Canadian Immigration History

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If you have ancestors who relocated to Canada, it can be helpful to learn about Canadian immigration history. Immigration trends have varied over the years, but individuals and families have been moving to Canada for centuries.

Canadian Immigration History Through the Centuries

Some experts believe that people have been immigrating to Canada for millennia. Archaeologists have evidence that some of Canada's indigenous people may have traveled from Asia and Europe thousands of years ago. Viking sailors and Basque fishermen may also have populated the country at one time.

Canada Is Discovered and Colonized: 1400s and 1500s

The first official discovery of Canada by non-indiginous people spurred centuries of European migration. The discovery was made by John Cabot, an Englishman. Cabot sailed to Canada in 1497 and claimed the country for England. However, the French were also quick to colonize the area.

The French Claim Canada: 1600s

By 1608, the French had set up a fairly large settlement, which would later become Quebec City. Claiming Canada as a French territory, they worked aggressively to populate the area, which they called "New France." In 1666, when the first census of New France was taken, there were 3215 people living in the territory. Because New France received little support from the French government, the economy and population grew very slowly during this period in time.

Fur Traders and Few Settlers: 1700s

During the 1700s, French fur traders, called voyageurs, made up most of the new immigrants to Canada. A few Scots settled along the coast and began to establish the fishing industry, and some Englishmen came to explore the uncharted country. Overall, the settlers were mostly male, and families were rare. By 1759, the entire population of New France, which also included much of the United States, was only 60,000. During the American Revolution in the late 1700s, a number of British Loyalists fled to Canada.

Immigration Begins in Earnest: 1800s

The early 1800s, the French and British governments were worried about an American invasion attempt, so they worked to promote immigration to Canada. Another wave of immigration came in the 1840s when the Irish Potato Famine drove hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants to Canada. Some historians estimated that only 20 percent of these Irish immigrants survived, and many of those who lived immigrated to the United States in later years.

In the late 1800s, several events provided the impetus for a huge wave of immigration to the country. In 1865, Canada became a country, and the Dominion Lands Act was enacted in 1872 to encourage settlers to homestead the area. The act was aggressively promoted throughout Europe, and thousands of settlers arrived. In 1885, Canada completed a transcontinental railway, which encouraged even more immigrants to settle in the country. Chinese immigrants also began coming to Canada in the 1850s, and they continued to settle the area throughout the 1800s.

The Canadian population exploded during the 19th century, and by the 1901 Canadian Census, there were 5,371,315 people living in the country.

Canada Becomes More Diverse: 1900s

During the early 1900s, immigrants continued to flock to Canada, many of them moving west into the unsettled territories there. The 1920s saw even more settlers, but immigration declined during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In the years just before World War I, millions of Europeans fled to Canada to avoid persecution and war. Another wave of European immigrants came to Canada in 1957, and throughout the later part of the 20th century, Canada received immigrants from all over the world.

Today, most of Canada's new immigrants arrive from South Asia and China, and these populations help contribute to the diversity of the country. Almost half of Canada's current population counts themselves as first- or second-generation Canadian immigrants.

Canadian Immigration Records

Because official Canadian immigration records were not kept before 1865, it can be difficult to find information on ancestors who may have immigrated before this time. A few records were kept, and Canadian Census records can help you find out more information about your ancestors' nationalities. However, if your ancestors came to Canada after 1865, you should be able to find ship's passenger lists and other immigration records.


Throughout the centuries, Canada has been a place of refuge and new hope for millions of immigrants. Canadian immigration history can provide a fascinating backdrop to the life stories of your ancestors.

Canadian Immigration History