How 3 waves of Asian immigration shaped Ottawa

Nearly 20 per cent of residents in Ottawa identify as having Asian origins. Here's how those immigrants have shaped the city's culture.

CBC Ottawa profiles 3 major waves of immigration to the nation's capital

From left to right, MinhTri Truong, Melisa Kamibayashi and Ajit Singh Sandhu share their stories of immigration and how the city of Ottawa has changed. (MinhTri Troung, Melisa Kamibayashi and Ajit Singh Sandhu)

Ajit Singh Sandhu will never forget the day he saw one of Pakistan's most revered folk singers perform in Ottawa.

"You never thought this would happen as an event here … It just reflects what the community is like now, how big we are," said Sandhu, who waited 13 years for a show that size to hit the nation's capital. 

In 2018, the New Delhi immigrant joined thousands of fans to pack the halls of Centrepointe Theatre to watch Rahat Fateh Ali Khan sing hit songs from Bollywood films.

For Sandhu, that moment represented a milestone in the growth of Ottawa's South Asian community.

"Big names started coming to our city, [before] they would only go to Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver," said Sandhu.   

When Sandhu first moved to Ottawa in 2005, there were 26,640 South Asians in the city, but by 2016 that number had grown to 40,725, according to Statistics Canada. 

Like many recent Asian immigrants, Sandhu was drawn to Ottawa's booming tech industry — commonly dubbed "Silicon Valley North." It's the latest in a series of immigration waves from Asia that have shaped the city since the first Chinese and Japanese railroad workers landed in Canada more than 160 years ago.

A closer look at the 2016 census reveals that nearly 20 per cent of residents in Ottawa identify as having Asian origins.

Robert Vineberg, a longtime federal government employee specializing in immigration, knows the benefit diversity has had on Ottawa. (Robert Vineberg)

 "The Asian population in Ottawa has grown from being a very small community to now becoming a major portion of the population of the city and a major driving force of the economy," said Robert Vineberg, chair of the Canadian Museum of Immigration board of trustees. 

How Asian immigration started

According to Vineberg, the first major wave of Asian immigrants who helped Ottawa become the city it is now dates back over a century to the nearly 40,000 Chinese and Japanese railroad workers who literally reshaped Canada's landscape.  

While many of them originally settled and worked in the west coast, eventually some of them had — or were forced to — relocate elsewhere in the country. 

"These people helped lay the groundwork for what Canada is today," said Vineberg.

Melisa Kamibayashi recalls the creative lengths her family and other Japanese-Canadians would go to celebrate their small community. (Melisa Kamibayashi)

Melisa Kamibayashi knows their sacrifices first hand.

As president of the Ottawa Japanese Community Association, Kamibayashi is deeply involved in cultural celebrations. But it was a different story for her ancestors.

Both sets of her grandparents immigrated to the west coast from Japan in the early 1900s. After several decades of hard work, they were forcibly moved into internment camps in northern B.C. and stripped of their belongings.

Once released, her family members eventually gained freedom in Ontario and set roots in Ottawa. 

Kamibayashi said growing up, she and other Japanese-Canadian families felt "disconnected from their Japanese roots" because the internment camps had attempted to "wipe away" their sense of cultural belonging. 

Still, she said her father Fred Kamibayashi did what he could to preserve their Japanese heritage. 

"We had Christmas parties, where there is no Japanese culture involved in it at all. It was just about people of Japanese heritage being able to come together," said Kamibayashi. "[He] created a lot of the Japanese community."

Since 1996 the Japanese population in Ottawa has grown from 1,045 to more than 3,105.

In 1991, the community opened its first cultural centre in the city, which serves as a learning hub for all things Japanese — from craft sales to cultural events such as Mochitsuki, the annual rice-pounding festival.

Changing mainstream attitude

Canada's attitude toward immigration, especially those in "visible minority" groups, shifted following major international conflicts, according to Vineberg. 

"Those soldiers, airmen and seamen [who] came back to Canada had a huge increase in self-confidence and a desire to build a better country," said Vineberg.

This eventually led to the Immigration Act of 1976, which outlined Canada's desire to eliminate discriminatory practices surrounding immigration. Vineberg calls it a seminal moment in Canadian history.

"[There was a] definite commitment for a multicultural Canada and this willingness to be a country open to the world," he said.

It was this shift in public policy to pave the way for 60,000 Vietnamese refugees to build a new life in Canada.

Safe haven for immigrants and refugees

Minhtri Truong's entire family fled by boat and lived in a refugee camp after the Vietnam War.

After initially settling in Montreal, Truong moved to Ottawa to study at Carleton University in 1990.

MinhTri Troung and his family came to Canada as refugees following the end of the Vietnam War. (MinhTri Truong)

He said the Vietnamese community was still burgeoning back then. The City of Ottawa had privately sponsored some 2,000 Vietnamese refugees, and another 1,600 had come through the federal government's resettlement program. 

By 2016, the number of Ottawa residents who identify as Vietnamese tipped over 8,700.

Though his father was once deemed a "political threat" in Vietnam, Truong says he's remained steadfast in promoting Vietnamese culture — from hosting a local community radio show for 20 years to helping put on a Vietnamese-Canadian conference at Parliament Hill in 2019.

"I used to be a youth volunteer learning and talking about what happened… I'm doing mentoring and want to pass our history down," said Truong.

Tech boom and current immigration

In Ottawa, the tech boom which began around the turn of the millennium, saw some 20,000 Asian immigrants move to the city between 1996 and 2001, the majority of whom came from China and South Asia.

That tech infrastructure is what drew Sandhu.

Over the years, Sandhu says the city has become a more accepting place. When he first arrived, he said many of his conversations with strangers often centred around his turban. 

"I still had to explain to people who are Sikhs and as a community who we are, what our beliefs are. Now, I feel that people are more aware," said Sandhu.

Ajit Singh Sandhu moved to Ottawa following the end of the tech boom in the city. (Luther Caverly)

Since then, the South Asian community in Ottawa has grown so large that Sandhu says he can find any of the spices and seasonings in big-box stores.

"You don't even need to go to the Indian grocery store," he said.

The father of three says he's devoted to giving back to Ottawa, his home. It's why he created Langar for Hunger in 2016, which organizes food donation and blood donation drives. 

"Whenever you are a very visible minority, you're the ambassador to the community, because people will judge your actions to everybody who looks like you," said Sandhu.

Though the pandemic has put a pause to many immigration applications, the legacy of Canada's Immigration Act is expected to continue, according to Vineberg.

In 2015, the federal government doubled down on immigration strategy by introducing an express pathway system designed to streamline applications from skilled immigrants. 

Vineberg believes this will continue to draw people from Asia.

"Diversity is a real strength. Immigration attracts investment, cultural and artistic endeavours — it enhances [life]."


  • A previous version of this story said the Ottawa Japanese Community Association opened its cultural centre in 1976. In fact, it opened in 1991.
    Jun 01, 2021 10:43 AM ET

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