Toronto Star

Oct. 23, 05:32 EDT

Family's a vanishing breed in city

Many are now living in the 905 suburbs

Elaine Carey
Demographics Reporter
Toronto Star

FAMILY TIES: Susie Pichelli, second from right, her husband George, right, and their children Michael and Stephanie live with her parents. Anna and Matteo Camillo, in North York.

If you're single or married but childless, chances are you live in the city.

If your children are young, it's likely you're in the 905 suburbs.

And this growing population shift may lead to half-empty schools in Toronto, while suburban schools have row upon row of portables for their booming enrolments.

According to data from the 2001 census released yesterday, the growing number of singles living downtown, same-sex couples and couples with no children means the traditional family is rapidly vanishing in the city.

That could spell trouble for school boards and other services aimed at families with children as the makeup of the city's families changes faster than the planning for it.

"Our lives change faster than our households do," said David Baxter, a demographer and executive director of the Urban Futures Institute.

"You've got schools in the city and you can't really close them. And out in the suburbs, the kids are all in portables because they can't build them fast enough," he said. "Conversely, where are the services for seniors?"

The city is surrounded by a circle of suburbs where the majority of households are couples with children, Statistics Canada said in releasing the census data on families. Those suburbs are the same areas where the population jumped rapidly between 1996 and 2001.

One in 10 single-family homes in the city of Toronto is occupied by one person, mostly widowed seniors, the census shows.

While city schools may be emptying now, they could be needed again in another decade as the empty nesters whose children have left home finally move to a smaller apartment, Baxter said. Younger couples with children may buy the larger homes the empty nesters or widowed seniors are leaving.

That's cold comfort to Joseph Carnevale, chairman of the Toronto Catholic District School Board, which lost 1,700 students this September. The Toronto public board lost 3,000 students, after projecting its enrolment would grow, he said.

The Catholic board tracked where those families have gone "and clearly, most of them are moving out of the city to get affordable housing," he said. "It's a terrible trend to be in.

"How serious is this city about wanting families to live here?" he asked. "When I look at the suburbs, Mississauga, Vaughan and Richmond Hill are all trying to attract them and we're not."

The dwindling number of children could lead to a vicious cycle where "young families look at a map like that and say `I'm not going to live there,'" warns John Anderson, director of research for the Canadian Council on Social Development.

"Planners must look at this in a very comprehensive manner," he said. "The worst thing that could happen would be to say we have to close schools or social services."

Across Canada, the census found that 41 per cent of all families are couples with no children (younger than 25) at home, up from 34 per cent two decades ago.

The number of couples, married or living common-law, with children now make up only 44 per cent of all families, down from 55 per cent two decades ago.

Married couples accounted for 70.5 per cent of all families last year, down from 83 per cent in 1981, while common-law couples rose from 6 per cent to 14 per cent.

Quebec is the trend leader 30 per cent of couples there live common-law, the same proportion as in Sweden, the world leader.

But in Ontario, the number of common-law unions increased by a third from 1996-2001.

More common-law couples are staying unmarried even after they have children. They now make up 7 per cent of all couples in Canada, up from only 2 per cent two decades ago.

That's worrying because common-law unions don't last as long as marriages, so more children are being affected by their parents' separation, said Bob Glossop, director of research for the Vanier Institute of the Family.

At the same time, far more adult children between 21 and 29 are still living at home as they stay in school longer, struggle to get jobs or move back home after a break-up.

More than half of those 20-something children in the Greater Toronto Area are still at home, one of the highest figures in the country, behind Newfoundland and Labrador.

"That's a huge, huge number, higher than any of the metropolitan areas in the country," said John Anderson, of the Canadian Council on Social Development.

Toronto lost 17,515 rental-housing units in the past five years, the census shows, and that is pushing rents beyond the reach of many young people, he said.

But it's not necessarily all bad, demographers say.

"If you ask most parents, they would say I want my children to finish post-secondary school. So the decision to stay at home is being made for rational, methodical reasons," said Glossop. "But it does definitely change the way you set up your adult identity."

To Baxter, it means "families are going to endure longer. People say it's because they can't get a job. Well in Toronto and Vancouver, the job market was great last year. It means baby boomer parents aren't at war with their kids."

The census also shows that single parents make up one in five families with children in Toronto, far higher than the suburbs. That's a worrying number because studies show two-thirds of them are living in poverty, Anderson said.

Toronto also has a large population of same-sex couples, the census reveals in its first ever look at the gay and lesbian population.

Toronto has 5,475 couples that reported they were same-sex partners out of 34,200 across the country. The next highest count in the GTA was Mississauga with only 440.

Same-sex couples make up 0.41 per cent of all couples in Canada, which is significantly underreported but is higher than the percentage the United States found when it first asked the question in 1990, said John Fisher, executive director of EGALE (Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere).

The number of reported same-sex couples jumped 301 per cent between the 1990 and 2000 census in the U.S., he said, "and we expect a similar progression here."

Many gay, lesbian and bisexual couples don't feel comfortable reporting to a government that once fired them from the public service, he said.

Even now, they are still fighting a constitutional battle for the right to legally marry, which makes many gays and lesbians uncomfortable in reporting their status, he said.

While 81 per cent of same-sex couples live in cities, they are found in every province and territory in Canada, including 15 couples in Nunavut.

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