Canada - Overview of the history of international migration in Canada


Migration has played an increasingly central role in the development of Canada’s social and economic life. The numbers are impressive: 5.1 million immigrants have moved to Canada since the 1980s. Of that, 1.3 million immigrants were admitted to Canada in the 1980s alone, representing an average annual intake of approximately 133,000 individuals. In the 1990s, immigration levels in Canada increased to over 200,000 individuals annually. Between 1991 and 2000, approximately 2.2 million immigrants were admitted to Canada. The high number of annual admissions continued during the first five years of the new millennium. Between 2001 and 2006 alone, 1.4 million newcomers, or an annual average of 242,000 individuals, were admitted as permanent residents.

Over the last century, immigration source countries have changed; the first half of the twentieth century witnessed policies aimed at attracting European migrants. The latter half of the same century, however, saw the majority of immigrants come from Asia; a pattern that continues to this day. The social and economic life of Canada’s major cities has been transformed as highly educated peoples from places like India and China have settled, integrated, and invested in the country’s economy. 

At the time of the 2001 census, 5,249,835 foreign-born permanent residents lived in Canada, representing 17.7 percent of the total population. A growing economy, a slow birth rate, and labour shortages have given rise to many policies aimed not only at continuing current immigration trends, but also expanding them where necessary. Canada is now home to a mosaic of cultures and, if current trends continue by 2017 over half of the populations of Toronto and Vancouver, its two major metropolises, will belong to a visible minority group (Ray, 2005).

Immigration History

Aboriginal peoples in Canada include the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. The aboriginal population is estimated to have numbered 500,000 in the late 15th century prior to European arrival (Bailey, 2008), but was reduced dramatically through outbreaks of imported diseases and war. Although there are records of Viking expeditions to the territories of modern Canada, migrations that led to settlement did not occur until the sixteenth century. In 1534, Jacques Cartier made his way through the Gulf of St. Lawrence and reached the shores of Canada in the name of the King of France. In spite of control over this vast area, the French inhabitants of North America in 1763, when the territory was ceded to Great Britain, numbered only about 65,000. In 1763, French possessions on the North American continent were handed over to the British. Shortly thereafter a large immigration movement began, particularly from the north of Scotland and Ireland. Many of these immigrants settled in the English colonies to the south. Economic circumstances in the southern part of Ireland and the break-up of the clan system in the Highlands of Scotland in 1745 were major push factors in emigration to Canada (Carrothers, 1948).

Emigration was heavily encouraged to different degrees as free grants of land and subsistence were provided in some cases. Especially generous grants were given out to discharged British soldiers. These experimental settlements ushered in a period of active emigration, which reached its height in 1833, when 66,339 emigrants entered, a large part of who were British, Scottish, and Irish. In 1867, the Confederation of Canada was formed with the union of four British North American colonies. Canada was founded as a federal dominion of four provinces. This began an accretion of provinces and territories and a process of increasing autonomy from the British Empire. Immigration continued to increase as different companies worked closely with government to fill gaps in the labour markets, an important example of which were the railroad companies. About half a million people immigrated to Canada in the years 1891 to 1902 (Carrothers, 1948).

Between 1890 and 1910, Canada's population increased by almost 70%. Between 1896 and the outbreak of World War One in 1914, more than 2.5 million people immigrated to Canada. And in the first two decades of the twentieth century, Canada's total population almost doubled from 5.4 million to 10.4 million (Brune, 2010). Several push and pull factors continued to make immigration an attractive enterprise. Among these were: overcrowding and religious discrimination in Europe; perceived land shortages in the United States; the absence of a rigid social class structure; and The Dominion Lands Act in which the government gave free land (160 acres) to newly arriving immigrants (Brune, 2010). 

Among early immigrants to Canada were Chinese, Japanese, and South-East Asian immigrants. The most significant of these were the Chinese, who were escaping civil war in southern China and the pressures of a rapidly growing population at home. They first appeared in large numbers in the Colony of Vancouver Island in 1858 and were part of a significant migration from California during the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush.

