The People of Canada
The population of Canada sits somewhere around 34 million, making Canada an officially “mid-sized” country. Smaller than places like Brazil, Poland or Egypt, but bigger than Peru, Taiwan or Holland. As we’ll learn elsewhere in this guide, the majority of this 34 million live in urban or suburban communities, work in service sector jobs, vote occasionally and have government-backed health insurance.
But who are Canadians, really? Where do they come from? What do they look like? Let’s find out.
As we learned in the history chapter, Canadians didn’t just spring from the soil. Aside from a small community of aboriginals, everyone who lives in Canada is descended from immigrants of some sort, the offspring of agricultural settlers and economic migrants who left their native homelands to eke out a better living in the mysterious New World. Since Canada was originally a French, then British colony, France and the United Kingdom have been the historic origin of much of Canada’s white majority, followed by settlers from other western European nations.
Canadians of British descent, often known as Anglos, have traditionally comprised the majority of people in all provinces, and have a long history of trying to aggressively shape the country to reflect the culture and traditions of their beloved motherland. This cultural dominance explains, in large part, why Canada remained a happy colony of the British Empire for as long as it did, why it fought so eagerly in both world wars, 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 20th century periods of war or depression. Motivated by a desire to keep Canada British, Canadian law favoured such immigrants quite explicitly; until 1976, there was no legal difference between a “Canadian” and a “British subject,” so for anyone who had the money to travel, migration was pretty easy.
Co-existing (often uneasily) with the Anglos are the French-Canadians, or Francophones, who represent the second-biggest ethno-demographic in Canada, at around 16 per cent of the national populace. Concentrated almost entirely in the province of Quebec, French-Canadians are sometimes considered a unique race unto themselves, 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 proudly British as Canada is one of the great demographic success stories of history, and is now often applauded, even by Anglos, as a key component of the Canadian identity. As a result, small French communities outside of Quebec 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 fact” from coast to coast.
After French and English, the most common European backgrounds claimed by Canadians are Irish (14 per cent), German (10 per cent), and Italian (4 per cent). Though all three groups are quite assimilated into the larger English-Canadian mainstream today, initially, all faced something of a hard time when their forefathers first began to mass immigrate to Canada during the late 19th century. 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 Canadian prairies, the same was true of Canadians of Eastern European (particularly Ukrainian or Polish) or Scandinavian descent, who provided the bulk of the homesteader population that helped colonize the prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
As was the case in much of the western world, early Canadians were fairly racist in their desires 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), however, when the mass discrediting of ideas like eugenics and social Darwinism led to a rise in greater tolerance for visible minorities, eventually culminating in a series of reforms in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s that removed all racial and ethnic quotas from the Canadian Immigration Act.
These reforms ushered in a bold shake-up of Canadian demographics; today Canada has over five million non-white residents accounting for over 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, six out of every 10 non-whites live in only two cities — Vancouver and Toronto — while the rural parts of the country remain the all-white enclaves of years past.
When Canadians talk about “Asians,” they’re usually referring exclusively to the people we used to call “Orientals,” that is, folks from the 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 such folks are almost always called 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 4 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.
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 African-Americans in Canada 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).
The Canadian relationship with people of African descent has always been a bit 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, however, 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 Africaville slum of Nova Scotia, and constantly had to fight against bigotry and discrimination in their daily lives. The civil rights reforms in the United States during the 1960s inspired rising tolerance north of the border, too.
As mentioned, 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 multiculturalism today.
What exactly “multiculturalism” means is hard to define, since not everyone uses the same definition. Broadly speaking though, it means that Canadians agree to 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 Ukrainian 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 the flag, Remembrance Day or democracy, and keep 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 any other nation on Earth — roughly 230 000 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.