Diversity in Canada: Evolving patterns in immigration

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(Disponible en français : La diversité au Canada : évolution des tendances en matière d’immigration)

Immigration has played an increasingly critical role in the shaping of Canada’s population. A variety of factors, including policy developments, have led to important changes in the composition of the immigrant population over time.

As a result, the nation’s linguistic diversity, racial diversity and religious diversity have all been on the rise. These trends show no signs of slowing.

According to Statistics Canada’s projections of the diversity of the Canadian population, the proportion of the total population that is foreign-born will continue to increase, reaching between 25% and 28% by 2031.

In comparison, this proportion hovered around 22% from 1911 to 1931, the highest recorded over the last century.

Historic immigration to Canada

Canada’s expansion west to the Pacific depended on immigration, particularly to populate the Prairie Provinces and Yukon Territory.

According to the 1911 Census, the first census following the expansion effort, the proportion of the foreign-born populations in those regions was more than double the national average. The proportion of foreign-born ranged from just over 40% in Manitoba to about 55% in Alberta, British Columbia and Yukon Territory.

One hundred years later, according to the National Household Survey, significant proportions of the populations of British Columbia and Alberta were foreign-born: 27.6% and 18%, respectively (Figure 1 ).

Illustrations show two maps showing the percentage of foreign-born Canadian population in 1911 and 2011, according to Statistics Canada census data

Sources: Map prepared by Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 2016, using data from Statistics Canada, Immigrant Status (4) for Population, for Canada, Provinces and Territories, 1911 to 2001 Censuses – 20% Sample Data, Catalogue no. 97F0009XCB2001001, 2003, 2011 National Household Survey: Data Tables, Catalogue no. 99-010-X2011026, 2011; Department of the Interior,Territorial Divisions”, Atlas of Canada, 1906; and Natural Resources Canada, Atlas of Canada, National Scale Data 1:15,000,000. The following software was used: Esri, ArcGIS, version 10.3.1.


However, in 2011 Ontario had the highest proportion of foreign-born individuals of all provinces, at 28.5%. The smallest foreign-born populations were in Atlantic Canada, where they ranged from less than 2% in Newfoundland and Labrador to 5% in Nova Scotia.

Policy changes contribute to increase in ethnocultural diversity

While the vast majority of immigrants to Canada since 1911 have been from Western European countries, significant populations from other regions of the world were present in Canada before 1911 and since.

In the early 20th century, while Canadian officials were actively recruiting immigrants from Europe to settle the Prairies, immigrants from India and China were arriving in significant numbers in British Columbia.

To stem the flow of immigrants from the Far East during this period, a series of legislative and fiscal measures were put in place. These included a federal “head tax” on immigrants from China, and restrictions on the right to vote provincially in British Columbia for individuals from India.

Changes to immigration regulations, first in 1962 and then in 1967, eliminated overt racial discrimination from Canadian economic immigration policy by introducing new assessment criteria for people seeking to immigrate to Canada. These criteria called for points to be assigned based on the applicant’s proficiency in English or French, level of education, skills and fit with occupational demand.

In 1976, a new Immigration Act explicitly committed to non-discrimination as a principle and objective of Canadian immigration policy.

These legislative changes precipitated a considerable change in the make-up of new arrivals to Canada. On one hand, the proportion of immigrants from Europe fell by half from 78% to 38% between 1962 and 1976. On the other, the proportion of immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean more than doubled from 10% to 23% between 1966 and 1970. Figure 2  shows how the distribution of the foreign-born population by source region changed between 1911 and 2011.Pie chart showing foreign-born population by region of birth, 1911

Source: Data compiled by the Library of Parliament using Statistics Canada, “Table A297-326, Country of birth of the other British-born and the foreign-born population, census dates, 1871 to 1971Historical Statistics of Canada, 1983.
Pie chart showing foreign-born population by region of birth, in 2011
Source: Data compiled by the Library of Parliament using Statistics Canada, National Household Survey Profile, 2011.


Further, these policy changes contributed to increases in the visible minority population. Only 12.4% of immigrants who arrived in Canada before 1971 were visible minorities, whereas they accounted for 78% of the total immigrant population that arrived between 2006 and 2011.

Linguistic diversity on the rise

While Canada has two official languages – French and English – one in 10 Canadians reported speaking a different language at home in the 2011 National Household Survey. Fewer than 7% of Canadians spoke a language other than French or English at home in 1971 and 8% did so in 1991.

In 2011, almost 9% of residents of the Northwest Territories and more than half of the residents of Nunavut spoke an Indigenous language, considered official languages in each of these territories.

In Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia, roughly one in six residents spoke a language other than French or English at home. In Manitoba and Alberta, one in 10 spoke a language other than the official languages.

In Canada, other than French or English, Punjabi is the most common language spoken at home; however, languages used vary by jurisdiction. For example, Cantonese is the most common non-official language spoken at home in Ontario, while in Manitoba, it is German.

Religious diversity projected to increase

A third dimension of population diversity is religion. One-third (33%) of immigrants who arrived in Canada between 2001 and 2011 identified themselves as Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist. This is a 10-fold increase from just 3% of immigrants of those faiths who arrived before 1971.

Individuals reporting Christian faith still comprised nearly half (47.5%) of new immigrants who arrived between 2006 and 2011. However, this percentage was considerably lower than the 78% of immigrants who had arrived before 1971 and identified themselves as Christians in 2011.

Statistics Canada reports that, as of 2011, 11.6 % of the Canadian religious population identified with non-Christian religions; by 2031, this proportion is projected to rise to between 17% and 19%. The largest non-Christian religion, Islam, is projected to account for 6.8% of the total Canadian population at that time.

Adapting to changing demographics

Statistics Canada reported that in 2011, Canada had a higher proportion of foreign-born residents than any other country in the G8.

Andrew Griffith, author and former Director General of Citizenship and Multiculturalism for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, has argued that Canada is well placed to adapt to changing demographics, having started with its Indigenous peoples and two “founding peoples” speaking two languages.

In contrast, at least one assessment identified some current gaps in managing the convergence of diversity and social cohesion. The report, from Policy Horizons Canada, said:

“The extent to which Canada’s existing infrastructure and mechanisms are equipped to deal with increasing diversity is not well understood. Existing instruments for managing diversity guarantee the rights of specific populations, but are not sufficient to address emerging challenges.”

However, according to the results of a 2011 international survey published by the Conference Board of Canada, the vast majority of Canadians (80%) said their community was accepting of people from different racial, ethnic and cultural groups, placing it ahead of all other countries surveyed.

Related resources

Andrew Griffith, Multiculturalism in Canada: Evidence and Anecdote, 2015.

Ninette Kelley and Michael Trebilcock, The Making of the Mosaic: A History of Canadian Immigration Policy, 1999.

Authors: Havi Echenberg and Sandra Elgersma, Library of Parliament

Categories: Social affairs and population

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