Chapter 5: Projection of international immigration

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By Nora Bohnert and Patrice Dion

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Immigration plays an increasingly critical role in the shaping of Canada’s population. Since the mid-1990s, Canadian population growth has been attributed mostly to migratory increase and less to natural increase (the surplus of births over deaths). Immigration also contributes to the evolution of the population through its indirect impacts on the number of births experienced in the population. Given the established demographic trends of low fertility and population aging in Canada, this situation is likely to continue in the coming decades.

Compared to other components of population change such as births and deaths, projecting immigration is considered especially difficult (Wilson and Rees 2005). In the short term, immigration is often volatile, as it is influenced by unexpected movements relating to business cycles, political decision-making processes and geopolitical events (Howe and Jackson 2004). Migration processes are very complex, involving the interactions of economic, cultural, historical and political factors between countries (Bijak 2006). Moreover, no theory of migration provides a satisfactory means of projecting future flows, rather, different theories attempt to explain different aspects of the process (Massey et al. 1994). These theories are not easily applied in practice; this is in part due to the absence of suitable data about the contributing factors as well as the fact that those factors would also need to be projected, rendering the procedure undesirably complex.

Immigration trends

As seen in Figure 5.1, the annual number of immigrants to Canada has varied substantially over the last century. Since the early 1990s, however, immigration levels have been more consistent, averaging about 235,000 annually. Beaujot and Raza (2013) refer to the period 1989 to present as one of “sustained high immigration” in Canada; unlike the past, immigration levels in recent years have not declined in response to periods of higher unemployment and economic downturn. Similarly to trends in the annual number of immigrants, the immigration rate has been relatively stable over the last two decades, falling between seven and eight immigrants per thousand (resident) population.Note 1

Figure 5.1 Number of immigrants and immigration rate, Canada, 1852 to 2012

Description for figure 5.1

On the other hand, the composition of immigration in terms of the category of admission has evolved considerably in recent years. As seen in Figure 5.2, the proportion of immigrants admitted under economic visas has increased, accounting for about two-thirds (66.6%) of all immigrants in 2010 compared to 27.1% in 1983. In turn, the proportion of family class immigrants has declined, while the share admitted under humanitarian visas has held fairly constant. Notably, the trend of increasing economic immigration persevered even during the recent recession period of the late 2000s.

Figure 5.2 Proportion (in percentage) of immigrant admissions to Canada composed of economic, family and humanitarian categories, 1980 to 2012

Description for figure 5.2

The regional distribution of immigrants to Canada has also changed in recent years. The most striking trend has been the decline in the share of immigrants whose province of landing is Ontario, from about 6 in 10 (59.3%) in 2001 to 4 in 10 (40.0%) in 2011 (Figure 5.3). Over the same period, the share of immigrants choosing Alberta, Manitoba or Saskatchewan as a destination of landing has increased substantially, particularly during the 2009 to 2011 period.

Figure 5.3 Provincial/territorial distribution of immigrants to Canada, 1980 to 2012

Description for figure 5.3

In contrast, the share of Canada’s immigrants who land in one of the Atlantic provinces or the territories has remained fairly low over time. Among these provinces and territories, Nova Scotia has generally received the highest share of Canada’s immigrants; for example, the province received just under 1% of Canada’s immigrants in 2012. The age distribution of immigrants to Canada has also evolved over time along with fluctuations in the predominant category of immigration. As seen in Figure 5.4, economic immigrants tend to be more highly concentrated in the peak working ages (those in their early twenties to late forties). Reflecting in part the fact that economic immigrants have become more prevalent in more recent years, the peak ages of immigration have become older over the last several decades (Figure 5.5).

Figure 5.4 Age distribution (in percentage) of immigrants by category of admission, Canada, average of 2007 to 2012 period

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Figure 5.5 Age distribution (in percentage) of immigrants, Canada, average of selected periods, 1980 to 2012

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Immigration policy

Some very recent revisions in the area of Canadian immigration policy suggest that immigration may become more targeted in the future.Note 2 Changes to the Federal Skilled Worker Program, which came into effect in May 2013, included a revised points system which makes language proficiency and youthNote 3 the most important selection factors, as well as increased points for Canadian work experience. Additionally, applicants with qualifications to work in specific occupations, those with pre-existing offers of employment, or offers of residence from specific provinces or territories will be given greater emphasis.Note 4

Despite the introduction of these various program revisions in 2013, the planned admissions range from Citizenship and Immigration Canada in 2014 remained unchanged from that which has been set for each year since 2007. Historically, the observed number of immigrants has fallen within or close to the planned admissions range in a given year (Figure 5.6), suggesting that, at least in the short term, immigration levels will remain close to their recently-observed levels.

