Immigration numbers in Canada strong — but not compared to a century ago

The number of immigrants making Canada their new home has been high over the past decade, but only recently has the proportion of foreign-born citizens matched levels seen nearly a century ago, a Statistics Canada report states.

More than 1 in 5 Canadians today born abroad, Statistics Canada report shows

New Canadians are not more plentiful as a proportion of the population than they were 100 years ago, but they are increasingly diverse. (Carmen Ponciano/CBC News)

While the number of immigrants making Canada their new home has been high over the past decade, only recently has the proportion of foreign-born citizens matched levels seen nearly a century ago.

The proportion of Canadians born in foreign countries hovers around 22 to 23 per cent today, according to Statistics Canada projections. The 1921 census pegged the proportion of landed immigrants at 22.3 per cent.

Last week, the country's statistics agency released a feature report tracking immigration volumes in Canada since before Confederation and trends dating back to the 1871 national census.

Immigration fluctuates wildly

From a low of 6,300 in pre-Confederation days to a record high of 400,900 in 1913 to today's average of approximately 250,000 per year, the number of immigrants settling in Canada has been closely linked to world events, the economy and government policy, the report shows.

(Source: Statistics Canada)

A massive wave of immigrants before the start of the First World War — a time when immigration bumped the country's population by around five per cent per year — is attributed largely to such events as the Klondike Gold Rush, new developments in dry farming and a concerted effort by the federal government to promote immigration and populate Western Canada, according the 1970 Report on the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.

Following a wartime crash in immigration, numbers grew slowly, but spiked during political and humanitarian crises. For example, 1957 was a near-record year at the time, as tens of thousands of Hungarian refugees fleeing Cold War-related unrest arrived in Canada, the report says.
Hungarian refugees arrive in Canada in 1956. ( Andrews-Newton Photographers Fonds / City of Ottawa Archives)

Trend toward increasing diversity

In 1961, more than 90 per cent of foreign-born immigrants were from the United Kingdom, Europe or the United States, with less than two per cent from Asia or Africa. A major overhaul of federal immigration legislation and regulations ushered in a new era of multiculturalism in the country, the report states.

Source: Statistics Canada

Results from the 2011 National Household Survey show that more than 50 per cent of foreign-born Canadians now hail from Africa and Asia, while the proportion of European and U.K. immigrants has fallen to nearly 30 per cent.

The proportion of Canadians born in foreign countries hovers around 22 to 23 per cent today, according to Statistics Canada projections. The 1921 census pegged the proportion of landed immigrants at 22.3 per cent. (Christer Waara/CBC)

Looking ahead

Statistics Canada's most recent projections on the diversity of the Canadian population to the year 2031 shows the trend is likely to continue, in part owing to persistently low fertility rates among Canadians. The analysis projects that by 2031, between 26 and 27 per cent of all Canadians will have been born in a foreign country, the majority (64.9 per cent) in Asia and Africa.

The report also notes that while the Canadian population as a whole is increasingly becoming diverse, the change is not occurring at the same rate in every region in the country. While large metropolitan areas such as Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver are absorbing most newcomers into their communities, the change in population makeup has been relatively modest elsewhere in the country.

Statistics Canada: 150 years of immigration in Canada, report of Royal Commission on Bilingualism