There is no definitive account of the population of North America, and specifically Canada, prior to the arrival of Europeans. A number of estimates have been produced using a variety of assumptions and methods. These estimates of North America’s Indigenous populations, excluding Mexico, range from 1.5 million to 7 million, to as many as 18 million.
Notwithstanding the uncertainty in these estimates, most scholars agree that significant depopulation of Indigenous peoples took place after European arrival. This depopulation is thought to have started sometime during the 16th century. The introduction of highly contagious diseases including typhus, smallpox and measles proved tragic for Indigenous peoples, who lacked an acquired immunity to these deadly diseases. Over the three centuries following European contact, these epidemics — in particular smallpox — drove the collapse of Indigenous populations in what are now the United States and Canada.
The devastating effects of colonialism and intertribal warfare also contributed to the decline, such that by the late 1800s, the Indigenous populations of North America (encompassing the United States, Canada and Greenland) had reached a low of just 375,000 people in 1900. By the first two decades of the 20th century, it had rebounded, embarking on a long-term trajectory of growth. The reasons for this growth included high fertility rates and declining death rates, both of which were brought on by gradual socio-economic improvements.
New France to Confederation: 1608–1867
Beginning in the 17th century, the settlement of Canada by Europeans resulted from the agricultural and industrial revolutions in Western Europe and the subsequent expansion of the European population. The French were among the early explorers of Canada and their establishment of New France was primarily the consequence of political and military concerns, the search for natural wealth and the Roman Catholic Church’s interest in converting Indigenous peoples.
In 1608, at the founding of New France, Samuel de Champlain and his companions numbered a mere 28. Only eight of these individuals survived the first winter in the new colony. By 1666, this small group of settlers, combined with periodic arrivals from France, had grown phenomenally to a population of 3,216. One year after the English Conquest in 1759, when New France comprised Québec, Montréal and Trois-Rivières, the population had reached 70,000. By the end of the 19th century, the population had multiplied to 200,000. Most of this growth was the result of exceptionally high fertility and relatively low death rates.
Immigration was also a factor in the colony’s growth. For example, between its founding in 1608 and 1650, New France received approximately 25,000 immigrants, but only about 15,000 settled permanently. Of these settlers, 10,000 left descendants in the colony. The overwhelming majority of the early migrants — originating mainly from Normandy, the area around Paris and central western France — were men: soldiers, indentured workers, clerics and even some prisoners. From 1663 to 1673, however, the French Crown subsidized the immigration of hundreds of young women of marriageable age. Known as the filles du roi (the King’s Daughters), they helped to balance the sex ratio. Following the American Revolution, the non-French population increased as British Loyalists emigrated from the United States to Canada.
The population of Canada in 1761 was just under 76,000 people, growing to about 102,000 by 1771. Sixty years later, in 1831, Canada’s population had just surpassed the one million mark. Between 1761 and 1811, the population grew rapidly at an average annual growth rate of 3.9 per cent, due to a combination of high fertility and immigration levels. Growth continued at a brisk pace in the period from 1811 to 1861 at an average of 3.7 per cent each year, but slowed considerably in the final four decades of the 19th century, due to a combination of high levels of emigration to the United States, along with declining birth rates.
Confederation to the First World War
At Confederation in 1867, Canada’s population stood at 3.4 million. The country consisted of Lower Canada (Québec), Upper Canada (Ontario), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. As the 20th century approached, the population experienced declining birth and death rates, though in absolute terms it continued to grow. Between 1901 and 1911, there occurred significant growth of nearly 3 per cent per year as a result of heavy immigration, much of it directed to the Western provinces (see also History of Settlement in the Canadian Prairies). By the end of this period, Canada’s population had reached 7.2 million people.
Second World War to Present
Unsettled times followed the First World War, culminating in the Great Depression of the 1930s. This was a period of low fertility and low immigration. Population growth slowed considerably. However, the long-term decline in fertility was interrupted by the Second World War. Following the end of the war, the country enjoyed a prolonged period of economic growth, which stimulated significant increases in immigration — mainly from Europe — and fertility. Canada’s average annual rate of growth between 1941 and 1951 was just under 2 per cent per year; however, during the baby boom period, between 1946 and 1966, fertility rates increased to levels not seen since the turn of the 20th century. Consequently, during the 1951–61 decade, the population grew at an average of 2.7 per cent per year. In 1961, the population numbered 18 million people.
The year 1966 marked the end of the postwar baby boom. Since the early 1970s, the population has continued growing, though at relatively lower rates compared to earlier periods. The 2016 census counted a population of nearly 35.2 million people.
