Immigrants make up largest share of Canada’s population in over 150 years

Edana Robitaille, Kareem El-Assal
Updated: Aug, 11, 2023
  • Published: October 26, 2022

Statistics Canada has released the results of the 2021 census, which includes the most recent statistical portrait of immigration and ethnocultural diversity in Canada.

This is the largest update on Canada's immigrant population since Census 2016 results were unveiled by Statistics Canada in October 2017.

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Every five years, Statistics Canada, the government agency responsible for conducting surveys and collecting, and analyzing data about people in Canada, sends out a mandatory census form to every household in the country.

The Canadian census aims to provide both the government and the population of Canada with information about the people and housing units in Canada by their demographic, social and economic characteristics. For example, how people identify ethnically, how many people live in one home, what languages they speak and their level of education and income. This data helps the government understand the needs of Canadians and permanent residents in Canada to better allocate funding to relevant initiatives.

The data released today shows how immigrants in Canada are living day-to-day.

Growing number of Canadians are foreign born

The report today, entitled "Portrait of Immigration to Canada", shows that 23% of Canada’s population is, or has been, a landed immigrant or permanent resident of the country.

This is the largest immigrant share of Canada's population since Canada was founded as a country in 1867.

This figure accounts for 8.3 million immigrants in 2021.

Statistics Canada forecasts the country's immigrant population will continue to rise, as high as 34% by 2041.

The growth in newcomers can be attributed to the ever-increasing targets of Canada’s Immigration Levels Plan.

Just over 1.3 million new permanent residents settled in Canada between 2016 and 2021. Over half of these recent newcomers, or some 748,120 immigrants, arrived under the economic class.

Over one-third of these immigrants, some 36.6% lived in Canada before gaining permanent residence as they were work or study permit holders or asylum claimants.

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In 2016, Canada had a target of 300,000 new permanent residents. In 2022, the country looks to welcome some 432,000 new immigrants by the end of the year and over 450,000 by the end of 2024. These targets are expected to remain the same or see an increase when the new Immigration Levels Plan 2023-2025 is released within the next week.

Immigration targets have increased over the past five years in part because of Canada’s labour shortage. Nearly a quarter of the population will age out of the workforce by 2030. The shortage is made more acute by the gradual rise in the number of deaths and the relatively low fertility levels in Canada.

Statistics Canada notes that recent immigrants have an age structure that is younger than the general population, which helps to mitigate the impacts of labour shortages in Canada.

Between 2016 and 2021, immigrants accounted for about 80% of Canada's labour force growth.

Asia leads the way

For much of Canada's history, most new immigrants came from Europe, however the share of new immigrants from Asia (including the Middle East) has increased over the past 50 years.

Asia is the top source region of newcomers to Canada, and this continued in 2021. The share of newcomers from Africa has also increased.

Some 62% of the recent immigrant arrivals were born in Asia, with 18.6% coming from India alone, the leading source country of Canada's newcomers. The Philippines accounts for 11.4% of newcomers, followed by China at 8.9%. This is the first time India took the top spot of Canada's newcomers.

The last time Canada had such a high percentage of immigrants from one country was noted in the 1971 census when 20.9% of immigrants were born in the United Kingdom. Europeans now account for only one in ten new immigrants.  

Nearly two-thirds of newcomers are of core working age

More than one in five Canadians are near the age of retirement, which is an all-time high. Immigration cannot stop Canada's aging process, but it can help to introduce younger workers into the economy.

About 10.9% of the new immigrants that arrived to Canada between 2016 and 2021 were youth and young adults aged 15 to 24. The vast majority were core-aged workers who were between 25 to 54 years old. Children below the age of 15 represented 17.1% of newcomer arrivals.

Meanwhile, the share of second-generation Canadians (the children of immigrants) who are younger than 15 years of age with at least one immigrant parent increased to 31.5% in 2021, compared to 26.7% in 2011.

More immigrants are working in Canada compared to the pre-pandemic era. The employment rate of immigrants has increased by two percentage points since 2016, while it has fallen by the same amount among the Canadian-born population.

More recent immigrants settling outside of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver

In 2021, 92.2% of Canada's recent immigrants lived in one of Canada's census metropolitan areas (CMAs), which are large urban centres of over 100,000 residents. This is higher than 67.7% for the Canadian-born population. The high proportion of immigrants in CMAs can be attributed to well-established immigrant communities, such as the ones in Toronto, where 46.6% of the city population are immigrants.

As has been the case for over the last 50 years, Toronto (29.5%), Montreal (12.2%), and Vancouver (11.7%) continued to welcome most recent newcomers to Canada in 2021.

On the other hand, the share settling in these three cities continues to fall, down to 53.4% in 2021 compared to 56% in 2021. Montreal experienced the largest decrease, down to 12.2% in 2021 compared with 14.8% in 2016.

Certain CMAs have enjoyed noticeable increases in their newcomer populations. Canada's national capital region of Ottawa-Gatineau saw their recent immigrant population increase to 4.4% in 2021 compared to 3.1% in 2016. One of Canada's largest centres for the information and technology industry, Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo, saw their newcomer population grow to 2.1% in 2021 compared with 1.2% in 2016.

There is a growing number of immigrants who are choosing to settle in the Atlantic provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador). 

Between 2006 and 2021 the percentage of immigrants in Atlantic Canada tripled from 1.2 to 3.5%, the  largest increases coming in Nova Scotia, which rose from 0.6% to 1.6%, followed by New Brunswick, which increased from 0.4% to 1.2%. Prince Edward Island has seen its newcomer population grow from 0.1% to 0.4%, and Newfoundland and Labrador has seen it rise from 0.1% to 0.3%.

Close to 10,000 new immigrants arrived in the Atlantic Provinces under the Atlantic Immigration Program, designed to fill urgent job vacancies in the region. The majority of them chose to stay in Atlantic Canada after one year. 

In terms of the overall total immigrant populations of CMAs, Vancouver had the second-largest proportion of immigrants, at 41.8%, with immigrants making up over 50% of nearby Richmond and Burnaby. 

Among Canada's 41 largest urban centres, the proportion of immigrants was also above the national average of 23.0% in Calgary (31.5%), Abbotsford–Mission (26.1%), Edmonton (26.0%), Kitchener–Cambridge–Waterloo (25.8%), Hamilton (25.6%), Winnipeg (25.4%), Montréal (24.3%) and Windsor (23.3%). 

Linguistic diversity in Canada 

There were over 450 mother tongues reported in the 2021 census.

In all, 69.4% of recent immigrants do not speak English or French as their mother tongue. Most immigrants who do not arrive in Canada speaking an official language, reported speaking Arabic (10.3%), Tagalog (8.4%), Mandarin (7.9%), and Punjabi (6.5%).  

Still, almost one in four new immigrants reported speaking English as their first language. These immigrants are most often from India, the Philippines, or the United States.  

Immigrants who speak French as their native language make up 6.5% of recent immigrants. Just over 30% are from France, followed by Cameroon (11.5%), Côte d'Ivoire (8.4%), Algeria (5.8%) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (5.7%). 

Majority of recent immigrants can conduct a conversation in either English or French 

While the majority of new immigrants do not speak English or French as their first language, 92.7% of the more than 1.3 million recent immigrants reported being able to conduct a conversation in English or French. 

Two thirds of new immigrants reported speaking English or French regularly at home, with the majority speaking English.  

The data also shows that, 76.4% of immigrants who settled in the country before the 1980s and whose mother tongue was not an official language spoke English or French regularly at home, either alone or with another language. 

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