The pressure of a rapidly growing population and civil war in southern China during the nineteenth century were early push factors for many Chinese. The termination of slavery in 1865 combined with the demands for cheap labour to work in gold fields, coal mines, and lumber camps during the 1850s and 60s were pull factors. The same need for cheap labour that had led to earlier migration to Canada created a demand for Chinese workers to build part of the national railway in the province of British Colombia. The 1874 census counted 3,000 Chinese in Canada, but this number grew rapidly. It is estimated that during the height of construction, from 1881-1884, more than 17,000 Chinese, 10,000 directly from China, arrived in Canada (Sciban, 2001).

The first South Asian migrants to Canada arrived in Vancouver in 1903. The great majority of them were Sikhs who had heard of Canada from British Indian troops in Hong Kong, who had travelled through Canada the previous year on their way to the coronation celebrations of Edward VII. Attracted by high Canadian wages, they soon found work. Immigration thereafter increased quickly and totaled 5,209 by the end of 1908; perhaps 90% were Sikhs, primarily from Punjab farming backgrounds (Buchignani, 2010).

Beginning in the late 19th century, Canada started to adopt policy measures to manage immigration. From relatively free entry between 1867 to 1895, a host of Orders-in-Council, the Immigration Acts of 1910, 1919 and 1952, and the Chinese Immigration Act (1923) formalized an immigration system and restricted admission to British, European, and American applicants, largely to the exclusion of migrants who could not trace their ethnic origins to Europe (Ray, 2005).

Between 1919 and 1931, 1.2 million immigrants arrived in Canada. The immigration rates of the 1920s, however, were much smaller. During the 1920s immigration accounted for only 14 per cent of the total population growth. Part of the decline in immigration was the after-effect of the First World War. Canadian preference for certain nationalities and occupations (would-be farmers, domestic servants and agricultural workers) combined with a slowed movement from Europe due to the war, factored into a less attractive atmosphere for potential settlers (ARG, 1997). 

While British and French remained the predominant groups of the total population before the outbreak of World War II, Scottish, Irish and German immigrants were also important in numbers. In 1921, approximately 16 per cent of the population did not identify ethnically with British or French origins (ARG, 1997).

Furthermore, immigration was established itself in a very regionalized fashion. For instance, many Asian immigrants arrived in British Columbia to work on railway construction and in lumber camps. Whereas Saskatchewan was a destination for rural peasants from other European countries, such as Austria, Galicia (Ukraine), Hungary, Russia, Serbia-Croatia, Lithuania, Poland, and Iceland. By 1921, Toronto contained a large population of Italians. Approximately two-thirds of Canadian Jews lived in Winnipeg, Toronto, and Montreal. Greeks, Macedonians, Syrians, Lebanese and Armenians were also more likely to live in cities and to practice trades rather than farming. Those of French origin continued to comprise the overwhelming majority of residents in Quebec, as did those of British origin in Ontario (ARG, 1997).

During the 1940s and 1950s, the Canadian government actively recruited 'preferred' immigrants; those of British, American, and north-western European ethnic backgrounds, among whom Dutch and Germans were favoured. A series of restrictive measures were instituted, including the Canadian Citizens Act, which made entry a difficult enterprise for many potential immigrants. The government did, however, open its gates to some displaced peoples and refugees, which included peoples of Polish, Serbian, Croatian, and, later, Hungarian origin. Between 1947 and 1952 around 10 per cent of immigrants to Canada were Jewish. Anti-Semitic sentiments, however, especially among high ranking politicians, certainly limited those numbers. The Canadian government, between 1968 and 1969, accepted 12,000 Czechoslovakian refugees fleeing their country as a result of Russian invasion.

Beginning in 1962, regulatory changes were introduced that overturned many policies which were aimed at the preferential treatment of certain nationalities.  The Canadian economy was booming and was facing a serious labour shortage. As a result, between 1961 and 1971 many ethnic groups increased considerably in size. The population of East Indian origin showed the greatest increase; it grew by 902.7 per cent. The Greek, Italian, Jewish, Portuguese, and Chinese populations all increased more than 60 per cent in these years. New immigrants included the arrival of several hundred Tibetans in 1970, seven thousand Asian Ugandans between 1972 and 1973, a further 7,000 Chileans came to Canada in 1973, followed by 9,000 Vietnamese in 1975 (ARG, 1997).

It was not until the Immigration Act of 1976 that Canada ushered in a new era of immigration based on occupation rather than national origin. While Canada did admit refugees on an individual ad hoc basis, it did not accede to either the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees until 1969 and it was not until 1976 that it institutionalised an open commitment (Ray, 2005).

