Common-Law and Marriage

In 1961, 92 per cent of Canadian families were headed by married couples. By 2016, this number had declined to 65.8 per cent — a change mostly due to the rising popularity of common-law unions. In 1981 (the first year census data on common-law couples was collected), such unions accounted for 6.3 per cent of all families in Canada. By 2016 common-law unions accounted for 17.8 per cent of all Canadian families and 21.3 per cent of all couples.

Today, first unions among Canadian couples are more likely to be co-habitations rather than marriages. Although common-law relationships often lead to marriages, they are generally more short-lived and dissolve more frequently than marriages.

Provincial Differences

Common law unions fall under provincial jurisdiction, and are treated differently in different provinces. In British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, couples must live together in a conjugal relationship for two years before they have the same rights and responsibilities as married couples. In Ontario and Manitoba, the period is three years, or one year with a child. Under the Civil Code in Québec, common-law relationships are not recognized as they are in other provinces. They are referred to as de facto unions, and spouses living in such unions have the same rights and responsibilities as married couples regardless of the number of years the couple has lived together.

Nuptial patterns in Québec differ from the rest of Canada. Some of the differences are rooted in the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, when fewer people chose a religious marriage and more began to choose common-law unions. In 2016, 39.9 per cent of couples in Québec were common-law couples, nearly double the national average (21.3 per cent). Québec’s rate is higher than in Sweden, which has one of the highest incidences of non-marital unions (29.0 per cent in 2010), and Québec’s rate is approximately seven times greater than in the United States.

Non-Marital Parenting

The increasing number of women who give birth outside of marriage has led to a discrepancy between marital and parental roles: a rising proportion of the people who are parents together are not necessarily married to each other. This discrepancy has different consequences for men and women: most women continue to live together with most of their dependent biological children, while many men do not share a household with (all) their biological children. For children this means that they may have parents living in separate households, or that they may live with a step-parent. The availability of divorce and the marked increase in common-law relationships underlines the voluntary rather than compulsory character of marriage.

(See also Marriage in Canada.)