Canada is one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries. Most Canadians live in a band of cities along the US border. Three out of five residents live in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. In recent years, however, immigration to the three Prairie provinces and British Columbia has been great. Large areas are sparsely populated and northern Canada is virtually uninhabited. In 2016, the three northern territories had a total population of about 114,000.
According to the 2016 census, the population had grown by 5 percent since 2011. This has happened despite the birth rate being low, a Canadian woman giving birth to an average of 1.6 children. During this period, immigration accounted for about two-thirds of the population growth.
- COUNTRYAAH.COM: Key populations estimated size and data of Canada, including population density of how many people per square mile. Also included are facts for population and language.
Population had increased in most provinces and territories, but most in Nunavut (almost 13 percent), Alberta (11.6 percent), Saskatchewan (6.3 percent), Yukon (5.8 percent), Manitoba (5.7 percent) and British Colombia (5.7 percent). In New Brunswick, however, the number of residents had decreased somewhat, and population growth was generally lower in the eastern provinces than in the rest of the country. This is because fewer immigrants are moving in, few children are born and residents are moving to other parts of Canada. Especially the population of the larger cities is growing rapidly.
The population is of diverse origin. Canadians with roots in the UK or France are the most, but over the years the country has become increasingly multicultural. A large part of the population has immigrated mainly from other parts of Europe and from Asia. In 2016, 22 per cent of the residents were born outside the country, compared with 5 percent in 1981.
The population of indigenous peoples increased from 165,000 in the early 1950s to nearly 1.7 million in the 2016 census, or the equivalent of nearly 5 percent of the population. These include First Nations (as the Native people are called in Canada), Inuit and people of mixed Native American and French or British origin (Miseries / Métis) (see Indigenous Peoples’ Rights).
Immigration has played a major role in Canada’s history. The largest wave of immigration took place from 1900 to 1914. Through state campaigns, over three million immigrants from Europe were recruited with promises of free agricultural land on the prairies. Most of them then came from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Scandinavia, Germany and Ukraine. After 1914, immigration from southern and eastern Europe gained momentum when the government recruited workers to industry. The Chinese, Japanese and Indian Sikhs who came before 1960 often applied to western Canada where they worked in mines, at railway construction and in agriculture. Asian immigrants are often discriminated against.
There are hundreds of thousands of Americans living in Canada. Some immigration has also taken place from the Caribbean. The blacks who came to Canada before World War II have been greatly assimilated and are often well educated. Those who have come later are usually found in various low-wage occupations.
Since the beginning of the 1980s, more and more immigrants have come from Asia, mainly from China, India, the Philippines and Pakistan, and the Middle East. Most of those who come today usually settle in larger cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. However, an increasing proportion are moving to one of the three prairie provinces: Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
The think tank Conference Board of Canada estimated in 2018 that the country needs to receive more immigrants than today’s approximately 300,000 a year to ensure economic growth and to counteract the problems of an aging population.
During the period 2011–2015, an average of almost 260,000 people a year immigrated to Canada. In 2016, the government announced that the bar would be raised to 300,000 a year from 2017 (there were 286,000 people). It has since been raised again a few times. By 2020, Canada wants to welcome between 310,000 and 360,000 people.
According to the official policy that has been in place since 1971, Canada should be a multicultural society, where everyone should be treated equally and where the authorities should help people to preserve their culture and language. In 1994, the then Liberal government decided to give greater importance to what immigrants can contribute financially and the points system used emphasizes such as educational level, vocational and language skills, if they have a job but also age (persons between 18 and 35 years get extra point). Those who come to Canada to work account for just under 60 percent of all immigrants, even if their families are included.
From 2011, greater demands on English or French knowledge will be imposed on those who wish to become Canadian citizens. It has become more difficult for immigrants to bring their parents or grandparents (as well as children over 18) to Canada (they must be able to show that they can support their relatives for up to 20 years).
Studies show that most of the immigrants do well in Canada, but that the first ten years can be difficult for them.
About 15 percent of immigrants are refugees. Most of them are so-called quota refugees that Canada selects together with the UNHCR. In Canada, individuals, churches and various organizations can help asylum-seeking families come to Canada, but they must then raise 20,000-50,000 Canadian dollars and pledge to support the refugees for at least one year (see also Calendar). Québec has its own refugee reception system.
