Immigration Policy in Canada

Immigration policy is the most explicit part of a government's population policy. In a democratic state such as Canada, immigration (migrants entering Canada) – is the most common form of regulating the population. Since Confederation, immigration policy has been tailored to grow the population, settle the land, and provide labour and financial capital for the economy. Immigration policy also tends to reflect the racial attitudes or national security concerns of the time.

Dutch immigrants arrive at Québec
June 1947

Immigration and Population Growth

In 1870, just after Confederation, Canada's total population was 3.6 million. In addition to Indigenous peoples (about 102,000 in 1870) the two largest groups were French (one million) and British (2.1 million). With such a small population, and vast areas of unsettled territory, immigration was seen in the decades after Confederation as a crucial way of expanding the country and its economy.

Over the next century and a half, Canada's population grew almost ten-fold, to more than 35 million in 2016, much of it through immigration. In recent decades, as Canada's birth rate has declined, immigration has accounted for the bulk of population growth. Of the six million added to Canada's population between 1996 and 2016, two-thirds – four million people – were immigrants.

About 300,000 immigrants were welcomed into Canada in 2016, and a similar number is expected in 2017.

Responsibility for Immigration

Three different federal government departments or agencies have been responsible for immigration policy since the Second World War: Ministry of Mines and Resources (1936-1949), the Department of Citizenship and Immigration (1950-66, 1977-present), the Department of Manpower and Immigration (1966-77), and the Canada Employment and Immigration Commission (established in 1977).

Under the British North America Act, constitutional responsibility for immigration is divided between the provincial and federal governments. Ottawa, for most of Canada's history, has dominated this policy area, although Ontario since the Second World War, Québec since the mid-1960s, and British Columbia since 2010, have been particularly concerned with immigration.

Immigration staff, Québec

Québec created its own department for immigration in 1968. Its major concerns have been to recruit as many French-speaking immigrants as possible to the province, and to ensure that immigrants who settle in Québec form part of the francophone community. Québec was the first province to have a special immigration agreement with the federal government. The federal government is also involved in the task of increasing the numbers of French-speaking immigrants to Canada.

As of 2017, all provinces and some territories have agreements with Ottawa allowing them to select and recruit immigrants based on their social and economic needs.


19th Century: Open Doors

In the 19th century, the movement of individuals and groups to Canada was largely unrestricted, except for the ill, the disabled and the poor — groups targeted by the first Immigration Act, passed in 1869.

The other exception, beginning in the 1880s, were Chinese migrants. In 1885, under pressure from British Columbia, a federal law was passed restricting Chinese immigration through the imposition of a head tax (which lasted until 1923) – the first of a series of such measures directed at the Chinese that continued until the late 1940s.

Otherwise, Canada's immigration policy was concerned mainly with the responsibilities of transportation companies to the people they were carrying to Canada's shores, and the exclusion of criminals, the sick, and the poor or destitute.

Early 20th Century: Racial and National Restrictions

After massive waves of mostly European immigration to Canada between 1903 and 1913, and a series of political upheavals and economic problems that followed the First World War, a much more restrictive immigration policy was implemented. Under a revised Immigration Act in 1919, the government excluded certain groups from entering the country, including Communists, Mennonites, Doukhobors and other groups with particular religious practices, and also nationalities whose countries had fought against Canada during the First World War, such as Austrians, Hungarians and Turks. (In 1911 the government had considered, but not followed through, on banning Black immigrants.) These restrictive policies and practices continued until the middle of the 20th century.

Post-War Period: First Signs of Change

Canada's restrictive immigration policies began to slowly and gradually ease after the Second World War, partly thanks to booming economic growth (and demand for labour) and partly due to changing social attitudes.

Pier 21
Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Photo taken on: October 11th, 2013

In 1946 the formal ban on Chinese immigration was ended. In 1952, a new Immigration Act continued Canada's discriminatory policies against non-European and non-American immigrants. However, in 1962 Ottawa ended racial discrimination as a feature of the immigration system. In 1967, a points system was introduced to rank potential immigrants for eligibility. Race, colour, or nationality were not factors in the new system; rather, work skills, education levels, language ability (in speaking French or English), and family connections became the main considerations in deciding who could immigrate.

In 1969, Canada signed the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 18 years after it had first been adopted by the UN. Despite recognizing refugees as a special humanitarian class of migrants, Canada created no formal measures for examining refugee claims – continuing as in the past only to admit refugees on a case-by-case basis.

Immigration Act, 1976

Immigration and population policies were overhauled substantially in 1975. A green paper (a document containing proposed policies) on immigration was prepared. A joint committee of the Senate and the House of Commons also prepared a report on the same subject, after holding hearings across the country. Almost all the committee's recommendations were accepted by the Liberal government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and absorbed into a new Immigration Act, 1976.

