E.g., 06/24/2024
E.g., 06/24/2024
Canada: Policy Changes and Integration Challenges in an Increasingly Diverse Society

Canada: Policy Changes and Integration Challenges in an Increasingly Diverse Society

Canada is one of only a handful of nations where social and cultural change fueled by immigration is perhaps the only enduring societal constant. A steady stream of research since the 2001 census has highlighted the ways in which Canada is changing socially and demographically. This work has also emphasized the enormous contribution that immigrants and refugees will make to the nation's ethnocultural composition and, perhaps more importantly, to the nation's labor force in the decades to come.

At the same time, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act's (November 2001) emphasis on the selection of immigrants with high levels of education and skill flexibility has been questioned. Mounting evidence shows there are systemic barriers in the workforce and an inability among many recent highly skilled newcomers to find employment that is commensurate with their education and experience.

Highly educated immigrants typically gain entry to Canada through the "independent" or "economic" class, and the government has made the processing of these applications a priority. This represents a shift in policy emphasis and procedures since the late 1980s.

Prior to the late 1980s, family-class applicants received a higher priority in processing, and in turn dominated new immigration flows and the integration challenges that newcomers faced. Today's apparent mismatch between the skill and education levels of economic class migrants and labor market performance is a concern that highlights both integration challenges in a post-industrial economy and a cleavage between immigration policy intent and outcomes.

The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act has begun to influence migration flows and has generated public debate about the capacity of the Canadian economy to absorb a large number of highly skilled migrants. The act represents a shift away from an occupation-based model for determining admissibility among certain applicants to one that emphasizes education, language, and the flexibility and transferability of skill sets.

The education and skills provisions in the act are in part a response to projected labor force needs. But questions of fairness have been raised given that there appear to be workforce barriers, such as credential recognition and strong demand for sophisticated language and literacy competency, which impede access to skilled employment and social mobility among some newcomers.

The 2001 census data, meanwhile, have highlighted the country's very slow rate of population growth. Between 1996 and 2001, Canada experienced one of the smallest census-to-census growth rates in its history (a gain of only four percent), bringing the total population count to just over 30 million people (estimated at 32,146,547 in 2005). The census also underscored the fact that immigration was the main source of population growth, and would likely retain and enhance this role in the years to come.

International migration, immigration policy, and domestic demographic change are in lockstep as the country debates the ability of younger generations to support an aging population; the proper size of the labor force and tax base necessary to maintain economic growth and an array of social services; and the population's ideal ethnocultural and linguistic composition.

Immigrant Origins

One of the most vivid manifestations of change in recent decades has been in the origins of immigrants to Canada. Once a country dominated by migration from the UK and Europe, today Canada accepts immigrants from every part of the globe, with the most important flows coming from countries in South, East and Southeast Asia. Between 1956 and 1976, 63.6 percent of immigrants came from the UK and Europe and only 11.9 percent from Asia.

By 2004, however, the flows had almost completely flipped, with only 17.8 percent of immigrants coming from the UK and Europe and 48.6 percent from Asia. An additional 19.7 percent of immigrants came from Africa and the Middle East, 9.2 percent from South and Central America and the Caribbean, and 2.7 percent from the United States.

The large number of Asian immigrants, especially from the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong, and India, is due in large part to the Canadian government's emphasis on skills, education, and language abilities in its selection formula for independent applicants, as well as subsequent sponsorship of family dependents. To a significant degree, these changes in where immigrants come from, and their effects on Canada's ethnocultural diversity, are a function of policy decisions made in the decades following World War II.

Immigration and Refugee Policy Context

Beginning in the late 19th century, Canada began to adopt policy measures to manage immigration. From relatively free entry between 1867 to 1895, a host of Orders-in-Council, the Immigration Acts of 1910, 1919, and 1952, and the Chinese Immigration Act (1923) formalized an immigration system and restricted admission to "white" British, European, and American applicants to the exclusion of migrants from the rest of the world who could not trace their racial/ethnic origins to Europe.

Beginning in 1962, regulatory changes were introduced that overturned the most blatantly racist dimensions of Canadian policy, while the completely rewritten Immigration Act of 1976 ushered in a new era in immigrant determination processes and officially made Canada a destination for all migrants. The 1976 act was constructed around three pillars of admission: independent applicants assessed on the basis of points awarded for employment skills, education, and language abilities rather national or "racial" origin; sponsorship by close family members; and refugee status.

In 2004, 56.7 percent of admissions were in the independent or economic class, 26.4 percent were in the family reunification class, 13.9 percent were refugee class and three percent were "other" (cases determined on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, live-in caregivers, or provincial/territorial nominees) (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Permanent Residents by Immigration Admission Category, Canada, 1980-2004
Source: Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Strategic Research and Statistics Division

These figures are indicative of a significant change in emphasis in selection procedures and processing over time. In the mid 1980s, approximately 50 percent, 30 percent, and 18 percent of admissions were in the family, economic, and refugee classes respectively.

