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III. Family status and other Code grounds

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Each individual’s experience of his or her family status is profoundly influenced by other aspects of their identify, such as gender, sexual orientation, age, race, marital status, or disability: this was a major theme of the submissions the Commission received. For example, the experience of an aging parent of a child with a disability will differ from that of an Aboriginal single mother in search of housing. A heterosexual married mother seeking career advancement will experience different barriers than a lesbian couple dealing with their children’s schooling. Beyond the shared experience of barriers based on caregiving, the intersection of various Code grounds can result in forms of discrimination that are unique and complex. It is essential that the full context of family status issues be considered in order to reach a true understanding. Highlighted below are some of the issues arising from the intersection of family status with gender, disability, sexual orientation, race and race-related grounds, and age.

1. Family Status and Gender

We live in a world today where gender roles and stereotypes exist. These roles and stereotypes act to limit both men and women. - CAW Canada

Women continue to provide the bulk of caregiving in our society, whether it is for children, aging parents or relatives, or family members with disabilities. Women both devote more time to caregiving activities, and are more likely to have the primary responsibility for the care of family members. Over 70% of informal caregiving is provided by women.[2]

Consultees emphasized that caregiving is so intimately connected to gender roles that it is impossible to adequately consider family status without thoughtful examination of gender issues. Family status issues have frequently been characterized as “women’s issues”; at the same time, many have pointed out that no real progress can be made until these issues are no longer perceived as solely “women’s issues”. The effects of women’s caregiving responsibilities are key to the continued disadvantage that women face in employment, housing, and society at large.

Organizational submissions and roundtable participants noted a range of factors that pressure women to assume greater caregiving responsibility, such as lower earned incomes, norms about gender and family responsibility, and lack of accommodation by employers. ARCH, A Legal Resource Centre for Persons with Disabilities, noted that families of children with disabilities tend to follow the ‘traditional’ model of a stay-at-home mother, indicating that, “women come under tremendous pressure to leave the public arena and go back into the home”.[3]

Many consultees commented on the pressures experienced by women in the paid workforce with regard to their caregiving responsibilities. CAW told the Commission about the concerns that it hears from its female members “about the double and triple day, about the ‘sandwich’, situation of caring for children and parents”. A number of consultees pointed to the role of caregiving obligations and a lack of appropriate accommodation and supports in pushing women into part-time employment or out of the paid workforce altogether.

These realities have been reflected in international covenants and documents. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women[4] requires states parties, as essential steps to promoting the equality of women, to recognize the importance of maternity as a social function and to encourage the provision of the necessary supports to combine family obligations with work responsibilities and participation in public life. The 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action recognized that the lack of a family friendly workplace was a significant obstacle to women achieving their full potential.[5]

Jurisdictions outside of Canada have recognized that the failure to accommodate caregiving responsibilities has an adverse impact on women, and is a form of sex discrimination. In Australia, the Sex Discrimination Act explicitly prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of family responsibilities. Failure to accommodate the family responsibilities of workers has been considered a form of indirect sex discrimination.[6] New South Wales prohibits discrimination in employment against persons with caregiving responsibilities; employers have been required to accommodate caregiving responsibilities to the point of unjustifiable hardship.[7] In the United States, issues of accommodation of needs related to family responsibilities have been litigated as gender discrimination.[8]

Of course, gender roles and stereotypes have negative effects on men as well. There is an expectation that men do not, and should not, take on significant caregiving roles. When they do, they may meet resistance, and find themselves subject to negative treatment. As one submission stated,

In the workplace, it is perhaps expected, though not always tolerated, that women may have caregiving responsibilities. This can be a benefit, but it can also serve to discredit women workers. On the other hand, the prevalence of this attitude suggests that when men’s caregiving affects their work there is frequently surprise and opposition.

It is arguable that, irrespective of the ground of family status, the failure to recognize and accommodate caregiving responsibilities, because it is related to long-standing gender roles and assumptions, has an adverse impact on women and in some cases men, and may in appropriate circumstances be considered discrimination on the basis of sex.

