National Post

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Census includes gay, lesbian households for first time

National Post


Chris Bolin/National Post
Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell (left and right), a same-sex couple, embrace at a press conference held at Queen's Park in Toronto earlier this year. The two were celebrating a decision by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice that legalized same-sex marriages in Ontario.

OTTAWA -- Statistics Canada released its first snapshot of gay and lesbian lives in Canada on Tuesday, but it's far from a complete picture.

Nearly three per cent of all common-law couples declared themselves gay or lesbian in the 2001 census, as the government agency moved with the times and radically altered its vision of the Canadian family.

Of 11 million households surveyed, 34,200 couples said they were living in homosexual relationships.

That figure represents nearly 3.0 per cent of the 1,158,410 common-law couples counted, or about 0.5 per cent of all couples, both married and common law.

But the census does not portray the lives of a substantial segment of the population -- gay people living outside long-term relationships. It is also thought to be an underrepresentation, since many are still not likely to declare their same-sex relationships publicly.

Since it's the first time Statistics Canada has included a same-sex question in its more than 100-year history, there are few points of comparison to contextualize the numbers, said Pierre Turcotte, the demographer in charge of the release.

But based upon results from the U.S. and New Zealand, where the question has been included for the past two national surveys, Canada's numbers are similar to other western industrialized countries, he said.

In the U.S., same-sex couples comprised 0.3 per cent of all couples -- both married and common-law -- in 1990; that figure jumped to about 1.0 per cent in 2000. In New Zealand, they made up 0.4 per cent of all couples in 1996, and 0.6 per cent in 2001.

"In Canada, it's 0.5 per cent, so it's in the same ballpark,'' Turcotte said.

The census numbers are also in keeping with early data from Canada's 2001 general social survey -- which posed a similar question, Turcotte said.

"We get the same estimates in both surveys,'' he said. "The data are robust.''

But Turcotte warned the actual number of gay couples living under the same roof in Canada may be higher.

The stigma still associated with homosexuality, combined with a distrust of how the data might be used, may have prevented many from declaring their living arrangment, said Dean Behrens, a professor of sociology at the Univeristy of Toronto.

"It's certainly not as precise as we would like, but some data is better than nothing at all,'' said Behrens, adding the accuracy of the data will improve each year the question is asked, as people grow accustomed to the idea.

Turcotte stressed that Statistics Canada took precautions to ensure confidentiality of the data. Information is never linked to names, census-takers are under ethical obligation not to release information and numbers are rounded up to avoid possible identification of homosexual couples in small communities.

EGALE, a prominent gay-rights group, was so confident the agency would succeed in ensuring confidentiality it endorsed the census with an information kit explaining the measures and encouraging gay couples to take part.

John Fisher, EGALE's executive director, called Tuesday's release a landmark in the longstanding battle for gay equality.

"Before the 2001 census, (homosexual) people had no option but to mark their marital status as single,'' he said.

"(The 2001 census) sends a message that we are a normal, natural part of the Canadian fabric who are here to stay, and the governments and courts need to face up to their responsibilities.''

As many predicted, a majority of same-sex couples who declared themselves in the survey lived in major urban centres, predominantly in B.C., Quebec and Ontario, although towns and smaller cities were not without homosexual partners.

Eighty-one per cent of gay couples lived in major urban areas in 2001; men favoured the city more than women, with 85 per cent of them living the urban life compared to 76 per cent of female couples.

Out of all common-law couples, Vancouver had the highest proportion -- 15.0 per cent -- who were gay.

Toronto came second at 9.8 per cent, Ottawa third at 6.7 per cent, and Montreal fourth at 6.3 per cent.

Calgary ranked fifth of the major cities with 4.5 per cent of common-law couples in that city declaring themselves homosexual.

B.C. tied Quebec as the province with the largest proportion of same-sex couples -- in each, 0.6 per cent of all couples declared same-sex status; Ontario came second with 0.5 per cent.

In smaller cities and towns, rural and remote areas, 88 communities nationwide had 10 couples or less who were willing to declare their same-sex common-law status. Twenty-six had between 10 and 15 couples a piece who declared their same-sex common-law status. The number is not necessarily an accurate reflection of homosexual common-law unions, since the agency randomly rounds figures up or down to the nearest five in order to protect privacy.

Newfoundland and Labrador had the lowest proportion of same-sex couples willing to declare their status at 0.1 per cent of all couples.

Statistics Canada also provided the first glimpse of the number of gay and lesbian couples with children living in their homes.

Many more female couples tended to have children living with them. About 15 per cent of the 15,200 lesbian couples said they were living with children, compared to only three per cent of male same-sex couples.

The survey does not indicate whether those children are natural, adopted, or step-children.

The inclusion of same-sex couples, which many say was long overdue, marks the most radical departure in the agency's definition of family in decades.

It was sparked chiefly by new federal legislation giving same-sex partners the same benefits and obligations as heterosexuals, Turcotte said.

That change, along with a growing body of Canadian case law led to a greater demand from policy-makers, insurance companies and others hungry for data, he said.

That demand prompted the agency to conduct a series of surveys and focus groups between 1998 and 2000. They indicated Canadians were more willing than they were even 10 years ago to answer a question about same-sex partnerships in the next census, he said.

Some argue that Statistics Canada should not have waited for the legislators in order to survey a significant part of the population.

Others applaud the organization for taking what they say is a political stand in recognizing the validity of gay and lesbian relationships.

"The people at Stats Can try to seem apolitical, but in this case, including the question was bound to be construed as a political act to make a certain kind of household visible,'' said Mariana Valverde, a criminologist at the University of Toronto and an expert witness on several gay rights cases.

Canada joins only two other countries -- New Zealand and the United States -- which include a same-sex option within the common-law relationship category in their national census.

In May 2001, under the former heading common-law partner, respondents were given a choice between a box marked "heterosexual partner'' and a box marked "same-sex partner.''

Fisher said EGALE developed a "healthy liaison'' with Statistics Canada during the process of drafting the question and educating the gay community and the broader public about the change.

But he added the road to visibility is fraught with ambivalence, in a climate where governments still haven't allowed the right of same-sex marriage, for example.

Fears about safety, privacy and financial security have kept many from answering the question unequivocally.

"I think it's a step in the right direction but I worry about how the information could be used,'' said Sharon Little, who lives in a common-law same-sex relationship in Burlington, Ont.

"It doesn't represent the entire gay community and so shouldn't be assumed to be a comprehensive picture of the gay community. There are many segments of the gay community who don't live in what is defined as a common-law relationship.''

A question about sexual orientation was considered for the 2001 census and discarded, Turcotte said.

Because one respondent fills out one form for a number of people in any given household, and given the secret nature of sexual orientation for many gays and lesbians, the data could not be considered accurate, he said.

Instead, Statistics Canada will include a question about orientation in its Canadian Community Health Survey in 2003, he said.

Response from the community at large to the change on the census questionnaire was overwhelmingly positive, Turcotte added, saying many commentators asked why the question had not been asked before.

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