National Post

Single parenthood rate little changed since 1901

Sarah Schmidt
National Post

Single-parent homes were nearly as common a century ago as they are today.

The 1901 census, newly available online for the general public on the National Archives of Canada's Web site, attributes this to not only a higher death rate, but also desertion and marital breakdown.

Bettina Bradbury, a historian at York University, is part of an 11-member research team that has spent six years combing through the 1901 census data. She found that 12% of families with children aged 15 to 17 were headed by a single parent, two-thirds of them, or 8%, women.

In the 1996 census, 16% of households were run by single mothers, and -- same as in 1901 -- 4% of households were run by single fathers.

"Single parenting is not a new phenomenon, despite the way it's presented in the press. Death was the more important cause in the 19th century, but it wasn't the only one," Dr. Bradbury said yesterday, noting that then as now, spouses left and marriages broke down.

Peter Gossage, a historian at the University of Sherbrooke and member of the Canadian Families Project, has uncovered a similar trend with blended families, meaning step-parents lived with step-children. He has found that between 7% and 10% of all families in 1901 were blended.

While widowhood was the leading cause, marital breakdown also contributed to this familial arrangement often associated with modern times, Dr. Gossage said.

"With blended families, you always hear in the sociology and pop literature that's it's a new phenomenon, but challenges of the reconstituted family existed in 1901."

Eric Sager, project director and chairman of the history department at the University of Victoria, says this research shows "there is no single snapshot, there is no single family form. Like today, there was no single traditional family. There was enormous range."

Similarly, Canadians in 1901 claimed to belong to 142 different religions, denominations and sects.

Enumeration was conducted in the spring by door-to-door interviews, with enumerators asking questions to the "head" of the household. The 561 questions reflected the times. For example, people were asked whether they could read and write, and how many silos, horses and stables they owned.

Infirmities included "deaf and dumb", "blind," or "unsound mind." A person's race was divided into four categories -- white (people of European descent), red (natives), yellow (Japanese or Chinese descent) or black (African descent). The census publication listed Canada's population at more than 5.37 million.

The census can be seen online at

Genevieve Allard, project co-ordinator for 1901 online census at the National Archives, admits the average Canadian eager to uncover family roots will have difficulty navigating through the online census data.

Unlike the 1901 British online census material, the Canadian census is not indexed, so users are unable to narrow their searches by name.

The National Archives has posted 130,000 microfiche images of census results. Indexing to simplify geneology searches would be a costly initiative and take a number of years, Ms. Allard said.

Despite its limitations, the online census project is important, said Dr. Sager. "It will increase people's general interest in the census and the importance of the census for historical work."

This is a particularly thorny issue because Statistics Canada is fighting to keep historical census results sealed to protect the privacy of Canadians. A group of historians and geneologists filed an application to federal court to make public the results of the 1906 census, which Statistics Canada has refused to release.

In the United States, census results are released 70 years after data collection. Britain uses 100 years as a benchmark. In the past, Canadian census returns were routinely transferred to the National Archives every 92 years.

Dr. Sager said this online experiment may be a public relations manoeuvre to try and quell the controversy.

"The issue behind all this is the failure of the government and Statistics Canada to make 1911 census public and the current attempt to keep the census closed in perpetuity. It's a serious issue because the census was always intended for historical purposes. Of course we have to protect privacy. Keeping it closed for 100 years does that," Dr. Sager said.

The first national census, in 1871, determined post-Confederation Parliamentary representation in and gathered information on the ancestral origins of Canadians. A census has been taken every 10 years thereafter, asking increasingly in-depth questions.

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