Special attention must be paid to the situation of women who are subjected to domestic violence. Women who are facing violence in the home can end up being disciplined, or even losing their jobs because of rigid absenteeism policies. An organization that works to end violence against women and children notes that:

The fact that landlords can and do discriminate against single mothers with children can place the women on whose behalf we work at serious risk. It is not uncommon for women in such a situation to return to the abusive relationship, literally because they have nowhere else to go. Once a woman has returned to her abuser, the fact that she was unable to find housing becomes a weapon he can use to intimidate her from leaving a subsequent time.
Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women (METRAC)

The disadvantages experienced by women who are caregivers are further compounded when these women are caring for family members with disabilities, or if they are also racialized, trangendered, lesbian or bisexual, parenting on their own, or have disabilities themselves.

2. Family Status and Disability

Persons who have caregiving responsibilities for family members with disabilities face challenges and barriers beyond those faced by others with caregiving responsibilities. These caregiving responsibilities are carried out in a context of inadequate social supports for persons with disabilities and their caregivers. A recent study indicated that over two million Canadians require assistance with everyday activities. The bulk of this assistance is provided by family members, either living with a person or in a separate residence.[9]

For some families, the key issue is not caregiving responsibilities, per se, but the difficulties that arise because of continued barriers to inclusion in the community, for example, when children are not included in the educational system, or when individuals are unable to access transportation.[10] As a study by the Canadian Association for Community Living notes:

The consistent lack of disability supports for persons with disabilities and the lack of community capacity to respond to and include people with disabilities, impacts upon a family’s ability to transition through the natural stages of a caring relationship....Inflexible supports and exclusionary community systems and practices result in families taking up more responsibility for providing supports to their family member with a disability ... Unsupported parents, spouses, siblings and adult children who provide assistance, are required to act as more than just a caring family member. Their role is expanded to provide often unsustainable levels of support beyond those of a typical family.[11]

The impacts on family members of persons with disabilities are broad. One study indicated that workers who had children with disabilities were more likely to turn down overtime hours, reduce their work hours, and refuse promotions.[12] Children with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty, their parents are twice as likely to have social assistance as their primary source of income, and these families face difficulties in finding accessible housing in communities with needed support.[13]

My child suffered mental health issues since age 7, as a single parent I stopped working to look after her. We now live in poverty... As a single parent there are not enough funds to obtain costly therapy for my child... [This] has affected housing, and I am unable to provide properly for my child because of lack of funds, for example, medications, proper nutrition, clothing, outings for my child.

Attention must also be paid to the situation of persons with disabilities who are themselves caregivers. These individuals may find themselves disadvantaged in multiple ways. Parents with disabilities may face stereotypes regarding their ability to ensure the safety, or manage the basic care of their children, and may find themselves under unwarranted scrutiny from child protection authorities. As well, they may face difficulty in finding accessible services for themselves in their caregiving capacities. For example, ARCH has received reports that specialized transportation providers will only rarely allow a parent with a disability to travel with a child. This means that parents with disabilities may have no means of transportation for taking children to appointments, outings or daycare.

3. Family Status and Age

Many submissions pointed out the particular difficulties faced by aging parents of adult children with disabilities. As they age, parents may find themselves less able to provide the extensive care that their children need, but may be unable to access the necessary community supports to ensure their children’s ongoing social, emotional and physical well-being. Parents may find themselves living with terrible anxiety about the fate of their children once they are no longer able to provide care.[14]

Other submissions pointed out the growing prevalence of grandparents providing care for grandchildren. There are approximately 20,000 Ontario children currently being cared for by their grandparents. Close to half are single grandmothers. Many have serious health and mobility limitations. Approximately one-third of these families are living in poverty. The unique needs of this group of caregivers are often overlooked.[15] One grandmother looking after her special needs grandchild told the Commission that she had to leave a good job and take part-time employment in order to care for her grandchild, as well as selling her home in order to pay for costs. As a result, she is unable to save for retirement.

