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Immigration to Canada (Plain-Language Summary)

Aside from Indigenous peoples, everyone living in Canada has ancestors who arrived in Canada during the past 400 years. The first Europeans to permanently settle in Canada were from France. Then, people from the United States, Britain and Ireland came to Canada. Black people also came from the United States to escape enslavement. After this, people from Continental Europe and China arrived. Now, people from all over the world come to Canada. (See Multiculturalism.) A large percentage of Canadians alive today are first-generation Canadians who immigrated. Many are second-generation Canadians — children of immigrants. Without immigration, Canada would not be what it is today.

(This article is a plain-language summary of the Immigration to Canada. If you are interested in reading about this topic in more depth, please see our full-length entry, Immigration to Canada.)

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Chinese Immigration Act

The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, known also as the Chinese Exclusion Act, banned the entry of virtually all Chinese immigrants for 24 years. Although migration into Canada from most countries was controlled or restricted in some way, only Chinese people were singled out completely from entering on the basis of race. The four exceptions to the exclusion were students, merchants (excluding laundry, restaurant and retail operators), diplomats and Canadian-born Chinese returning from education in China. The limit on absence from Canada was two years, and the consequence for not returning on time was being barred re-entry. Additionally, every person of Chinese descent, whether Canadian-born or naturalized, was required to register for an identity card within 12 months. The penalty for noncompliance was imprisonment or a fine of up to $500. Though the Act was repealed in 1947, immigration restrictions on the basis of race and national origin were not fully scrubbed until 1967.

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Immigration Policy in Canada

Immigration policy is the way the government controls via laws and regulations who gets to come and settle in Canada. 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 which has also led to discriminatory restrictions on certain migrant groups. (See also Canadian Refugee Policy.)

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Chinese Head Tax in Canada

The Chinese head tax was enacted to restrict immigration after Chinese labour was no longer needed to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Between 1885 and 1923, Chinese immigrants had to pay a head tax to enter Canada. The tax was levied under the Chinese Immigration Act (1885). It was the first legislation in Canadian history to exclude immigration on the basis of ethnic background. With few exceptions, Chinese people had to pay at least $50 to come to Canada. The tax was later raised to $100, then to $500. During the 38 years the tax was in effect, around 82,000 Chinese immigrants paid nearly $23 million in tax. The head tax was removed with the passing of the Chinese Immigration Act in 1923. Also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, it banned all Chinese immigrants until its repeal in 1947. In 2006, the federal government apologized for the head tax and its other racist immigration policies targeting Chinese people.

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Chinese Canadians

Chinese Canadians are one of the largest ethnic groups in the country. In the 2016 census, 1.8 million people reported being of Chinese origin. Despite their importance to the Canadian economy, including the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), many European Canadians were historically hostile to Chinese immigration. A prohibitive head tax restricted Chinese immigration to Canada from 1885 to 1923. From 1923 to 1947, the Chinese were excluded altogether from immigrating to Canada.

Since 1900, Chinese Canadians have settled primarily in urban areas, particularly in Vancouver and Toronto. They have contributed to every aspect of Canadian society, from literature to sports, politics to civil rights, film to music, business to philanthropy, and education to religion.

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Emigration

Emigration refers to the act of leaving one's region or country of origin to settle in another. This is unlike immigration which is the action of arriving in a country.

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Byelorussian Canadians

Byelorussian Canadians (Byelarussians, Belarusians) originate from Belarus and are considered an eastern Slavic people. In 2016, 20,710 Canadians reported themselves as being mainly or partly Byelorussian.

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Quebec Immigration Policy

The distinction is often made between the immigration policy of Quebec, that of Canada (see Immigration Policy in Canada) and that of other provinces. The particularities of the Québécois policy are essentially rooted in history, language, and culture. Despite these differences, immigration plays just as important a role in the Québécois society as it does elsewhere in the country. From 2015 to 2019, Quebec welcomed almost 250,000 permanent immigrants. Every year, the province also hosts thousands of temporary foreign workers, three quarters of whom find employment in the greater metropolitan area of Montreal. (See Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Programs.)

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Economic Immigration to Canada

Canada’s current and future prosperity depends on recruiting immigrants. Newcomers fill gaps in the Canadian workforce, build or start businesses and invest in the Canadian economy. Economic immigrants include employees as well as employers. They mostly become permanent residents when they immigrate to Canada. Not included in this class are the many temporary foreign workers who contribute to Canada’s economy.

Economic immigrants bring talent, innovation, family members and financial investments to Canada. They also enrich the country’s culture, heritage and opportunities. Technological progress, productivity and economic growth all benefit from these newcomers. Studies show that they have little to no negative impacts on wages for other workers in the country.

The 2016 Census identifies 2,994,130 economic immigrants in Canada. This represents about half of the total of 5,703,615 immigrants counted in that survey. (See also Immigration to Canada.)