The 2001 Immigration and Refugee Protection Act largely maintains these categories, although there is a shift away from an occupation-based model for determining admissibility among economic applicants to one that emphasizes the human capital of applicants, namely education level, English and/or French language abilities, and the potential flexibility and transferability of skill sets between various possible types of employment.

In response to humanitarian crises, Canada has accepted refugees since the end of World War II. Although Canada did participate in three major refugee movements between 1945 and 1970 — displaced persons in the years immediately following the war, Hungarian refugees (1956-1957), and Czech refugees (1968) — and did admit refugees on an individual, ad hoc basis, it did not accede to either the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees until 1969.

It has only been since the early 1970s that refugees have been a constant, rather than episodic, component of the immigration program. Canada formally organized its refugee policies and management structures in the 1976 act, thereby institutionalizing an ongoing commitment to fulfill legal obligations toward refugees. The 2001 act continues this practice by placing an even stronger emphasis on the need for protection and less on an applicant's ability to settle in Canada.

In 2004, out of 32,686 refugees, 22.7 percent of claimants were government assisted, 9.5 percent were privately sponsored, and 48.6 percent were admitted after making a successful application for asylum upon reaching a Canadian border point. An additional 19.1 percent were dependents of a refugee who joined the claimant in Canada after his/her refugee claim determination had been positively determined.

Among the refugees admitted in 2004, almost equal shares came from Asia and the Pacific (37.2 percent) and the Middle East and Africa (38.5 percent). A much smaller proportion of refugees were from South and Central America (14.1 percent) and Europe (9.7 percent).

In the last 10 years, the proportion of refugees from Europe has steadily declined (from 34.4 percent in 1994) and the proportions from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia have grown at approximately the same rate.

Recent Flows

At the time of the 2001 census, 5,249,835 foreign-born permanent residents lived in Canada, representing 17.7 percent of the total population. The pattern of immigration to Canada, however, has been far from steady, with numerous spikes and low points punctuating the country's migration history from 1860 to the present.

The years 1910 to 1913 marked the high-water point in Canadian immigration history with an average of over 286,000 migrants arriving annually (400,870 in 1913 alone). During the 1990s, Canada pursued a moderately aggressive program with about 200,000 people arriving annually, and it is likely that targets will continue to be set around the quarter-million mark for the foreseeable future.

The vast majority of immigrants also choose to become Canadian citizens after the three-year waiting period for eligibility has elapsed — 77.7 percent (2001) of immigrants are citizens by naturalization and 13.8 percent of the Canadian population is made up of naturalized citizens.

Immigrant Settlement Patterns

Unlike the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries when many, if not most, immigrants settled in agricultural, rural, or frontier areas, today the vast majority of migrants settle in one of Canada's three largest cities: Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver.

Immigration and ethnocultural diversity in many ways are metropolitan, rather than national, aspects of life in Canada. In 2001, 62.3 percent of all immigrants, regardless of period of immigration, lived in the three largest census metropolitan areas (Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver). In contrast, only 27 percent of the Canadian-born population lived in these cities.

In the largest cities, the foreign-born population is substantial — 43.7 percent of Toronto's population was born abroad, making it one of the most important sites of immigrant settlement in North America. In contrast, immigrants constituted only 33.7 percent of the New York City metropolitan area (PMSA) population in 2000.

Similarly, 37.5 percent of Vancouver's population and 18.4 percent of Montréal's were born outside of Canada. In Québec, Montréal is truly the immigration metropolis; almost 90 percent of all immigrants in the province live in metropolitan Montréal.

The three major metropolitan areas in Canada are extremely diverse in terms of the origins of migrants, although a large number of francophone immigrants settle in Montréal and immigrants from Asia are much more significant in Toronto and Vancouver. Among recently arrived immigrants (1996-2001), individuals from China, Algeria, France, Morocco, and Haiti led the flow to Montréal. In contrast, in Toronto, individuals from China, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Hong Kong were most numerous among recent arrivals; in Vancouver, the flow was led by immigrants from China, Taiwan, India, Hong Kong, and the Philippines.

A recent study by Statistics Canada, based on population projection scenarios to 2017, emphasizes the degree to which immigration will change the ethnocultural characteristics of large Canadian cities. The study estimates that 95 percent of "visible minorities" (defined by the Employment Equity Act as persons, other than Aboriginal persons, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in color) will live in a large metropolitan area, and 75 percent will be in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montréal.

Moreover, under most of the scenarios considered, by 2017 over half of the populations of Toronto and Vancouver will belong to a visible minority group. If this study turns out to be even a modest predictor of the future, it raises serious questions about whether Canadians who do not live in major metropolitan areas will experience ethnocultural and racial diversity, a feature of Canadian identity.

Immigrant Education

Migrants tend to be highly educated, in part reflecting the fact that today the majority of immigrants who come to Canada do so through the independent or economic class streams. For instance, 35.7 percent of recent immigrants (1996-2001) held a university degree compared to 13.8 percent of the Canadian-born population. Among the Canadian born, almost an identical proportion of women and men hold a university degree (13.8 percent) whereas 40 percent of men and 31.8 percent of women who are recent immigrants possess such a high level of education.

