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Southeast Asian Canadians

Immigration to Canada by Southeast Asians is relatively recent; most arrived in Canada after 1974. Southeast Asia is located south of China and east of India. It consists of multiethnic nations with common histories, structures and social practices, as well as a cultural system that recognizes ethnic pluralism. Southeast Asia is comprised of 11 countries: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, East Timor and Vietnam.

In the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS), more than one million Canadians indicated that they were of Southeast Asian origin. Filipino Canadians were the most numerous (662,600), followed by Vietnamese Canadians (220,425), Cambodians or Khmer (34,340), Laotians (22,090), Indonesians (18,125), Thais (15,080), Malaysians (14,165), Burmese (7,845) and Singaporeans (2,050). Southeast Asians of the Hmong people (an ethnic minority living in the mountains in the south of China, and the north of Vietnam and Laos) have also settled in Canada, as well as several hundred Chinese originally from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos who came to Canada following the “boat people” crisis.

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South Asian Canadians

South Asians 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 the 2016 census, 1, 963,330 Canadians reported South Asian origins (1,603,000 single and 360,330 multiple responses).

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Racial Segregation of Asian Canadians

The beginning of Chinese immigration to present-day British Columbia in the 1850s sparked a vociferous and sustained opposition from Euro-Canadian residents. This opposition intensified with the arrival of Japanese immigrants in the 1870s and South Asians in the early 1900s. To counter the supposed racial and economic dangers presented by these groups, labour leaders and others in the province successfully lobbied for legal and social restrictions on Asian employment, housing, education and civic participation in the province. These formed the basis for Asian segregation in British Columbia and Canada generally, which continued until the end of Japanese internment and the removal of all Asian voting restrictions in 1949. While it never attained the level of racial separation seen during the US South’s Jim Crow era, Asian segregation from whites in 19th and early 20th century Canada defined many aspects of everyday life in Canada.

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Asian Canadian Theatre

Asian Canadian theatre started early in the 20th century with lavish performances of traditional Cantonese operas. Today, Asian Canadian playwrights like Ins Choi address the struggles of everyday life in Canada.

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Malaysian Canadians

Malaysian immigration to Canada is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the 2016 census, 16,920 people declared they were of Malaysian origin. Among these Canadians were actor Osric Chau and writer Madeleine Thien.

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Celebrating Asian Heritage in Canada

Many Canadians today see our diverse population as a source of pride and strength — for good reason. More than one in five Canadians were born elsewhere. That is the highest percentage of immigrants in the G7 group of large industrialized nations. Asia (including people born in the Middle East) has provided the greatest number of newcomers in recent years. Since the 1990s, Canadians — who once thought primarily of Europe when they considered events abroad — now define themselves, and the world, differently. As former prime minister Jean Chrétien said: “The Pacific is getting smaller and the Atlantic is becoming wider.”

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Vietnamese Canadians

The settlement of Vietnamese nationals in Canada is relatively recent. It resulted from two waves of immigration in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The first wave consisted mostly of middle- class people who were welcomed to Canada for their professional skills after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Because Vietnam had been part of the French colony of Indochina until 1954, these immigrants generally spoke French, if not English. The second wave of immigration consisted of refugees from the former South Vietnam, seeking to escape the harsh living conditions and deteriorating human-rights situation following the reunification of the two Vietnams into a single country. These refugees were widely referred to in the media as “boat people.” Moved by the desperate plight of the hundreds of thousands who, to escape the Communist regime, took to the high seas in makeshift boats that threatened to sink at any moment, many Canadians offered to sponsor their journey to Canada. In July 1979, the Government of Canada committed to accept 50,000 refugees from Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) by the end of the year. In April 1980, the government revised the target number of refugees it would admit and announced that Canada would accept 10,000 more. This brought the number of refugees to 60,000 for the year 1979–80.

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Indonesian Canadians

Immigration from Indonesia to Canada began after the Second World War. In the wake of the decolonization process, 300,000 “Indos” (Indische Nederlander), persons of mixed Dutch and Asian ancestry, were repatriated to the Netherlands. Some of them decided to continue their journeys, settling in Australia, the United States and Canada. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, political instability also led many Indonesians to immigrate to Canada. According to the 2016 census, 21,395 individuals indicated that they had Indonesian origins. Notable Indonesian Canadians include violin maker Piet Molenaar and Toronto filmmaker Mike Hoolboom.