As the Commission reported in A Time for Action: Advancing Human Rights for Older Ontarians,[16] the lack of social supports for family members providing eldercare remains a significant and pressing issue. The Commission heard again through this consultation of the growing and urgent need related to eldercare, which is largely provided in the community by family members. The lack of support for eldercare by government, employers and service providers has a significant impact on the quality of life of older Ontarians, as well as on those who are providing eldercare.[17]

At the other end of the age spectrum, young parents also often face significant challenges. There are numerous negative stereotypes about young parents that may make it difficult for them to find housing or access services. For example, both employers and housing providers are likely to think of young people as insufficiently mature, so that they have difficulties accessing employment or housing.

Most of the discrimination that I have found is because I am a young single mother. I was 19 when my daughter was born and I have faced a lot of problems getting a job or housing. People think that because you’re a young single mother there must necessarily be something wrong with you. They won’t trust you. Because you’re single they know you need double the effort to raise a child and because you’re young they think you are just irresponsible and want to party.

Young parents are much more likely to be poor: in 2001, 48.1% of all families where the main income earner was under the age of 25 were low-income.[18] The low-income of these families puts them at a severe disadvantage in the housing market.[19] At the Roundtables, the Commission heard that these barriers are particularly pronounced for young parents from Aboriginal and racialized communities.

4. Family Status, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity

The Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario (CLGRO) stated that “Negative stereotypes about the suitability of gays, lesbians, or bisexuals as parents or role models are still very much prevalent in Ontario”, and the Commission has heard that similar stereotypes affect trangendered persons.[20] As a result, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) parents face distinct difficulties relating to family status.

The courts have recognized the historical disadvantage experienced by lesbian mothers and their children, and that these families continue to face legal barriers and social marginalization.[21]

Consultees described challenges in the process of becoming a parent, such as the federal restrictions on use of sperm. Another was the requirement for lesbian parents to have one parent adopt the child in order to be recognized as a parent:

When we applied to the registrar general for a birth certificate, we were told that they would not recognize a non-birth parent on the birth certificate and that we would have to go through legal means in order to secure a ‘step-parent adoption’. My partner isn’t, and will never be a ‘step-parent’ to our son. Conversely, heterosexual couples using donor sperm in order to produce offspring are NOT required to go through a costly and timely ‘step-parent adoption’. The father, despite not being a biologically related parent, is allowed by the registrar general to be stated on the original birth certificate and is never considered the child’s ‘step-parent’.

The discriminatory effect of such policies was recognized in a very recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, M.D.R. v. Ontario (Deputy Registrar General).[22] The case involved lesbian parents whose children were conceived through anonymous donor insemination, and who sought to include the particulars of both parents on each child’s Statement of Live Birth. The Court ruled that the provisions of the Vital Statistics Act preventing such inclusion violated section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms with respect to sex and sexual orientation, and gave the legislature 12 months to remedy the constitutional defects.[23]

One Roundtable participant referred to these types of issues as “denial of family status”.

For LGB parents, these pervasive negative attitudes about their adequacy as parents may lead to difficulty in accessing services in a welcoming and inclusive environment. Even where supports and services are available, LGB families may hesitate to avail themselves of them, because they are afraid of the consequences of disclosing their sexual orientation.

The Commission heard that the prevalence of transphobia creates a barrier to the public acknowledgement of trans families:

The fact that my partner is the same sex as me and also transsexual is making me seriously consider whether or not I should bring her to the company picnic – family connections are important in my current working environment – which I find problematic since I know that this picnic is designed to integrate people into the company further and create connections among employees.

The Commission also heard that structures and programs designed for, and based on heterosexual concepts of the family and parenting may be unsuitable for the needs of LGB families. There are few services that specifically address the needs of these communities, particular outside of urban areas.

Members of LGBT families may be harassed because of their association with a non-traditional family. For example, Family Services Canada told the Commission that children of LGB parents may face bullying, teasing and taunting because of the sexual orientation of their parents.