The Act, which took effect in 1978, was a radical break from the past. It established for the first time in law the main objectives of Canada's immigration policy. These included the promotion of Canada's demographic, economic, social, and cultural goals, as well as the priorities of family reunion, diversity, and non-discrimination. The Act also enabled co-operation among levels of government and the voluntary sector in helping newcomers adapt to Canadian society. For the first time, the Act also defined refugees as a distinct group of immigrants in Canadian law, requiring the government to meet its obligations to refugees under international agreements.

Reception of Southeast Asian refugees at CFB Griesbach, August 1979
Griesbach Military Base in Edmonton, one of the arrival points for Southeast Asian refugees.

In 1979, Canada embarked on a unique program allowing private groups (most often churches and ethnic community organizations) to sponsor refugee individuals or families, bring them to Canada as permanent residents, and assist them in settling here. As of 2017, the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program has settled more than 275,000 people in Canada – over and above government-assisted refugees. (Despite the program's success, it has been criticized in recent years for cumbersome paperwork and delays, and for growing restrictions on where refugees can be sponsored from.)

The Actbroadened who has a role in shaping policy and establishing annual immigration levels. It gave provincial governments, ethnic groups, and humanitarian organizations the opportunity, through consultations with the federal government, to have their views heard by federal immigration officials.

The Act also modernized how refugee status is determined in relation to national security and enforcement. And it set out that the quasi-judicial Immigration Board (originally created in 1967) should be a fully independent body whose decisions on immigration claims and appeals cannot be overruled by government, except in relation to security matters.

By 1980, five classes of immigrants had been established for entry to Canada: Independent (people applying on their own); Humanitarian (refugees and other persecuted or displaced people); Family (having immediate family already living in Canada); Assisted Relatives (distant relatives, sponsored by a family member in Canada); and Economic (people with highly desirable employment skills, or those willing to open a business or invest significantly in the Canadian economy).

By the 1990s, after decades of legal and administrative reform, the racial make-up of immigrants was also changing. Asia (particularly China, India and Philippines) had replaced Europe as the largest source of immigrants to Canada.

Post-9/11 Changes

In 2001, after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Canada replaced its 1976 Immigration Act with the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. The new Act, which came into force in 2002, maintained many of the principles and policies of the previous one, including the various classes of immigrants. It also extended the family class to include same-sex and common-law relationships.

Most importantly, the 2001 Act gave the government wider powers to detain and deport landed immigrants suspected of being a security threat. In 2002, Canada and the US banned the practice of allowing migrants to enter one country on a travel visa, and claim refugee status at the border of the other (via the Canada-United States Safe Third Country Agreement).

Refugee Policies

Immigration and refugee policies are planned and considered together. In keeping with Canada's international responsibilities as a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, refugees normally constitute about 10-15 per cent of the annual flow of newcomers to Canada. During major international emergencies, such as the unexpected outpouring of refugees from Southeast Asia in 1978-81, refugees accounted for 25 per cent of all new arrivals in Canada.

Resettlement and integration of Vietnamese refugees in Canada, 1979
In order to facilitate the integration of newly arrived refugees, the Canadian C.O.P.I (Centre d'orientation et de formation des immigrés) organizes language classes and outings during which refugees can get to know their new country, the people and the local customs.

In 2016, refugees made up about 20 per cent of all newcomers – or 59,000 of the 300,000 in immigrants – thanks in part to the influx of Syrians fleeing civil war in that country. In 2017, the government is expected to allow the entry of about 44,000 refugees.

The majority of immigrants seeking refugee status make legitimate claims. However, since the late 1970s an increasing number have reached Canadian ports of entry without first having been processed by Canadian immigration offices. Many of these people have sought to gain admission to Canada by falsely claiming to be refugees. In this way, such persons try to jump the queue of regular immigrant applicants and become established in Canada, although there is little if any evidence to indicate that such persons have been the objects of persecution in their last state of residence. During the last half of 1986, for example, more than 10,000 people sought to short circuit normal immigration procedures by resorting to false claims of refugee status.

In 2010 the government introduced reforms to the refugee system, creating two classes of refugees – those from "dangerous" countries with a history of security risk to Canada, and those from "safe" democratic countries. Under the changes, which came into effect at the end of 2012, claimants from "safe" countries would be fast-tracked through the system that determines their eligibility, as a way of speeding up the approval system and reducing the backlog in cases. The changes were criticized by some immigration advocacy groups for creating a two-tier refugee system that could be used to admit certain types of refugees on the basis of political whims – rather than under a fair and independent decision-making process.

Immigration, Labour and the Economy

Efforts to develop a formal population policy for Canada began in 1985, with a report to Parliament on the subject by the immigration minister. The report reflected a consensus among governments, companies, and labour organizations that a moderate and controlled increase in the number of immigrants annually is required if Canada's population size is to be maintained or to grow marginally.

