Significant events in the history of Asian communities in Canada

Since the late-1700s, people of Asian origin have made important contributions to Canada’s history and identity. Each year, as part of its annual Asian Heritage Month campaign, the Government of Canada encourages all people in Canada to learn about how people of Asian origin have and continue to help shape Canada as we know it today. Below are just a few examples of the numerous diverse communities of Asian heritage which trace their ancestry back to more than 40 different countries, each with their own unique history and lived experiences.

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Communities of East Asian heritage in Canada

Communities of Chinese heritage in Canada

In May 1788, the British fur trader, Captain John Meares arrived at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island with 50 Chinese artisans who helped build a trading post. The following year, an additional 70 Chinese workers arrived to help build a fort and a schooner. With the discovery of gold in British Columbia in 1858, Chinese immigrants from San Francisco began arriving in the Fraser River Valley the following year. Later on, Barkerville, British Columbia was established as the first Chinese community in Canada.

Between 1881 and 1884, over 17,000 Chinese immigrants arrived in Canada to build the Canadian Pacific Railway, and later to maintain it. Several thousand came from the coastal areas of the United States where they had helped to build the American transcontinental railroad, but the majority arrived directly from southern China. The province of British Columbia already had a sizeable Chinese population, and racism towards the Chinese community was widespread. The media of the time often portrayed Chinese cultural practices such as clothing styles, living conditions, and even funeral rites, in a degrading way.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, people of Chinese origin have settled in urban areas and large cities across Canada. Chinatowns were developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, and have served as major hubs for businesses and family life for many people of Chinese origin in Canada. Unfortunately, well into the 1930s, restrictive legislation in some cities inhibited people of Chinese origin in Canada from investing in properties outside of the Chinatown areas.

Legislation Targeting Chinese Immigrants

Through the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885, a $50 head tax was imposed on every Chinese person seeking entry into Canada, marking a period of legislated anti-Chinese racism. The head tax followed the building and completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (1881-85), which brought Chinese workers to Canada. These workers were needed as a labour force but not deemed desirable as citizens because of their country of origin. The head tax was raised to $100 in 1900 and to $500 in 1903 in further attempts to make immigration prohibitive for Chinese individuals. Additionally, the Electoral Franchise Act of 1885 disenfranchised all immigrants of Chinese origin, making them ineligible to vote in federal elections.

Despite the head tax, Chinese immigrants continued to settle in Canada. On July 1, 1923, Dominion Day, Parliament passed the Chinese Immigration Act. The Act is commonly referred to as the "Chinese Exclusion Act," because it largely restricted all Chinese immigration to Canada by narrowly defining the acceptable categories of Chinese immigrants and prevented many residents from reuniting with their families. Since the Act was passed on Dominion Day, the Chinese Canadian community called it "Humiliation Day," as this Act was perceived as the ultimate form of humiliation.

The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 was repealed in 1947. During the years the Act was in force, fewer than 50 Chinese immigrants were allowed to come to Canada.

Apology in the House of Commons

On June 22, 2006, the Government of Canada apologized in the House of Commons to people of Chinese origin in Canada who paid the head tax, their families, and Chinese communities across Canada.

Montreal Chinese Hospital

The Montreal Chinese Hospital was established in 1918 when Mother (Superior) Mary of the Holy Spirit, of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception set up a temporary facility to meet the medical needs of the Chinese community during the influenza epidemic. A year later, the Chinese community, with support from the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, acquired a former synagogue and converted it into a hospital which officially opened in 1920. By 1962, the hospital building had become outdated and following a successful fundraising campaign, a new facility was opened in 1965. In 1971, the Montreal Chinese Hospital became public and served as a long-term care hospital with an outpatient clinic offering a variety of medical services. In 1999, the Montreal Chinese Hospital opened its current 128-bed hospital, which offers services that are particularly adapted for people from the Chinese and Southeast Asian communities.

The Canadian Pacific Railway

In 1871, British Columbia became Canada's sixth province. A key point that persuaded the province to enter Confederation was Canada's promise to build a railway to connect the Pacific coast to the rest of the country. One of the hardest parts of building the Canadian Pacific Railway was cutting through the Rocky Mountains.

