People of Canada

"... the Government of Canada recognizes the diversity of Canadians as regards race, national or ethnic origin, colour and religion as a fundamental characteristic of Canadian society..."

From the Canadian Multiculturalism Act (1985)

Who are Canadians?

You might have guessed this, but Canadians didn’t just spring from the soil. Aside from a small community of aboriginals who migrated to North America more than a dozen millennia ago, everyone who lives in Canada is descended from relatively recent immigrants who left their native homelands to eke out a better living in North America.

About 80 per cent of Canadians are of European background — more commonly called caucasians, or whites  with the remaining 20 per cent a diverse mix of literally every other race on Earth.

English-Canadians

Canadians of British descent, known as English-Canadians, Anglophones, or simply Anglos, have traditionally comprised the majority of people in all Canadian provinces and have a long history of trying to aggressively shape the country to reflect the culture and traditions of their motherland. This cultural dominance helps explain why Canada remained a colony of the British Empire for as long as it did, why it fought so eagerly in both world wars, why it took so long to change the flag, and why institutions like the monarchy survive to this day.

British immigrants came in waves; some Anglo-Canadian families have been living in Canada so long they have no idea when their forefathers first sailed over, while others may be the offspring of English or Scottish workers who left the British Isles during the 20th century. Motivated by a desire to keep Canada British, Canadian law favoured immigrants from the United Kingdom quite explicitly — until 1976, there was no legal difference between a “Canadian Citizen” and a “British Subject.” For any Brit who had the money to travel, migration to Canada was pretty easy.

Quebecers celebrate Quebec's national holiday, Fête Nationale, on June 24, 2010.
Anirudh Koul/Flickr

French-Canadians

Co-existing (often uneasily) with the Anglos are the French-Canadians, or Francophones, who represent the second-largest ethno-demographic in Canada — around 16 per cent of the national population. Concentrated almost entirely in the province of Quebec, French-Canadians are sometimes considered a unique North American race since the majority of French immigration to Canada ended after the French Empire was kicked out of North America in the late 18th century. Most French-Canadians thus trace their roots back to a very small community of inter-marrying colonial families who survived mostly through high Catholic birthrates.

The perseverance of the French-Canadians in a country that was as overtly and aggressively British as Canada is one of the great demographic success stories of history, and is now often applauded — even by Anglos — as a vital component of Canada’s cultural identity. As a result, small French communities outside of Quebec, such as Franco-Ontarians, Franco-Manitobans, or Acadians (descendants of French settlers in the Maritime provinces) are likely to enjoy explicit cultural protection and support from the federal government, since they help reinforce the idea of Canada as a country with a strong French presence from coast to coast.

Other European-Canadians

After French and English, the most common European backgrounds claimed by Canadians are Irish (14 per cent), German (10 per cent), and Italian (four per cent). Though all three groups are quite assimilated into the larger English-Canadian mainstream today, in the late 19th century all initially faced something of a hard time when their forefathers first began to immigrate to Canada in large numbers. Poorly educated, lacking strong skills in English, and facing suspicion over their Catholic faith, many lived in urban ghettos or worked as sustenance farmers for generations before moving into comfortable middle class life.

In the early 20th century, Canadian prairies were settled by sizable amounts of immigrants from Eastern Europe (particularly Ukraine and Poland) and Scandinavia, who served as homesteader farmers in the new provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

Visible Minorities in Canada

As was the case in much of the western world, early Canadians were fairly racist in their desire to keep Canada a primarily white country, and had generally low opinions of non-Europeans — except as an occasional source of cheap labour. This changed in the aftermath of World War II (19391-1945), when the discrediting of ideas like eugenics and social Darwinism, as well as the successes of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, led to a rise in more tolerant attitudes toward visible minorities. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, changes were made to Canadian immigration law that eventually removed all racial and ethnic limitations and quotas.

These reforms ushered in a large inflow of new residents from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and a bold shake-up of Canadian demographics. Today, Canada has more than five million non-white residents accounting for more than 16 per cent of the national population (or one in six Canadians), and upwards of 80 per cent of all new immigrants to the country are non-white as well.

