Recent Immigrants in Metropolitan Areas: Canada—A Comparative Profile Based on the 2001 Census

Part A: Immigrants and Recent Immigrants

5.4 million immigrants live in Canada

In 2001, there were 5.4 million people who were born in other countries and were permanent residents in Canada. They accounted for 18% of Canada’s population of 29.6 million. Immigrants have increased in number and as a share of the population over the previous fifteen years.

Table A-1: Immigrants, Canadian-born and total population, Canada, 1986, 1996 and 2001 (number and percentage distribution)
  Census of Population
  1986 1996 2001
Immigrants 3,908,200 16% 4,971,100 17% 5,448,500 18%
Canadian-born 21,113,900 84% 23,390,300 82% 23,991,900 81%
Total population $25,022,000 100% $28,528,100 100% $29,639,000 100%

Note: In Table A-1, total population for 1996 and 2001 includes non-permanent residents as well as immigrants and the Canadian-born. Non-permanent residents are included only in Table A-1 and are not included in any population numbers elsewhere in this report unless otherwise indicated.

There have been two fundamental changes in Canada’s immigration policy in the last several decades. The first occurred in 1967, when preferential access for persons from European countries was abolished. The second change was an increase in the level of immigration starting in the second half of the 1980s and continuing to this day. The average annual number of immigrants increased from 102,000 in the first half of the 1980s to 164,000 in the second half of that decade, 235,000 in the next five years and 204,000 during 1996 to 2000. This steady high level of immigration compared to the years before 1986 has caused the immigrant population to increase in number and as a share of the population.

2.5 million immigrants landed after 1985

In 2001, there were 2.5 million people living in Canada who had immigrated after 1985 from just about every country in the world. These “recent immigrants” make up 46% of Canada’s 5.4 million immigrants and 8.4% of Canada’s population of 29.6 million. They are the focus of this report.

The number of immigrants living in Canada who landed since 1985 is smaller than the number who actually landed, due to out-migration and deaths since their arrival.

Table A-2: Immigrants by period of immigration, Canada, 2001 (number and percentage distribution)
Period of immigration Number of
Share of
all immigrants
Share of
the population
Before 1961 894,500 16.4% 3.0%
1961-1970 745,600 13.7% 2.5%
1971-1980 936,300 17.2% 3.2%
1981-1985 380,300 7.0% 1.3%
Earlier immigrants 2,956,600 54.3% 10.0%
1986-1990 661,200 12.1% 2.2%
1991-1995 867,400 15.9% 2.9%
1996-2001 963,300 17.7% 3.3%
Recent immigrants 2,491,900 45.7% 8.4%
Total 5,448,500 100.0% 18.4%

Almost one million immigrants living in Canada—nearly two in five recent immigrants—landed during the nearly five and one-half years from the beginning of 1996 to May 15, 2001. These very recent immigrants account for 3.3% of Canada’s population and 18% of the total immigrant population in 2001.

In this report, these very recent immigrants are generally featured separately from the recent immigrants who landed during the 1986-1995 period. The characteristics and circumstances of both groups of recent immigrants are compared with those of earlier immigrants—persons who landed before 1986—and the Canadian-born.

Canada has a large foreign-born population compared to other countries

Among OECD countries, Canada ranks as one of the major immigrant-receiving countries, along with Australia, the United States and New Zealand. There are six times as many foreign-born persons living in the United States as in Canada, but in that country the foreign-born make up 11% of the population, compared to 18% in Canada. Canada has 5.4 million foreign-born, more than Australia’s 4.4 million, but in Australia the foreign-born account for 23% of the population.

In Canada, the population share of the foreign-born has been gradually increasing since 1986. This is also the case in the United States. In Australia, the share has declined recently. This is a result mainly of differences in immigration inflows.

Some European countries also have data on the foreign-born or immigrant population, and in some of these countries the relative size of this population is similar to that in the United States. As a result, these countries, like Canada, are enriched by cultural and linguistic diversity and face the challenge of adjustment of the foreign-born to their society and economy. Among immigrants in European countries are the so-called guest workers—mainly persons from Mediterranean countries in Europe, Africa and Asia—persons born in former colonies, persons born in other countries of the European Union, and refugees. The foreign-born also include people born in other member countries of the European Union.

Table A-3: Immigrant population and acquisition of citizenship in selected countries (in thousands)
  2001 or most recent year Annual average 1996-2000
  Immigrant population Share of the population New immigrants admitted New citizenships granted
Canada 5,449 18% 207 164
Australia 4,482 23% 88 96
U.S. 31,811 11% 773 767
France (1999 data) 5,868 10% 112 129
Netherlands 1,675 10% 60* 63
Sweden 1,028 12% 21* 36
Foreign nationals
France (1999 data) 3,263 6% 112 129
Germany 7,319 9% 62* 249
Japan 1,779 1% 91* 15
Sweden 476 5% 21* 36
Switzerland 1,419 20% 16* 22
United Kingdom 2,587 4% 293 54
European Union     1,280 623
North America 37,260   980 931
Asylum seekers
European Union     318  
North America     90  

Note: Data are taken from several tables in Trends in International Migration, 2003, Continuous Reporting System on Migration (SOPEMI), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). An asterisk marks a net flow; other numbers indicate new entrants only.

