By the Numbers

Looking at Canada’s recent immigration numbers churns up practical questions about how things are going. We can’t be afraid to ask.


Growing up in Calgary in the 1960s, I knew what everyone knew: Edmonton was more cosmopolitan. Calgary had more Americans, courtesy of the oil business; Edmonton had more nationalities, courtesy of whatever winds shaped immigration waves.

Within 20 years Calgary was closing the gap. In an immigration society I worked alongside a former teacher from Vietnam, a second-generation Indo-Canadian and an administrative professional from Peru, helping ease the transition for Iranian engineers, Hong Kong entrepreneurs, and Kurdish farmers.

Fast-forward another 20 years to the turn of the millennium and Calgary was a new home for about 9,000 immigrants each year — roughly twice Edmonton’s annual uptake. On average, an immigrant arrived every hour of every day. It adds up: by 2001, one in five Calgarians was foreign-born. Although the 2011 version of the census didn’t collect this data, we do know that by 2006 that figure applied to the whole country.

What should we make of this statistic? Is it a big deal, or no? Two filters provide perspective.

Historically, it isn’t a big deal. Although our 2006 figure was a 75-year high, in the last century the percentage of immigrants in the Canadian population ranged from a low of 13% in 1901 to a high of 22% for most of the period from 1911 to 1931. In that context, 20% doesn’t seem remarkable.

Internationally, however, it is a big deal. Like Canada, the USA is built on immigration, yet in 2010 their foreign-born population was only 12%. Indeed, only one western country has more foreign-born residents than Canada: Australia, currently sitting at 26%.

So we’re leading edge-ish, and pretty much always have been. But something has changed (and recently, as country’s lives go). Ryerson University’s Diversity Watch neatly sums it up: ‘For the first 60 years of the past century, European nations such as the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as the United States, were the primary sources of immigrants to Canada. Today, immigrants are most likely to be from Asian countries.’

We need not be racists or xenophobes to wonder whether Canada has been pursuing an immigration policy or an immigration experiment for the last few decades. As the Government of Canada rolls out new policies, it’s reasonable to ask how the old ones have been doing. What might we want to know about Canada’s recent immigration experience?

As of 2001, arrivals with no knowledge of English or French accounted for 37% of all immigrants; one-third of this group were children under the age of 10. Ten years later, how are those kids doing, and what’s been their impact on our school systems?

Economic-class immigrants — those selected ‘on the basis of their ability to become economically established in Canada’, to quote our Immigration and Refugee Protection Act — account for about 62% of immigration. What would happen to our economy without that influx of professionals and skilled workers?

Family-class immigrants — those admitted ‘on the basis of their relationship as the spouse, common-law partner, child, parent or other prescribed family member of a Canadian citizen or permanent resident’, to quote again — account for 22% of immigration these days, which is a drop from recent years. Is this too little, too much, or just enough to keep faith with our Canadian family values?

Most immigrants — two out of three — settle in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. The result is that foreign-born Canadians account for fewer than one in 20 people in cities like Moncton, St. John’s and Saguenay, but almost one in two of Metro Torontonians (46% and, apparently, still climbing). Are we creating multiple solitudes as the experience of rural and small-town Canadians diverges substantially from those living in cities like Calgary, and even more from those living in our metropolises? If so, is there anything we can about it?

Each successive immigrant group in our history faced resistance and prejudice from those already here, then eventually joined Canada’s mainstream, changing the whole and being changed in turn. Does the ‘visible minority’ aspect of current immigration affect the willingness of immigrants to venture beyond their communities, or our willingness to accept them?

Some immigrants establish patterns of chronic dependency, some just get by, still others prosper, and a few become high-profile contributors to our society. How do the proportions in each category compare to the results achieved by those born here?

Some immigrants bring social problems with them: gangs, ethnic conflicts, religious divisions. In communities unfamiliar to the police, and sometimes uncooperative with them, how do we effectively handle these same-old problems?

Conversely, some studies show that immigrants are underrepresented in our federal penitentiaries. Can we learn something from these communities?

All this is only the beginning: after we know how it’s going, we need to think about how it can go better.

As 2011 census data hits the news, our multicultural summer festivals are just around the corner. It’s a reasonable time to think about immigration and what it means to us — as individuals, as a community, as a country. We can do so without succumbing to simplistic ‘immigration is good’ or ‘different is bad’ lines of thinking. When federal politicians show up in our cities and towns, flipping pancakes and kissing babies, we can talk to them about it too.

Whether what we’ve had in the last decades has been a considered policy or an unplanned experiment, we have what we have, and we are who we are. As Red Green says, We’re all in this together. If Canada is to be a truly leading-edge community of communities — not just one by the numbers — we need to ask straightforward questions about immigration’s practical aspects, and not rest until we have informed and thoughtful answers.

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4 Responses to By the Numbers

  1. Jim Robertson says:

    well thought out piece Isabel

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Thanks kindly. It’s a complicated topic, and not one in which I profess any expertise. It’s the tone of the debate/discussion that gets me down sometimes.

  2. Jim taylor says:

    On the whole, I agree — enough that I kinda wish I had written it! But there’s one special case that I think needs to be considered — although we “whites” are the immigrants, not them — and that’s Canada’s aboriginal peoples. On the whole, it seems to me, (and I know I’m guilty of wild sweeping generalizations here) they have integrated/assimilated less well than any of the immigrant groups. If I exclude “the arts,” they have probably contributed less to the shaping of Canadian culture. And they are vastly over-represented in our prisons, although they show no tendency to form gangs. What went wrong?

    Jim Taylor

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – A while back I heard a radio interview where a commentator said that at the time of Confederation, Canadian society had three disadvantaged groups: First Nations, women, and one other that I forget (Jews, maybe?). He went on to say that the only group still markedly disadvantaged was the one group identified in the Articles of Confederation as a special case: the First Nations. His view was that treating First Nations people as a group had made their situation worse, not better. I don’t know if that’s ‘what went wrong’ – it might be part of it.

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