As racial and national restrictions were removed from the immigration regulations, Asian and South Asian immigration mushroomed. It also became much more culturally diverse; a large proportion of immigrants in the 1950s were the Sikh relatives of pioneer South Asian settlers, while the 1960s also saw sharp increases in immigration from other parts of India and from Pakistan. By the early 1960s, two-thirds of South Asian immigrant men were professionals - teachers, doctors, university professors and scientists. The 1970s  marked the beginning of migration from Fiji, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Mauritius and the heightening of temporary migration programs that had begun in the 1960s (Buchignani, 2010).

The U.S. represented the second largest source (after the United Kingdom) of immigrants during the seventies, accounting for about 20 percent of all immigrants to Canada. Of the more than 400,000 Americans who took up Canadian residency between 1968 and 1978, an estimated 50,000 were draft-age males and an unknown number of others, including family members of draft resisters, emigrated as a direct response to the Vietnam War and other foreign policies. During the peak years of 1971 and 1972, nearly 50,000 individuals moved across the northern border (Kobayashi, 2005).

During the sixties and seventies, Canada also accommodated thousands of Cuban and Chilean refugees escaping regime changes at home. Canada’s gates would soon be opened to Central American peoples over the next two decades as political and economic turmoil swept the region. U.S. and Mexican policies toward some refugee groups would exacerbate the movement upwards.

Between 1982 and 1987, Canada admitted 15,877 refugees from Central America, the majority of them Salvadoran (11,251). Under a special program, 4,444 family members were allowed entry, bringing the five-year total to 20,955. By the end of the decade, Salvadorans had replaced Chileans as the principal immigrant group from Latin America. Guatemalans and Nicaraguans were also significant, although comparatively fewer in number. In 1987, there were 7,700 Guatemalans and 7,081 Nicaraguans in Canada. From December 1986 to February 1987, 10,000 refugees, most of them Central Americans, entered Canada, encouraged in part by the Spanish-language press, immigration lawyers, and sanctuary workers in the United States who alerted them to Canada's favourable policies (Garcia, 2006).

The 1980s also saw a new type of immigrant added to the Immigration Act of 1976; those who belonged to a “business” class. Many of these new immigrants were Chinese and came specifically from Hong Kong. They looked to Canada as a place to resettle and do business, as China had been particularly difficult since the late 1940s. Between 1983 and 1996, about 700,000 Chinese (mostly from Hong Kong) came to settle in Vancouver and, to a lesser extent, Toronto. They brought billions of dollars worth of investment funds with them. The increased volume of Chinese immigration to Canada in the 1980s and 1990s contributed substantially to the growth of the Chinese-Canadian population, which rose from 289,245 in 1981 to 633,933 in 1991 (Li, 1998), and further to 1,094,700 in 2001 (Statistics Canada, 2003). Since 1995, Mainland China has surpassed Hong Kong as the greatest source of Canadian immigration.  

In the 1980s and early 1990s, a large number of Convention Refugees arrived from countries of the Arab world, notably Somalia, Lebanon and Iraq. During the same ten-year period, 1983-1992, a total of 13,379 investors and entrepreneurs came largely from Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but with strong representation from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Syria. Like the Hong Kong immigrants, they belonged to the “business class” and reshaped the highly concentrated Arab communities that came before them (Abu-Laban, 2010). Canadians of Arab origin now make up one of the largest non-European ethnic groups in Canada. In 2001, almost 350,000 people of Arab origin lived in Canada, representing 1.2% of the total Canadian population. The number of people in Canada of Arab origin is also growing considerably faster than the overall population. Between 1996 and 2001, for example, the number of people who reported Arab origin rose by 27%, while the overall population grew by only 4% (TGP, 2007).

African immigration to Canada also began to pick up momentum during the 1980s and 1990s. These immigrants included well educated professionals and refugees fleeing political and economic hardship. The majority of these African immigrants came from South Africa, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria. They are similar to the Arab group in numbers; as of 2001, there were almost 300,000 people reporting they had African roots living in Canada. That same year, those of African descent made up around 1% of the total population of Canada. The African population in Canada is also growing considerably faster than the overall population. Between 1996 and 2001, the number of people reporting they had African origins rose by 32%, whereas the overall population grew by only 4% (TGP 2007).

