Asians in Canada

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For Canada, Asia does not exist “over there.” It is, has been, and will continue to be, right here, contributing to and shaping our country. Canada’s citizenry includes six million people—20 percent of the population—who were born outside Canada. Recent immigrants to this country are more likely to have come from Asia and the Middle East than from Europe (Census of Canada, 2006).

Building a Pacific Nation

Canada became a Pacific nation soon after Confederation with the promise of a transcontinental railway to open the West as well as new markets across the Pacific. The railways were so important to the creation of the nation that the completion of the Intercolonial Railway, linking the Maritime colonies with the Province of Canada, was a condition of Confederation in 1867. In 1871, British Columbia was lured into Confederation with the promise of a transcontinental railway within 10 years. The transcontinental line that linked the country coast to coast was the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), incorporated in 1881. It was an unparalleled engineering feat, but, as George Stephen, first president of the CPR exclaimed to John A. MacDonald, “The CP Railway will not be completed until we have a sea route to Japan and China.”

The difficult construction through the Rocky Mountains was hampered by the lack of an adequate work force in British Columbia. This led to the controversial decision to bring in thousands of Chinese labourers. At the height of building activity on the Yale to Kamloops section, 9000 workers, more than two-thirds of the work force, were Chinese. When the railway was complete, Chinese communities developed across the country as the labourers became settlers. They were largely considered inferior and unassimilable and aroused fears of “yellow peril,” which led ultimately to the Chinese Immigration Act.

The line to the Pacific coast was completed when the “last spike” was driven at Craigellachie on 7 November 1885. The completion of the railway brought a new dynamism to Canada, establishing towns and cities, bringing settlers from across the country and from other nations, and made possible a trade gateway to the Asia Pacific region. In fact, building an Asian-Pacific Gateway continues, through transportation and port infrastructures, to be an important initiative for the Canadian government.

Asia’s Growing Importance

Asia’s importance to Canada has become increasingly evident, particularly with regard to investment from China, patterns of migration and cultural exchange, and the need to cooperate on global problems such as climate change. The rising economies in Asia translate into Asian countries having a greater say in the rules that determine global trade, the global financial system and global security. This is not exclusive to China and India, but also includes Japan, South Korea and South East Asian nations. Asia’s rise will have a significant impact on global economic and political dynamics, as well as influence the arts, culture and innovation of the world. Canada must determine what the future of its engagement with Asia will be.

While Canadians may understand the role of Asia in Canada’s history and multicultural communities, their current views on the region are unclear and many Canadians view Asia guardedly. In 2010, the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada polled Canadians about their opinions concerning Asia. The results showed that Canadians recognize Asia’s strength during the post-recession recovery, with 62% agreeing that closer engagement with Asia is necessary for the country’s future prosperity. Poll respondents also acknowledged the need for business and government to focus more attention on Asia.

Despite this awareness, only 29% of respondents consider Canada part of the Asia Pacific region and remain wary of embracing China, even as they acknowledge its growing power. Canadians are more favourable toward India’s economic and political rise, viewing India as less threatening socially and militarily.

These opposing views show that Canadians are unclear about what Asia’s rise means for the country, despite Asia’s historical significance, multicultural presence and economic importance to Canada. A first step toward understanding is an examination of the enduring significance of the people to people ties between Canada and Asia. For example:

  • Hong Kong is Asia’s most Canadian city with a Canadian diaspora community of more than 300 000
  • Vancouver is the world’s most Asian city outside of Asia
  • Immigrants from India, China and the Philippines are settling in places like Edmonton, Regina and Halifax in ever greater numbers while cities like Toronto and Vancouver have deep Asian connections
  • 76 percent of Canadian overseas schools are in the Asia Pacific region
  • 46.5 percent of immigrants to Canada come from the Asia Pacific region (2009 statistics), the highest numbers from any region. Asia Pacific countries continue to dominate international student flows to Canada. China alone sent nearly 50 000 students to study in Canada in 2009

Canada’s Response to the Rise of Asia

Canada needs a more definite Asia strategy that maximizes opportunities for future generations, and embraces the natural linkages between the country and the Asia Pacific region. As an example, although Asia Pacific nations lead in sending post-secondary students to Canada to study, only 1% of Canadian college students and 2.4% of Canadian university students choose to take part of their course of studies abroad. This number is significantly low for a world that is increasingly interconnected, with Asia’s rise becoming increasingly influential.

Canada’s long-term relationship with the Asia Pacific region needs to be holistic, building mutually beneficial partnerships that hold Asia’s geographic and historic importance to Canada at its core. The changing reality of Asia and the continued people-to-people ties make it essential for Canadians to have an understanding of Asia as a pre-requisite to remain competitive and engage globally in the future. An Asia-literate workforce and citizenry, co-operative economic frameworks, and efforts to realize shared social futures are vital for Canada’s long-term relationship with the Asia Pacific region.

How can this be realized? Join the National Conversation on Asia. Learn more about what Canadians are saying about Asia and share thoughts to help define Canada’s future with Asia.

Prepared with the assistance of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.
Learn more: National Conversation on Asia