5. Family and Marital Status

Lone mothers (including widowed, single and divorced mothers) are one of the fastest growing segments of the population. In 2001, almost one-quarter of families with children were lone-parent families, most of these headed by women.[24] These tend to be the most economically vulnerable of all families, experiencing high rates of poverty, and tending to experience poverty over the long term.[25]

There exists a powerful set of negative stereotypes about lone mothers. A number of submissions identified the persistent image of female-headed lone-parent families as undeserving and as “failed families”. There is an assumption that these families are dysfunctional, and that these women are lazy, don’t really want to work, and prefer life on social assistance.[26]

The stigma of being a single parent still exists and is almost synonymous with ‘dysfunctional family’. Some of this is perpetuated by the media and unfortunately by social service professionals and researchers.
Family Services Canada

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) pointed out that the lack of financial or personal supports for single parents means that the issues that affect caregivers in general will have a greater personal and financial impact on these families:

The issues which our members face are exacerbated for single parents. These teachers often must make decisions affecting the job and the family, sometimes without a lot of support from either the employer or the family. Single parent women teachers often face serious financial impact if they need to access leaves or take a time reduction to part-time work due to the fact that they often have little or no outside support.

As is evident throughout this Report, these families often face massive practical barriers in accessing employment and adequate housing.

Another aspect of the way in which family and marital status intersect is the situation of blended or dual custody families. Due to the complexity of their relationships, they have unique needs, which are often not taken into account in the design of services or programs. For example, rules and eligibility requirements for subsidized childcare may not accommodate the realities of a dual custody family, where children move back and forth over jurisdictional boundaries as part of custody arrangements. As well, when two parents are living separately, but sharing custody of their children, they may find paying for adequate housing and childcare in two places a significant financial burden.

6. Family Status, Race and Race-Related Grounds

The Code prohibits discrimination on the ground of race, as well as several grounds that are closely linked to race: colour, ethnic origin, ancestry, place of origin, and creed. These grounds intersect with family status in complex ways.

As a number of consultees pointed out, negative stereotypes associated with race continue to have an impact:

Stereotypes continue to be common concerning ethnic groups and the myth of ‘different’ child-rearing practices implying that certain ethnic groups do not protect their children properly, expect others to look after them in public places, etc.
Family Services Canada

These stereotypes have a range of serious consequences. Parents from racialized communities may find themselves subject to extra negative scrutiny from their children’s schools or from child protection agencies, on the assumption that their families are likely to be “dysfunctional”. Racist attitudes also create barriers for racialized families seeking housing.

Recent immigrants and refugees experience unique issues in accessing housing, employment and services. For example, because they are unable to provide Canadian rental references, landlords will often ask these families to provide large security deposits and/or guarantors. The Ontario Coalition of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) reports that settlement agencies experience enormous difficulty in finding adequate rental housing for recently arrived refugees from countries where the average family size is larger: these families are forced to live in overcrowded or substandard housing.

Because of disproportionate levels of poverty among racialized communities, stereotypes, discrimination and systemic barriers based on family status have a disproportionate impact on these communities. For example, as one Roundtable participant pointed out, because racialized persons are often last hired and first fired, they are less able to take the risk of asking their employers for accommodation for their family-related needs.

7. Other Issues

The Commission also heard about difficulties faced by families formed through adoption. The Adoption Council of Canada raised concerns regarding the barriers that adopted persons and their birth parents face in obtaining access to personal information, barriers that are not experienced by other families.[27] The Adoption Council also identified as issues the treatment of internationally adopted children with respect to citizenship, and the treatment of adoptive families under the pregnancy and parental leave provisions of the Employment Insurance Act.[28]

The Foster Parents Society of Ontario indicated that children raised in foster families face many challenges and obstacles in dealing with the education and justice systems. As well, these families face barriers in accessing housing and in the provision of services by insurance companies. The Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres (OFIFC) notes that youth involved with the Children’s Aid Society as Crown Wards often face discrimination because of their circumstances.

During the Roundtables, a number of consultees told the Commission that most of the issues related to family status are exacerbated for persons from Northern Ontario, because of the lower level of services and employment in the North. For example, one participant noted that in fly-in communities, if a family member becomes seriously ill, they must be flown out to the nearest hospital, and caregivers may therefore require many days away from work – and may lose their jobs as a result. As well, in the North, more jobs are short-term, so employers are less likely to offer supports for familial obligations.

