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New Canada: land of immigrants with many families under the same roof

Each new tranche of census data reinforces the reality of two Canadas: The old Canada is a land of the native-born, where the size of households is small and where children are fewer. The new Canada is a land of immigrants, where multiple families and generations are more likely to mingle beneath the same roof. Politicians and business leaders should take note.

The 2011 census data on families, released Wednesday, brings a familiar picture into sharper relief. The Leave It To Beaver family of mom and dad and kids, while still dominant, continues to decline as a share of the population. For the first time, there are more people living alone than there are couples with children -- the product of a society growing older and of young people waiting longer before forming live-in relationships.

Households of the lonely are most prevalent in regions with struggling economies. More than three-in-10 households in Quebec have only one person in them, though the retirement hub of Victoria has a similarly high percentage.

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In contrast, the burgeoning, immigrant-rich cities of Brampton, Markham, Vaughan and other communities on the edge of Toronto have an increasing number of multiple-family dwellings. Such households can also be found in the Greater Vancouver community of Surrey, which also has a high immigrant population.

These are hardly ghetto communities, filled with families crammed into small, dark and unhealthy tenements. They are cities filled with new arrivals from China, India and other parts of the emerging world, where communal and familiar bonds are stronger than among the more atomized families of the native born.

Other statistics paint a similar tale of regional stagnation or growth. The population of couples with children declined in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, but increased in all three Prairie provinces.

In Alberta, 29 per cent of households consist of couples with children. In New Brunswick, the figure is 24 per cent.

The differing demographics across the country present politicians with a contrasting set of challenges. In Alberta, local governments struggle to provide schools and daycare for families with young children. In the Maritimes, the challenge – and it is a formidable one – is to retain or attract a new generation of workers and consumers whose taxes can meet the demand for seniors' residents and home-care programs.

Businesses will also want to parse the data. Those multiple-family households in Mississauga won't want to stay multiple-family forever. Though the real-estate market may be showing signs of softening short-term, long-term demand for housing to accommodate the immigrant influx should remain robust.

Marketers will note the growing number of same-sex couples, who seek homes with fewer bedrooms, perhaps, but in neighbourhoods with better restaurants.

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And communities with large numbers of retirees, or who seek to attract them, will want to tailor their own services and housing mix to suit the needs of the woman who suddenly and sadly finds herself living alone.

A census is a film, not a snapshot; it chronicles the growth and decline of populations across communities over time. The two Canadas have been apparent for years; the 2011 census simply confirms and amplifies trends already identified or suspected through anecdote.

This census makes concrete what we already suspected: that immigrants are growing the new Canada, while the old Canada watches and worries in decline.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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