As we celebrate Canada 150, Canadian Immigrant looks back at 150 years of immigration

It’s the eve of Canada’s 150th birthday, a perfect time to reflect on what Canada is — and who Canadians are. It’s easy to simplify that question by pointing to popular national symbols like the Mountie or the beaver or a totem pole. And, while there might not be a cute icon to represent the importance of immigrants to Canada, there’s no doubt that Canada has long been — and remains — a nation built by immigrants. More than 17 million immigrants have come to Canada since Confederation in 1867. And today’s population of 36,503,097 (as of Jan. 1, 2017) is made up of a very diverse bunch of people, with roots in most every country of the world.

That trend is only going to continue. Census numbers released in April show the pace of aging in Canada’s population is accelerating, and that demographic shift underscores the need for Canada to maintain or increase its immigration levels. At the Canadian Immigration Summit in May in Ottawa, Craig Alexander, chief economist of the Conference Board of Canada, the presenter of the event, said that immigration levels should, in fact, be higher. By 2030, immigration intake should reach 350,000, or one per cent of the population, he noted.

150 years of immigration
Looking back at the last 150 years of Canadian confederation, the annual number of immigrants has swung up and down. In the late 1800s, for example, the number ranged from as low as 6,300 to 133,000, according to Statistics Canada. After Canada was officially formed in 1867, many immigrants primarily from Britain came to settle in the growing Canada (which had a population of just 3.5 million at the time). Many Chinese migrants were brought over to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway that connected the two coasts of Canada by 1885; they were, however, subject to discrimination and worked in dangerous conditions.

According to Kareem El-Assal, research associate, education and immigration research, for the Conference Board of Canada,“[Canada] desperately needed immigrants to grow its economy, secure its borders and build a nation. In the decades following Confederation, Canada achieved some measure of success in populating its vast terrain — accomplished in large part due to the completion of a transcontinental railway that provided immigrants with access to farmland in the Prairies, and an aggressive recruitment campaign that attracted immigrants from the U.S. and Europe.”
Then came record numbers of immigrants in the early 1900s to help settle Western Canada — the highest intake reaching more than 400,000 in 1913. As Canada became a more progressive and modern society, more and more immigrants from countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, Sweden and Norway came for new opportunities and a new life.

During the First World War, the number of immigrants dropped dramatically, to fewer than 34,000 in 1915. It dropped further during the Great Depression and the Second World War. The wars saw the tides turn against immigrants, and Canadians of Ukrainian and Japanese descent were sent to internment camps. After the war ended and a sense of peace resumed, immigration to Canada turned a corner, with Britain and Europe as the main source of immigration. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and breakup of the Soviet Union, Canada welcomed more immigrants from Eastern Europe as well.

Over the course of the 20th century, Canada also welcomed thousands of refugees, developing a reputation for its humanitarianism. In the mid-1950s, 37,500 Hungarian refugees arrived, followed by those fleeing communism in Europe and South Asians who were exiled from Uganda in 1972.  Canada also resettled 60,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1979 to 1980.In the years leading up to Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, 225,000 immigrants from Hong Kong came to Canada.

Since the early 1990s, the number of immigrants has remained at around 235,000 per year, with a broadening of source countries to China, India, Philippines and Iran, plus a focus on economic immigration. In 1998, the provincial nominee program (PNP) became part of Canada’s immigration system (outside Quebec), giving provinces and territories the opportunity to address their local economic needs. There was also an increased focus on temporary foreign workers and international students.

Immigration today
Today, Canada is more than ever a nation built by immigrants, with one in five Canadians foreign-born. In 2015, 271,660 new permanent residents landed in Canada from more than 190 source countries, with 49 per cent coming from the Philippines, India, China, Iran and Pakistan, according to data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

The intake target for 2017 is 300,000 immigrants, under not only the Express Entry immigration stream for skilled workers, but also under the family class, PNPs and more. And they are coming to Canada from countries all over the globe, with Philippines, India and China as the top source countries for immigrants. “Our aging population and low birth rate requires us to prioritize the economic goals of our immigration system. Canada should also continue to reunite families and admit refugees quickly, and ensure they have opportunities to succeed in the labour market,” economist Alexander noted in a recent op-ed article, adding, “We need to continue to devote significant efforts to helping immigrants find their footing so they can make lasting contributions to Canada, as they have done throughout our nation’s history. Immigrants come here to build a better life, and by providing them with the right tools, such as employment and language supports, Canada will place them on the path to success. “Canada has long placed its trust in newcomers, who, in turn, have repaid the country in countless ways. That’s been Canada’s story for 150 years.”

Immigrants by source country
While the number of immigrants from India and China decreased between 2014 and 2015, the numbers from Philippines have increased, making the Philippines Canada’s top source country of immigrants. Here are the top 20 source countries, according to 2015 data.













United States of America




United Kingdom Colonies




Republic of Korea




















Refugee origins

The resettlement of 46,700 refugees — including both privately and government-sponsored refugees — in 2016 marks a record for Canada since 1978, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The top five refugee countries of origin in 2016 were:

Syria: 33,266
Eritrea: 3,934
Iraq: 1,650
Congo: 1,644
Afghanistan: 1,354

Top 10 mother tongues of permanent residents (2015)

1. Tagalog

2. English

3. Arabic

4. Punjabi

5. Chinese

6. French

7. Spanish

8. Urdu

9. Hindi

10. Farsi


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