether the increasingly heterodox nature of our families is a sign of liberation or decline.

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