Canada has frequently been referred to as “a nation of immigrants,” though the percentage of immigrants has always been less than the term would suggest. In its peak periods during the 1860s and the first decade of the 20th century, the percentage was less than one-quarter of the population and since 1940 has stabilized between 16 and 18 percent. In 2001, the Canadian population of just under 30 million was 18 percent immigrant. Another consistent, related theme is the persistence of outmigration, mostly to the United States. With a few exceptions, most periods of Canadian history saw more people leaving than coming, or only modest gains in net immigration. Finally, Canadian immigration policy was until the 1970s largely exclusionary, heavily favoring immigrants from Britain, the United States, and western Europe.
Canada occupies 3,851,809 square miles of the northern reaches of the North American continent, making it by area the second largest country in the world. Most of Canada lies above the 49th parallel, northward to the Arctic Ocean and extending from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west. Difficult terrain and harsh winters have kept the Canadian population relatively small throughout its history. Parts of modern Canada were visited by the Vikings, around 1000, though they left no permanent mark on the culture. John Cabot (sailing for England, 1497) and Jacques Cartier (French, 1534) were the next Europeans to explore the Atlantic coasts. Their claims on behalf of their respective countries laid the foundation for an intense rivalry for control of Canada, one of the hallmarks of international affairs from 1604 to 1763. British victory in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) guaranteed the predominance of British culture patterns, but more than 150 years of French settlement left an indelible mark, particularly in the province of Quebec.
Settlement of St. Croix Island (1604) and Quebec (1608) by Frenchmen Samuel de Champlain and Pierre du Gua, sieur de Monts, marked the beginning of colonization of the lands claimed for France by Cartier. Within New France there were three areas of settlement: Acadia, the mainland and island areas along the Atlantic coast; Louisiana, the lands drained by the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio river valleys; and Canada, the lands on either side of the St. Lawrence Seaway and just north of the Great Lakes. Among these, only Canada, with the important settlements of Quebec and Montreal, developed a significant population. A harsh climate and continual threats from the British and the Iroquois made it difficult for private companies to attract settlers to Canada; only about 9,000 came during the entire period of French control. The principal economic activity was the fur trade, which was incompatible with family emigration and therefore left New France sparsely populated and vulnerable to the more rapidly expanding British. In 1663, Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715) made New France a royal colony but was only moderately successful at bringing in more colonists.
At the end of the Seven Years’ War, Canada’s French population of some 70,000 was brought under control of the British Crown, which organized the most populous areas as part of the colony of Quebec. At first administering the region under British law and denying Catholics important rights, the British further alienated their new citizens. Then, in an attempt to win support of Quebec’s French-speaking population, Governor Guy Carleton, in 1774, persuaded the British parliament to pass the Quebec Act, which guaranteed religious freedom to Catholics, reinstated French civil law, and extended the southern border of the province to the Ohio River, incorporating lands claimed by Virginia and Massachusetts. This marked the high point of escalating tensions with the thirteen colonies to the south that would explode into the American Revolution (1775–83) and eventually result in the loss of the colonies and trans-Appalachian regions south of the Great Lakes.
With the loss of the thirteen colonies came the migration to Canada of 40,000–50,000 United Empire Loyalists, who had refused to take up arms against the British Crown and were thus resettled at government expense, most with grants of land in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and western Quebec. The special provisions of the Quebec Act that had preserved the culture of the French and encouraged their loyalty, angered the new English-speaking American colonists. As a result, the British government divided the region into two colonies by the Constitutional Act of 1791. Lower Canada, roughly the modern province of Quebec, included most of the French-speaking population. There, government was based on French civil law, Catholicism, and the seigneurial system of land settlement. Upper Canada, roughly the modern province of Ontario, included most of the English-speaking population and used English law and property systems. Both colonies had weak elected assemblies. After the War of 1812 (1812–15), hard times led English, Irish, and Scottish settlers to immigrate to British North America in record numbers. Fearing loss of control of the government of Lower Canada, some French Canadians revolted in 1837, which triggered a rebellion in Upper Canada. Both rebellions were quickly quashed, and the British government unified the two Canadas into the single province of Canada (1841) (see Durham Report). This form of government did not work well, however, as the main political parties had almost equal representation in the legislature and thus had trouble forming stable ministries.
From 1848, the rapidly growing provinces in British North America won self-government and virtual control over local affairs. By the 1860s, there was general agreement on the need for a stronger central government, which led to the confederation movement. In 1867, representatives of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia agreed to petition the British government for a new federal government. The British North America Act (1867) provided a parliamentary government for the new dominion, with the British monarch remaining head of state and the British government continuing to be responsible for foreign affairs until 1931, when Canada gained complete independence. In the east, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland feared domination by the larger provinces but eventually joined the Dominion of Canada, in 1873 and in 1949, respectively. The new western provinces also joined: Manitoba in 1870, British Columbia in 1871, Alberta in 1905, and Saskatchewan in 1905. The lightly populated Northwest Territories and the Yukon Territory of the far north became part of Canada in 1870 and 1898, respectively. And finally, after 23 years of negotiation, in 1999 the territory of Nunavut was carved from the Northwest Territories as a homeland for the native Inuit peoples.
