Canada: Who is an Immigrant?

Written by Harold McNeill on January 28th, 2017. Posted in Tim Hortons Morning Posts

Immigrants to Canada

Canada 2016: Preparing for a Citizenship Ceremony

Several newspapers and TV stations this week quoted statistics about the changing numbers of immigrants in Canada:

I867: 16.1%  How do you suppose 150 years back in time, a time when our country was being formed as a nation, only 16.1% of the population were considered to be immigrants. Other than the aboriginal people, who had yet to be afforded status in the new land they previously owned, where did the other 83.9% materialize from?

2011: 20.7%  Perhaps this number is a little more accurate, however one article was so bold as to list the children born in Canada to immigrant parents, as immigrants. Including children of immigrants in this manner is not only inaccurate, it is also inflammatory as those children are full-fledged Canadian citizens. (1)

2036: (Est): 24% – 30%). With an annual intake of 250,000 immigrants and refugees each year, by 2051 our population would likely level off at 40 million.  An additional 6.5 million people over the next 33 years is a very small increase.  By every measure, immigrants are not taking over our country.

In discussing the matter of who is an immigrant, I have often stated that, other than Aboriginals, the majority Canadian families have strong immigrant roots. The general definition is simple: “an immigrant is a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.” However, that definition is a tad narrow as it does not allow one to lose their immigrant status. Further, ‘country’ is defined as “a nation with its government, occupying a particular territory.” By definition, North America was originally divided among hundreds of Aboriginal Nations. All who arrived later were immigrants.

In 1867, a group of immigrants in the northern part of North America united under a single banner called Canada after which the territory was slowly expanded until 1949 when Newfoundland joined. The same process began in the United States in 1776.

While Canada attempted to sort out a few language and cultural differences on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, well before our Constitutional Monarchy came into being, the United States waited until 1861 to begin a war that, in many forms, rages to this day. The big losers in this wrangling for power were the Aboriginal Peoples whose rights were, for the most part, extinguished in 1776 and I867 respectively. Again, that is a subject for another discussion.

The entirety of the McNeill and Wheeler clans were immigrants to Canada with a majority arriving through the United States from Ireland and Scotland at various times before and after 1867. Some of our ancestors even fought in the US Civil War, most for the North, but one or two with the South. For some reason, probably economic, they decided to pull stakes and come to Canada.  Our extended families owe them a collective sigh of relief and a very big ‘thank you,”

(This is a note for Chart I, located 12 paragraphs below. This is the marker for 33.5million or 100% on that chart and helps to build some perspective around that chart) 

As homesteaders in Canada, if their origins were of an ‘approved kind’, they automatically become Canadian citizens. Yet by current day standards, all would be defined as immigrants. In Canada, the question now arises: “when does a person stop being defined as an immigrant?” Let’s start back at the beginning (1867) with the 16.1% who were left on the outside of citizenship looking in.

About 84% of the 3.5 million present in Canada at that time of Confederation, were automatically granted citizenship. The remaining 16.1% (est. 560,000), were excluded. It wouldn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out the nationalities of those who were left off the invitation list for that First Birthday Party.

It is assumed from that point forward all who arrived would be immigrants, but through the decades’ many exceptions were made as was the case for our family. Since that time immigration to Canada has ebbed and flowed as Canadians were not able to keep up the population demand through domestic reproductive methods. Even those long, cold winters did not help in bringing up the birth rate. The result, as of 2011, 21% or seven million in Canada are defined as immigrants. Does that mean those individuals have not become citizens? The answer is clearly no, the numbers are skewed.

Logically, one would expect the ‘immigrant’ status to be dropped when citizenship is conferred, but logic is not always the determining factor. The exception is for children born in Canada to an immigrant parent. A law referred to as ‘jus soli,’ or ‘law of the soil,’ confers upon children born in Canada, automatic citizenship. The same standard is applied in the United States, however, the US law now appears to be under fire when it comes to certain classes of immigrants who are deemed undesirable.

Following the normal course of events, it seems reasonable to assume only those who have not become citizens since arriving in Canada, would be defined as immigrants and until 2004 that was the case. However, in 2006, the Stats Can definition was changed as follows (from their Web Site):

Immigrant: The definition of immigrant used in this profile varies depending on the data source. In the section using Census of Population data, immigrants are defined as persons who, at the time of the 2006 Census, either held or had once held landed immigrant status, regardless of whether they were currently Canadian citizens.”

In continues: “In the section using data from the 2004 General Social Survey (GSS), immigrants were defined as persons who were not born in Canada and who were not Canadian citizens by birth and who settled permanently in Canada in 2004 or earlier.”  (2)

Considering both definitions revolve around an important issue, it is astonishing they are so poorly worded. As an example, in the second part, “… as persons who were not born in Canada and who were not Canadian by birth”. Does this not state the same thing in two ways? As for the 2006 change, it infers immigrant status is so broad as to include millions of Canadians who have been Canadians for decades.

According to statistics recently reported (the 20.7% in 2011) a full 7,108,038 were defined as immigrants. But, how many of that number were actually Canadian Citizens?  It’s hard to come up with a definitive number, but one Immigration Website provides this hint:

From 2005 to 2015, 2,828,365 new permanent residents landed in Canada. For a second-year in a row, the Philippines, India, China, Iran, and Pakistan were the largest sources of immigrants to Canada. In fact, immigration from these countries accounted for 49% of the total intake in 2015. (3)

An assumption can be made from the figure, that 4,200,000 persons listed as immigrants were in Canada prior to 2005. It’s hard to imagine so many landed immigrants would never have taken out Canadian Citizenship when that was the ultimate prize.

Now scan Chart 2 (ref. 4). Mentally, draw a horizontal median line through the red-line of the chart (about 5.8). This reveals the number of landed immigrants has remained relatively stable over the 150 years since Confederation.  Although the chart suggests a big rise in recent years that is not the case. In order give the chart a realistic perspective, one needs to extend the 0-8 millions (left side), to 33.5 million (see the marker 12 paragraphs up on the side).  Within the new perspective (an accurate perspective), the blue bars become nearly a horizontal line across the chart.

Immigration Chart 4

 Of course, the demographics have ebbed and flowed in step with events around the world, but you can check other charts in the Reference 4, to see the points where either immigration or population receded and advanced. Considering we are a country made up almost entirely of immigrants, speaks volumes of the ability of people our people to get along despite differences in languages, customs, religion and a myriad of other characteristics.

Although I can’t put my finger on the statistics, I rather expect over half of those listed as immigrants in the 2011 Stats Canada report are in fact Canadian Citizens. Failure to note that distinction leaves the impression we are being overrun by immigrants when clearly that is not the case.

This is revealed in the above chart, as the year average immigration to Canada over the past ten years has remained stable at 237,000 per year. One might well assume the 2006 change in definition came about as a result of a political imperative back in that year, just as was the case back in 1867 when the hundreds of thousands of long-term residents were denied citizenship even though they were just as qualified as those who immigrated from England and French. (4)

Although Canadian governments across the ages have often played the numbers game, we still remain as one of the better examples of how people from many different races, creeds, and colours can live in harmony. Those that have come out with the short end of the stick more frequently than all others combined is the Aboriginal peoples. As stated, that is a subject for another discussion.



(1)  Immigrants Share of Canadian Population Increasing
2) Stat Canada Definition of Immigrant
(3) Landed Immigrants in Canada 2005 – 2015
(4)  Stats Canada: 150 years of Immigration
(5)  Canadian Population number 1871 – 2011


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