Figure 5.6 Planned admission range and observed number of immigrants to Canada, 1979 to 2014

Description for figure 5.6

Public opinion and media narratives regarding immigration

While no precise or direct link exists, public opinion on immigration is monitored by the Department of Citizenship and ImmigrationNote 5 and as a result, trends in this regard could have an influence on immigration policy.

Compared to most other countries, support for immigration and multiculturalism in the Canadian public is quite strong; yet this support has also been found to be ‘conditional’, according to Soroka and Robertson (2010), on the idea that “laws and norms should not be modified to accommodate minorities”. The authors also find that a substantial minority of Canadians believes that immigrants should “blend into Canadian society”. In recent years, topics such as the number of admissions, the integration of newcomers and multiculturalism have been the subjects of discussion in the media, academia and public debate across the country, as reviewed by Banting and Kymlicka (2010), Reitz (2005) and Bélanger (2013), among others.Note 6 Generally, Canadian media portrayals of immigration have tilted towards a negative rhetoric, with ‘danger’ and ‘fear of immigration’ being the most frequent themes of discourse (Bauder 2008).

Conversely, there is also much discourse in support of increased immigration to Canada. The availability of relatively inexpensive labour is an enduring desire for many employers. A prevalent existing media narrative is that Canada’s aging population will soon result in a labour shortage ‘crisis’ with major consequences for public pension and taxation systems. Increased immigration has been proposed as a possible solution to these mounting issues, particularly when paired with the introduction of policies and programs which would ameliorate immigrant outcomes.Note 7

Yet there is emerging evidence suggesting that a) there is not a general labour shortage in Canada; instead, it is limited to certain geographic areas and industries (Kustec 2012; McQuillan 2013), and b) increasing immigration levels do not resolve the issues of concern related to population aging (Caron Malenfant et al. 2011). The diversity in the public discourse about immigration highlights the complexity of the context and issues that surround this topic.

Survey results

Results from the Opinion Survey on Future Demographic Trends show that Canadian demography experts anticipate that, in the short term, immigration levels will remain within the range which has been experienced over the last two decades, with levels increasing somewhat in the long term.

In terms of the number of immigrants, in the short term, survey respondents provided a quite narrow range of estimates of the most probable level in 2018, with the median and most frequent response being 250,000 (Figure 5.7), a number very close to the most recently observed admission level of 248,700 in 2011. In the longer term, respondents estimated the most probable situation would be an increase in the number of immigrants from current levels, the median response for 2038 being 295,000 immigrants.

Figure 5.7 Summary statistics for the Opinion Survey on Future Demographic Trends regarding estimates of the annual number of immigrants to Canada in 2018 and 2038

Description for figure 5.7

In terms of the immigration rate, again in the short term, survey respondents seemed to anticipate little change from the most recently observed rate of 7.2 immigrants per thousand Canadians: the median response for the most probable rate of immigration in 2018 was 7.4 immigrants per thousand (Figure 5.8). Notably, respondents generally expected an increase not only in the number of immigrants but also the rate of immigration in the longer-term future, a scenario with much larger impacts on the population since the associated number of immigrants is impacted by population growth in the Canadian population. The median response for the most probable immigration rate in 2038 was 8.2 immigrants per thousand, a rate that was recently observed in 2010. Overall, respondent estimates for 2038 showed considerable range, perhaps reflecting the fact that immigration levels have been quite volatile over the course of Canadian history.

Figure 5.8 Summary statistics for the Opinion Survey on Future Demographic Trends regarding estimates of the annual immigration rate (per thousand) for Canada in 2018 and 2038

Description for figure 5.8

In support of their estimates, survey respondents mentioned trends and factors that could suggest alternatively an increase or decrease in the level of immigration to Canada in the future. Trends such as globalization, growing labour force needs and increased ease of communication and travel were mentioned by respondents to support increased immigration to Canada in the future. Further, it was also mentioned, as per Massey et al.’s (1994) theory, that established migration streams tend to be self-perpetuating over time, as those immigrants who have already arrived in Canada seek to bring family and various industries and institutions come to be anchored in sustained migration. In contrast, several respondents mentioned that the growth of Asian and African economies could lessen the ‘push’ factors to Canada, as well as the idea that there is a limited sociocultural capacity to absorb more immigrants to Canada. Furthermore, some respondents thought that the idea of a labour shortage in Canada, requiring more immigration to resolve, could be exaggerated.


