More than one million immigrants arrived in Canada in the last five years, settling in a country that is now home to 150 languages and people from more than 200 countries.
The country’s foreign-born population has reached its highest level since the beginning of the Great Depression, with nearly one-in-five people born abroad, according to newly released census figures.
“We’re adding cultural diversity to a wide range of cities in Canada, both large and small,” says Tom Carter, a geography professor specializing in urban studies at the University of Winnipeg. “They’re filling jobs, they’re creating businesses, they’re renewing neighbourhoods.”
An estimated 6.2 million foreign-born people lived in Canada at the time of the 2006 census, representing about 20 per cent of the total population. That’s the highest proportion since 1931, when those born abroad accounted for just over 22 per cent.
Among Western nations that are major immigrant magnets, Canada is now second only to Australia in its multiculturalism. Twenty-two per cent of Australia’s population is foreign-born, while the U.S. counts just under 13 per cent.
The foreign-born population has grown four times faster than the Canadian-born population since the previous census in 2001, accounting for more than two-thirds (69 per cent) of the country’s population growth.
Almost six-in-10 (58 per cent) newcomers who arrived between 2001 and 2006 were born in Asia and the Middle East. For the first time, Canada is home to more people from Asia and the Middle East than from Europe, at 41 per cent compared to 37 per cent.
Immigrants have injected some much-needed youthfulness into Canada’s labour market and aging society. Fifty-seven per cent of those who arrived in the last five years were in the prime working age group of 25 to 54, while only 42 per cent of the Canadian-born population is in that bracket. At the same time, almost 12 per cent of native-born Canadians are 65 or older, while just three per cent of recent immigrants to Canada fit into that age group.
“The gap or the need for labour has been filled by the immigrant worker, who plays a very vital role in the growth of cities,” says Alan Green, an emeritus professor of economics at Queen’s University.
Without immigration, there would be only two ways to fuel the workforce, he says: natural increase (more births than deaths) or movement from rural to urban areas. Both have levelled off in Canada in recent years, Green says, making the economic role of immigrants more important.
However, it’s not always easy for immigrants to find jobs, says Victoria’s Fanny He, 48, who worked as an English teacher in her native China and moved to Canada two years ago with her son. Her husband remains in Beijing because there are better business opportunities there for him, and the family reunites every six months or so. She attends workshops at the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society and continues to look for a job in Canada.
“As far as immigrants are concerned, they need more help to settle down and get familiar with the living style,” He says.
She initially settled in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond where her sister lives, later moving to Victoria to be close to her 23-year-old son while he attends university. Despite the challenges, He says she would recommend life in Canada to prospective immigrants with enough financial resources to establish themselves.
“I find people here are quite warm-hearted and most them are ready to help you,” she says. “There are many immigrants here from many different parts of the world. I like to meet new people, we can share different cultures, different lifestyles.”
The vast majority of immigrants are drawn to Canada’s cities, often because of job prospects, family members or friends. Almost 95 per cent of the foreign-born population lives in an urban community, compared to 78 per cent of the Canadian-born population. Canada’s three largest cities—Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver—alone are home to almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of the foreign-born population and attracted almost seven in ten new immigrants since 2001.
“It really makes Canada’s cities international. It makes them a place of global connections and global talent,” says Ratna Omidvar, executive director of the Maytree Foundation, a Toronto-based private foundation dedicated to immigration issues. “Urban centres in Canada will have more in common with Washington D.C., L.A. and New York. Smaller cities in Canada like Thunder Bay will have more in common with smaller cities in the United States.”
That said, mid-sized urban centres such as Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and London, Ont. have attracted gradually rising numbers of immigrants in recent years.
The numbers also suggest Canada’s immigrants are fully committing to their new home, which Omidvar describes as “fabulous” news. Of immigrants who qualify for citizenship, the vast majority (85 per cent) had chosen to become Canadian citizens, with even higher numbers among those who had lived in the country longer.
“We are very proud that the overwhelming majority of those eligible for Canadian citizenship have chosen to take it,” Citizenship and Immigration Minister Diane Finley said via e-mail. “It speaks to what a great country we have that so many want to be a part of it.”