Canada’s Increasing Cultural Diversity

by Doug Norris, Ph.D. | May 14, 2013

Dr. Doug Norris, Senior Vice President and Chief Demographer, Environics Analytics

The first results from the new 2011 National Household Survey, which replaced the Census long form, were just released. The new data underscore the increasing cultural diversity of Canada along two main dimensions: the growing Aboriginal population and the impact of immigration over the years.

Canada is widely known as a country of immigrants, and it has welcomed over 17 million immigrants since confederation.  In 2011, there were 6.8 million people who were foreign born in Canada, accounting for 20.6% the total population. This is an increase from 19.8% in 2001 and means that Canada’s immigrant population is now at its highest level in 80 years.  Canada already has the highest concentration of foreign born among G-8 countries (the U.S. has a foreign-born population of 13%). Around the world, Australia has a higher concentration of foreign born, at close to 27% of its population.

In 2011, there were 6.8 million people who were foreign born in Canada, accounting for 20.6% the total population. 

Of course, some immigrants have been in Canada for many years while others are new arrivals. The NHS reported 1.2 million had arrived during the 2006-2011 period. In addition, there were 356,000 temporary or non-permanent residents in Canada at the time the NHS was conducted. The vast majority of immigrants who were eligible (85.6%) have claimed their Canadian citizenship.

However, immigrant settlement patterns are changing. In recent decades, most immigrants settled in Canada’s largest urban areas, and it is therefore no surprise that Toronto (46%) and Vancouver (40%) still contain the highest concentration of immigrants. Next is Calgary, at 26%, and many other urban areas now have concentrations of 10% to 25%. Although the majority of recent immigrants settle in the Toronto or Vancouver CMAs (census metropolitan areas), settlement patterns have begun to spread out. The NHS data show large increases in immigration to places like Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg. Many smaller places also showed large increases in immigration. Although smaller in terms of the numbers of immigrants, these influxes result in significant population increases in these areas.

Over the past 50 years, there has been a dramatic shift in the source countries of immigrants to Canada. Prior to 1961, close to 90% of immigrants came from Europe. In the recent 2006-2011 period, fewer than 15% arrived from Europe. In contrast, 57% came from Asia and the Middle East, 12.5% from Africa, and 12.3% from the Caribbean, Central and South America. In 2011, China, India and the United Kingdom were the top source countries, with each accounting for about 540,000 immigrants, and the Philippines was next with 454,000 immigrants. However, from 2006 to 2011 the Philippines was the top country for immigrants, more than doubling Canada’s Filipino population over the 2001-2006 period. 


Changes in Canada’s religious make-up are also revealed in the NHS data. In 2011, 67% of the total population reported affiliation with a Christian denomination, down from 77% in 2001, the last time Statistics Canada collected religious data. In contrast, 24% reported no religious affiliation—up from 16% in 2001. The impact of recent immigration was reflected in the growing population reporting a non-Christian religion, accounting for close to 10% of the total population.  Slightly over one million identified themselves as Muslim—3.2% of the population. Significant numbers of Canadians reported other larger, non-Christian religious affiliations, including Hindu (498,000), Sikh (455,000), Buddhist (367,000) and Jewish (330,000).

Visible Minority Population

The visible minority population is growing and changing. In 2011, 6.3 million, or close to one in five persons (19.1%), identified themselves as a member of one of ten main groups: South Asian, Chinese, Black, Filipino, Latin American, Arab, Southeast Asian, West Asian, Korean and Japanese. This was up from 16.2% in 2006. The largest visible minority groups were South Asian (1.6 million) and Chinese (1.3 million), followed by Blacks (946,000) and Filipinos (619,000).  Reflecting immigration trends, most of the visible minority population lives in large urban areas: Toronto (47%), Vancouver (45%), Calgary (28%), Edmonton (22%) and Montreal (20%).  In fact, in a number of large suburban municipalities around Toronto and Vancouver, the visible minority population is now a majority: Markham (72.3%), Richmond B.C. (70.4%) and Brampton (66.4%).  Nearly three in ten of the total visible minority population were born in Canada, with higher percentages  at younger ages.

Aboriginal Population

The NHS reported there were 1.4 million Aboriginal people (4.3% of total population), including First Nations, Metis and Inuit people. This figure represents an increase of about 20% compared to a growth of just over 5% for the non-Aboriginal population, but as in past censuses, in part this reflects more people reporting their Aboriginal identity for the first time. Overall, 852,000 identified themselves as a First Nations person, 452,000 as Metis and 59,000 as Inuit. Nearly half of First Nations people with registered Indian status enumerated in the NHS (638,000) live on a reserve. The Aboriginal population is younger than average, with 28% of the population under the age of 15 compared to 16.5% of the non-Aboriginal population.

Data Quality

The NHS was carried out on a voluntary basis and had an overall response rate of 69%. However, response rates varied and were much lower in many census subdivisions representing small towns and villages. In addition, some commentators are worried about selective non-response rates, which may be lower for certain population groups. This differential response can lead to biases in the data, making comparisons over time particularly problematic.

However, it is thought that bias is likely not a major issue for the high-level data reported here, and the comparisons with the 2006 Census are thought to be reasonably accurate. The implications of low and differential response rates will be much more problematic at small geographic levels (such as census tracts and dissemination areas) that are the building blocks for defining trade or service areas. And Statistics Canada has not yet released any information about data quality at these smaller geographic levels. As Jan Kestle, President of Environics Analytics put it, “At first look, I would say that what was released is useful. What I am more concerned about is what wasn’t released. No data were included for small geographic areas, and it is this data that our users rely on.”


For EA customers and the general public, Dr. Norris will host an hour-long webinar on the new data on Tuesday, May 21, at 2:00 PM EDT. Please register here. For more insights and commentary on the latest Census findings, read his blog here. A Q&A with Jan Kestle on the data quality of the NHS can be foundhere.