Without more immigration, the decline in fertility in Canada in the 21st century result in too few working-age Canadians being burdened with the cost of health and social programs for the much increased number of elderly citizens. Immigration can also affect whether Canada has enough people not just of working age, but with the right education and skills for a modern economy.

During the 1980s, policy makers instituted a program to encourage business people and entrepreneurs to immigrate to Canada, bringing their managerial skills and financial capital in order to create additional employment opportunities. Many immigrants have since brought substantial capital and jobs to Canada. From 1983 to 1996, approximately 400,000 Chinese from Hong Kong were admitted to Canada under the economic class rules, following the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. The Hong Kong immigrants brought billions of dollars worth of investments to Canada.

In 2016 economic class entrants were the largest single source of immigrants, making up more than 160,000 of the roughly 300,000 total immigrants.

Where Immigrants Live

Canada's immigration policy also encourages the dispersal of immigrants across the country. In the decades following the resurgence of immigration after the Second World War, Montréal, Vancouver and especially Toronto received up to 66 per cent of all immigrants entering Canada. More recently, policy tries to encourage immigrants to settle in smaller communities in the less-populated provinces.

Vancouver Chinatown
Millennium Gate on Pender Street in Chinatown in Vancouver, British Columbia.

According to the 2011 national census, 40 per cent of all immigrants residing in Canada lived in Ontario , while Québec claimed 21 per cent and British Columbia 14 per cent. The Prairie provinces together had roughly 22 per cent (the bulk of that in Alberta). And fewer than three per cent of the total lived in Atlantic Canada.

In recent years every province (except Québec, which has its own, similar scheme) has established a Provincial Nominee Program, allowing provincial governments to nominate specific immigrant applicants, with the requirement that they reside for a period of time in that province. Although the programs vary from province to province, they generally have two goals – to boost population growth, and to recruit immigrants with desirable job skills, or language skills, into a province's workforce. Some programs allow immigrants to fast-track their applications for entry into Canada. About 51,000 immigrants (out of a total of approximately 300,000) were expected to become permanent residents in Canada through Provincial Nominee Programs in 2017.

Immigration and Foreign Policy

How policy is implemented by the federal departments of Immigration and by Global Affairs (formerly External Affairs and then Foreign Affairs) affect whether that policy achieves its purposes. For example, since 1967 the selection of applicants for admission has occurred without discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity or global geography. Yet because Canadian immigration officers are not situated in many developing countries, people in these countries are in effect excluded from Canada even if they are members of an admissible category, unless they can travel to a distant immigration office in another country to apply for admission.

The number of applicants being processed at an overseas immigration post is also dependent on the number of staff assigned to the task. The allocation of resources, and the discretionary powers of immigration officials in Canada and abroad therefore influence the daily administration of policy.

Canada House
Canada House is the Canadian High Commission to the United Kingdom, 3 June 2012 (courtesy Brian Harrington Spier/flickr CC).

Because these and other features of Canada's immigration practices can affect relations with other governments (particularly if these governments perceive Canadian policies as unfair), immigration policy is part of Canadian foreign policy. This fact was acknowledged by Ottawa in 1981, when much of the responsibility for the on-the-ground administration of immigration programs was transferred from the department of Immigration to the department of External Affairs.

The practice of admitting highly skilled people from less-developed countries continues to provoke some controversy. The governments of the developing countries, from which a growing number of immigrants to Canada originate, regard with apprehension the exodus of people they can ill afford to lose. While the view has been expressed that Canada should not encourage the outflow of trained individuals from "have-not" regions of the world, Canada, like other democracies, stoutly defends the concept of freedom of movement for all persons.

Illegal Entry and Enforcement

Canada's immigration policy is non-discriminatory regarding ethnicity. Meanwhile, individuals with disabilities, or suffering diseases likely to endanger public health, or those without any apparent means of financial support, or those known to be criminals or terrorists can be excluded. An unknown number of migrants among these undesired categories still gain entry every year to Canada by tactics that contravene immigration legislation. Others who may have been properly admitted, such as students and visitors on short-term visas, choose to remain beyond the time permitted by law.

The problem of illegal aliens, while not a new one, is difficult for the Canadian government to resolve, especially as the total number of people making claims for entry at Canadian border crossings and airports grows. Once inside Canada, illegal aliens may easily escape notice unless they try to acquire some public service, which would bring them to the attention of government authorities.

The number of illegal aliens in Canada is impossible to determine accurately. Estimates by police and immigration personnel range between 50,000 and 200,000. Fraudulent claims for refugee status by aliens trying to avoid normal overseas screening and processing constitute one of the more serious problems confronting immigration officials.

(See also Immigration Detention)

Further Reading

  • Jamie Chai Yun Liew and Donald Galloway, Immigration Law, 2nd ed (2015).

External Links