By the 1990s, an average of 220,000 immigrants came to Canada each year, well above the annual average of the 1980s (125,000 per year). The most recent data suggests a slight increase, but generally speaking, the pattern has been the same. Over the last three decades there has been a radical shift in immigrant source countries, a factor that is reshaping the Canadian social, political and economic landscape. To put it in perspective, between 1956 and 1976, 63.6 percent of immigrants came from the UK and Europe and only 11.9 percent from Asia.By 2004, however, the flows had completely flipped, with only 17.8 percent of immigrants coming from the UK and Europe and 48.6 percent from Asia. An additional 19.7 percent of immigrants came from Africa and the Middle East, 9.2 percent from South and Central America and the Caribbean, and 2.7 percent from the United States (Ray, 2005).

In 2006, immigrants from India represented almost 12% of new immigrants, followed by immigrants from the Philippines (7%) and Pakistan (5%). These three Asian countries and China accounted for 38% of all new immigrants to Canada in 2006. Landed South Asian immigrants now outnumber landed Chinese immigrants. Census figures on ethnic origin reported that there were more than 1.3 million South Asian Canadians in 2006 (almost doubling from 723 345 in the 1996 census). In Canada, the 2006 census reported almost one million people with Indian ancestry, followed by people from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (Buchignani 2010). The reasons for migrating to Canada vary widely not only from country to country but also from region to region and across class, gender and background. Generally speaking, however, the Chinese and Indian migrations have been particularly educated and upwardly mobile. Overpopulation combined with their quickly expanding economies has made them migrant source countries to many destinations. The Philippines, a strong and recent migration source country, supplies primarily young students who cannot find work at home after graduating.

Although the number of immigrants from Europe has declined over the years, they still make up the second-largest group of newcomers. In 2006, they accounted for 16.1% of recent immigrants. However, this was well below the proportion of 61.6% for European-born newcomers back in 1971. The two most common European countries of origin for newcomers in 2006 were Romania and the United Kingdom. This represented a change over the decades among European-born immigrants. Formerly, most newcomers came from the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal. Although there is a long history of eastern Europeans migrating to Canada, including early farming settlements, the most recent wave began with the fall of the soviet bloc and has continued to increase steadily (Statistics Canada, 2006).

Unlike immigrants who arrived years ago in search of farmland, today's immigrants are mostly urban dwellers. In fact, they are much more likely to live in a metropolitan area than the Canadian-born population. In 2006, 94.9% of Canada's foreign-born population and 97.2% of recent immigrants who landed in the last five years lived in an urban community. This compares with 77.5% of the Canadian-born population (Statistics Canada, 2006). Among urban immigrant groups are international students, who, attracted by Canada’s top ranking universities and expanding labour markets, have remained after graduating, making a considerable impact on the social and economic lives of the major metropolitan centres. Moreover, under most of the scenarios considered, by 2017 over half of the populations of Toronto and Vancouver will belong to a visible minority group. (Ray, 2005).

Another important characteristic of migration to Canada is temporary migration. From around the mid-1980s, workers in Canada on temporary employment authorizations for more than one year began outpacing the number of permanent migrants. Through the 1980s, workers in the education, services, clerical, and fabricating/assembly/repair sectors figured in the top five sectors for which temporary work authorizations of more than one year were issued (Employment and Immigration Canada 2005). Among government sponsored programs is the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), which began over 40 years ago. Under SAWP, approximately 16,000 migrant farm workers are recruited each year from the Caribbean and Mexico to work in Canadian agriculture. In 2006, 7,806 Mexican and 7,770 Caribbean workers came to work in Canada on temporary visas. This type of migration is strongly present in non urban areas, filling labour shortages in Canada’s agricultural and manufacturing sector. Under SAWP, for example, migrant workers provide labour for such activities as apple and other fruit harvesting; canning and food processing; bee and flower production; and ginseng, sod, tobacco, and greenhouse and field vegetable harvesting (Basok, 2007).

