150 years of immigration in Canada

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
185229,300
185329,500
185437,300
185525,300
185622,500
185733,900
185812,300
18596,300
18606,300
186113,600
186218,300
186321,000
186424,800
186519,000
186611,400
186710,700
186812,800
186918,600
187024,700
187127,800
187236,600
187350,100
187439,400
187527,400
187625,600
187727,100
187829,800
187940,500
188038,500
188148,000
1882112,500
1883133,600
1884103,800
188579,200
188669,200
188784,500
188888,800
188991,600
189075,100
189182,200
189231,000
189329,600
189420,800
189518,800
189616,800
189721,700
189831,900
189944,500
190041,700
190155,700
190289,100
1903138,700
1904131,300
1905141,500
1906211,700
1907272,400
1908143,300
1909173,700
1910286,800
1911331,300
1912375,800
1913400,900
1914150,500
191536,700
191655,900
191772,900
191841,800
1919107,700
1920138,800
192191,700
192264,200
1923133,700
1924124,200
192584,900
1926135,100
1927158,900
1928166,800
1929165,000
1930104,800
193127,500
193220,600
193314,400
193412,500
193511,300
193611,600
193715,100
193817,200
193917,000
194011,300
19419,300
19427,600
19438,500
194412,800
194522,700
194671,700
194764,100
1948125,400
194995,200
195073,900
1951194,400
1952164,500
1953168,900
1954154,200
1955109,900
1956164,900
1957282,200
1958124,900
1959106,900
1960104,100
196171,700
196274,600
196393,200
1964112,600
1965146,800
1966194,700
1967222,900
1968184,000
1969161,500
1970147,700
1971121,900
1972122,000
1973184,200
1974218,500
1975187,900
1976149,400
1977114,900
197886,300
1979112,100
1980143,100
1981128,600
1982121,200
198389,200
198488,300
198584,300
198699,400
1987152,100
1988161,600
1989191,600
1990216,500
1991232,800
1992254,800
1993256,600
1994224,400
1995212,900
1996226,100
1997216,000
1998174,200
1999190,000
2000227,500
2001250,600
2002229,000
2003221,300
2004235,800
2005262,200
2006251,600
2007236,800
2008247,200
2009252,200
2010280,700
2011248,700
2012257,900
2013259,000
2014260,400

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 4,40012,40068,100173,200232,500294,100351,400
Central and South America 3,100036,000106,800219,400304,700442,700
Northern Africa 400028,70038,70053,20093,200186,700
Sub-Saharan Africa2,4004,00010,70063,000113,000189,500305,300
Western Asia and Middle East 6,500025,20063,200151,100285,600456,000
Eastern Asia 30,80043,50066,600195,500377,200730,600962,600
Southeast Asia 800013,100152,200312,000469,100729,800
Southern Asia 4,2009,00046,300130,000228,800503,900892,800
Oceania 6,1006,70014,30033,00038,00047,90054,500
 
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 0.10.1 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 Hélène Maheux (helene.maheux@canada.ca, 613-854-8379) or René Houle (rene.houle@canada.ca, 613-854-8473), Social and Aboriginal Statistics Division

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