Canadians have always followed the marriage pattern dominant in Western societies, eg, relatively late marriage, companionable unions and a significant proportion of individuals who remain unmarried. Before WWII, 9 out of 10 adults in Canada apparently had married at least once in their lives and the average age of grooms at first marriage was between 25 and 29, of brides, between 20 and 25.

Basic Influences on Marriage

Then, as today, 3 basic factors influenced the opportunity to marry and the timing of marriage. First is the ratio of marriageable males to females. In Canada this ratio has varied widely over time. Overall the numbers of unmarried men and women have been more or less equal. However, during times of high immigration and in frontier areas men outnumbered women, but from 1850 onward women have outnumbered men in the growing industrial cities of central Canada. Second, the strong tendency of men to marry women younger than themselves has affected the marriage opportunities of prospective brides and grooms in quite different ways. The selection of potential spouses for women has always been greatest when women were young; for men, on the other hand, the choice of mates expanded steadily as they aged. Third, economic factors have always affected marriage opportunities, especially for men. Until recently a man found it more difficult to marry until he could support a wife and children.

Religious Influence

Long before the founding of Canada, the Catholic and Protestant churches had established that marriage was a lifelong, exclusive union of one man and one woman who freely consented to join their lives for procreation and mutual comfort; however, the various Christian denominations were divided on several issues. The Roman Catholic Church held marriage to be a sacrament; Protestants simply considered it sacred or blessed by God. Catholics believed the marriage bond lasted until death, while Protestants accepted the possibility of divorce and remarriage in limited circumstances. Catholicism prohibited a broad range of unions among kinfolk, but offered some leeway in the envorcement of its rules; Protestantism imposed fewer restrictions on who a person could marry, but did so absolutely. Despite these differences, broad agreement on the fundamentals of Christian marriage existed in western Europe after the Reformation (see Catholicism and Protestantism).

Marriage Types

From the dawn of European settlement in Canada, the marriage system reflected religious traditions. As a result, the Christian concept of marriage has dominated the history of Canada, even though notable exceptions have persisted in special circumstances, eg, marriages à la façon du nord, the consensual unions of white men and Indian or mixed-blood women in the northwestern fur trade (see Métis).

Some evidence suggests the existence of arranged marriages among bourgeois families in New France, but for the most part men and women have always chosen their own spouses. In addition to economic considerations, Canadians have tended to marry within their own social groups, therefore ethnicity, religion and class have played an important role in the process of mate selection. Within these boundaries (and occasionally outside of them) personal attraction has also been an extremely important motive for marriage in Canada.

Historically, the romantic basis of marriage was regarded with ambivalence. Although unions founded on personal choice and emotional attachment offered the promise of happiness and personal fulfillment through companionship, they also required lengthy, private courtship and contained hidden dangers, eg, the possibility of imprudently choosing a spouse by yielding to the dictates of the heart and not the mind.

Another danger was the prospect of sexual intimacy before marriage, which was an offence against respectable opinion and religious teaching, and a decision that carried the risk of childbirth outside marriage. Censure of nonmarital sexual intercourse served 2 important functions. It affirmed high ideals of personal conduct, particularly for women, and it also constituted protection for the interests of women and children whose greatest economic security, before the age of the welfare state, lay in marriage and family life.

Community and Family Influence

For these reasons, family and community influences exerted strong control over courtship in Canada until almost the end of the 19th century. Couples exploring the possibility of marriage courted largely in their own homes under the watchful gaze of their families. They also passed time together in the homes of relatives and friends, in church, at community events, and out of doors on strolls, sleigh rides and incidental pastimes. These circumstances gave parents an effective control over courtship, especially those of their daughters. In urban middle-class circles, where "calling" and "at homes" formed part of customary social life, a mother admitted to the home only those young men she considered fit companions for her daughters. The annual "coming out" ceremonies, so carefully arranged by mothers, formally placed young women in a marriage market regulated by adults.

Urban working-class families had less influence over their courting young, for their children often worked and boarded away from home after mid-adolescence. Instead, the families with whom youths lived often oversaw their conduct, though perhaps with something less than due parental care. In rural communities courtship also fit in and around the common customs of social visiting, church attendance and everyday recreations.

Since the 1880s, controls regulating courtship and youthful social life in Canada have gradually relaxed. Parental restrictions during late adolescence were indirect through youth clubs, schools, residences, church groups and other institutions that increasingly framed the lives of the young. The transportation revolution after the turn of the 20th century also increased youthful independence. Greater mobility brought freedom from parental and community supervision, especially in larger cities. Generally speaking, the urban young achieved earlier and more extensive freedom than their rural counterparts, for they had easier access to the quasi-privacy that anonymity offers to city dwellers. In these circumstances courtship became an increasingly private matter.

Marriage Choice

Throughout the history of marriage in Canada, the decision to marry has always belonged to the couple, but until the 1880s a young woman's choice of a spouse was still commonly subject to parental approval. From time to time, fathers and mothers refused to allow a daughter to wed the man of her choice, the usual justification being that the alliance was not in her best interest. In these circumstances a woman might defy her parents and marry against their will, but she did so at the risk of estrangement from her family.

Although the parental veto was a heavily qualified power, its strength declined as a daughter's age increased, and it could not be used more than once or twice without inviting defiance. During the 1880s women began to free themselves from this and many other restrictions, and today women usually marry whomever they please. Men, by contrast, have always been far less constrained by parental wishes when choosing a spouse. and from the earliest days of colonial settlement they were relatively free agents on the marriage market.

Marriage Rites

In the past marriage in Canada was usually a religious rite. Civil marriage has always been possible, at least since the end of the French era, but until recently it has been relatively uncommon. The secular custom of a honeymoon after the wedding developed slowly during the 19th century. Initially, only the well-to-do had money and leisure enough for a post-marriage vacation, but after 1850 the practice spread gradually throughout all social levels. The purpose of the honeymoon has changed considerably over time as well. At first it took the common form of 19th-century social visiting. The recently married couple often travelled with relatives and visited friends and relations in distant communities. But by the end of the century, the honeymoon had become a private holiday for the newly wedded pair.


The history of divorce in Canada contrasts sharply with that of marriage for, while most Canadians married, divorce was extremely uncommon until after WWII. In fact, until that time, Canada had one of the lowest divorce rates in the Western world. Respectability - articulated by social and religious leaders - condemned divorce as a threat to the family, and the strength of this opinion prevented relaxation of Canadian divorce laws. Consequently, access to divorce in Canada was extremely limited until 1968.

For most of Canada's first century adultery was virtually the only basis for divorce and, before WWI, only Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and BC had divorce courts, although Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario created them during the interwar period. In provinces without access to judicial divorce, the only alternative was an appeal to Parliament for a statutory divorce, an expensive process that limited access to the wealthy. The most common divorce alternatives were desertion, legal separation and divorce in an American jurisdiction which, though it had no legal force in Canada, seemed to satisfy public opinion.

See also Marriage and Divorce; Family; Population.