The government can classify people smuggled into the country as “illegal”. This means that they are kept in detention for one year before their asylum application is examined. If they are granted asylum, it will take longer for them to obtain permanent residence permits and the right to reunite with their families. Nor are they entitled to appeal a decision.
Asylum legislation was tightened in 2012. The process of seeking asylum was speeded up for people coming from countries where the Minister of Immigration judged that there were small risks of persecution. However, the list of these so-called safe countries was abolished in the summer of 2016 after a court decision.
The issue of Canada’s leaner attitude towards refugees became an election issue in the fall of 2015, when opposition parties urged the then conservative government to rethink. For example, the country had only received 2,500 refugees from Syria from January 2014 until the beginning of September 2015. After the liberals took power in November 2015, a reversal took place and until January 2017, Canada received over 40,000 Syrian refugees, of which more than 14,000 came to Canada with the help of money from private individuals. In its program, the government concentrated on receiving young nuclear families.
In 2016, a small number of refugees also came from other countries, especially Eritrea, Iraq, Congo-Kinshasa and Afghanistan.
However, the Liberal government was criticized for setting a ceiling of 7,500 for how many privately sponsored refugees Canada would receive in 2017. For people from Syria and Iraq, an upper limit was set at 1,000 people, which was reached at the end of January that year. The decision was justified by the fact that the authorities needed to shorten the long waiting times. According to the rules, a decision must be made within 60 days. By 2019, the number of privately sponsored refugees coming to Canada had increased to 19,000.
In 2017, more than 20,000 people crossed the border from the United States to Canada to seek asylum. Many of them were Haitians who feared being expelled if they stayed in the United States (about 60,000 Haitians were offered temporary protection in the United States after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, but their residence permit was about to expire in January 2018). However, according to some sources, more people only traveled through the US on their way to Canada than initially thought. The Canadian authorities tried to inform in various ways that they would have little chance of staying in Canada.
Gradually, other nationalities have come to dominate, especially Nigerians, but also Djibouti, Pakistani, Syrian, Turkish, Yemenite, Sudanese and Eritrean, crossed the US border to seek asylum in Canada, out of concern that they might otherwise be deported by US authorities. In 2018, over 55,000 people arrived, most of them to Quebec. Representatives of the government said in April of that year that the vast majority of them did not meet the conditions for asylum and would be expelled from Canada.
In 2004, Canada and the United States signed an agreement that means that they consider each other as safe countries for refugees, which means that most people who seek asylum at border crossings can be rejected.
In 2018, Canada received 28,100 of the 94,200 quota refugees who received assistance through UNHCR, which was more than any other country that year.
When Canada was formed in 1867, both French and English became working languages in Parliament. But it was not until 1969 that Parliament passed a language law that officially made Canada bilingual. 58 percent of Canadians, according to the 2016 census, had English as their mother tongue and just over 21 percent had French. Most of the French speakers live in Quebec. New Brunswick is the only province where both English and French have official language status.
In a law of 1774, the British rulers guaranteed the Quebecians the right to retain their language and Catholic religion. In 1977, Québec adopted its own language law to strengthen the French’s position vis-à-vis the English who dominated the business world. The law prohibited the use of English on signs and advertising columns outdoors. It also stipulated that all business agreements should be settled in French.
In 1993, the Québec government decided to allow English again on signs outdoors, but only if they also have text in French and the English text is 40 percent less than the French. From 1975 to 2011, a quarter of a million English-speaking Canadians left the province. Nowadays, it is more common than before that the French speakers also speak English.
Nearly 8 million Canadians spoke a language other than English or French in 2016, which was almost a million more than the year before. The major immigrant languages are Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi, Spanish, Filipino (also called Tagalog), Arabic, Italian and German. The indigenous people speak some 70 languages, 36 of them spoken by more than 500 people. The largest are the Algonquin languages (including cree and ojibway). Inuit languages are spoken by Inuktitut and that of most people.
Almost every fifth Canadian speaks more than one language at home.