Chinese workers were employed for several reasons. The most important reason was that, before the railroad was built, the easiest way to bring large numbers of labourers to British Columbia was by water across the Pacific or northwards from California. With the increasing demand for labour in British Columbia, Chinese labourers were indispensable. However, Chinese workers were paid lower wages than white workers, even though they were more experienced and efficient.

Among the Chinese crews were experienced workers who had helped to build railways in the United States. They cut out a path for the railway, tearing down trees and clearing undergrowth. They removed rubble from tunnels in the mountains and cut away hills. To build up roadbeds, they dug ditches for drainage on both sides of the path and then built mounds of crushed rock and gravel. The tracks and ties were laid on top of this path.

Railway construction lasted from 1880 to 1885. During this time, about 7,000 Chinese workers arrived in British Columbia, but they did not all stay for the entire job. At any single point of time, about 3,500 Chinese workers were on hand. They formed three-quarters of the total railway workforce in the province.

Many workers died from dynamite accidents, landslides, rockslides, cave-ins, cases of scurvy because of inadequate food, other maladies, fatigue, drowning, and a lack of medical aid. The death count of Chinese workers over the entire construction period has been estimated to be between 600 and 2,200 workers.

The right to vote

Throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, most Canadians of Asian origin were denied the right to vote in federal and provincial elections. While the federal Electoral Franchise Act (1885) denied Canadians of Chinese origin the right to vote, new legislation in 1898 did permit other Canadians of Asian origin to vote. In 1920, the Dominion Elections Act took federal voting rights away from individuals who were denied provincial voting rights because of their race. As a result, people of Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian origin in British Columbia were denied the right to vote. In Saskatchewan, people of Chinese origin were also disenfranchised.

In 1948, this section of the Dominion Elections Act was repealed. The following year, this change came into effect, and people of Japanese origin also regained the right to live anywhere in Canada. Also that year, in British Columbia, the Provincial Election Act was amended to allow all racialized groups, excluding Doukhobors, to vote provincially.

Communities of Japanese heritage in Canada

Manzo Nagano, the first Japanese person to come to Canada, settled in Victoria in 1877. The 2 main waves of immigration from Japan to Canada occurred between 1877 and 1928, and after 1967. Many people of Japanese origin settled in the Fraser Valley and along the Pacific coastline while others settled in cities in Alberta. By the 1930s, approximately 23,000 people of Japanese origin were living in Canada.

Japanese internment during the Second World War

Shortly after Japan's entry into the Second World War on December 7, 1941, people of Japanese origin were forcibly removed from Canada's West Coast. Although there was very little evidence to show that people of Japanese origin posed any threat to Canada's security, "military necessity" was used as a justification for their mass removal and incarceration.

The order in 1942, to leave the "restricted area" and move 100 miles (160 km) inland from the West Coast, was made under the authority of the War Measures Act, and it affected more than 21,000 people of Japanese origin. Many were first held in the livestock barns in Hastings Park (Vancouver's Pacific National Exhibition grounds) before being moved to hastily-built camps known as "interior housing centres" in British Columbia. At first, many men were separated from their families and sent to road camps in Ontario and on the British Columbia/Alberta border. Small towns in the British Columbia Interior — such as Greenwood, Sandon, New Denver, and Slocan — became internment quarters, mainly for women, children, and the aged. To stay together, some families agreed to work on sugar beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba, where there were labour shortages. Those who resisted and challenged the orders from the Government of Canada were arrested by the RCMP and incarcerated in a barbed-wire prisoner-of-war camp in Angler, Ontario.

Despite government promises to the contrary, the "Custodian of Enemy Alien Property" sold the property confiscated from people of Japanese origin, and the proceeds were used to pay auctioneers and realtors, as well as storage and handling fees. The remainder paid for the small allowances given to those in internment camps. Unlike prisoners of war of enemy nations who were protected by the Geneva Convention, people of Japanese origin were forced to pay for their own internment. Their movements were restricted and their mail censored.

As the Second World War drew to a close, people of Japanese origin were strongly encouraged to prove their "loyalty to Canada" by immediately "moving east of the Rockies" or signing papers agreeing to be "repatriated" to Japan when the war was over. Many moved to the Prairie Provinces while others moved to Ontario and Quebec. About 4,000, half of whom were Canadian-born and one third of whom were dependent children under the age of 16, were exiled to Japan in 1946.