Editorial

Asian Heritage in Canada

While relations between Canada's West Coast and Asia were established during the fur trade era, the first real movement of people from Asia to Canada did not occur until the late 19th century. Drawn by the gold rushes and opportunities to work on the railways or in the mines, the first immigrants from China, Japan and South Asia were not welcomed by the largely Anglo-British society in Canada, who responded with discriminatory and racist measures.

This exhibit focuses on the struggles endured by the first generations of Asian immigrants in Canada. As we briefly touch on these stories — including immigration laws, ghettoization, race riots, the right to work and vote, and internment — we encourage you to click through to read more articles on the Encyclopedia in order to gain a broader view of this crucial corner of Canadian history.

See also the Asian Heritage in Canada collection page.

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Sinhalese Canadians

The Sinhalese are the largest ethnic group of Sri Lanka. Immigration to Canada began in the mid-1950s and increased in the late 1980s. According to the 2016 Canadian census,  7,285 people claimed  Sinhalese ancestry (4,355 single and 2,925 multiple responses). The census reported 152,595 people of Sri Lankan origin in Canada.

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Toronto Chinatown

Toronto’s Chinatown, one of the largest in North America, is an ever-evolving neighbourhood defined by numerous cohorts of Chinese immigrants with a diversity of culture, traditions and languages. (See Chinese Canadians.) Also known as Chinatown West, it is one of three Chinatowns in Toronto, more of the large Chinese settlements are included from the inner suburbs, like Scarborough and North York, and outer suburbs, like Markham, Mississauga and Richmond Hill.

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David Lam

David See-Chai Lam, OC, CVO, OBC, 25th lieutenant-governor of BC 1988–95, banker, land developer, philanthropist (born 25 July 1923 in Hong Kong; died 22 November 2010 in Vancouver, BC). After establishing himself as a successful banker in Hong Kong, David Lam moved to Vancouver in 1967 and became a central figure in the city’s real estate development. As a philanthropist, he made major contributions to the cultural life, community spaces and educational institutions of British Columbia. A vocal advocate of immigration and of Canada’s role within the Pacific Rim, Lam served as lieutenant-governor of British Columbia from 1988 to 1995. He was the first person of Asian ancestry to hold a vice-regal post in Canada.

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Canadian Response to the "Boat People" Refugee Crisis

The welcoming and resettlement of many thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia in the late 1970s and early 1980s represents a turning point in the history of immigration in Canada. It was the first time that the Canadian government applied its new program for private sponsorship of refugees — the only one if its kind in the world — through which more than half of the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees who came to Canada during this period were admitted. In recognition of this unprecedented mobilization of private effort, the people of Canada were awarded the Nansen Medal, an honour bestowed by the United Nations for outstanding service to the cause of refugees. It was the first and remains the only time that the entire people of a country have been collectively honored with this award. But most importantly, this positive, humanitarian response by Canadians reflected a change in their attitude toward refugees. Never before in its history had Canada welcomed so many refugees in so little time.

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Margaret Jean Gee

Margaret Jean Gee, lawyer (born 10 December 1927 in Vancouver, BC; died there 17 July 1995). Gee was the first Canadian woman of Chinese descent to be admitted to the bar in Canada.

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Lunar New Year in Canada

The Lunar New Year — also known as the Spring Festival, Chinese New Year, Tet for Vietnamese Canadians, or Solnal for Korean Canadians — is celebrated in Canada and several other countries. It is one of the largest celebrations for Canada’s Chinese population, it is also celebrated by Canadians from Vietnam, Korea and Southeast Asia. Although it is not a statutory holiday in Canada, many Asian Canadian businesses are closed or have reduced hours for the occasion. Since 1 June 2016, this celebration has been recognized as an official holiday in Canada.

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Indian Food in Canada

Indian food is a more recent addition to the culinary scene in Canada, having gained prominence primarily in the post-1960s era of immigration. It is characterized mainly by the Northern Indian approach to cuisine, which features breads and warm curries and the use of yogurt and cream in meat-based dishes. But it also bears the influence of South Indian cooking, which frequently plays with the combination of sour and spicy and the use of tamarind and chilies. However, many typical Indo-Canadian dishes, such as kedgeree and some chutneys, are a product of Anglo-Indian cuisine stemming from Britain’s colonial rule of the Indian subcontinent.