Components of Population Growth
Population growth is a function of two components: natural increase, i.e., the difference between the number of births and deaths during a given period; and net migratory increase, i.e., the difference between the number of immigrants entering the country and the number of emigrants leaving the country.
With an annual rate of natural increase around 1 per cent since 1971, Canada is characteristic of an industrial, urban population that has experienced the demographic transition from high to low levels of fertility and mortality. Historically, natural increase accounted for about two-thirds of population growth. However, since 2001, this component has decreased to approximately one-third, while the net migratory gain has become increasingly important.
Two factors lie at the heart of this change in the relative importance of the two components of growth. First is the rapid decrease in fertility in the late 1960s and 70s, and its fairly constant level since then, which has resulted in falling annual numbers of births, from a historic peak level of 479,275 in 1959, to an average level of below 400,000 per year. Second, the number of deaths on an annual basis increased during this same period due to an aging population. In combination, these demographic changes mean that the numbers of births and deaths have been moving toward a point of near convergence since the end of the baby boom, and therefore net international migration has taken on an increasingly important role in Canada’s population growth.
Mortality and Longevity
Mortality levels have been declining since the latter part of the 19th century. The major gains in life expectancy since 1900 can be attributed to developments in public health, including childhood immunization, improved nutritional and personal hygiene levels, better housing and rising standards of living. Medical innovations — particularly the discovery of antibiotics in the 1930s — have played a major role in explaining life expectancy gains.
The most dramatic improvements in mortality have resulted from reductions in infant mortality and a consequential increase in life expectancy. In 1931, the number of years a person could expect to live at birth was 60 years for males and 62.1 for females. By 2014, life expectancies had risen to 79.7 years for men and 83.9 years for women, accounting for an average life expectancy of 81.8 years. Between 1921 and 2014, the gain in overall life expectancy for Canadians was 24.7 years. Nearly half of the improvement occurred between 1921 and 1951, again largely as a function of declines in infant mortality rates. By comparison, declining death rates from circulatory diseases account for most of the gains in life expectancy since 1951.
By the early 1970s, infant mortality had fallen considerably. Today, death rates for Canadian infants are among the lowest in the world, at 4.7 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2014. Survival rates among the population aged 60 and over also increased in the second half of the 20th century. This, in conjunction with more than four decades of below-replacement fertility levels, has increased the rate at which Canada’s population is aging.
In comparison to the United States, life expectancy in Canada has consistently been longer, though quite similar to many European countries (e.g., France, Sweden, Norway and Iceland). Today, the highest life expectancy in the world is enjoyed by Japanese females.
After infants, the next population subgroup to experience major gains in survival probabilities from about midway through the 20th century were women, especially those in their childbearing years. Improvements in obstetrics surgery and antibiotics significantly reduced mothers’ mortality risks from complications of pregnancy and birth, which throughout history have been the leading causes of premature death for women (see Birthing Practices).
Due to population growth and an aging population, the number of deaths has been increasing annually, reaching 258,821 in 2014. This is a significant increase from the 168,183 total in 1979. Today, the leading causes of death among Canadians are degenerative diseases. In 2014, cancer alone accounted for about 30 per cent of all deaths, while cardiovascular complications, including heart disease and stroke, were responsible for an additional 25 per cent of all deaths.
Before the 19th century, fertility levels in North America were as high, or higher, than present levels in many of the world’s less developed countries. As Canada developed and living conditions improved, birthrates declined steadily from their early levels of around 50 births per 1,000 population. By the 1920s, the birth rate had dropped below 30, and by 1937 had reached a low of 20 births per 1,000 population. The Second World War revived the economy and reversed the declining trend in birth rates; they reached record highs during the baby boom — 28.9 in 1947 and 28.5 in 1954 — before resuming the long-term decline beginning in the early 1960s. This decline occurred in a context of significant social change, especially with respect to the role and status of women in society. Beginning in the 1960s, there were significant advances in women’s education levels and their participation in the paid labour force, as well as increased availability of efficient birth control methods (see also Women in the Labour Force). All of these factors contributed to a decline in fertility rates.
Since the mid-1970s, the number of births has been below 400,000 per year, and the total fertility rate has ranged between 1.5 and 1.7 children per woman. These figures are well below the 2.1 level of fertility needed to ensure the long-term replacement of generations for a low mortality population such as Canada. The continuing pattern of low fertility for nearly half a century gives little reason to expect a return to replacement levels. In 2014, the total fertility rate was 1.58 children per woman, significantly lower than the 3.85 rate recorded at the peak of the baby boom in 1959.
Over the past 160 years, Canada has experienced significant migratory waves, undergoing at various times net gains or losses. Noticeable losses took place in the last four decades of the 19th century, between 1861 and 1901, as well as during 1931–41 (a period that includes the Great Depression). During these times, population growth was entirely a function of natural increase, which more than compensated for the net migratory losses.