Depending on what part of the country you visit, however, Canada’s racial diversity may not be particularly evident. According to Statistics Canada, 95 per cent of Canada’s visible minorities live exclusively in the country’s big cities, with six out of every 10 non-whites living in only two particular cities — Vancouver and Toronto. Rural Canada continues to remain largely white, though there is growing interest these days in ensuring immigrants settle more evenly across the country.

Asian-Canadians

After whites, Canada’s largest ethnic group is Asians, a term Canadians generally use to refer to people from the Pacific nations of China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Though bureaucrats and demographers sometimes use the term “Asian” to refer to people from the Indian Ocean region too, such as Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, and Bangladeshis, in day-to-day conversation most Canadians refer to these folks as Indo-Canadians, East Indians, or South Asians.

Both categories of Asians have been present in Canada for over a century. Imported Chinese labourers — who were specifically recruited for their willingness to work for low pay in dangerous conditions — were crucial to securing the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, while some East Indians were able to overcome bigotry and establish themselves as successful merchants in British Columbia. Today, however, the vast majority of Asians and East Indians in Canada are either new immigrants or their children, the fruits of Canada’s aggressive intake of immigrants since the 1960s.

At around four per cent of the national population, Chinese-Canadians remain Canada’s single largest minority group, and are particularly concentrated in the province of British Columbia, where cities like Richmond now hold a Chinese majority. Canadians of Indian heritage are just barely in second place, at a high three per cent of the population.

Black Canadians

After Asians and East Indians, blacks comprise Canada’s largest population of visible minorities, at around three per cent of the population. The vast majority of these come from recent immigrant families from either Africa or the Caribbean, but there remains a small minority of black Canadians whose roots trace back to the millions of African slaves imported to North America during the long era of the Atlantic Slave Trade (1452-1807).

Canada’s relationship with people of African descent has always been complicated. On the one hand, the fact that the British Empire outlawed slavery in 1833, several decades before the United States, was often held as a symbol of pride, and Canadians enjoyed hearing stories of American slaves who were able to escape to freedom in Canada via the Underground Railroad and other covert human-smuggling networks. On the other hand, a lot of Canadians blamed blacks for the social ills of America, and weren’t too keen to live alongside them. Early African-Americans settlers in Canada were often confined to poor ghettos, such as the infamous Africville slum in Nova Scotia, and had to fight daily against bigotry and discrimination. Today, most of Canada’s blacks live in the cities of Toronto and Montreal with a culture that is heavily intertwined with that of African-Americans in the U.S.

Women in traditional Korean costume perform at a Canada Day celebration in Toronto.
DayOwl/Shutterstock

Multiculturalism

As we’ve seen, Canadians from different ethnic backgrounds have not always found it easy to coexist. Tension, bigotry, and discrimination has been more common than not for much of Canadian history, which may help explain why so many Canadians celebrate the idea of peaceful multiculturalism today. What exactly “multiculturalism” means is hard to define, since not everyone uses the same definition. Broadly speaking though, it refers to the idea that Canadians will respect the diversity of their population — it’s how this “respect” can (or should be) proven that’s the subject of debate.

To some, multiculturalism means not imposing an undue burden on immigrants to assimilate to some idealized norm of “what a Canadian should be.” Under this logic, a Canadian bank might hire Chinese-speaking tellers, or a Canada Day festival might include Caribbean folk dancing. In both cases, the principle of inclusion reigns supreme. Others, however, might argue that multiculturalism means creating unity out of diversity, and encourage Canadians of all backgrounds to unite behind shared patriotic symbols or ideas, like democracy, the flag, or Remembrance Day, while keeping their background identities a more private, personal matter.

No matter how you define it, multiculturalism remains controversial. Today, Canada welcomes more immigrants per capita than almost any nation on Earth — roughly 300,000 a year — and the rapid pace at which Canadian demographics have transformed (as recently as 1981, Canada was close to 97 per cent white) has not been without debate over what such population changes mean for the future of the Canadian identity — and the unity of the country.