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

Skip to:

Canada has had a colourful immigration history starting from the very first settlers from France and England. The country has been shaped by the contributions of many men and women who have traveled 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’s first four provinces were 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.  

  3. The Canadian West opened for mass settlement from 1867 to 1914
    In these years, the Prairie provinces Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, grew rapidly as Canada’s then Minister of Interior, Sir Clifford Sifton promoted immigration to people with familiarity to agriculture and rural lifestyles. This began a Prairie immigration boom. Aside from Sifton’s campaign, population growth was boosted by significant changes in Canada such as the construction of the transcontinental railroad which made transportation and travel accessible to the Prairies.
  4.  

  5. There were no urban centres in the Prairies before 1911
    Prior to the Prairie immigration boom, there were no urban centres. But by 1911, Winnipeg grew to a city of 20,000 to 150,000; Saskatchewan’s population grew by 1,124.77%, and thirteen Prairie cities had populations of over 5,000. Thousands of diverse immigrants came in search for greater economic opportunities and improved quality of life, which included Hungarians, French, Icelanders, Romanians, Chinese and Ukrainians.
  6.  

  7. Canada was not as “open” in the early 1900s
    Before Canada became known for its open and welcoming stance to immigrants, especially refugees, there were a number of hiccups in Canada’s immigration history. It had restrictive immigration policies, especially during the Second World War. In 1939, the country turned away 930 Jewish refugees on board the St. Louis, so the ship was forced to return to Europe. Many on it died at the hands of Nazis. Prior to this, the country decided to imprison 23,000 Canadians of Japanese descent. Immigration policies also generally discriminated against such groups as the Chinese or African Americans. These are now bitter lessons from a time when xenophobia prevailed in most countries of the world.
  8.  

  9. 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. It is the last surviving seaport immigration facility in Canada and is a National Historic Site. 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
  10.  

  11. Policy of multiculturalism was announced in 1971
    In 1937, John Buchanan, The First Baron Tweedsmuir and Governor General of Canada, said 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, the first country to do so. With this policy, Canada showed that it recognizes the value of diversity and affirmed the dignity of all Canadian citizens regardless of racial or ethnic origins, language or religious affiliation.
  12.  

  13. The Five Year Plan for immigration was unveiled 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 landmark plan as it was a first in Canadian history. It signaled a long-term commitment to planned immigration.
  14.  

  15. Manitoba is allowed to administer its own settlement services (1998)
    Following Quebec’s lead through the Quebec-Canada Accord (1991), which gave the province sole responsibility for the selection of 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. Based on Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC, formerly CIC) data, the proportion of foreign-born Canadians was 19.8% of the total population in 2006. Today, most immigrants come from China, the Philippines, and India. This is reflected in the country’s top immigrant home languages: Tagalog (Filipino), Chinese, and Punjabi. According to Statistics Canada, more than 200 languages were reported in the 2011 census as the home language or mother tongue.

 
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.

Back to top

Quiz

Canada’s immigration history

Read the following questions and select the best answer(s) for each one. Please note that some questions have more than one answer.

Back to top

We'd love to hear from you!

Please login to tell us what you think.

Join a Virtual Coffee Chat

Canada’s immigration history

January 12, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

This event has passed. All dates and times are Winnipeg local time.


Related Learning Activities

Voting in Municipal Elections in Manitoba

Winnipeg City Hall, Manitoba Canada

Voting in any election may seem a little confusing at times. Municipal elections are no exception. Attend this workshop to… Read more »

Voting in Provincial Elections in Manitoba

Golden Boy on top of Manitoba Legislature

Voting in Federal Elections in Canada

red maple leaf with white check mark in the middle

Voting in Canada. Does the thought of this seem overwhelming or complicated? Join this workshop to learn how uncomplicated it… Read more »

Rights and responsibilities of Canadian residents and citizens

Image of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Attend this workshop to learn everything you need to know as a resident or citizen of Canada!

Back to top

CC BY-NC-SAText of this page is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA, unless otherwise marked. Please attribute to English Online Inc. and link back to this page where possible. For images and videos, check the source for licensing information.