The low, medium and high immigration assumptions are based on an analysis of short and long-term trends in immigration to Canada, the estimates and views provided by the respondents of the Opinion Survey on Future Demographic Trends as well as recent developments in Canadian immigration policy. Consistent with the hybrid bottom-up approach utilized throughout the projections, an assumption at the Canada level is first established, but from it, specific assumptions are derived at the level of the provinces and territories. New immigrants are added to the Canadian population over the course of the projection using provincial and territorial immigration rates. Since the population size changes over the course of the projection (the magnitude of which is unknown at the time of elaborating the assumptions), a fixed rate implies a varying number of new admissions but a stable contribution to the growth rate of the provinces and territories (as long as the rate is unchanged).

The average annual immigration rates for the period 2007/2008 to 2011/2012 in each province and territory are used as a starting point for the calculation of the immigration assumptions. These rates are diminished or raised, depending on the assumptions, in order to match the initial rate of immigration desired at the national level. The rates for the first 10 years of the projection are then interpolated linearly so as to follow the changes envisioned at the Canada level during that period. The rates increase or decrease to reach the desired targets in 2022/2023 and remain stable thereafter. Notably, with this approach it is the provincial and territorial rates that are controlled, while the national immigration rate is not predetermined but is rather the result of the various provincial/territorial immigration rates.

While this provincial-rates approach is used for the projections, another sensible approach would be to use national rates with a constant provincial/territorial distribution pattern. Such an approach could be thought to conceptually better reflect the actual immigration planning process than the provincial-rates approach. However, the use of national immigration rates with fixed provincial distributions results in immigration rates that evolve mechanically in each province and territory along with changes in population growth at the national level (regardless of what is happening in terms of population change for the given province or territory). Since the direction and strength of this mechanism are not explicitly stated in the immigration assumptions (they are undefined at the time of assumption building), the use of a national immigration rate appears to be somewhat less transparent at the level of the provinces and territories. In contrast, because it relates the number of admissions to each province and territory’s own population size, the use of provincial/territorial immigration rates ensures that the contribution of immigration to the growth of a given province or territory remains the same in proportion to all other components of the growth (births, deaths, interprovincial migration, etc.).

In the end, it is difficult to assess which option will better reflect the future path of immigration trends. Tied to economic trends and political events which can be unprecedented, and influenced by changes, closures or additions of various immigration programs and their varying importance in specific provinces and territories, the geographic distribution of immigrants to Canada has displayed substantial shifts in the past. As a result of its unpredictable nature, determining the distribution of immigrants to Canada among the provinces and territories over the course of the projection is very challenging for a long-term projection. Given that the national-rates based method is somewhat less compatible with the bottom-up approach favoured in these projections, the provincial-rates based method has been selected for the present edition of the projections.

Adjustment of immigration rates

As explained above, provincial and territorial immigration rates are used for the projection. The computation of these rates is done using the annual number of immigrants by age, sex and province/territory from Statistics Canada’s Population Estimates Program (PEP). The PEP estimates are based on information from the Field Operational Support System (FOSS) files of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). A limitation of these files is that provincial and territorial immigration levels reflect the intended destination of immigrants upon arrival, rather than the province or territory in which the immigrant actually settles. This implies that an immigrant who migrates shortly after arrival (or simply settles in another destination immediately upon arrival in Canada) may be recorded as residing in the incorrect place. If this migration is captured in the interprovincial migration component, there is no issue. It appears, however, when examining other data sources, that some of these migrations are missed, and that using the intended destination as a proxy for actual residence results in an inaccurate portrayal of the geographic distribution of immigrants. In the intercensal estimates from the PEP, these differences can be corrected through the residual component. However, because this residual component is not projected, it is preferable to adjust instead the data used for projecting the geographic distribution of new immigrants.Note 8

In an attempt to address these discrepancies, adjustment factors were calculated based on information from the Longitudinal Immigration Database (IMDB), a database combining linked immigration data from CIC’s FOSS files and taxation records.Note 9, Note 10 Using the IMDB, the degree of matching between the intended destination stated before coming to Canada and the province or territory of residence reported in income tax files for the first (reference) year in Canada can be calculated. For a given province or territory and a given reference year, the adjustment factor consists of the number of immigrants actually recorded as residing there divided by the number who declared their intention to land there. An adjustment factor under one means that the province or territory loses more than it gains, the opposite being true for a factor surpassing one. These adjustment factors were calculated for the age groups 0 to 19, 20 to 24, 25 to 34, 35 to 44, 45 to 54, 55 to 64 and 65 and over, using an average calculated for immigrants who landed between 2006 and 2011.Note 11

Figure 5.9 demonstrates the change in immigration rate assumptions which resulted from the adjustment using IMDB data. It can be seen that the adjustment factors result in fairly substantial changes in Prince Edward Island in particular. Elsewhere, adjustments are more subtle, leading to an increase of the rates in Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon and Nunavut and a decrease in other provinces.