Between 1996 and 2001, Canada experienced one of the smallest census-to-census growth rates in its history (a gain of only four percent), bringing the total population count to just over 30 million people (estimated at 32,146,547 in 2005) (Ray, 2005). Considering the slow growth rate of the Canadian born in Canada, it is not surprising that the government is proactively seeking to expand its economy through immigrants. A report from the Conference Board of Canada in 2008, titled “Immigrants as Innovators: Boosting Canada’s Global Competitiveness,” concluded that to meet long-term domestic labour market needs and to remain competitive in the global search for talent, Canada will have to increase its number of immigrants from the existing 250,000 to 360,000 annually by 2025. The government has taken several new initiatives on this front including: the provincial nominee program that allows each province to independently attract immigrants; relaxation of work restrictions for foreign students; and the newly created Canadian Experience Class visa that allows temporary migrants to apply for permanent status without leaving the country.

Canadian identity is now often described as being a “mosaic” of cultures. Much of the change that ushered in the new era of immigration to Canada during the second half of the twentieth century came about progressively. Throughout this period, new attitudes towards immigrants combined with labour needs to effect policy and make Canada one of the world’s top migrant destination countries. The period immediately after the Second World War ushered in unprecedented economic growth and increases in the standard of living. Jobs were plentiful and immigrants were not perceived as competing for scarce employment opportunities. The country needed highly skilled, educated immigrants who would make an important contribution to the technological revolution taking place. Immigrants came to the cities and were seen as contributing to the well-being of the country in important ways. Post-war prosperity was linked to the arrival of this skilled workforce (Belanger, 2006). The sixties were a particularly important period for the growth of human rights and the expansion of the Canadian educational system, which fostered many open door policies for political and economic refugees. The expansion of migrant communities and their increasing impact in the positive economic development of Canada has been followed by increasingly open immigration policies and policies aimed at social integration.


Throughout Canada’s history, immigrants have played a pivotal role in shaping its social, cultural and economic development. Canada is among the world’s major immigrant-receiving countries, welcoming approximately 250,000 permanent residents and over 200,000 temporary foreign workers and international students on an annual basis. Immigration is essential to Canada’s economic development and plays a significant role in shaping Canadian society. A key challenge is to manage this movement of people while balancing economic, social and cultural development goals, and also protecting the health, safety and security of Canadians.

Canada admitted about 252 000 permanent migrants in 2009. As in recent years, the top sending countries were China (12%), the Philippines (11%) and India (10%). In 2009, the bulk of permanent migrants (61%) entered Canada for family-related reasons. Labour migrants (i.e., economic principal applicants) accounted for one quarter of long-term inflows and one out of eight permanent migrants acquired a residence permit on humanitarian grounds.

In 2009, Canada received 382 000 temporary immigrants. With a share of 47%, temporary foreign workers remained the largest group of temporary migrants. However, their total number decreased for the first time since 2003, to 178 500. This decrease resulted from a reduction in the demand for foreign labour in 2009 in response to the economic downturn. The main sending country for temporary workers remained the United States. International students accounted for 22 % of temporary inflows. Their total number increased by 7 % over 2008, to 85 100.

Canada received almost 23 000 refugees in 2009. More than half entered through resettlement programmes assisted by the government and private sponsors. These included over 4 000 Iraqi refugees for whom resettlement facilities were extended. The remaining refugees were granted asylum on the basis of successful asylum requests in Canada. Their main countries of origin were Sri Lanka, Colombia and China. In 2009, Canada recorded 33 200 requests for asylum, 10 % less than in 2008. Preliminary data for 2010 indicate an even greater decrease for this year.

The number of naturalisations has been declining continuously since 2006. In 2009, 156 300 persons were naturalised. The main countries of origin of new citizens were the three top sending countries China, India and the Philippines. In April 2009, Canada implemented amendments to the Citizenship Act to restore citizenship to persons who had lost it under previous legislation, as well as to naturalise others for the first time. Citizenship by descent is now limited to one generation born outside of Canada.

Today, Canada’s immigration program responds to its labour market needs while fostering family reunification, honouring Canada’s humanitarian commitments and traditions, and protecting the health, safety and security of Canadians. The program is now based on non-discriminatory principles—foreign nationals are assessed without regard to race, nationality, ethnic origin, colour, religion or gender.

In sum, Canada’s annual immigration flow is proportionately one of the highest among developed countries – at roughly 0.7% of the population – a share which has persisted through the 1990s and throughout the current decade. In 2006, the foreign-born[i] accounted for 19.8% of Canada’s population (the highest level in 75 years) and slightly over one-fifth (21.2%) of the labour force. Those more recently arrived (between 2001 and 2006) accounted for just under one-third of all foreign-born in the labour force – or about 6.5% of the labour force.