A brief history of immigration to Canada

Canada is a nation of immigrants. From our indigenous people to the more recent, all played a part in the shaping of our country. And while building new lives for themselves, they built this country into what it is today.

On July 3, 1608, Samuel de Champlain dodges passport control and a rigorous search of his three-masted vessel to plant a Fleur-de-lis flag near what is now Place Royale in Quebec City to claim the land for France. He isn’t the first European to arrive in the New World, but he does establish one of the oldest continuous settlements in Canada. Champlain and his crew are among Canada’s first European immigrants.

Newcomers generally travel great distances and experience great dislocation, not because it’s easy, but because the hardship might deliver a better future. Champlain sought a vast new territory, glory and untold riches for France through the fur trade.

Champlain Trading with the Indians

What he and his crew experience after arriving is misery, hunger and death. Even before the newcomers build proper habitation, Champlain puts down a mutiny and by the time spring 1609 arrives, only eight of the 24 men who winter at Quebec are alive.

Immigration to Canada can generally be characterized by three words: economics, ethnicity and race. Trade and demand for Canadian goods and services drives the need for immigrants and the politics of race and ethnicity determine where those newcomers arrive from.

For most of Canada’s history, policy-makers have favoured British values. Immigrants from the British Isles are preferred, followed by nationals with shared social and religious characteristics who will easily assimilate — namely Americans and northern Europeans. Others often face discrimination.

As Canada has adopted the custom of opening its doors to refugees and the displaced, compassion has also more recently become a core element of Canada’s immigration policy.


Many archeologists believe Canada’s First Nations populations crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia at least 12,000 years ago to eventually settle what we now call Canada. But in the 1600s, Canada is viewed by Europeans as a barren land demanding settlement and exploitation. That there already exists a native population is of little concern to the French or English.

Cree chief Big Bear at Hudson Bay Company trading post

As European immigration increases, native populations plummet. From estimates as high as two million aboriginals at the time of first contact, indigenous communities number between 100,000 and 125,000 people by 1867.

New France’s economy is based on the fur trade and requires relatively few settlers. As a result the French spend little money to expand and defend the colony. At the time of the British Conquest in 1760, the population amounts to some 65,000 souls. By comparison, approximately 1.6 million persons reside in Britain’s American territories.

To counter Canada’s French population, British authorities expel 10,000 Acadians and seek to attract new settlers by offering free land. Canada, however, isn’t the preferred destination for “suitable” British and northern European immigrants — the American colonies are.

The American War of Independence, however, temporarily bolsters Canada’s status and provides the nation’s first great wave of English-speaking immigrants. In 1783 and 1784, about 50,000 British Loyalists, including soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War, flee the United States to Canada.


During the first half of the 19th century, British immigration fortifies Ontario, but it is another event that will literally and figuratively expand the nation.

In 1869, Canada purchases Rupert’s Land, roughly 40% of Canada’s current land mass, from the Hudson’s Bay Co. for $1.5 million. The territory is imagined as Canada’s breadbasket, with freight trains travelling east with wheat bound for Europe and returning west with goods from central Canadian manufacturers.

The next year, Britain cedes a similar-sized territory to Canada. It is combined with Rupert’s Land and christened the North-West Territories. The land is carefully subdivided into 160-acre parcels, a police force is created, a railway is built and free homesteads are offered. And almost no one comes. By 1881, there are roughly 10,000 farms in Canada’s North-West Territories, an area that includes most of present-day Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan, northern Ontario and Quebec, plus the three territories.

Immigrants from Scotland on train

Canada is yet to stir the imagination of most potential immigrants. Following its election to power in 1896, Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government attempts to remedy that lack of interest by selling Canada abroad as a nation with plentiful land and opportunity.

Canada promotes immigration at fairs, exhibitions, through advertising campaigns and by opening a magnificent London office overlooking Trafalgar Square with banners boasting “Healthy Climate, Light Taxes, Free Schools” and “160–acre Free Farms.”

The British do come, but often proving poor farmers, they settle in the cities. It is Americans, instead, who answer the call, many of whom arrive with agricultural expertise as well as money, farm machinery and livestock.

When Alberta and Saskatchewan are established in 1905, settlers from the US account for the largest single group of immigrants. Between 1900 and 1914, 750,000 Americans come to Canada, including 1,500 African-Americans fleeing persecution in Oklahoma.

Also among that number are Polish, Dutch, German, Finnish and Scandinavian immigrants who had initially chosen the US but subsequently found land expensive and settling difficult.

Clifford Sifton, Laurier’s minister of the interior, is instrumental in expanding the range of newcomers beyond the preferred mix of British, American and northern European immigrants and encourages these new migrants to settle together, believing this will attract others of similar background. The approach is successful. Between 1891 and 1914, for instance, more than 170,000 Ukrainians arrive in Canada, Ukrainian being the name that Canada applied to all Slavic people from the Russian and Austro-Hungarian regions of eastern and southern Europe.


In the years between 1900 and 1914, three million migrants stream into Canada, with 500,000 from continental Europe. That first great wave of European immigration includes large numbers of Germans, Hungarians, Norwegians, Swedes and Icelanders.

By 1911, more than one in five Canadian residents had been born outside of the country and the nation’s population had swelled 43% in the previous decade. Almost overnight, the seeds of a multicultural Canada are sown.