Notwithstanding these negative trends, it is important to point out that between 1861 and 1901 Canada did experience some immigration, mainly from Europe; and starting in 1880, the country received many immigrants from both Europe and Asia, largely due to the need for labour during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Many people left Canada between 1873 and 1896, on the one hand lured by factories in the United States, and on the other pushed out by a lack of economic opportunities at the time.
The 1930s saw another period of considerable decline in the number of immigrants admitted to Canada. While during the 1920s the country admitted on average 123,000 newcomers a year, this figure fell to about 16,000 per year during the 1930s.
Two periods of net migratory gains stand out in Canadian immigration history. Between 1901 and 1911, just before the start of the First World War, Canada experienced its highest recorded wave of immigration. During this period, more than two million immigrants, mostly from Europe, arrived in this country, in particular the Western provinces, where free land was being offered (see also History of Settlement in the Canadian Prairies). In 1913, over 400,000 immigrants arrived, the largest annual inflow in Canadian history.
The second major immigration wave was between 1941 and 1961, a period that includes the Second World War and its end, as well as the postwar baby boom. Immigration intensified during this time: in total, there were 2.14 million arrivals. The largest inflows were 1951 and 1957, with 194,391 and 282,164 arrivals, respectively.
During the early 1960s, changes in immigration policy encouraged immigration. Longstanding restrictions based on racial and ethnic origins were removed and selection criteria were introduced based on education, occupational skills and labour force needs.
In 1978, Canada introduced annual global ceilings on admissible numbers of immigrants to achieve better control over the continuing influx of immigrants. Today, these ceilings are established after consultations with provincial governments.
During the latter half of the 1971–81 decade, Canada was one of the three main immigrant-receiving nations in the world. From 1976 to 1981, immigration averaged about 122,000 annually. Despite continuing high levels of unemployment in 1982, Canada publicly committed itself to maintaining immigration ceilings of between 135,000 and 145,000 until 1984, and raising them in subsequent years as a means of partially offsetting the effects of a declining rate of population growth. However, between 1980 and 1985, immigration declined from 143,117 to 84,302, while pressures to admit increasing numbers of immigrants and refugees remained high. The number of immigrants entering Canada rose during the latter half of the 1980s, reaching nearly 255,000 in 1992. In the late 1990s, the government set target levels for immigrants and refugees at 200,000–225,000; however, immigration has since been in the range of 250,000 annually, some years exceeding this number. For instance, in 2010, more than 280,700 individuals immigrated to Canada, of which 9 per cent were refugees; this was the highest annual immigration since the 1950s.
Relatively greater numbers of young adult men than women immigrated to Canada in the early years. Following heavy immigration during the first decade of the 20th century, the census of 1911 reported 113 males for every 100 females living in Canada. Since 1921, the ratio of males to females has gradually declined for the country as a whole. Currently, there are slightly more females than males in Canada and the overall sex ratio (males/females) is just below 100 males for every 100 females. This relatively small imbalance favouring females is largely a function of higher male mortality at virtually every age. Across most populations, gender ratios at birth are on average about 105 males for every 100 females, but the relative number of males compared to females gradually declines with increasing age, again due to high male mortality. In 2017, about 54 per cent of the Canadian population aged 65 and older was women, increasing to nearly 65 per cent for those aged 85 and older, and to 89 per cent for centenarians.
Over time, the Canadian population has gradually aged. By 1951, the median age had increased to 27.7 years before the unprecedented birthrates of the 1950s baby boom lowered the median age to 25.4 years in 1966. Between 1971 and 2017, the median age of the population increased from 26.2 to 40.6 years. The 2011 census reported that seniors accounted for 14.8 per cent of the population, climbing to 16.8 per cent in 2017. As the baby boom generation ages and fertility levels remain low, the relative numbers of the latter group will continue to show significant increases.
These levels of population aging contrast sharply with some of the least economically developed countries, which, due to historically high birth rates, continue to be characterized by a relatively high proportion of their populations being under 15 years of age and a low percentage over 65. Nonetheless, as birth rates are falling in most parts of the world, all populations are, in varying degrees, aging.
Since 1901, when the first ethnic data was collected, measuring the country’s ethnic makeup has become increasingly complex. Multiple factors contribute to this complexity, including: respondents’ understanding, views and awareness of their own ethnicity; increasing intermarriage among ethnic groups (leading to the reporting of multiple ethnic origins); and changes to the format of the questionnaire (including the list of examples provided). Information on the foreign-born population is more straightforward and easier to compare across censuses. However, in limiting the discussion to recent immigrants, foreign-born numbers also paint an incomplete picture of Canada’s ethnic makeup. For these reasons, both foreign-born data and self-reported, ethnic origin data will be discussed here.
