Statistics Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Ethnic diversity and immigration

Warning View the most recent version.

Archived Content

Information identified as archived is provided for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It is not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards and has not been altered or updated since it was archived. Please contact us to request a format other than those available.

Look down the street in most neighbourhoods in Canada and you might see people from all over the world. You may share a class or an office with someone from South America, play sports with someone from Africa, Europe or Asia, or you and your family may be one of the 6.2 million foreign-born people who call Canada home.

On the 2006 Census, people reported more than 200 different ethnic origins. The percentage who reported having more than one ethnic origin rose to 41%, up from 36% a decade earlier in 1996.

The ethnic origins of Canada’s population reflect immigration patterns. However, the concept of ethnic origin can also be fluid: how individuals perceive their roots can change with the amount of time spent in Canada, awareness of their family background, or the social context at the time of the census.

As well, people may marry or form unions with people from other ethnic groups, which increases the complexity of gathering ethnic data.

Canadian ethnicity

On the 1996 Census form, ‘Canadian’ was added to the list of examples of ethnic origins for the first time. By 2006, one out of three—10.1 million people—reported Canadian as either their only ethnic origin or in combination with another ethnic origin. The majority (91%) of the population aged 15 and older who reported a Canadian origin were born in Canada and had both parents born inside Canada.

After Canadian, the ethnic origins that people most frequently reported were English, Irish, French, Scottish, German, Italian, Chinese, North American Indian, Ukrainian and Dutch.

In 2006, 20% of Canada’s population was foreign-born, the highest proportion since 1931. Canada’s proportion was lower than Australia, at 22%, but higher than the United States, at 13%. In the city of Toronto, one in two residents was born outside Canada. In the city of Montréal, one in three was foreign-born. In Richmond, British Columbia, it was three out of five residents.

Immigrants and settlement

The 2006 Census reported that 1.1 million recent immigrants came to Canada from January 1, 2001 to May 16, 2006. Canada’s largest group of recent immigrants were from Asia (including the Middle East), accounting for 58% of immigrants in 2006. Europe, in second place, accounted for 16%, compared with 61% in the 1971 Census. Central and South America and the Caribbean accounted for 11%, while 11% came from Africa.

At the turn of the 20th century, many immigrants, particularly Europeans, came to Canada for good farmland. Today’s immigrants tend to move to the large cities. Toronto, Vancouver and Montréal account for 34% of Canada’s total population, but these three census metropolitan areas (CMAs) attracted 69% of all recent immigrants to Canada. Calgary is home to 5% of recent arrivals; 3% call Ottawa–Gatineau home; and 3% chose Edmonton.

The reasons why newcomers choose to settle in Canada’s three largest CMAs varies, according to the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Canada (LSIC). The most cited reason for settling in Toronto, Montréal or Vancouver is to join social support networks of family and friends. Among newcomers in Toronto, the second-most cited reason is the job prospects. Among newcomers in Montréal, it is language, while those who settle in Vancouver cite the climate.

Some immigrants do move to smaller centres. After their first year of permanent residence, immigrants who settle in small towns or in rural communities earned a 4% higher average income in 2005 than Canadian-born residents in the same areas. Immigrants who settled in rural areas or small towns had a median income of $19,500, compared with $16,800 for those in larger urban areas.

In the LSIC, recent immigrants were asked about the most important reason for settling permanently in Canada. The most prevalent responses were the quality of life (32%), the desire to be close to family and friends (20%), the future prospects for their family in Canada (18%) and the peaceful nature of the country (9%).

Canada’s generational makeup

In the 2006 Census, 61% of respondents aged 15 and older were at least third-generation Canadian; that is, they were born in Canada and both their parents were also born in Canada.

Another 16% of the population was second generation; that is, one or both of their parents was born in another country. The largest proportion, 54%, report European origins, either alone or in combination with other origins. Large numbers of immigrants arrived in Canada from European countries in the early part of the 20th century.

The most commonly reported European origins are German (13%), Italian (11%), Dutch (6%) and Ukrainian (5%). Another 41% of second-generation Canadians report origins in the British Isles (Cornish, English, Irish, Manx, Scottish, Welsh and others.)

First-generation people accounted for 24% of Canada’s population aged 15 and older in the 2006 Census. First generation means they were born in another country. The countries reflect Canada’s most recent source countries for immigrants. In this group, 24% report East Asian or Southeast Asian origins, either alone or in combination with another origin.

People of European origins make up slightly over one-third (34%) of the first generation population. The leading groups are Italian, comprising 6.0% of all the first generation population, followed by German (5.8%), Polish (3.5%) and Portuguese (3.2%).

An additional 14% of the first generation aged 15 and over report British Isles origins, either alone or with other origins.

Mixed unions on the rise

Mixed unions made up 3.9% of all unions in Canada in 2006, up from 3.1% in 2001 and 2.6% in 1991. Among all couples, 3.3% were people in unions involving a visible minority person and a non-visible minority person. In contrast, mixed unions involving couples of two different visible minority groups accounted for 0.6% of all couples in Canada in 2006.

The 2006 Census recorded a 33% rise since 2001 in the number of mixed unions (marriage or common-law) involving a visible minority person with either a non-visible minority person or a person of a different visible minority. This was more than five times the increase of 6% for all couples.

The Japanese had the highest proportion of mixed couples. There were 29,700 couples involving at least one Japanese person in the 2006 Census, 75% of these pairings included a non-Japanese partner. The South Asian and Chinese populations were least likely to be involved in a mixed union—13% of all South Asian couples and 17% of all Chinese couples.