Key conclusions

Government, employers, housing providers and service providers should take into account the intersecting impacts on persons identified by family status of gender, disability, age, sexual orientation, marital status, race, and race-related grounds whenever programs, policies and services are developed and implemented.

[2] Alzheimer Society of Canada, “Patterns of Caring for People with Dementia in Canada”, online: ASC, <>
[3] ARCH submission, citing R. Traustadottir, “Mothers Who Care: Gender, Disability and Family Life” in M. Nagler, ed., Perspectives on Disability (Hamilton: Health Markets Research, 1993) at 173.
[4] 18 December 1979, GA Res. 34/180 (entered into force 03 September 1981) accession by Canada 09 January 1982).
[5] United Nations Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women (17 October 1995) A/CONF.177/20 
[6] For a thorough discussion of the Australian experience, see Striking the Balance: Women, men, work and family, by the Sex Discrimination Unit of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, September 2005, available online at
[7] New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board, Carer’s Responsibilities Discrimination, Your Rights, online:
[8] Work Life Law: The New Glass Ceiling: Mothers and Fathers Sue for Discrimination, American University Washington College of Law, November 2002.
[9] Canadian Association for Community Living, Developing a Family Supportive Policy Agenda to Advance the Citizenship and Inclusion of People with Disabilities (2006) at 8.
[10] The Commission conducted public consultations on the experience of students with disabilities, and released a report in 2003, The Opportunity to Succeed, (available online at that included numerous recommendations aimed at improving the inclusion of students with disabilities in the educational system. The Commission also consulted on the accessibility of public transportation systems, and released a report with recommendations in 2002. Both documents are available online at
[11] Canadian Association for Community Living, Developing a Family Supportive Policy Agenda to Advance the Citizenship and Inclusion of People with Disabilities (2006) at 11.
[12] Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Moving Mountains: Work, Family and Children with Special Needs (November 2002) at 21.
[13] Canadian Association for Community Living, Developing a Family Supportive Policy Agenda to Advance the Citizenship and Inclusion of People with Disabilities (2006) at 15.
[14] Submission from Disabled Women’s Network Ontario (DAWN)
[15] Submission from CANGRANDS
[16] Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2001 (online:
[17] In the Commission’s report on its consultation on discrimination against older persons, the Commission made recommendations regarding support for persons providing care for older Ontarians, including a recommendation “That all levels of governments and employers consider providing various forms of support to caregivers. Options for consideration include program supports (e.g., tax credits) and flexible work options. “ Ibid. 
[18] Vanier Institute of the Family, 2005 Report on the Current State of Family Finances (2005), online: Vanier Institute of the Family <>
[19] This was a finding of the Board of Inquiry in Kearney v. Bramalea (1998) 34 C.H.R.R. D/1, upheld (2001), 39 C.H.R.R. D/111 (Ont. Sup. Ct.)
[20] Ontario Human Rights Commission Discussion Paper: Toward a Commission Policy on Gender Identity, October, 1999.
[21] M.D.R. v. Ontario (Deputy Registrar General), 6 June 2006, O.J. No. 2268, (Ont. S.C.J.)
[22] Ibid.
[23] Legislation previously passed amending s. 60 of the Vital Statistics Act would enable the government to prevent future exclusion of these families and provide some remedy for those already affected: however, these amendments are not in force as they have not been proclaimed.
[24] Vanier Institute of the Family, Family Facts (2004), online: Vanier Institute of the Family <>.
[25] R. Morisette “On the Edge: Financially Vulnerable Families”, Canadian Social Trends, (Winter 2002) 13.
[26] Submission of Professor Lea Caragata
[27] Since this consultation, Ontario’s laws regarding the disclosure of information regarding adoptions have been significantly reformed through the Adoption Information Disclosure Act, S.O. 2005, c. 25.
[28] .C. 1996, c. 23

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