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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People from many places have come to live in Canada. This started with people from France and England. These people helped shape Canada into what it is now.
Here are eight facts about the history of people coming to live in Canada:

  1. The first leader of Canada was from another country

    The first person to lead Canada was Sir John Alexander Macdonald. He was born in Scotland in 1815. He came to Canada when he was a young boy. Canada became a country in 1867. At that time, Canada was Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec. More areas joined later.

  2. Many people came to live in the western part of Canada from 1867 to 1914

    During these years, three places in Canada grew a lot: Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Sir Clifford Sifton asked people who knew about farming to come to Canada. This started more people coming to live in the Prairies.

  3. There were no big cities in the Prairies before 1911

    There were no big cities in the Prairies at that time. By 1911, Winnipeg had grown from a small town to a city of 150,000 people. Many came there looking for better jobs and a better life. They came from countries like Hungary, France, Iceland, Romania, China and Ukraine.

  4. Canada was not always welcoming in the early 1900s

    The country had strict rules about who could live here, especially during the Second World War. Around this time, 23,000 Canadians of Japanese background were put in jail. In 1939, Canada turned away 930 Jewish people on a ship called St. Louis. The ship had to go back to Europe. Many of the people on the ship died because of the Nazis. Canada also had rules against Chinese or African Americans.

  5. Over one million people came to Canada through a place called Pier 21

    Pier 21 is a place in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was a main place for people to come into Canada from 1928 to 1971. Today, it is the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. The museum has many books, films and pictures about Canada’s immigration history. You can also see these online: Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.

  6. Canada announced a policy of multiculturalism in 1971

    In 1937, John Buchanan, the Governor-General of Canada said that people coming to Canada should keep their own culture and add to the culture of Canada. This idea is part of Canada’s Multiculturalism Policy. It was announced in 1971. With this policy, Canada showed that it values diversity.

  7. The Five Year Plan for immigration started in 1990

    The Five Year Plan increased the number of people coming to Canada from 200,000 in 1990 to 250,000 in 1992. It showed that Canada was committed to planned immigration.

  8. Manitoba can have its own settlement services (1998)

    After Quebec made an agreement with the federal government to take care of its own immigration services, Manitoba and British Columbia did the same.

People coming to live in Canada is still very important for Canada’s growth. In the 2021, nearly one in 4 people were or had been immigrants or permanent residents in Canada. This is the highest number since Canada became a country and the highest among G7 countries. From 2016 to 2021, over 1.3 million new people came to live in Canada. Today, people who came to live in Canada make up 36% of doctors, 33% of 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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