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West Indian Domestic Scheme

The West Indian Domestic Scheme was an immigration program for Caribbean women between 1955 and 1967. Through the scheme, approximately 3,000 Caribbean women emigrated to Canada to work as domestic workers. The program opened the door for many Black Caribbeans to migrate to Canada, giving them an opportunity which would not have been available otherwise. Despite this, the women that participated in the scheme often faced difficult work conditions and racial discrimination. (See Racism.) Due to Canada’s changing immigration policy, the scheme officially ended in January 1968; it was replaced by a points-based system, which provided temporary work permits. Even with the program’s official end, women from the West Indies continued to come to Canada as domestic workers on temporary employment visas for years afterwards. (See Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Programs.)

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History of Labour Migration to Canada

Canada’s economic development has relied upon the labour and economic contributions of thousands of immigrant and migrant workers. (See also Economic Immigration to Canada; Immigration to Canada.) These workers came from a multitude of countries and worked a variety of jobs. Many of these workers would also ultimately settle in Canada. This labour and settlement pattern, however, is changing due to Canada’s temporary labour migrant programs. (See also Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Programs.)

Click here for definitions of key terms used in this article.

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Chinese Canadians of Force 136

Force 136 was a branch of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War. Its covert missions were based in Japanese-occupied Southeast Asia, where orders were to support and train local resistance movements to sabotage Japanese supply lines and equipment. While Force 136 recruited mostly Southeast Asians, it also recruited about 150 Chinese Canadians. It was thought that Chinese Canadians would blend in with local populations and speak local languages. Earlier in the war, many of these men had volunteered their services to Canada but were either turned away or recruited and sidelined. Force 136 became an opportunity for Chinese Canadian men to demonstrate their courage and skills and especially their loyalty to Canada.

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Population Settlement of New France

Throughout the history of New France, soldiers and hired labourers (“engagés”) who crossed the Atlantic were the primary settlers in Canada. Those young servicemen and artisans, as well as the immigrant women who wished to get married, mainly hailed from the coastal and urban regions of France. Most of the colonists arrived before 1670 during the migratory flow which varied in times of war and prosperity. Afterwards, the population grew through Canadian births. On average, Canadian families had seven or eight children in the 17th century, and four to six children in the 18th century. As a result, the population of New France was 70,000 strong by the end of the French regime.

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Indigenous Peoples and Government Policy in Canada

For most of the history of political interaction between Indigenous people and the Canadian government (and its colonial predecessors) government policy has focused on First Nations. The Inuit were barely acknowledged until the 1940s, while special responsibility for Métis and Non-Status Indians was largely denied until 2016. The early history of Indigenous policy in Canada is characterized by the presence of both France and Britain as colonizing powers. British colonial policy acknowledged Indigenous peoples as sovereign nations. Post-Confederation Canadian Indigenous policy, until the 1960s, was based on a model of assimilation, with one of its main instruments being the Indian Act. Since the late 1960s, government policy has gradually shifted to a goal of self-determination for Indigenous peoples, to be achieved through modern-day treaties and self-government agreements.

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Population of Canada

Canada’s recorded population history begins in the 16th century with the arrival of Europeans and the subsequent depopulation of Indigenous peoples, due largely to epidemic disease. High rates of fertility and immigration caused the country’s overall population to grow rapidly until the mid-19th century, when it slowed slightly. Population growth continued to be slow through the First World War, Great Depression and Second World War, following which growth rates began to increase again. Today, Canada’s population growth is dependent on international migration. As of the 2016 census, Canada’s population was nearly 35.2 million (35,151,728).

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Immigration to Canada

The movement of individuals of one country into another for the purpose of resettlement is central to Canadian history. The story of Canadian immigration is not one of orderly population growth; instead, it has been — and remains one — about economic development as well as Canadian attitudes and values. It has often been unashamedly economically self-serving and ethnically or racially discriminatory despite contributing to creating a multicultural society (see Immigration Policy in CanadaRefugees to Canada). Immigration has also contributed to dispossessing Indigenous peoples of their ancestral lands.

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Domestic Service (Caregiving) in Canada

Domestic work refers to all tasks performed within a household, specifically those related to housekeeping, childcare and personal services for adults. These traditionally unpaid household tasks can be assigned to a paid housekeeper (the term caregiver is preferred today). From the early days of New France, domestic work was considered a means for men and women to immigrate to the colony (see History of Labour Migration to Canada). In the 19th century, however, domestic service became a distinctly female occupation (see Women in the Labour Force). From the second half of the 19th century until the Second World War, in response to the growing need for labour in Canadian households, British emigration societies helped thousands of girls and women immigrate to Canada (see Immigration to Canada). In 1955, the Canadian government launched a domestic-worker recruitment program aimed at West Indian women (see West Indian Domestic Scheme). In 2014 the government lifted the requirement for immigrant caregivers to live with their employer to qualify for permanent residence — a requirement that put domestic workers in a vulnerable position. (See also Canadian Citizenship; Immigration Policy in Canada).

Click here for definitions of key terms used in this article.