Korean Canadians | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Korean Canadians

Korea was a single, independent country for 1,300 years before splitting in two after the Second World War. North Korea is today an isolated military dictatorship while South Korea is a liberal democracy. Almost all Korean immigration to Canada has been from South Korea. In 2016, the census recorded 198, 210 Canadians of Korean origin (177, 925 single and 20, 290 multiple responses.)

Koreatown, Bloor Street in Toronto. 2009.

Ancient Origins

Korea is a mountainous peninsula east of China and west of Japan. Archeological evidence shows the land has been occupied by humans for at least 35,000 years. According to legend, the first kingdom was formed in 2333 BCE. The Three Kingdoms Period (57 BCE to 676 CE) saw rival rulers compete for control of the land and its people. This division was resolved with the establishment of the Unified Silla Kingdom in 676, which governed the bottom two-thirds of the Korean peninsula. Other dynasties followed, including the Joseon Dynasty which ruled over the entire Korean peninsula from 1392 to 1910.

Annexation and War

Japan annexed Korea in 1910. The often brutal imperial Japanese rule continued until Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. Japanese rule was replaced by a Korean government in 1945. However, unified independence was short lived. After the Second World War the country was divided by the Soviet Union and the United States into the communist-led North and the American-supported South.

It was this division that led to the Korean War in the early 1950s — a civil war between the rival Korean regimes. The North was supported by China, and the South by the United States and its United Nations allies including Canada. The fighting ended in 1953 with an armistice, although North and South Korea remain technically at war.

Today the Korea peninsula remains split between the communist Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the north and the Republic of Korea in the south. The two countries are divided by a heavily fortified demilitarized zone that runs close to the 38th Parallel.


Social and cultural life in traditional Korea evolved from a naturalistic worldview in which humans were believed to be responsible for harmonizing activities between heaven and earth, thus bringing about order in the world.

Within this framework, Buddhism was introduced to Korea in the 4th century to help the ruling elite establish centralized monarchies. In the 14th century Buddhism was replaced by Confucianism as the state religion, bringing to Korea an emphasis on ancestor worship, family and education. This background and the additional influence of Christianity has shaped many Koreans.

Koreans have a long and rich cultural history. With their own forms of dance, music and visual art, as well as the martial arts (such as tae kwon do) and such distinctive Korean foods as bul-go-gi and kimchee, Koreans have established a cultural identity different from that of their neighbours in China and Japan.

As South Korea has grown from poverty and dictatorship in the 1960s to prosperity and democracy in the 21st century, Koreans have enjoyed greater respect for their culture and widespread recognition of their identity around the world.


North Korea has been ruled by the Kim family since it split from the South. Kim Il-sung, known as the Great Leader, established North Korea and ruled it with his Juche, or self-reliance philosophy. He died in 1994, was named “eternal president” and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-il. Known as the supreme leader, Jong-il died in 2011 and was replaced by his son, Kim Jong-un.

The Kim family operates a rigid, state-controlled system and a strong cult of personality. The totalitarian regime has been accused of human rights violations, including prison camps with as many as 200,000 inmates. North Korea has one of the world’s largest standing armies and an arsenal of nuclear weapons. Both are frequently the source of tensions with South Korea.

This decades-long political divide has created very different cultures in the two Koreas. South Koreans are more outward looking and globally aware. North Koreans have limited access to the outside world.

Korean Culture in Canada

In Canada, generations of Korean migrants are developing a dual identity as Korean Canadians. Intercultural marriages of second-generation Korean Canadians, as well as the increasing interest shown in Korea by young Canadians who travel to South Korea to teach English, have also made Korean Canadians feel more accepted in Canada. The Senate appointment in 2009 of Yonah Martin, who immigrated to Canada from South Korea in 1972, helped Korean Canadians feel more fully connected to Canadian society.

Koreans cultivate a Korean identity within Canadian society through local cultural associations, university alumni and professional groups, seniors’ groups, campus organizations, various language schools for elementary and junior high students, and business and trade associations.

Some leading Canadian universities such as the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, York University and McGill University have established Korean studies programs and promote active exchange programs in Korea for all Canadians. The Korean studies program at the University of Toronto is the oldest and the largest of its kind in Canada.

In 2016, there were 160, 455 people in Canada who reported Korean as their mother tongue (first language learned), representing 0.5 percent of the total Canadian population, and 2.1 percent of immigrant languages spoken as a mother tongue language in Canada. Both Vancouver and Toronto publish several daily Korean-language newspapers, including local editions of the Seoul-based JoongAng IlboHankook Ilbo, and Chosun Ilbo. Korean television and radio programs are broadcast across the country, and subtitled versions of popular Korean TV dramas are often available on multicultural cable channels.

Korean Population in Canada

Almost all Korean immigration to Canada has been from South Korea. The earliest contact started in 1890 through Canadian missionaries working in Korea. Some Koreans immigrated to Canada through these same church connections, though not in substantial numbers until several decades after that first contact.

Starting in the late 1940s, a growing number of Koreans started coming to Canada in search of opportunities for economic independence and a future for their families. However, it was only after 1965 that the number of Koreans arriving in Canada annually numbered in the hundreds and, after 1970, in the thousands. Koreans arrived directly from South Korea, but also via Europe, Vietnam, South America and the US. The first Korean church established in Canada was a United Church in Vancouver in 1965.

Most Korean Canadians, both new immigrants and their children, are skilled workers or professionals — doctors, professors, engineers, computer and electronic personnel, for example — or are engaged in businesses such as food stores, gas bars, restaurants, printing shops, real estate and insurance agencies. Many Korean families earn multiple-incomes, with their Canadian-educated children contributing to the family income and to its upward mobility.

Most Koreans have settled in urban centres, particularly in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Edmonton and Calgary; more recently, some are moving to smaller centres as economic opportunities change. The 2016 Canadian census recorded 198, 210 people of Korean origin in Canada.

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