South Asian Canadians

Those people referred to as South Asians, Indo-Canadians or East Indians are one of the most diverse ethnocultural populations in Canada. They trace their origins to South Asia, which encompasses India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Those people referred to as South Asians, Indo-Canadians or East Indians are one of the most diverse ethnocultural populations in Canada. They trace their origins to South Asia, which encompasses India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Most South Asian Canadians are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from these countries, but immigrants from South Asian communities established during British colonial times also include those from East and South Africa, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji and Mauritius. Others come from Britain, the US and Europe.

In 2011, immigrants from the Philippines represented 13 per cent of new immigrants, followed by immigrants from India (10.5 per cent) and India (10.4 per cent). These three Asian countries accounted for 34 per cent of all new immigrants to Canada in 2011. Census figures on ethnic origin reported that there were more than 1.6 million South Asian Canadians in 2011. In Canada, the 2011 census reported over one million people with Indian ancestry, followed by people with Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Punjabi ancestry.

People referred to as "South Asian" view the term in the way that those from European countries might view the label "European." While they acknowledge that South Asians share cultural and historical characteristics, their basic identification is more specifically tied to their ethnocultural roots. In areas such as Metro Toronto, over 20 distinct ethnic groups can be identified within the large (more than 857,575) South Asian population.


The ethnic diversity of South Asian Canadians reflects the enormous cultural variability of South Asia's people. About half of South Asian Canadians were born in India, where 14 major languages are spoken and hundreds of discrete ethnic groups exist. This pluralism extends to religion; although approximately 80 per cent of Indians are Hindus, over 50 million practise Islam and 15 million practise Sikhism. Many others are Christian or Jain. Islam is the predominant religion in Pakistan and Bangladesh, yet both countries are culturally diverse. A third major world religion, Buddhism, is practised by most Sri Lankans, but large Hindu, Christian and Muslim religious minority groups exist among Sri Lankans as well. Communities established outside South Asia are much more homogeneous, and in each community people have developed a unique identity and way of life that is distinct from any in South Asia.


The first South Asian migrants to Canada arrived in Vancouver in 1903. The great majority of them were Sikhs who had heard of Canada from British Indian troops in Hong Kong, who had travelled through Canada the previous year on their way to the coronation celebrations of Edward VII. Attracted by high Canadian wages, they soon found work. Immigration thereafter increased quickly and totalled 5,209 by the end of 1908; all of these immigrants were men who had temporarily left their families to find employment in Canada. Perhaps 90 per cent were Sikhs, primarily from Punjab farming backgrounds. Virtually all of them remained in British Columbia.

Seeing in them the same racial threat as it saw in Japanese Canadians and Chinese immigrants before them, the BC government quickly limited South Asian rights and privileges. In 1907 South Asians were provincially disenfranchised, which denied them the federal vote and access to political office, jury duty, the professions, public-service jobs and labour on public works. In the following year, the federal government enacted an immigration regulation that specified that immigrants had to travel to Canada with continuous-ticketing arrangements from their country of origin. There were no such arrangements between India and Canada and, as was its intent, the continuous-journey provision consequently precluded further South Asian immigration. This ban separated men from their families and made further growth of the community impossible.

Vigorous court challenges of the regulations proved ineffective, and in 1913 frustration with government treatment culminated in the evolution of the Ghadar Party, an organization that aimed to overthrow British rule in India. The immigration ban was directly challenged in 1914, when the freighter Komagata Maru sailed from Hong Kong to Canada with 376 prospective South Asian immigrants. The continuous-ticketing requirement that was enacted to prevent immigration from ships such as the Komagata Maru had the desired effect and prevented immigration of its passengers: the ship had not arrived directly from India but had come to Canada via Hong Kong, where it had picked up passengers of Indian descent from Shanghai, Moji and Yokohama. Immigration officials isolated the ship in Vancouver harbour for two months, and it was forced to return to Asia. Revolutionary sentiment thereafter reached a high pitch, and many men returned to India to work for Ghadar.

