150 years of immigration in Canada

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Release date: June 29, 2016
Canadian Megatrends

Canada has long been, and continues to be, a land of immigration. Since Confederation in 1867, more than 17 million immigrants have come to Canada.

Population fluctuations

The annual number of landed immigrants in Canada has fluctuated considerably over the last 150 years. Some of these fluctuations can be linked to immigration policy changes, others to Canada's economic situation or world events connected with the movement of migrants and refugees.

For example, in the late 1800s, the number of immigrants admitted annually to Canada varied between 6,300 and 133,000. Record numbers of immigrants were admitted in the early 1900s when Canada was promoting the settlement of Western Canada. The highest number ever recorded was in 1913, when more than 400,000 immigrants arrived in the country.

However, the number of people entering the country dropped dramatically during World War I, to fewer than 34,000 landed immigrants in 1915. The lowest numbers of landed immigrants were recorded during the Great Depression in the 1930s and during World War II. The return of peace fostered economic recovery and an immigration boom in Canada.

Other record levels of immigration have been registered during political and humanitarian crises, including in 1956 and 1957, when 37,500 Hungarian refugees arrived in the country, and in the 1970s and 1980s, when a large number of Ugandan, Chilean, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees came to Canada.

Since the early 1990s, the number of landed immigrants has remained relatively high, with an average of approximately 235,000 new immigrants per year.

Figure 1:  Annual number of landed immigrants in Canada, 1852 to 2014
Description for Chart 1

Chart 1 Number of immigrants who landed annually in Canada, 1852 to 2014
Year of immigration Number of landed immigrants
1852 29,300
1853 29,500
1854 37,300
1855 25,300
1856 22,500
1857 33,900
1858 12,300
1859 6,300
1860 6,300
1861 13,600
1862 18,300
1863 21,000
1864 24,800
1865 19,000
1866 11,400
1867 10,700
1868 12,800
1869 18,600
1870 24,700
1871 27,800
1872 36,600
1873 50,100
1874 39,400
1875 27,400
1876 25,600
1877 27,100
1878 29,800
1879 40,500
1880 38,500
1881 48,000
1882 112,500
1883 133,600
1884 103,800
1885 79,200
1886 69,200
1887 84,500
1888 88,800
1889 91,600
1890 75,100
1891 82,200
1892 31,000
1893 29,600
1894 20,800
1895 18,800
1896 16,800
1897 21,700
1898 31,900
1899 44,500
1900 41,700
1901 55,700
1902 89,100
1903 138,700
1904 131,300
1905 141,500
1906 211,700
1907 272,400
1908 143,300
1909 173,700
1910 286,800
1911 331,300
1912 375,800
1913 400,900
1914 150,500
1915 36,700
1916 55,900
1917 72,900
1918 41,800
1919 107,700
1920 138,800
1921 91,700
1922 64,200
1923 133,700
1924 124,200
1925 84,900
1926 135,100
1927 158,900
1928 166,800
1929 165,000
1930 104,800
1931 27,500
1932 20,600
1933 14,400
1934 12,500
1935 11,300
1936 11,600
1937 15,100
1938 17,200
1939 17,000
1940 11,300
1941 9,300
1942 7,600
1943 8,500
1944 12,800
1945 22,700
1946 71,700
1947 64,100
1948 125,400
1949 95,200
1950 73,900
1951 194,400
1952 164,500
1953 168,900
1954 154,200
1955 109,900
1956 164,900
1957 282,200
1958 124,900
1959 106,900
1960 104,100
1961 71,700
1962 74,600
1963 93,200
1964 112,600
1965 146,800
1966 194,700
1967 222,900
1968 184,000
1969 161,500
1970 147,700
1971 121,900
1972 122,000
1973 184,200
1974 218,500
1975 187,900
1976 149,400
1977 114,900
1978 86,300
1979 112,100
1980 143,100
1981 128,600
1982 121,200
1983 89,200
1984 88,300
1985 84,300
1986 99,400
1987 152,100
1988 161,600
1989 191,600
1990 216,500
1991 232,800
1992 254,800
1993 256,600
1994 224,400
1995 212,900
1996 226,100
1997 216,000
1998 174,200
1999 190,000
2000 227,500
2001 250,600
2002 229,000
2003 221,300
2004 235,800
2005 262,200
2006 251,600
2007 236,800
2008 247,200
2009 252,200
2010 280,700
2011 248,700
2012 257,900
2013 259,000
2014 260,400

Increase in the number and proportion of foreign-born people

Annual statistics on landed immigrants in Canada may not reflect the number of people living in the country. Some immigrants may simply be passing through on their way to settle in a third country. Others may travel back and forth between their country of origin and Canada. Some immigrants may have died. The Census of Population measures the most direct impact of immigration on Canada's population by counting the number of people who have been or who are landed immigrants (or permanent residents) living in Canada at a specific point in time.

The 1871 Census enumerated approximately half a million foreign-born people, representing 16.1% of the Canadian population.

The foreign-born population continued to rise at the end of the 1800s, but at a slower pace than the population born in Canada. The 1901 Census recorded the lowest proportion of foreign-born population in Canada (13.0%).

