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This report examines the ethnic origins of Canada's population using data from the 2006 Census. It also provides information on the nation's visible minority population.
Each wave of immigration to Canada has increased the ethnocultural diversity of the nation's population. In fact, the 2006 Census enumerated more than 200 different ethnic origins. Ethnic origin refers to the ethnic or cultural origins of the respondent's ancestors. An ancestor is someone from whom a person is descended and is usually more distant than a grandparent.
In contrast, the 1901 Census recorded about 25 different ethnic groups in Canada. People who reported Aboriginal ancestries, and British and French origins, comprised the lion's share of the population at that time.
The list of ethnic origins in 2006 includes cultural groups associated with Canada's Aboriginal people (North American Indian, Métis and Inuit) and the European groups that first settled in Canada, such as the English, French Scottish and Irish. It includes origins of immigrants who came to Canada over the past century, such as German, Italian, Chinese, Ukrainian, Dutch, Polish, East Indian and so on.
Among newer groups reported in 2006 were Montserratan from the Caribbean and Chadian, Gabonese, Gambian and Zambian from Africa.
One way of looking at Canada's ethnocultural portrait is to examine the most frequently reported ethnic origins, whether reported alone or in combination with other ethnic origins.
By 2006, 11 ethnic origins had passed the 1-million mark. The largest group enumerated by the census consisted of just over 10 million people who reported Canadian as their ethnic ancestry, either alone (5.7 million) or with other origins (4.3 million).
The other most frequently cited origins were English (6.6 million), French (4.9 million), Scottish (4.7 million), Irish (4.4 million), German (3.2 million), Italian (1.4 million), Chinese (1.3 million), North American Indian (1.3 million), Ukrainian (1.2 million) and Dutch (1.0 million).
The list of the top ethnic origins reported in 2006 was virtually unchanged from the 2001 Census, except that North American Indian surpassed Ukrainian to take ninth place and Ukrainian became the tenth most frequently reported ancestry in 2006.
Increasing complexity of ethnic reporting
Information on the ethnic origins of the population has been collected in all but two national censuses since Confederation in 1867, reflecting the long-standing and widespread demand for information on the ethnocultural characteristics of the population. Since 1970, the demand for statistical information on ethnicity has increased with government policies in the area of multiculturalism and diversity.
The reporting of ethnicity, and subsequent interpretation of the results, has become increasingly complex due to a number of factors, and poses challenges for historical data comparisons. The concept of ethnicity is fluid and is probably one of the more complex concepts measured in the census. Respondents' understanding or views about their ethnicity, awareness of their family background, number of generations in Canada, the length of time since immigration, and the social context at the time of the census can all affect the reporting of ethnicity from one census to another. Increasing intermarriage or unions among various groups has led to an increase in the reporting of multiple ancestries, which has added to the complexity of the ethnic data.
Furthermore, changes in the format of the census question and the examples provided on the questionnaire have affected reporting patterns over time. Examples of ethnic origins provided on the census questionnaire are chosen based on the frequency of origins reported in the previous census.
In particular, the presence of the Canadian example has led to an increase in Canadian being reported and has had an impact on the counts of other groups, especially for French, English, Irish and Scottish. People who previously reported these origins in the census had the tendency to now report Canadian.
Reporting of Canadian as an ethnic origin
In the 2006 Census, 10.1 million people, or 32.2% of the total population, reported Canadian as their only ethnic origin or in combination with other origins. Nearly six in 10 (57.1%) of these individuals reported Canadian as their only origin, while the rest (42.9%) reported it in combination with other origins.
Canadian was the most frequently reported ethnic origin in 2006, even though the absolute number of individuals reporting Canadian declined from 2001, when 11.7 million, or 39.4% of the population, reported Canadian as their ethnic ancestry.
Changes to the ethnic origin question have affected the number of people reporting Canadian as part of their ethnic heritage. When Canadian was not listed as an example on the 1991 Census questionnaire, only 2.8% reported Canadian as their only ethnic origin and 1.0% reported it in combination with other origins. Canadian was added as an example on the English questionnaire and Canadien on the French questionnaire because this was the fifth most frequently reported origin in the 1991 Census. Consequently, about 8.8 million people reported Canadian, either alone or in combination with other origins, in 1996.
Most individuals who reported Canadian in the 2001 and 2006 censuses had English or French as a mother tongue, were born in Canada, and had both parents born inside Canada. This suggests that many of these respondents are people whose families can be traced for several generations in this country and see their ethnic heritage to be in Canada.
Regions of the country that were settled earliest or that had relatively little recent immigration, also tended to have the highest proportion of people reporting their ethnic ancestry as Canadian. For example, 46.2% of the population in Atlantic Canada reported Canadian either alone or in combination with other origins in 2006, as did 60.2% in Quebec. In other provinces, the proportion reporting Canadian ranged from 4.0% in Nunavut to 23.0% in Ontario, below the national average of 32.2%.
The emergence of the reporting of a national ethnic ancestry was not unique in Canada. Countries such as Australia and United States, which have long immigration histories such as Canada's, have also experienced increasing numbers reporting a national ethnicity. According to the 2006 Australian Census, 37.1%, or 7.4 million, of its population reported Australian as their ethnic ancestry, up from 35.6% in 2001. According to the American Community Survey in 2006, there were 20.4 million people who reported American as their only ethnic ancestry, representing 6.8% of the US population.