Apology in the House of Commons

In September 1988, the Government of Canada formally apologized in the House of Commons and offered compensation for wrongful incarceration, seizure of property, and the disenfranchisement of people of Japanese origin during the Second World War.

Communities of Korean heritage in Canada

The first Koreans came to Canada on a temporary basis to train as missionaries beginning in the 1890s. In 1963, Canada formally established diplomatic relations with South Korea, but until the Canadian embassy in South Korea opened in 1973, most Koreans who came to Canada continued to do so on a temporary basis, for education and work opportunities. After 1973, the first significant wave of permanent Korean immigrants came to Canada. Over 26,000 immigrants arrived in a decade, which formed the basis of the Korean community in Canada today. Since then, immigration numbers have shifted based on social, economic, and political conditions in each country, ranging from 1,000 immigrants to nearly 10,000 each year. Most Korean immigrants arriving in Canada on a permanent basis were skilled workers or professionals and settled in urban centres such as Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Edmonton, and Calgary. The 2021 Census recorded 217,650 people of Korean origin in Canada.

Notably, both Vancouver and Toronto publish several daily Korean-language newspapers, including local editions of JoongAng IlboHankook Ilbo, and Chosun Ilbo. Additionally, Korean television and radio programs are broadcast across the country, and subtitled versions of popular Korean TV dramas are often available on multicultural cable channels.

Communities of South Asian heritage in Canada

Communities of South Asian heritage in Canada reflect the cultural diversity of South Asia. The languages and dialects of the region, as well as the religious diversity, which includes, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Jainism, are all now part of Canadian identity. Immigration from South Asia to Canada began in the late 19th century when a number of Sikhs from Punjab, India came to British Columbia to work in the lumber, mining, and railway industries, and later in agriculture. By the early 1900s, these new and expanding communities drew racial hostility and resentment, similar to what was directed towards other minority communities. The Government of the day started to take measures that limited the rights and privileges of minority communities in Canada.

Continuous journey regulation

In 1908, the Immigration Act was amended to include the Government of Canada's "continuous journey regulation" which prohibited the landing of any immigrant who did not come to Canada by continuous journey from the country of which they were natives or citizens.

This created a significant barrier to immigrants from South Asia as trips from most of the region included stops. This regulation also made it impossible for those who were also British subjects to enter Canada as immigrants.

The Komagata Maru incident eventually challenged this Act.

Komagata Maru

On April 4, 1914, the Komagata Maru sailed from Hong Kong through Shanghai and the Japanese ports of Moji and Yokohama, finally arriving in Vancouver, British Columbia in May 1914. Its passengers, mostly Sikhs from Punjab, India, and all British subjects, challenged the continuous journey regulation of Canada's Immigration Act, which had been put in place in part to limit immigration from non-European countries.

The regulation stated that immigrants must "come from the country of their birth, or citizenship, by a continuous journey and on through tickets purchased before leaving the country of their birth, or citizenship." Because the majority of the passengers did not meet these criteria, the Komagata Maru was denied docking by the authorities. Only twenty returning residents and the ship's doctor and his family were eventually granted admission to Canada. After two months under difficult conditions, the ship and most of its passengers were forced to return to India where, in a subsequent clash with British soldiers, 19 passengers died.

Immigration reform

Although the continuous journey regulation remained in effect until 1947, racial and national restrictions were removed from Canadian immigration regulations throughout the 1950s and 1960s. During this period, the size and diversity of South Asian communities in Canada expanded as immigrants from India and Pakistan sought opportunities in Canada's increasingly urban industrial society.

Apology in the House of Commons

On May 28, 2016, the Government of Canada made a formal apology for the Komagata Maru incident in the House of Commons to the victims and their relatives.

Communities of Southeast Asian heritage in Canada

Communities of Filipino heritage in Canada

People from the Philippines began immigrating to Canada in 1931, however it was not until the 1990s that immigration increased as more Filipinos came to fill gaps in the Canadian labour market, particularly as a backbone to care provider roles such as nursing and patient service associates in which the Filipino community in Canada represented 30% of these roles, according to the 2016 Census. Over the last few decades, people of Filipino heritage in Canada have established themselves as integral members of urban centers like Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal, Calgary, and Edmonton.