The federal government's continuous-journey provision remained law until 1947, as did most British Columbia anti-South Asian legislation. Because of community pressure and representations by the government of India, Canada allowed the wives and dependent children of South Asian Canadian residents to immigrate in 1919, and by the mid-1920s a small flow of wives and children had been established. This did not counter the effect of migration by South Asian Canadians to India and the US, which by the mid-1920s had reduced the South Asian population in Canada to about 1,300.

During the 1920s, South Asian economic security increased, primarily through work in the lumber industry and the sale of wood and sawdust as home heating fuel. In addition, a number of lumber mills were acquired by South Asians, two of which employed over 300 people. The effects of the Great Depression on the community were severe but were mitigated by extensive mutual aid. By the Second World War, South Asians in British Columbia had gained much local support in their drive to secure the vote, especially from the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. In 1947, the British Columbia ban against voting, as well as other restrictions, were removed.

Faced with the coming independence of India, the federal government removed the continuous-passage regulation in the same year, replacing it in 1951 by an annual immigration quota for India (150 a year), Pakistan (100) and Ceylon (50). At that time there were only 2,148 South Asians in Canada. Moderate expansion of immigration increased the Canadian total to 6,774 by 1961, then grew it to 67,925 by 1971. By 2011 the South Asian population in Canada was 1,567,400.

As racial and national restrictions were removed from the immigration regulations in the 1960s, South Asian immigration mushroomed. It also became much more culturally diverse; a large proportion of immigrants in the 1950s were the Sikh relatives of pioneer South Asian settlers, while the 1960s also saw sharp increases in immigration from other parts of India and from Pakistan. By the early 1960s, two-thirds of South Asian immigrant men were professionals — teachers, doctors, university professors and scientists. Canadian preferences for highly skilled immigrants during the 1960s broadened the ethnic range of South Asians and hence decreased the proportion of Sikhs. Non-discriminatory immigration regulations enacted in 1967 resulted in a further dramatic increase in South Asian immigration.

In 1972, all South Asians were expelled from Uganda. Canada accepted 7,000 of them (many of whom were Ismailis) as political refugees. Thereafter a steady flow of South Asians have come to Canada from Kenya, Tanzania and Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly known as Zaire), either directly or via Britain. The 1970s also marked the beginning of migration from Fiji, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Mauritius. During 1977–85 a weaker Canadian economy significantly reduced South Asian immigration to about 15,000 a year.

Religious and Cultural Life

South Asian communities vary widely in the emphasis they place on extra-familial cultural activities. As a rule, groups with high ethnic consciousness, e.g., Canada's 455,000 Sikhs (2011), maintain a full round of these activities, whereas groups such as Fijians and Guyanese, and South Asians of the professional classes, do not. A similar degree of variability exists in regard to religious institutions. Sikhs are numerous, their identity is both ethnic and religious, and their religious institutions have been in place since the first Canadian Sikh temple was founded in 1908. They have consequently been very successful in establishing and preserving their religion in Canada. (See also Sikhism.)

Ismaili Muslims are also both an ethnic and a religious group that has founded strong religious institutions. Canada's South Asian Sunni Muslims (chiefly from Pakistan and India) have generally allied themselves with other Sunnis in support of pan-ethnic mosques, and they too have effectively transmitted their religion to their children. In Hindu populations of sufficient size, people have established both community-specific and multi-community Hindu temples, which are used by a range of different ethnic groups for prayer, for the presentation of annual ceremonies and for important rituals linked to marriage and death. Sinhalese who practise Buddhism established their first temple in Toronto.

Most communities support a variety of other activities and institutions. Nominally religious organizations frequently support language classes for children and cultural activities such as South Asian music and dance. In addition, there are now over 250 South Asian socio-cultural associations in Canada. Folk and classical music and dance traditions are popular. In addition, South Asian Canadians now support newspapers and newsletters across Canada. South Asian programming on radio and cable television has expanded rapidly with dedicated programming and channels, especially in major centres.