According to data from the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS), Canada had a total of about 6.8 million foreign-born persons who arrived as immigrants, representing nearly 21 per cent of the total Canadian population. As of 2011, this figure represented the highest number of foreign-born residents among the G8 countries.
Those born in Asian countries have significantly increased over time. According to the NHS, the Philippines was the leading country of birth among people who immigrated to Canada between 2006 and 2011. This was followed by China and India. Also among the top 10 countries were the United States, Pakistan, United Kingdom, Iran, South Korea, Colombia and Mexico.
The shift to non-European countries as the birthplaces for Canadian immigrants resulted partly from the elimination of the discriminatory aspects of Canada’s immigration policies during the 1960s and 1970s.
The 1901 Canadian census recorded 25 different ethnic groups; by 2016, more than 250 different groups were enumerated in the census. While historically the main birthplace of recent immigrants was Europe, the proportion of European-born immigrants has decreased over time. For example, it was 61.6 per cent in 1971, and by 2016 had fallen to only 11.6 per cent.
Today, the Canadian population is highly multicultural in terms of its ethnic origins. According to the National Household Survey of 2011, 13 different ethnic origins had surpassed the one million mark. People reported these origins either alone or in combination with other ethnic origins. The ethnic origin most often reported was Canadian: just over 10,563,800 people reported Canadian as their ethnic origin, either alone or with other origins. Canadian was followed by English, reported by 6,509,500 people; French (5,065,700); Scottish (4,715,000); Irish (4,544,900); and German (3,203,300). The other ethnic origins that surpassed the one million mark were: Italian, Chinese, First Nations (North American Indian), Ukrainian, East Indian, Dutch and Polish. The proportion of persons reporting multiple ethnicities increases with generational status.
The growth of the visible minority population is largely due to increased immigration from non-European countries. In 2016, South Asian, Chinese and Black people accounted for 61.2 per cent of the visible minority population, followed by Filipino, Arab, Latin American, Southeast Asian, West Asian, Korean and Japanese people.
Tabulating the number of Indigenous people in the country presents challenges similar to those involved in evaluating the overall ethnic makeup of Canada. Statistics Canada uses multiple and differing definitions of Indigenous people, including counts of those with Indigenous ancestry, those who self-report an Indigenous identity, those registered under the Indian Act and those reporting membership in a band or First Nation. Within the same census year, the numbers in these various categories can differ dramatically. As with ethnic origin, questions pertaining to Indigenous ancestry and identity rely on respondents’ perceptions and knowledge of their ethnicity. The discussion below focuses on the population claiming Indigenous ancestry. For a more complete picture of Indigenous demography in Canada, see Demography of Indigenous People.
In the 1901 census, only 127,941 people claimed Indigenous ancestry. However, beginning around the 1951 census, those of Indigenous origin began to rapidly increase, jumping nearly 200 per cent between 1951 and 1981, from 165,607 to 491,465, and by about 334 per cent from 1981 to 2016, when the number of those reporting Indigenous ancestry reached more than 2.1 million.
A number of factors help to explain this rapid growth. Whereas, in the first half of the 20th century, high mortality rates among Indigenous communities offset high birth rates, this began to change in the 1960s. Around this time, a declining infant mortality rate, combined with a high fertility rate, helped facilitate rapid population growth.
Other factors included political changes, which led to an increased willingness to acknowledge Indigenous ancestry on the part of government and the people themselves. Among other legislation, these changes included amendments to the Indian Act in 1985, which broadened the definition of Status Indian.
Today, Canada’s population growth is the highest among the G7 countries; international migration has been Canada’s main source of population growth since 1993, and currently represents approximately two-thirds of this growth. Regardless of the future levels of immigration to Canada, world conditions will continue to maintain pressure for increases to immigration from non-European sources. Canada’s population, particularly in its more highly urbanized areas, is expected to increase in its ethnic and cultural diversity. In 2013, Statistics Canada projected that the population would increase over the 50 years that followed, from 35.2 million in 2013 to between 40.0 million (low-growth scenario) and 63.5 million (high-growth scenario) by 2063. Under the medium-growth scenario, the Canadian population would reach 51.0 million in 2063.
Frank Trovato, Canada's Population in a Global Context (2015); Roderic Beaujot and Don Kerr, Population Change in Canada (2004); Wayne W. McVey, Jr. and Warren E. Kalbach, Canadian Population (1995); Warren E. Kalbach and W.W. McVey, Jr., Demographic Bases of Canadian Society (1979).