The ‘browning’ of Canada

NEARLY a century after the first big demographic shift in Canada, there has been another dramatic change in the country’s make up. On May 16, 2006, for the first time in history, census enumerators found that the number of newcomers from Asia and the Middle East in Canada exceeded the number of immigrants from Europe.

By George Abraham (Canada Connection)

Published: Tue 18 Mar 2008, 8:24 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:25 PM

This is how Statistics Canada researchers recently reported this aspect of their 2006 snapshot: “As a result of changing immigrant source countries, the proportion of the foreign-born population who were born in Asia and the Middle East (40.8 per cent) surpassed the proportion born in Europe (36.8 per cent) for the first time in 2006.” Evidence of this shift is, of course, most obvious in the cities of Toronto and Vancouver, where so-called “visible minorities” are projected to replace Anglo-Saxons as the dominant community in about 10 years.

It has been a long time since this country witnessed something on the same scale. Historians Norman Hillmer and JL Granatstein wrote about the first transition in The Land Newly Found (Thomas Allen, 2006). “Between 1900 and 1914, Canada’s population was transformed from an almost strictly Anglo-Saxon and French Canadian one into a mixture of European peoples with small numbers of Asians and blacks. Those of British origin still predominated, with French-speaking Canadians making up 37 per cent of the rest, but Canada had become a multi-ethnic society. One-third of the west was no longer British or French.”

The shift from a largely Europe-born population to an increasingly Asian-born one should hardly come as a surprise. Ever since Canada introduced a colour (and race)-blind points system in 1967 to select immigrants, it was only a matter of time before it caused changes in the wider population. In fact, census figures show that over a 35-year period between 1971 and 2006 the ratio of newcomers from Europe and those from Asia and the Middle East got inverted in roughly the same proportion.

In 1971, European immigrants accounted for 61.6 per cent of newcomers who landed in Canada over the previous five years, while Asians (including those from the Middle East) were 12.1 per cent of the total. By 2006, they had switched places. European immigrants had fallen to 16.1 per cent, while Asians had risen to 58.3 per cent. The Europeans today come mainly from Britain, Italy, Poland, Portugal or Romania, while Asians come predominantly from China, India, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Surely, this demographic reversal is not an accident. While immigration has been described as a “push” from the Third World towards the “pull” of the First World, any country can fine-tune its ethnic mix by simply switching the resources that support its various visa programmes. For example, it can safely be said that Canada’s ability to process immigration applications from China and India has multiplied over the last three decades, even as resources have been moved away from last-century source nations such as Britain and France.

Exactly a century ago, the “sifting” was done somewhat differently. The then minister in charge of immigration, Sir Clifford Sifton, in an essay titled “The Battle of the Pioneer” defended his selection of immigrants in the following words: “The American settlers did not need sifting; they were of the finest quality and the most desirable settlers. In Great Britain, we confined our efforts very largely to the North of England and Scotland, and for the purpose of sifting the settlers we doubled the bonuses to the agents in the North of England, and cut them down as much as possible in the South. The result was that we got a fairly steady stream of people from the North of England and from Scotland and they were the very best settlers in the world.”

In another portion of the same essay, Sir Sifton wrote, “I think a stalwart peasant in a sheep-skin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for ten generations, with a stout wife and a half-dozen children, is good quality.”

A hundred years on, the criteria have changed dramatically and so has the nature of the “agents” Canada posts abroad to screen immigrant applications. For instance, farmers have been replaced by university-educated professionals as the mainstay of Canada’s immigration programme, but the desire to select the cream of the crop and compete against other newcomer-welcoming nations such as Australia and Britain remains undiminished.

For, Canada is but one of several Western nations competing for immigrants in what Philippe Legrain, a British economist and writer, has called the “global talent contest” for high-skilled manpower. However, outcomes for immigrants from different regions of the world still vary, with Asians lagging far behind Europeans.

As pollster and bestselling author Michael Adams says, “[W]hen a 23 per cent earnings gap prevails between whites and non-whites it’s hard to deny that something smells rotten.” Studies have shown that the average income gap is roughly $10,000 annually.

George Abraham is an Ottawa-based commentator. Reach him at

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