For about 30 years following confederation, more people left Canada than arrived as immigrants, most lured away by economic prospects in the rapidly industrializing United States. Sir John Macdonald, the prime minister for most of the period (1867–73 and 1878—91), valued western development as a means of strengthening the nation and actively promoted policies designed to attract immigrants. The first piece of immigrant legislation was the Immigration Act of 1869, mainly aimed at safe travel and protection from passenger abuse. With powers granted to the cabinet by the act itself, orders-in-council could be used to amend the legislation, thus avoiding passage of completely new measures. Through such orders-in-council, classes of undesirable elements such as criminals, prostitutes, and the destitute were specified in amendments, moving Canada toward an increasingly restrictive immigration policy. In 1885, the government introduced a $50 head tax on Chinese immigrants, effectively barring widespread immigration from China.
An advertisement in Swedish for Canadian land from the first decade of the 20th century. Both Canada and the United States advertised widely for agricultural immigrants to fill their empty prairies. (Canadian Department of the Interior/National Archives of Canada)
Still, the Canadian government was interested in European laborers, especially if they were willing to farm the western prairies. The federal government, which administered western lands under the Department of Agriculture, tried to encourage immigration with a generous homestead provision. The most important single piece of legislation was the Dominion Lands Act (1872), under which any male head-of-family at least 21 years of age could obtain 160 acres of public homestead land for a $10 registration fee and six months’ residence during the first three years of the claim. The policy was on the whole a failure. An average of fewer than 3,000 homesteaders per year between 1874 and 1896 took advantage of the program. Lack of railway access and isolation contributed to the slow rate of development. As the government continually sought funding for the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, it also launched plans to sell lands to colonization companies. The plan failed between 1874 and 1877 and again between 1881 and 1885. The generous provision of sale of land to colonization companies at $2 per acre, with the promise of a rebate once settlement and transportation links to other settlements had been established, led to little more than massive land speculation. Although 26 companies had procured grants totaling nearly 3 million acres by 1883, only one company fulfilled its agreement. More successful were group settlement plans that set aside large tracts for specific immigrant groups such as the Mennonites (see Mennonite immigration), Scandinavians, Icelanders (see Icelandic immigration), Jews (see Jewish immigration), Hungarians (see Hungarian immigration), and Doukhobors.
From the mid–1890s until World War I (1914–18; see World War I and immigration), favorable government policies, eastern industrialization, and the opening of the western provinces to agriculture brought 300,000–400,000 immigrants each year, most from the British Isles and central and southern Europe. This relatively open policy was nevertheless opposed by virtually all francophone nationalists in Quebec, who feared that the French minority was being deliberately swamped with English speakers. The flood of immigrants led to passage of the 1906 Immigration Act, which greatly expanded the categories of undesirable immigrants, enhanced the power of the government to make judgments regarding deportation, and set the tone for the generally arbitrary expulsion of undesirable immigrants that characterized Canadian policy throughout much of the 20th century. In the period between World War I and World War II (1939–45; see World War II and immigration), economic depression and international turmoil kept immigration low, averaging less than 20,000 per year. After the war, immigration remained a significant demographic force in the country, especially during times of international crisis. The Immigration Act of 1952 nevertheless continued to invest the minister of citizenship and immigration with almost unlimited powers regarding immigration. As late as 1957, 95 percent of all immigrants to Canada were from Europe or the United States. That changed rapidly in the 1960s, as European countries abandoned their colonial empires in Africa and Asia and the Canadian public began to support a more active policy toward refugee resettlement. A new series of immigration regulations in 1967 introduced for the first time the principle of nondiscrimination on the basis of race or national origin, virtually ending the “white Canada” policy that had prevailed until that time. The following year, the Union Nationale government in Quebec established its own Ministry of Immigration, which was recognized by the federal government as a result of the Couture-Cullen Agreement in 1978. As a result, Quebec gained effective control of nonsponsored immigration into the province and the right to establish its own criteria. While the goal of the federal government was increasingly multicultural in character, Quebec pursued what it called “cultural convergence,” receptive to non-francophone cultures but clearly valuing maintenance of francophone predominance.
Between 1965 and 2001, European immigration to Canada dropped from 73 to 10 percent of the total. Between 1852, when Statistics Canada began publishing records, and 2001, about 16 million immigrants came to Canada. Of these, almost 2 million came in the period between 1991 and 2001, and almost two-thirds of these were from Asia, mainly from China, India, Pakistan, Korea, and the Philippines.
See also Alien Land Act; Chinese Immigration Act; Immigration Act (1910); Immigration Act (1976); Immigration and Refugee Protection Act; Immigration Appeal Board Act; P.C. 695.