FACTS – POPULATION AND LANGUAGE
the country has a multicultural population. The largest group has its roots in France or the UK, but many have also come from other European countries, Asia and Africa. A large number also have their roots in several countries. The indigenous peoples make up just under 5 percent of the population
Number of residents
36 708 083 (2017)
Number of residents per square kilometer
Percentage of residents in the cities
81.4 percent (2017)
Nativity / birth
10.8 per 1000 residents (2016)
Mortality / mortality
7.5 per 1000 residents (2016)
1.2 percent (2017)
1.6 number of children born per woman (2016)
Percentage of women
50.4 percent (2017)
82 years (2016)
Life expectancy for women
84 years (2016)
Life expectancy for men
80 years (2016)
English and French are official languages 1
- Otherwise speaking a wide range of minority languages including Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi, SpanishSources
The rights of indigenous peoples
Canada’s indigenous peoples are comprised of three groups: First Nations (which is the official name of the country’s Native people), Inuit and Mestis (Métis, people of mixed Native American and French or British origin). They often have worse social and economic conditions than the rest of the population. Several governments have promised to improve their conditions, but the gaps remain.
The population of indigenous peoples increased from 165,000 in the early 1950s to nearly 1.7 million in the 2016 census. About 977,000 were counted as First Nations, of which about 44 percent lived in reserves. The number of Inuit people was estimated at 65,000. Almost three-quarters of them lived in Nunavut, Northwest Territories or Quebec. The third group, Métis, was about 588,000 people.
The Indian Act
When the first Europeans arrived in the eastern parts of North America, Britain recognized that those who were already living there – about half a million people – had ownership of their land. From 1763 it was established that only the British crown could acquire land from the indigenous peoples and that it could only be done by special treaties. These set out what rights the indigenous peoples would have when it came to the natural resources contained in the reserves that were now established. This happened in almost the entire country and the last agreement was concluded as late as 1923. Important exceptions were British Columbia and Canada’s northernmost parts where no such agreements were made.
To be covered by the treaty and to live in the reserve, the Indians were required to register in accordance with the legislation of the Indian Act of 1876 (the law does not include the other indigenous peoples). For example, those who were granted Indian status had the right to special federal grants and could in some cases not have to pay taxes (this still applies today). Indians who obtained a university degree, were ordained or worked as a lawyer or teacher lost their status as an Indian, as did women who married non-Indians (women were also discriminated against in several other ways).
Although the indigenous peoples were granted certain rights, they were discriminated against and some of their religious ceremonies were banned. It was not until 1960 that registered Indians – and Inuit – were given the right to vote in federal elections, before they had had to give up their status as Indians to vote. Only in 1951 did they get the right to hire lawyers to pursue land claims. In the 1980s, several legislative changes were made that stopped some discrimination and 100,000 people who had previously lost their status were re-registered as Native Americans.
In 2016, approximately 733,000 people were registered as Native Americans, which is about three-quarters of all First Nations counted.
The majority of the Inuit live in 53 communities in the area called Inuit Nunangat which extends from Labrador to the Northwest Territories. The four regions of Nunatsiavut, Nunavik, Nunavut and Inuvialuit comprise about 35 percent of Canada’s land area.
In 1999, Canada acquired a new autonomous territory, Nunavut, which had previously been part of the Northwest Territories. The territory constitutes one fifth of Canada’s area and about 85 percent of residents are Inuit.
In 2003, the federal government signed an agreement with the Indian people tlicho, which gained autonomy in an area, which on the surface is almost as large as Switzerland, in the Northwest Territories. Four years later, it was agreed that a new regional government would be created in Nunavik in northern Quebec.
Climate change is hitting the population of the Arctic parts of the country hard. Melting ice affects the opportunities for hunting and fishing and makes communication between different Inuit communities more difficult.
Métis are descendants of the children that European fur hunters of the 18th century had with Native American women. They came to live in their own communities and developed their own culture and languages, especially michif, which is a mixture of French and different Cree languages.
Even today, métis communities are found along the old fur trade routes, from Ontario and west. Nowadays, most of them live in smaller towns. However, there is disagreement as to who should be considered as métis, and there are those who believe that the definition used by the authorities is too narrow.
First Nations, Inuit and Métis have formed organizations to defend their rights. These include the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), which mainly organizes Indians living in the reserve, the Métis National Council (MNC), Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP).
From the 1960s onwards, various groups have demanded both compensation for land loss and special rights for the indigenous peoples. In 1990, there were confrontations between militant Indian groups and the police and military in Quebec. They have also demanded increased self-government. Between 1975 and 2019, Canadian governments have concluded 25 modern agreements with various peoples to give them increased self-determination (read more here).
In recent years, the indigenous peoples have increasingly turned to the courts to get through their claims. Through cooperation with, among other environmental groups, they have been able to strengthen their position vis-à-vis mining companies. But the processes are often lengthy and costly.
