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 from the very first settlers from France and England. The country has 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’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).

  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 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 them the construction of the transcontinental railroad, which made transportation and travels accessible to the Prairies.

  5. There were no urban centres in the Prairies before 1911
    Before the Prairie immigration boom, there were no urban centres. But by 1911, Winnipeg grew to a city of 20,000 to 150,000 people; 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 of greater economic opportunities and improved quality of life, which included Hungarians, French, Icelanders, Romanians, Chinese and Ukrainians.

  7. Canada was not as “open” in the early 1900s
    Before Canada became known for its open and welcoming stance to immigrants and refugees, there were several hiccups 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, and because of this, the ship was forced to return to Europe. Many on it died at the hands of Nazis. Immigration policies also generally 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.

  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

  11. 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 and affirmed the dignity of all Canadian citizens regardless of racial or ethnic origins, language or religious affiliation.

  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 signalled a long-term commitment to planned immigration.

  15. 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. Based on IRCC (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada) data, the proportion of foreign-born Canadians was 19.8% of the total population in 2006. This figure is expected to continue to grow. 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. In fact, more than 200 languages were reported in the 2011 census as the home language or mother tongue (Statistics Canada).
Article updated August 3, 2021.
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.

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Canada’s immigration history

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