At the other end of the spectrum, the proportion of recent immigrants who have not graduated from high school is higher among recently immigrated women than men, but both have rates that are substantially lower than the Canadian-born population.

Again reflecting Canadian immigration policy selection criteria, the vast majority of employed recent immigrants report working in English, French, or a mixture of French or English and a third language. Only 10.4 percent of men and 12.7 percent of women who are recent immigrants indicate working exclusively in a language other than French or English. Most likely due to a more limited education and workplace opportunities, women who are part of the most recent group of immigrants are slightly less likely than men to work exclusively in either English or French.

Immigrants in the Workforce

In terms of labor force participation, in their first years after arrival, immigrants tend to have lower rates than the Canadian-born population. This is because a number of migrants spend time upgrading either professional, trade, or language skills, and many women take time out from the workforce to raise children.

Over time, however, the labor force participation rates of the foreign born converge with those of the Canadian-born population. For instance, 85.2 percent of male immigrants aged 25 to 44 who arrived in Canada between 1996 and 2001 and 91 percent of those who arrived between 1981 and 1990 participate in the labor force; 92.5 percent of Canadian-born men in the same age bracket are in the labor force.

Recent immigrants are much more likely to experience unemployment in their first five years in Canada than those migrants who have been in the country for a longer period of time. For instance, the rate of unemployment among men aged 25 to 44 who arrived between 1996 and 2001 was 11 percent in 2001, and among women it was higher still (15.8 percent). The rate, however, drops significantly among people in this age category who immigrated during the 1980s — 5.6 percent for men and 7.2 percent for women. Among Canadian-born men and women aged 25 to 44, the rate of unemployment was 6.6 percent and 6.1 percent respectively.

Underlying these statistics is considerable concern about the ability of immigrants to convert relatively high human capital and a willingness to work into strong employment earnings and socioeconomic mobility. A number of recent studies have found a considerable and sustained income differences between newcomers and the Canadian-born population.

Among immigrants who arrived in the later part of the 1980s and throughout the 1990s, the gap in initial earnings relative to the Canadian-born population has steadily increased over time, and this gap does not appear to close quickly with time in the country. In particular, between 1981 and 2001, recent immigrants with a university degree found it increasingly difficult to convert their education into earnings comparable to those of the Canadian-born population, according to research by economists H. Grant and A. Sweetman in 2004.

Equally disturbing, however, is the growing incidence of poverty among immigrants in Canada's largest cities. Although low-income rates among the Canadian born fell nationally during the 1990s, the low-income rates for Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver actually increased between 1990 and 2000. The rate also increased for immigrants who have lived in Canada for less than 20 years, but fell for groups traditionally associated with poverty, such as Canadian-born seniors and single-parent families.

The increase in the low-income rate for recent immigrants occurred across the education spectrum, but was most significant among university-educated recent immigrants — a 44 percent change during the 10-year period, according to economist G. Picot. The upward pressure on the low-income rate in these cities has been in part attributed to immigrants because they are a growing share of the population and experience higher low-income rates than the population in general.

Looking Ahead

In the years and decades to come, immigrants will play an ever more important role in the demographic, economic, and social life of Canada. Since the early 1980s, newcomers have accounted for more than 50 percent of population growth in Canada, and it is anticipated that by 2011 virtually all labor force growth will be attributable to immigration. It is clear that where immigration levels are pegged and who migrates will have profound effects on the size and characteristics of Canadian society.

A large inflow of immigrants each year relative to the size of the population is likely to remain a fixture of Canadian immigration policy and demography for the foreseeable future. So too is the emphasis on human capital characteristics of economic applicants as immigration becomes ever more tightly weaved into labor force policy.

Important questions, however, are being asked about the quality of employment for highly skilled immigrants in Canada and the kinds of social mobility opportunities that exist in metropolitan areas where most newcomers settle.

These questions speak to the quality of economic and social integration in ethnoculturally heterogeneous cities, and focus attention on the actual work performed by newcomers and their level of earnings in cities that are the hubs of a knowledge-based economy. Cities are key sites where social inclusion is transformed from an abstract goal into an everyday reality. But social and economic inclusion of immigrants, where it occurs and how, remains a serious challenge for an ever more diverse Canadian society.


Bélanger, A. and é. Caron Malenfant 2005. Population Projections of Visible Minority Groups, Canada, Provinces and Regions 2001-2017. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Strategic Research and Statistics Division. 2005. Facts and Figures 2003: Immigration Overview—Permanent and Temporary Residents. Ottawa: Public Works and Government Services Canada. Available online.

Grant, H. and A. Sweetman 2004. "Introduction to Economic and Urban Issues in Canadian Immigration Policy." Canadian Journal of Urban Research, 13(1), 1-24.

Hawkins, Freda. 1989. Critical Years in Immigration: Canada and Australia Compared. Kingston and Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Picot, G. 2004. "The Deteriorating Economic Welfare of Canadian Immigrants." Canadian Journal of Urban Research, 13(1), 25-46.