Until 1965, South Asian politics were devoted primarily to lobbying for the elimination of the legal restrictions enacted by the BC Legislature and to changing immigration laws. Since then, South Asians have become increasingly involved on other political fronts. Their associations now actively lobby for government support for cultural programs, for greater access to immigration, and for government action to reduce prejudice and discrimination. South Asians have frequently held municipal level offices, but their federal participation was not extensive until the 1980s. Sixteen South Asians ran for federal office in 1993, and British Columbia had two South Asian provincial cabinet ministers in the same year. South Asians are sometimes involved in home country politics; for example, Canadian Sikh communities provided support for the post-1983 rights for Sikhs in Punjab.

Cultural Preservation

In 1994, approximately 80 per cent of South Asian Canadians were immigrants. Only the Sikhs have been in Canada long enough to have demonstrated a clear pattern of cultural preservation through the generations. Strong group consciousness and minority-group status resulted in high rates of cultural retention among British Columbia Sikhs. Virtually all of the second generation are knowledgeable about Sikh culture and language and marry other Sikhs.

Other groups, e.g., Ismailis, Pakistanis and other Sunni Muslims, have stressed religion above cultural and linguistic maintenance. For most South Asian groups, acculturation in the second generation appears extensive, partially due to South Asian patterns of marriage and family maintenance. Whether social integration will be equally thorough will depend chiefly on the future development of relations between South Asians and other Canadians.

Settlement Patterns

Until the late 1950s, virtually all South Asians lived in British Columbia, but when professional South Asian immigrants came to Canada in larger numbers, they began to settle across the country. British Columbia's South Asian population in 2011 was 313,440, mostly concentrated in the Vancouver area. Virtually all South Asian Canadians live in urban contexts in Ontario (965,990), British Columbia (313,440), Alberta (156,665) and Québec (83,320). In addition, some ethnic South Asian populations are quite localized, primarily as the result of chain migration. For example, Sikhs are heavily over-represented in Vancouver, as are those from Fiji; those from Guyana and Trinidad in Toronto; and Ismailis in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary.

Economic Life

Early Sikhs in British Columbia were almost exclusively involved in the lumber industry. They are still active in this industry, both as workers and mill owners. Skilled South Asian professionals of various ethnocultural backgrounds who arrived between 1960 and 1985 are now well established. The occupational distribution broadened in the 1970s with the arrival of an increasing proportion of South Asian blue- and white-collar workers. The exodus of Ugandan South Asians brought many business people to Canada, many of whom undertook entrepreneurial activities ranging from the ownership of taxis to the control of corporations. The participation of other South Asians in businesses has also been high. In South Asia, few middle class women worked outside the home until the 1990s, but Canadian South Asian women have steadily become active participants in the economy in a variety of blue- and white-collar jobs, and a large majority of South Asian women aged 20–45 now have paid work. South Asians have also been involved in farming, especially in British Columbia.

Social Life and Community

South Asian Canadians have such widely varying backgrounds that few generalities can be made about their social and community life. One critical cultural commonality is that they all come from places where extended families, kinship and community relations are extremely important. Generally, immigrants from South Asia quickly accept many Canadian cultural patterns, but they have tried to maintain a core of continuity in family and community practice. Parents generally attempt, often quite unsuccessfully, to instil in their children key South Asian family values. This goes hand in hand with massive acculturation among the population who are Canadian-born. Husband-wife relations are changing, especially as wives acquire access to economic and social resources. Future family changes are likely, particularly in regard to intermarriage, as the second generation matures.

As a rule, informal social links between individuals of similar backgrounds are strong. South Asians do not usually form strongly geographically concentrated urban communities, and relationships are supported chiefly by continual visiting. In contrast, links between the various South Asian communities are extremely weak and are chiefly restricted to contacts among leaders. As a consequence, it is inaccurate to speak of "the" South Asian community of a given place, for there are likely to be many. Contacts between communities most frequently arise when communities are small or where culture, language or religion are shared.

Further Reading

  • Norman Buchignani and Doreen Indra, with R. Srivastava, Continuous Journey (1985); R. Kanungo, ed, South Asians in the Canadian Mosaic (1984); G. Kurian and R. Srivastava, eds, Overseas Indians: A Study in Adaptation (1983); S. Sugunasiri, ed, The Search for Meaning: The Literature of South Asian Canadian Writers (1983); M. Israel, In the Further Soil: A Social History of Indo-Canadians in Ontario (1994).