In 2008, the federal government established a new tribunal that has the right to make binding decisions on damages in cases that have not been resolved through negotiations. A number of such negotiations are still ongoing between various indigenous peoples and the federal government and various provincial governments, most of them in British Columbia.
In British Columbia, in 2000, the first major modern agreement was signed between the provincial government and the Nisga’a people, which, among other things, gained ownership of an area around the Nass River, some financial compensation and the right to local self-government. Other parts of Nisga’a’s traditional lands were “transferred” into the province’s ownership. The agreement was criticized by Indian groups who claimed that nisga’a got significantly less than they were entitled to. Others felt that nisga’a had been given access to natural resources in an unfair way and that the agreement created uncertainty about ownership. In addition, another indian group, gitanyow, claimed the area around the Nass River. As part of the agreement, nisga’a began to pay taxes in 2008.
In 2007, Canada was one of the few countries (alongside Australia, New Zealand and the United States) that voted in favor of the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights. According to the country’s UN ambassador, many wording was too vague and in some respects contradicted the Canadian constitution and it was only in 2016 that Canada formally joined the convention. However, incorporating it into Canadian law is a long process. In late 2019, the convention was approved by the provincial parliament in British Columbia.
The then conservative government in 2012 passed several amendments to the Indian Act, which meant that it would be easier for mining companies and others to obtain permission to extract natural resources contained in the reserve. Theresa Spence, chief of Attawapiskat in northern Ontario, launched a hunger strike in protest of the new laws. It became the starting point for a wave of protests across the country under the slogan Idle No More. This grassroots movement, formed by four women in Saskatchewan, joined environmental activists and other people who were critical of the then Conservative government’s policies, but it is still active.
Abuse in boarding schools
In the 1990s, Catholic and Protestant churches operated boarding schools for indigenous peoples on the government’s behalf. The parents were forced to rewrite the custody of the children at the authorities, which could thus determine whether a student had the right to go home from school or not. The purpose was to “kill the wild child.” Between the 1870s and 1996, around 150,000 children attended these schools (from the 1970s, however, they decreased in importance). Following allegations of physical, cultural and sexual abuse by former pupils, several legal proceedings were initiated in the early 2000s.
In 2005, a meeting was held in Kelowna, British Columbia, between the then Liberal government, provincial governments, and indigenous peoples’ representatives, in which Ottawa pledged damages to the affected students. The same year, promises were also made that five billion Canadian dollars would be spent on fighting poverty among indigenous peoples over the next ten-year period. The Kelowna agreement meant that new powers would be transferred to the indigenous peoples’ organizations. The Conservative government that took office in 2006 chose to first reduce its ambitions and then put the entire agreement on ice. But in 2008, then-Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the abuses.
In 2015, a commission recommended that additional funds be invested to equalize the educational gaps between indigenous peoples and other Canadians as damages for the abuses committed against students in boarding schools. The Commission called what happened in these schools “a cultural genocide” (see Calendar). Over 3,000 children died while in school.
Power change and new promises
The Liberal government, which took office in late 2015, promised that it would follow the Commission’s recommendations, in collaboration with the leaders of the indigenous peoples. An important point was to find out what happened to the 1,181 girls and women who had been murdered or reported missing since 1973 (National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls). Promises were also made that children belonging to the indigenous peoples should have the same right to care, education and other community service as the rest of the population. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emphasized that old colonial and patriarchal structures would be torn down. The national investigation commissioned to deal with the issues submitted its final report in June 2019, stating that the women’s killings were “a genocide”, largely due to “colonialism”, racism, sexism, widespread poverty along with government inaction (see further Calendar).
In the summer of 2019, the ministry responsible for indigenous issues was shared: Indigenous Services will address issues related to social welfare, education, housing and more for those who have Native American status. Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs will be responsible for land issues and pave the way for increased self-government. The idea is that in the long term it should be possible to abolish the Indian Act. At the same time, Trudeau and his government have been criticized for promising and keeping thin. This is not least because the appropriations have not increased at the rate needed, even though the government has removed the bipartisan ceiling for federal grants to First Nations.
Criticism has also been directed at the government’s decision to provide a clear sign for the construction of two large oil pipelines despite opposition from the people concerned (see Natural Resources and Energy).
FURTHER READING: learn more about Canada in the UI’s publication Foreign Affairs magazine:
Corona gives Canada’s Trudeau respite from tricky dilemma (May 5, 2020)