Among those Canadian marriages that dissolved in 1995, child custody was a concern in approximately 70 percent of these cases. In more than two-thirds of these divorces, the courts granted mothers sole custody of their offspring. Thus, many women in Canada who experienced divorce also became single parents.
Of the 1.1 million single parents enumerated in 1996, 58 percent were separated or divorced, 22 percent were single or never married, and 20 percent were widows. The vast majority, 83 percent, were women (The Vanier Institute 2000). This gender difference is significant because female-headed single-parent families are more likely to suffer from lower incomes—indeed, poverty—than male-headed single-parent families. In 1998 single-parent families headed by women made up the largest fraction of all low-income families. Women-headed families were more than twice as likely as male-headed families to be living in poverty (42% versus 17.5%).
The number of Canadian single-parent families increased dramatically since the 1970s: almost 250 percent between 1971 and 1996, compared with an overall increase of only 55 percent in the total number of Canadian families. These rates mark a return to proportions seen in the early decades of the twentieth century. In 1931, for example, 13.6 percent of Canadian families were headed by one parent; this is compared to 15 percent in 1996. However, the reasons for single parenthood have changed during this century. Whereas in the first half of the twentieth century, most single-parent households were a result of the death of a spouse, in the second half of the century they were mainly the result of separation, divorce, or nonmarriage (Oderkirk and Lochhead 1992).