Canada’s immigration history

A government official examining new arrivals' documents in the Immigration Examination Hall, Pier 21, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Image  by Chris Lund/National Film Board of Canada.  Public Domain

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Canada’s colourful immigration history started with the very first settlers from France and England. The country had been shaped by the contributions of many men and women who have travelled across the miles to settle in Canada, making it known as a “land of immigrants.”

There were many ebbs and flows in this story, but here are eight major events that you may be interested to know about:

  1. Canada’s first Prime Minister was an immigrant

    When Canada became a country in 1867, Sir John Alexander Macdonald became its first Prime Minister. He was born in Scotland in 1815 and came to Upper Canada as a child. At that time, Canada was composed of four provinces: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec. The rest of the provinces and territories joined at later dates: Manitoba, Northwest Territories (1870); British Columbia (1871); Prince Edward Island (1873); Yukon Territory (1898); Alberta, Saskatchewan (1905); Newfoundland and Labrador (1949) and Nunavut (1999).

  2. The Canadian West opened for mass settlement from 1867 to 1914

    In these years, the prairie provinces Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta grew rapidly. Sir Clifford Sifton, the Minister of Interior, promoted immigration to people familiar with agriculture and rural lifestyles. This began a Prairie immigration boom. Aside from Sifton’s campaign, population growth was boosted by significant changes in Canada. Among these changes was the construction of the transcontinental railroad. This made transportation accessible to the Prairies.

  3. There were no urban centres in the Prairies before 1911

    Before the Prairie immigration boom, no urban centres existed. By 1911, Winnipeg grew to a city of 20,000 to 150,000 people. Saskatchewan’s population grew by 1,124.77%, and 13 Prairie cities had populations of over 5,000. Thousands of diverse immigrants came in search of greater economic opportunities and improved quality of life. This included Hungarians, French, Icelanders, Romanians, Chinese and Ukrainians.

  4. Canada was not as “open” in the early 1900s

    Before Canada became known for being open and welcoming to immigrants and refugees, it also had a few lapses in its history. The country had restrictive immigration policies especially during the Second World War. Around this time, 23,000 Canadians of Japanese descent were rounded up and imprisoned. In 1939, it turned away 930 Jewish refugees on board St. Louis. Because of this, the ship was forced to return to Europe. Many of its passengers died at the hands of Nazis. At that time, Canadian immigration policies also discriminated against groups like the Chinese or African Americans. These are now bitter lessons from a time when xenophobia prevailed in most countries of the world.

  5. Over one million immigrants came to Canada through Pier 21

    Pier 21, regarded as Canada’s Ellis Island, was a major port of entry for immigration from 1928 to 1971 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This National Historic Site is the last surviving seaport immigration facility in Canada. Today, you will find the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. It hosts thousands of books, films and archival images about Canada’s immigration history which you can also access online: Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21

  6. Policy of multiculturalism was announced in 1971

    In 1937, John Buchanan, The First Baron Tweedsmuir and Governor-General of Canada declared that immigrants should “retain their individuality and each make its contribution to the national character.” This philosophy has been carried forward in Canada’s Multiculturalism Policy which was declared in 1971. With this policy, Canada showed that it recognizes the value of diversity. It affirmed the dignity of all Canadian citizens regardless of racial or ethnic origins, language or religious affiliation.

  7. The Five Year Plan for immigration began in 1990

    The Five Year Plan proposed an increase in total immigration from 200,000 in 1990 to 250,000 in 1992. This was a first in Canadian history. It signaled a long-term commitment to planned immigration.

  8. Manitoba is allowed to administer its own settlement services (1998)

    Following Quebec’s lead through the Quebec-Canada Accord (this gave the province sole responsibility for selecting independent immigrants and the administration of all settlement services in the province), Manitoba and British Columbia followed suit and signed agreements with the federal government to do the same.

Immigration continues to play a central role in Canada’s growth. During the 2021 Census, nearly one in four people counted were or had been a landed immigrant or permanent resident in Canada, the highest proportion since Confederation and the largest proportion among G7 countries. Just over 1.3 million new immigrants settled permanently in Canada from 2016 to 2021, the highest number of recent immigrants recorded in a Canadian census. Today, immigrants account for 36% of physicians, 33% business owners with paid staff, and 41% of engineers (StatCan/IRCC).
Article updated July 19, 2023.
Sources: A hundred years of immigration to Canada by Janet Dench, Executive Director, Canadian Council for Refugees; Settling the West: Immigration to the Prairies from 1867 to 1914, Erica Gagnon, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21; Timeline – Immigration history (events from Pier 21 era), Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21; Backgrounder – Facts in Canada’s immigration history, IRCC; and Canada welcomes historic number of newcomers in 2022, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Accessed July 19, 2023.

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Canada’s immigration history

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