Currently, there are a variety of Filipino associations across Canada that foster and participate in community festivals and civic celebrations. Communities of Filipino heritage in Canada have also established newspapers, magazines, as well as TV and radio stations.

Southeast Asian refugee settlement in Canada

During the late 1970s and the 1980s, Canada participated in the resettlement of Southeast Asians from countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

Following the end of the Vietnam War, unrest in the region led many to emigrate from their countries of origin. By 1975, the people who were fleeing a number of Southeast Asian countries were often being referred to as "boat people" because Vietnamese people were using boats to flee their country. The term "boat people" is inaccurate and insensitive, because those leaving from Cambodia and Laos did so over land.

During this time, the Government of Canada was reforming its policies on immigration and refugees. In 1969, Canada signed the United Nations Convention related to the Status of Refugees which obligated the nation to participate in the international protection of refugees. In addition, the new Immigration Act which came into effect in 1978, made it easier for refugees to immigrate to Canada. Eventually, Canada accepted approximately 200,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees - the highest rate per capita in relation to other nations.

The Hai Hong incident

In October 1978, the Hai Hong was sailing from Vietnam with 2,500 refugees when it was blown off course and hit by a typhoon. Because the ship was too damaged to continue sailing and the passengers were quickly running out of food, the Governments of Canada and Quebec were the first to offer refuge to hundreds of the Hai Hong's passengers. Other countries soon followed.

Journey to freedom

On November 13, 1986, Canada was awarded the Nansen Medal by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In 2015, Parliament passed the Journey to Freedom Day Act, which designated April 30th as a national day of commemoration of the exodus of Vietnamese refugees and their acceptance in Canada.

Communities of West Asian heritage in Canada

It is widely believed that the first Arab immigrant to Canada was a Lebanese man named Ibrahim Abou Nader in 1882 who came from the city of Zahleh, then in Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifate, an autonomous territory within the Ottoman Empire. He settled in Montreal.

Communities of Iranian heritage in Canada

The history of Iranian immigrant settlements in Canada is relatively new, with only small numbers of Iranians living in Canada into the 1950s and 1960s. Immigration figures increased significantly following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which overthrew the country’s monarchy and brought the Islamic government to power. The majority of immigrants arriving in Canada from Iran were doing so to escape political, cultural, and/or religious persecution. In the 21st century, Iran has been one of the top birthplaces of recent immigrants to Canada, behind only the Philippines, India, and China. The 2021 Census reported 200,465 people of Iranian origin in Canada. The vast majority of people of Iranian origin in Canada live in large urban centres in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia.

People of Iranian origin in Canada form a diverse mix of sub-communities within the common language of Farsi/Persian. Popular cultural activities include concerts, plays, film screenings, sports, art exhibitions, and volunteer organizations. Several Farsi/Persian weekly newspapers are available, including Shahrvand, the largest weekly Farsi newspaper in North America. In major Canadian cities, there are many support organizations for the Iranian community, including for new immigrants, Iranian community organizations, and language schools.

Communities of Israeli heritage in Canada

The State of Israel was created in 1948, which inaugurated strong relations between Canada and the newly minted State, as well as strong ties between Jewish communities in Canada and Israel.

Eventually, organizations such as the Canada-Israel Committee was established to strengthen relations between Jews in Canada and Israel, including linkages with hospitals, social development projects, and academia. According to the 2021 Census 35,345 people in Canada claim full or partial Israeli ancestry, making Canada home to one of the largest Israeli diaspora groups in the world. The bilateral relationship is further strengthened by the Canada-Israel Strategic Partnership Memorandum of Understanding, an agreement that promotes cooperation in areas such as energy, security, international aid and development, innovation, and the promotion of human rights.

On November 7, 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a formal apology in the House of Commons for Canada’s refusal, in 1939, to accept refugees from the MS St. Louis, a boat with over 900 German Jewish passengers. The St. Louis was forced to return to Germany and 254 of its passengers were murdered in the Holocaust.