After the considerable rise in immigration at the beginning of the 1900s, the 1931 Census counted nearly 2.3 million of foreign-born people, representing 22.2% of Canada's population.

This influx of foreign-born people was followed by a significant drop to approximately 2 million in 1941, as a result of the Great Depression and World War II, but also due to high emigration levels. By contrast, since the 1950s, the foreign-born population has been steadily increasing.

For example, by 2011, the National Household Survey estimated the foreign-born population at 6,775,700, representing 20.6% of the total population. This was the largest proportion since the 1931 Census.

Figure 2: Number and proportion of Canada?s foreign-born population, 1871 to 2011
Description for Chart 2

Chart 2 Number and proportion of the foreign-born population in Canada, 1871 to 2011
  Number Percentage
1871 594,207 16.1%
1881 602,984 13.9%
1891 643,871 13.3%
1901 699,500 13.0%
1911 1,586,961 22.0%
1921 1,955,736 22.3%
1931 2,307,525 22.2%
1941 2,018,847 17.5%
1951 2,059,911 14.7%
1961 2,844,263 15.6%
1971 3,295,530 15.3%
1981 3,843,335 16.0%
1991 4,342,890 16.1%
2001 5,448,480 18.4%
2011 6,775,770 20.6%

Source countries changing

The composition of the foreign-born population has changed considerably in 150 years, and the censuses revealed a shift in the places of birth of Canada?s foreign-born population.

In the past, immigrants mainly from European countries

During the first few censuses after Confederation, the British Isles were the main source of immigration, accounting for 83.6% of the foreign-born population in the 1871 Census, or close to half a million people. Immigrants from the United States (10.9%), Germany (4.1%) and France (0.5%) were far behind.

The population of immigrants born in European countries other than those of the British Isles started to increase in the late 1800s, slowly at first and then more rapidly, peaking in the 1970s. This transformation consisted of three major waves.

The first wave began in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with the arrival of new groups of immigrants from Eastern Europe (Russians, Polish and Ukrainians), Western Europe and Scandinavia.

A second immigration boom following World War II continued to favour immigration from the British Isles, but a significant number of immigrants also arrived from Western Europe (Germany and the Netherlands) and Southern Europe (Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and Portugal) from the 1950s to the 1970s. At the time of the 1971 Census, 28.3% of immigrants were born in the United Kingdom and 51.4% were born in another European country.

Lastly, Canada admitted immigrants from Eastern Europe (including the Russian Federation and former Soviet republics, Poland and Romania) in the 1980s and 1990s, following political changes in Communist bloc countries, including the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Chart 3: Canadian population born in Europe and the United States, 1871 to 2011
Description for Chart 3

Chart 3 Canadian population born in Europe and United States, 1871 to 2011
Country or Area of interest United States Western Europe Eastern Europe Scandinavia British Isles Southern Europe
1871 64,600 27,200 400 600 496,600 500
1881 77,800 31,400 7,000 2,100 470,900 1,400
1891 80,900 35,400 10,600 12,600 477,700 3,400
1901 127,900 47,600 52,300 21,400 390,000 8,000
1911 303,700 100,700 191,100 72,300 784,500 41,700
1921 374,000 99,700 238,900 77,000 1,025,000 45,300
1931 344,600 110,400 415,400 120,400 1,138,900 69,000
1941 312,500 94,000 397,500 96,800 960,100 66,400
1951 282,000 157,700 443,700 86,600 936,600 92,600
1961 283,900 470,100 493,800 104,100 1,000,600 346,900
1971 309,600 477,100 458,200 85,100 971,500 634,900
1981 301,500 458,400 409,400 70,900 895,700 728,900
1991 249,100 431,500 420,500 55,000 746,100 707,300
2001 237,900 423,800 471,400 45,200 631,800 715,400
2011 263,500 397,400 501,600 36,200 565,400 626,600

From the 1960s onwards, increasing diversity

During the first 100 years after Confederation, Canada also admitted immigrants from Asia (primarily China and Japan) and other parts of the world. Starting in the 1960s, when major amendments were made to Canada's immigration legislation and regulations, the number of immigrants from Asia and other regions of the world started to grow.

World events also led to the massive movement of refugees and migrants from different parts of the world to Canada. Examples include the arrival of 60,000 boat people from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the late 1970s; 85,000 immigrants from the Caribbean and Bermuda (for example, Jamaica, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago) in the 1980s; 225,000 immigrants from Hong Kong over the 10 years leading up to its return to China by the United Kingdom in 1997; and 800,000 immigrants from the People's Republic of China, India and the Philippines in the 2000s.

According to the 2011 National Household Survey, Asia (including the Middle East) is now the main continent of origin of the immigrant population, although Africa's share has increased. As well, for the first time since Confederation, China and India (excluding the two special administrative regions, Hong Kong and Macao) have surpassed the United Kingdom as the country of birth most frequently reported by foreign-born people.