Other countries have data by nationality, not place of birth. For France and Sweden, both the foreign-born and the foreign-nationality population are known, and the latter is considerably smaller as many foreign-born have adopted the nationality of the host country. In other countries, the number of persons with a foreign nationality is smaller than the number born outside the country. The size of the difference varies depending on how long immigrants have lived in the country and on policies regarding acquisition of citizenship. It is clear, however, that Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom must each have a large foreign-born population. Having a large foreign-born population is not unique to the traditional immigration countries, but is also the order of the day for member states of the European Union as well. Japan’s foreign population is relatively small at 1.8 million, representing 1.4% of the total population.

In Canada, the United States and Australia, the lion’s share of immigrants remains in the country for a long time, but this is not quite the case in Europe. Some countries, like Germany, have large in-and-outflows and modest net flows.

The rate at which people adopt the nationality of the host country depends to a high degree on the policies of that country. In Europe, rates vary from about 2% to 10% of the foreign population on average over 1996-2000, and they have undergone considerable change during this period, without a common pattern.

Finally, in recent years, the countries of the European Union have received more new immigrants than North America (Canada and the United States)—including flows between countries within these two groups—and also a much larger inflow of asylum seekers, that is, people who apply for refugee status after arriving in the country.

Clearly, high levels of immigration and large foreign populations are found in almost all OECD countries. Canada is not alone, and immigration is not limited to the traditional immigration countries. To make this point is all we can do here. The variety of policies and experiences of OECD countries and the variety of ways in which countries record the relevant facts make it impossible to say more in this brief profile.

Four out of five eligible recent immigrants have become Canadian citizens

By 2001, a large majority of immigrants who landed in Canada during 1986 to 1995 (81%) had become Canadian citizens. Recent immigrants from most countries are becoming Canadians in high proportions, from 70% to close to 100%. Of the top countries of birth of immigrants who landed during the 1986-1995 period, more than 90% of those from Hong Kong and Vietnam had obtained Canadian citizenship by 2001. Between 70 and 90% of those from China, India, the Philippines, Poland and Sri Lanka had done the same. (See Table B-1 for the top ten countries of birth.)

A significant share of immigrants from Western Europe and a few other countries—the United Kingdom, the United States and Jamaica among the top ten—are postponing or forgoing Canadian citizenship. The rate of acquisition of Canadian citizenship by persons who immigrated to Canada from these countries during the 1986-1995 period is less than 70%, the lowest being 31% for Australia. For western European countries especially, the rate of naturalisation has dropped significantly from levels above 80% for earlier immigrants.

Immigrants from these countries may want to keep open the option of returning to their country of birth, or retaining the right to settle and work in any member state of the European Union. Depending on policies in countries of birth, people may not be able to retain their original nationality if they become Canadian citizens. Immigrants from some countries may also retain their original nationality in order that their children born in Canada may obtain that same nationality in addition to being Canadian citizens by virtue of being born in Canada.

Overall, however, the rate at which recent immigrants become citizens of Canada is not falling. The large majority of immigrants who remain in Canada clearly continue to opt for Canadian citizenship. A total of 81% of immigrants who landed six to fifteen years before May 2001 had already done so by then, compared to 80% five years earlier, at the time of the 1996 Census. Many more are likely to follow in the years to come.

One in seven immigrants (14%) who landed during the 1986-1995 period had acquired Canadian citizenship while retaining the citizenship of another country. Dual citizenship is more common among recent than earlier immigrants. Among immigrants who landed in Canada before 1986, one in ten reported dual citizenship in 2001.

The incidence of dual citizenship among immigrants who landed six to fifteen years before the census was lower in 2001 (14%) than in 1996 (19%).

Table A-4: Acquisition of Canadian citizenship by country of birth, Canada, 2001
More than 90 per cent of Canada’s immigrants who landed in Canada during 1986-1995 and were born in these countries have become Canadian citizens: Less than 70 per cent of Canada’s immigrants who landed in Canada during 1986-1995 and were born in these countries have become Canadian citizens: More than one-quarter of Canada’s immigrants who landed in Canada during 1986-1995 and were born in these countries have dual citizenship:

Hong Kong
Viet Nam
Russian Federation

United States
United Kingdom
South Korea
Percent of immigrants with Canadian citizenship (including those with dual citizenship) Percent of immigrants with dual citizenship
Immigrated before 1986 89% Immigrated before 1986 10%
Immigrated 1986-1995 81% Immigrated 1986-1995 14%

Note: Countries of birth are listed from highest to lowest rate of Canadian citizenship in column one, lowest to highest citizenship rate in column two, and highest to lowest rate of dual citizenship in column three. Citizenship refers to a person’s legal citizenship status, as reported in the 2001 Census. In Canada, there is a residence requirement of three years before Canadian citizenship can be acquired. As a result, many immigrants who landed in Canada between 1996 and 2001 were not yet eligible for Canadian citizenship at the time the census was carried out in 2001. For this reason, this group is not considered here. Instead, the table focuses on persons who immigrated between 1986 and 1995.


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