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India is a large South Asian country, with the world’s second-largest population and a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, religions and languages among its people. Indian immigrants to Canada are similarly diverse, and make up a vibrant community of over one million people in this country. India is a parliamentary democracy, having gained its independence from Britain in 1947, and, with Canada, is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.

First Indian Immigrants to Canada

The first Indians in Canada were Sikh men, mostly from Punjab farming backgrounds, who arrived in British Columbia in 1903 to work. By 1908, their numbers had increased to 5000, with many finding employment in forestry and agriculture.

Although these Sikhs were British subjects, and some were even veterans of the British army, they faced suspicion and discrimination. The British Columbia government began to limit their rights and privileges, including their right to vote, and their access to political office and many professions. In 1908, the federal government enacted “continuous-ticketing” legislation for South Asian immigrants, who could now come to Canada only by direct passage from their country of origin. Since there were no such direct passages from India to Canada, this legislation effectively halted the growth of the Indian community in Canada, also making it impossible for the families of the original immigrants to join them. Court challenges and protests had no effect; many of the disillusioned immigrants returned to India, while others moved to the United States.

The immigration ban was challenged dramatically in 1914, when the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver from Hong Kong carrying 376 prospective South Asian immigrants. After two months in harbour, the ship and its passengers were forced to turn back.

By 1919, wives and children of immigrants were allowed to join their husbands and fathers in Canada, but the community had dwindled to around 1300 by the 1920s. Most anti-South Asian legislation, including the continuous-ticketing rule, remained law until 1947. Even after these laws were changed, immigration quotas still limited the number of South Asians who came to Canada.

Indian Immigrants to Canada after 1967

In 1967, immigration quotas were replaced with a point system that evaluated potential newcomers based on their skills and other factors, rather than on ethnicity. Immigration from India significantly increased in the 1960s and thereafter. These immigrants were culturally diverse, and many were professionals such as doctors, professors and scientists. Most moved to urban areas, especially around Toronto and Vancouver.

Starting in the 1970s, a growing number of immigrants of Indian ancestry also arrived from other countries, for political or other reasons. They came from Eastern Africa (Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania), and from Fiji, Guyana, Mauritius, and Trinidad and Tobago, among other areas. In some cases, ethnic groups from certain countries or regions settled in particular areas of Canada, and this pattern can be seen today; more Punjab Sikhs and Fijians live in British Columbia than in the rest of the country, while more immigrants from Guyana and Trinidad live in Toronto, and more Ismailis live in cities in British Columbia and Alberta.

Since the late 1990s, up to 30,000 immigrants of Indian descent have arrived in Canada yearly.

Indo-Canadians Today

Indian Canadians (often referred to as Indo-Canadians or East Indians) are one of the most diverse ethnocultural populations in Canada. In terms of religion, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and others are all quite well represented. Punjabi is the most common first language, but Tamil, Urdu, Hindi and others are also spoken. Both men and women work in a variety of white-collar and blue-collar jobs. Some own businesses such as taxi services or Indian restaurants, sweet shops and groceries; in British Columbia, there is significant Indian involvement in farming. A growing number of Indo-Canadians have entered Canadian politics, while some remain connected to politics in India; for example, many Sikhs have supported the movement for an independent Sikh state in Punjab.

Extended families and community relations tend to be important. Many sociocultural associations exist, and sponsor language classes and cultural activities. In some groups, religion remains central to life, and is emphasized over ethnic bonds (for example, for Sunni Muslims); cultural observances are more important for some populations than for others. Bollywood films, bhangra music (often blended with other, newer traditions), and Indian cuisine are all unique aspects of Indian culture in Canada, and Indian newspapers and radio and television programs are all widely accessible.

Canada-India Relations

India and Canada have a long-standing relationship, and are important trade partners. The two countries cooperate on initiatives ranging from agriculture and education to security and nuclear energy.

Learn more: South Asians in The Canadian Encyclopedia