Chart 4: Foreign-born population in Canada, by selected regions of birth, 1951 to 2011
Description for Chart 4 >
Chart 4 Foreign-born population in Canada, by selected regions of birth, 1951 to 2011
Area of interest 1951 1961 1971 1981 1991 2001 2011
Caribbean and Bermuda 4,400 12,400 68,100 173,200 232,500 294,100 351,400
Central and South America 3,100 0 36,000 106,800 219,400 304,700 442,700
Northern Africa 400 0 28,700 38,700 53,200 93,200 186,700
Sub-Saharan Africa2,400 4,000 10,700 63,000 113,000 189,500 305,300
Western Asia and Middle East 6,500 0 25,200 63,200 151,100 285,600 456,000
Eastern Asia 30,800 43,500 66,600 195,500 377,200 730,600 962,600
Southeast Asia 800 0 13,100 152,200 312,000 469,100 729,800
Southern Asia 4,200 9,000 46,300 130,000 228,800 503,900 892,800
Oceania 6,100 6,700 14,300 33,000 38,000 47,900 54,500
 
Chart 5: Distribution in percentage of the foreign-born population, by place of birth, Canada, 1871 to 2011
Description for Chart 5

Chart 5 Distribution in percentage of the foreign-born population, by place of birth, Canada, 1871 to 2011
  1871 1881 1891 1901 1911 1921 1931 1941 1951 1961 1971 1981 1991 2001 2011
Country/Area Name % % % % % % % % % % % % % % %
Total - foreign-born population 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
British Isles 83.6 78.1 74.2 55.8 49.4 52.4 49.4 47.6 45.5 35.2 29.5 23.3 17.2 11.6 8.3
Scandinavia 0.1 0.3 2.0 3.1 4.6 3.9 5.2 4.8 4.2 3.7 2.6 1.8 1.3 0.8 0.5
Western Europe 4.6 5.2 5.5 6.8 6.3 5.1 4.8 4.7 7.7 16.5 14.5 11.9 9.9 7.8 5.9
Eastern Europe 0.1 1.2 1.6 7.5 12.0 12.2 18.0 19.7 21.5 17.4 13.9 10.7 9.7 8.7 7.4
Southern Europe 0.1 0.2 0.5 1.1 2.6 2.3 3.0 3.3 4.5 12.2 19.3 19.0 16.3 13.1 9.2
United States 10.9 12.9 12.6 18.3 19.1 19.1 14.9 15.5 13.7 10.0 9.4 7.8 5.7 4.4 3.9
Caribbean and Bermuda 0.0 0.2 0.1 0.1 0.1 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.4 2.1 4.5 5.4 5.4 5.2
Central and South America 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.1 0.1 0.1 0.1 0.1 0.0 1.1 2.8 5.1 5.6 6.5
Northern Africa 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.9 1.0 1.2 1.7 2.8
Sub-Saharan Africa 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.1 0.1 0.1 0.1 0.1 0.1 0.3 1.6 2.6 3.5 4.5
Western Asia and Middle East 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.0 0.8 1.6 3.5 5.2 6.7
Eastern Asia 0.0 0.7 1.5 3.1 2.3 2.5 2.4 1.9 1.5 1.5 2.0 5.1 8.7 13.4 14.2
Southeast Asia 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.4 4.0 7.2 8.6 10.8
Southern Asia 0.0 0.1 0.1 0.2 0.3 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.3 1.4 3.4 5.3 9.2 13.2
Oceania and other 0.7 1.0 1.8 3.7 2.6 1.5 1.5 1.6 0.4 2.7 2.0 1.5 1.1 1.0 0.8

In summary, immigration has changed a great deal since Confederation, becoming the main driver of population growth in Canada. Each wave of immigrants has contributed, and continues to contribute, to the ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity of Canada?s population.

Definitions

Landed immigrant (or permanent resident): A person who has been granted the right to live permanently in Canada by immigration authorities, but who has not yet become a Canadian citizen through naturalization.

Foreign-born population (also referred to as immigrant population): In censuses, persons who are or have been landed immigrants or permanent residents in Canada. The foreign-born population includes Canadian citizens through naturalization; however, it does not include non-permanent residents or Canadian citizens by birth who were born abroad.

Non-permanent resident: A person in Canada who has a work or study permit, or who is a refugee claimant.

Emigrant: A Canadian citizen or immigrant who has left Canada to settle permanently in another country.

Place of birth: The name of the geographic location in which a person was born. The geographic location is specified according to the geographic boundaries current at the time of data collection, not the geographic boundaries at the time of birth.

References

Boyd, M. and M. Vickers. 2000. 100 years of immigration in Canada, Canadian Social Trends. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 11-008.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. 2015. Canada: A History of Refuge. Website consulted on April 28, 2016.

Kelley, N. and M. Trebilcock. 1998. The Making of the Mosaic: A History of Canadian Immigration Policy, Toronto, Buffalo and New York, University of Toronto Press.

Statistics Canada. 2013. 2011 National Household Survey: Immigration and Ethnocultural Diversity in Canada. Catalogue no. 99-010-X.

Contact information

To enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact Social and Aboriginal Statistics?Client Services .

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