Figure 5.9 Immigration rates (per thousand) according to the medium assumption, unadjusted and adjusted, Canada, provinces and territories, 2013

Description for figure 5.9


Three distinct immigration assumptions—low, medium and high—were created on the basis of an analysis of past trends and the results from the Opinion Survey on Future Demographic Trends. As seen in Figure 5.6, Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s planned range of immigration was unchanged for the last eight years (2007 to 2014) and the observed number of immigrants has generally fallen within or very close to the planned intake range. The 2014 immigration level plan contains not only minimum and maximum values, but also an intermediate ‘admissions target’.Note 12 These values were considered to constitute the most plausible estimates of the range of immigration to Canada in the first year of the projection. These numeric targets, once converted into rates based on the 2013/2014 Canadian population,Note 13 were used in the first year of the projection (2013/2014), which resulted in rates of 6.8 immigrants per thousand population for the low assumption, 7.4 for the medium assumption and 7.5 for the high assumption. From 2014/2015 to 2022/2023, rates are transitioned in a linear manner (through interpolation) to the selected long-term target annual immigration rates (described below) and held constant for the remainder of the projection (Table 5.1 and Figure 5.10).

Figure 5.10 Immigration rate (per thousand), observed (1971/1972 to 2012/2013) and projected (2013/2014 to 2062/2063) according to the low, medium and high immigration projection assumptions, Canada

Description for figure 5.10

Under the low assumption, Canada’s immigration rate declines gradually over the projection period from 6.8 immigrants per thousand in 2013/2014 to 5.0 in 2022/2023, and remains at this level thereafter. Notably, a rate of 5.0 immigrants per thousand is somewhat lower than the median values obtained from respondents to the Opinion Survey on Future Demographic Trends. In fact, consultations with experts, including those working in the External Advisory Committee on Demographic Statistics and Studies, and the desire to capture a larger range of uncertainty, have strongly motivated the departure from survey results. Under the low assumption, immigration admissions would continue to become more targeted (and in turn somewhat more restricted) following recent immigration policy revisions. This assumption also represents the hypothetical situation where, for various reasons, ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors which attract immigrants to Canada could lessen somewhat in the future. Finally, the presence of critical discourses toward immigration in public opinion and public debate on the integration of immigrants suggests that declining immigration levels should also be envisaged as a possibility for the future.

Under the medium assumption, the immigration rate transitions from 7.4 immigrants per thousand in 2013/2014 to 7.5 in 2022/2023 and later years. An immigration rate of 7.5 immigrants per thousand equals the average rate of the last 10 years of observed data, as well as being the mean response provided by survey respondents regarding the most probable immigration rate in 2018. This assumption is further supported by the recent period of relative stability in the immigration rate, the longest observed in Canadian history. While Citizenship and Immigration Canada has enacted many changes to the immigration program in 2013, they did not alter the targeted level of immigration that year, suggesting that the rate of immigration could continue to fluctuate around 7.0 to 8.0 immigrants per thousand in the coming years.

Under the high assumption, immigration rates rise gradually from 7.5 immigrants per thousand in 2013/2014 to 9.0 in 2022/2023, remaining constant thereafter. There is much to suggest that Canada’s immigration levels could increase from their current levels in the future. Under this scenario, continued globalization, the interests of employers in available, relatively inexpensive labour and increasing ease of travel and communication would result in a higher level of immigration to Canada over time. Moreover, public opinion research suggests that Canadian support for immigration and multiculturalism is, for the most part and by international standards, relatively strong. Finally, the high assumption matches the general views of the Opinion Survey on Future Demographic Trends respondents who, for the most part, envisioned an increase in immigration rates over time.

Table 5.2 displays assumptions regarding the age and sex distribution of immigrants, held constant over the course of the projection and identical for the low, medium and high immigration assumptions. The age and sex distribution assumptions are calculated using the average age and sex distribution of immigrants to each province and territory over the period 2007/2008 to 2011/2012 after adjusting for place of residence information in IMDB.

As can be seen in Table 5.2, the age distribution of immigrants varies considerably across regions of the country. For example, Manitoba and Saskatchewan have the highest proportion of immigrants aged 0 to 14 (28% for both sexes), while Newfoundland and Labrador, British Columbia, Yukon and the Northwest Territories have the lowest (less than 20% each).

Furthermore, recent trends exhibit differences in the distribution of immigrants by sex according to region of Canada: Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and the territories receive slightly more female immigrants than male, whereas the opposite is true for the Atlantic provinces, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.


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