Businesses keen to expand the pool of inexpensive labour are also in favour of open immigration. “What we want is population,” commented railway builder Sir William Van Horne. “Let them all come in. There is work for all.”

To meet that demand for workers, southern and eastern Europeans, including Jews, are reluctantly accepted into Canada to harvest crops, build cities and fuel factories, but because of racism and fears of greater competition for jobs, even this limited tolerance for new Canadians stops at the boundaries of Europe.

Jewish community children on steps of old Talmud Torah Hall, Ottawa

One exception is the arrival between 1880 and 1885 of 15,000 Chinese immigrants, who undertook the most backbreaking and dangerous tasks to build the BC leg of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Once the CPR was completed, however, the government imposed a head tax of $50 on most Chinese immigrants to discourage immigration and the settlement of wives and children.

Chinese workers on Canadian railway

The tax was later raised to $500, which represented about twice the yearly wages of a factory worker. In 1923, the passage of the Chinese Immigration Act effectively ended Chinese immigration and family reunification until the bill was repealed in 1947. Restrictions on Asian immigration didn’t end until 1967.

And it wasn’t just Chinese immigrants who experienced racism. The first Indian immigrants had arrived in Victoria and Vancouver in 1904 and largely toiled in the logging industry. Then in 1914, the SS Komagata Maru sailed into Vancouver with a contingent of 376 Punjabi passengers.

Canadian officials would not accept the new immigrants and a two-month standoff followed, during which the ship was moored offshore with ever-declining supplies of food and water.  Finally, a Canadian naval ship escorted the Komagata Maru out of Canadian waters while Vancouver residents cheered. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for the incident in the House of Commons.

During the same period, African-Americans attempting to immigrate to Alberta were often denied entry to Canada on grounds of being medically unfit.

In the decades following the First World War, recession, the Depression and anti-foreign attitudes dramatically slow the flow of new immigrants. In 1913, 400,000 new immigrants arrived in Canada; during the 1920s, however, the average number was about 100,000, with most of those entrants once again arriving from preferred nations.

Immigration declines even more sharply the following decade and the government actually deports an estimated 30,000 recent immigrants between 1930 and 1935, largely for failing to have paying work or for getting into trouble.


The Second World War delivers a tremendous boost to Canadian industrial capacity and the economy booms in the post-war years. 48,000 British war brides (along with 22,000 offspring) arrive, as do many southern Europeans, including Italians and Greeks, and eastern Europeans.

During this period, laws are overhauled to create true Canadian citizenship for the first time. Previously, Canadians had been legally designated as British subjects. The Canadian Citizenship Act, among other changes, finally gives married women the independent right to citizenship (prior to 1947, they could lose their citizenship if they married a non Canadian).

Newcomers are more culturally diverse, but also arrive with a wider range of skills and occupations. If earlier immigrants are selected for their ability to work hard and successfully assimilate, these newcomers bring the professional training and education necessary to create a modern economy. New immigrants account for almost half of the increase in the Canadian workforce between 1950 and 1960.

In 1962, Canada virtually eliminates racial policies that favour one type of immigrant over another by accepting healthy immigrants with the necessary qualifications — provided they had employment or the means to support themselves until they found a job — regardless of colour, race or national origin.

Five years later, Canada introduces a rating system for potential new immigrants that awards points based on age, education, fluency in English or French and demand in Canada for specific work qualifications. A variation of this system remains the primary basis for permanent entry into Canada today.

Worker in the McGregor Socks factory, Toronto, 1974

Well-established and successful cultural communities are slowly recognized for helping build a prosperous and dynamic nation, and this acknowledgment contributes to greater acceptance of minorities.

Since then, migrants have become more diverse. For those who immigrated to Canada prior to 1991, the UK was the top place of birth, but between 2001 and 2006, newcomers born in the UK ranked ninth, behind arrivals from China, India, the Philippines, Pakistan, the United States, South Korea, Romania and Iran.


By 2031, Statistics Canada projects that more than 11.4 million Canadians — or about three in 10 — will be a member of a visible minority group and that the proportion of foreign-born citizens will exceed 25%. In 1981, visible-minority Canadians totalled 5% of the population.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, centre, poses for a selfies with workers before he greets refugees from Syria at Pearson International airport, in Toronto

Canada has also regularly admitted refugees affected by conflict, political repression and natural disaster. In 1923, Canada accepted approximately 3,000 Jews displaced by war and revolution. They had originally fled from Russia to Romania but had then been ordered out of their adopted country. Notably, however, most Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany during the 1930s received a cold shoulder from William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberal government.

Since then, Hungarians escaping Soviet repression, political refugees from Chile and Uganda, as well as Vietnamese fleeing turmoil after the Vietnamese War have all found safe harbour in Canada.

That South Asian community has been among the most vocal advocates for Canada’s latest influx of refugees — Syrians. The program to accept 25,000 Syrians displaced by civil war was one of the first acts of Canada’s new Liberal federal government last fall.

Now, those individuals will shape our nation, like endless immigrants before them. In 1973, when poet Irving Layton asked, “What is a Canadian?” he understood that our nation continually renews itself with each successive wave of newcomers. “A Canadian,” he answered, “is someone who keeps asking the question, ‘What is a Canadian?’”