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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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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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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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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.

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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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Komagata Maru

The SS Komagata Maru was a chartered ship featured in a dramatic challenge to Canada’s former practice of excluding immigrants from India. This challenge took place in the spring and summer of 1914, on the eve of the First World War.

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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Lilly Singh

Lilly Saini Singh, actor, comedian, author, television host (born 26 September 1988 in Scarborough, ON). Internet personality Lilly Singh has amassed nearly 15 million subscribers and more than 3 billion views since launching her popular channel of YouTube videos under the name IISuperwomanII in 2010. She has since appeared as an actor in films and TV series and published the book How To Be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life (2017), which topped the New York Times Business Best Sellers list. In 2017, she ranked No. 10 on Forbes’ list of the world’s highest-paid YouTube stars and won a People’s Choice Award for Favorite YouTube Star. In 2019, NBC announced that Singh would be the host of a new late-night talk show premiering in September of that year called A Little Late with Lilly Singh. She is an outspoken mental health and anti-bullying advocate and came out as bisexual in 2019.

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Russell Peters

Russell Dominic Peters, comedian, actor (born September 29, 1970 in Toronto, ON). Russell Peters is one of the most successful comedians in the world. His trademark politically incorrect humour confronts racial stereotypes and draws upon his experience as an Indo-Canadian. His struggles to break through in the United States, combined with his record-breaking success virtually everywhere else, led Chris Rock to call him the “most famous person nobody’s ever heard of.” Peters was named Toronto’s first Global Ambassador in 2008 and was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2011. Forbes magazine has listed him among the world’s highest-earning comedians numerous times since 2009.

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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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Palbinder Kaur Shergill

Palbinder Kaur Shergill, QC, judge of the Supreme Court of British Columbia in New Westminster (born in Rurka Kalan, Punjab, India). Shergill spent 26 years practising law before she was appointed to the Supreme Court of British Columbia. She was the first turbaned Sikh woman to be appointed as a judge in Canada.

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Bollywood in Canada

Bollywood, a playful word derived from Hollywood and the city of Bombay, refers specifically to the Hindi-language films produced in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, the city known as the heart of the South Asian film industry.

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Hide Hyodo Shimizu

Hide Shimizu (née Hyodo), CM, educator, activist (born 11 May 1908 in Vancouver, BC; died 22 August 1999 in Nepean, ON). The daughter of Japanese immigrants, Shimizu was instrumental in organizing education for interned Japanese Canadian children in British Columbia during the Second World War. For this, she was awarded the Order of Canada in 1982. She was also an activist, lobbying the Canadian government for the enfranchisement of Japanese Canadians in the 1930s and, in the 1980s, for redress for the suffering and loss of interned Japanese Canadians.

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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.