Since 2009, Canada has been a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an intergovernmental body whose purpose is to place political and social leaders’ support behind the need for Holocaust education, remembrance, and research.

Communities of Lebanese heritage in Canada

Canada has welcomed Lebanese immigrants since the 1880s and today over 200,000 people in Canada claim Lebanese ancestry. In 2001, people of Lebanese origin in Canada were the 6th largest non-European ethnic group in the country and live primarily in Ontario and Quebec. There are also smaller but significant communities in Atlantic Canada, notably in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. People of Lebanese origin in Canada are multi-faith communities that includes several Christian denominations, Shia and Sunni Muslims as well as Druze.

On August 18, 2020 The Honourable Francois-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Foreign Affairs, met with members of the Lebanese communities in Montreal to offer his condolences and support to the communities who had family members affected by a devastating explosion in the port of Beirut August 4, 2020.

Today, Lebanese communities in Canada are vibrant and contribute to all sectors of society.

Communities of Syrian heritage in Canada

The first wave of Syrian immigrants to Canada began during the late 1800s. By 1911, approximately 2,000 Syrian immigrants had settled in Canada. Throughout this period, many Syrian immigrants were Christians from present-day Lebanon. Early Christian immigrants left Syria due to the fear of a resurgence of the Christian-Druze conflict, to avoid military conscription, and to improve their economic status. Severe restrictions on the admission of immigrants from Asia following World War I resulted in a significant decrease of Syrian immigration figures over the next 40 years. Nevertheless, in the 1960s and thereafter, Syrian immigration to Canada began to increase substantially over time. Several of the early Syrian immigrants arriving in Canada joined the labour force through the informal service sector and later began their entrepreneurial careers. However, post-war immigrants arrived with greater educational and occupational credentials to follow professional and other white-collar careers.

Because of civil unrest and violent conflict in Syria, the Government of Canada made a commitment with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and private sponsors to begin Operation Syrian Refugees (OSR). Between November 4, 2015 and February 2016, as part of the #WelcomeRefugees Initiative, Canada resettled 26,166 Syrian refugees in communities all across the country. According to Statistics Canada, from 2016 to 2021, 60,795 new Syrian-born refugees were admitted and living in Canada, accounting for over one-quarter (27.8%) of the new refugees in the country.

In the 2021 Census, Statistics Canada reported 98,250 people of Syrian origin in Canada. The majority of people of Syrian origin in Canada live in Montreal and Gatineau, Quebec, followed by Toronto, Ottawa, and London, Ontario. Various organizations have also been established to support the Syrian communities such as language schools, women’s auxiliary associations, and community organizations.

Communities of Central Asian heritage in Canada

Communities of Central Asian heritage in Canada include diverse communities from the countries of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Communities of Afghan heritage in Canada

The Afghan population in Canada remained low up until 1978 but has grown significantly following the 1978 coup led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan and subsequent Soviet invasion in 1979. Between 1981 and 1995, around 10,000 Afghans arrived in Canada as refugees and asylum seekers, and another 11,000 arrived between 1996 and 2001. Between 2001 and 2016, Canada welcomed around 37,000 Afghans to Canada. The 2021 Census reported approximately 96,810 Afghans living in Canada, predominately in urban centres such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Since August 2021, the Government of Canada has welcomed 50,365 Afghans through several programs, including the Special Immigration Measures Program for Afghans who assisted the Government of Canada, a humanitarian program, and a permanent residence pathway for extended family members of former interpreters.

The Afghan population in Canada comes from diverse ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds which has been integrated into Canadian community life through arts and culture, and cuisine.

Canada is home to several prominent Afghan singers who were well established in Afghanistan before migrating to Canada. While a new generation of Afghan-Canadian musicians and singers, such as Qais Ulfat, Muzhda Jamalzada (Mozdah Jamalzadah) and many others, who were either born or have grown up in Canada, continue their Afghan artistic tradition and have also become famous in Afghanistan.

In addition to contributing to the cultural diversity of Canada, Afghan Canadians are active contributors to Canadian political life. In 2015, the Honourable Maryam Monsef became the first Canadian of Afghan origin to be elected as a Member of Parliament and the first Muslim to serve as a federal Cabinet Minister.

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