Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to the 2016 Census, minority and indigenous communities include French-speaking Canadians (7,166,705), Eastern European Canadians (3,431,245), Asian Canadians (including West Central Asian and Middle Eastern) (6,095,235) and African Canadians (1,067,930). Among other ethnic origins, English (6,320,085), French (4,680,820), Scottish (4,799,005) and Irish (4,627,000) were most often reported.
Canada’s indigenous population was estimated at almost 1.7 million (1,673,785) in the 2016 Census, an increase of 42.5 per cent from the 2006 Census, amounting to around 4.9 per cent of the national population. This includes First Nations people (977,230), Métis (587,545), Inuit (65,025) and other groups.
Around 7.7 million Canadians identified themselves as a visible minority in the 2016 Census, accounting for 22.3 per cent of the population. In Canada, visible minorities are defined as ‘persons, other than Aboriginals who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour’. People of South Asian origin are Canada’s largest visible minority group, with a population of 1,924,635. They are followed by Chinese (1,577,060), Black (1,198,540) and Filipino (780,125). The next largest groups are Arab (523,235), Latin American (447,325), Southeast Asian (313,260), West Asian (264,305), Korean (188,710) and Japanese (92,920).
The proportion of the foreign-born population is at its highest in 70 years. About two-thirds of current population growth is the result of migratory increase, while natural increase accounts for the remaining one-third. Based on the current numbers, migratory increase could account for more than 80 per cent of Canada’s population by 2031.
Main Languages: Canada’s two official languages, English and French, are the mother tongues of 78.9 per cent of Canadians in 2016, compared to 82.4 per cent in 2001.
French is mostly spoken in Quebec, but there are substantial francophone populations in parts of New Brunswick, Ontario and southern Manitoba. Of those who speak French as a first language, 81 per cent live in Quebec, where French is the official language. New Brunswick is the only bilingual province in the country. English is the official language in all other provinces. On 7 July 1969, under the Official Languages Act, French was made commensurate to English throughout the federal government. This started a process that led to Canada redefining itself as an officially ‘bilingual’ country. English and French have equal status in federal courts, parliament, and in all federal institutions. The public has the right, where there is sufficient demand, to receive federal government services in either English or French.
There are 53 Indigenous languages associated with Canada’s First Nations and Inuit peoples. Several Aboriginal languages have official status in the Northwest Territories. In Nunavut, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun are official languages alongside English and French.
Non-official languages are important in Canada, with more than 7.7 million speakers of immigrant mother tongue languages according to the 2016 Census. Important non-official languages include Mandarin (641,100), Cantonese (594,030), Punjabi (543,495), Spanish (495,090), Tagalog (510,420), and Arabic (486,525).
Main religions: in the 2011 Census, 22,102,700 Canadians (67.3 per cent) identified as being Christian: of these, Catholics make up the largest group at 12,728,900 (38.7 per cent of the total population). The largest Protestant denomination is the United Church of Canada. Roughly 7,850,600 people or around one quarter of Canada’s population (23.9 per cent) had no religious affiliation. The remaining religious demographics includes Muslim (3.2 per cent), Hindu (1.5 per cent), Sikh (1.4 per cent), Buddhist (1.1 per cent) and Jewish (1.0 per cent).
Updated May 2020
While Canada has attracted considerable international attention for its liberal stance on issues such as diversity, asylum and inclusion, with current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised by many for his progressive attitudes towards minority and indigenous concerns in particular, the country’s long history of discrimination continues to be felt to this day. Indeed, Trudeau’s administration has also been criticized for perpetrating many of the same abuses that these marginalized communities have suffered for generations, such as the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, supported by the government but condemned by indigenous representatives as a violation of their communal land rights. A significant portion of Canada’s indigenous population and many members of its varied ethnic and religious minorities, such as Black Canadians and Muslims, still face higher levels of poverty, hate speech and other challenges.
Nevertheless, in recent years a cultural, social and political revival has occurred among many minority groups and indigenous peoples in Canada that has strengthened their communities, cultures, institutions and languages. Especially involved are minority and indigenous youth. The commitments made by the federal and provincial governments to address indigenous peoples’ rights since the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Affairs published its recommendations in 1996 represent an important break from past assimilationist strategies. Similarly, the government has embarked on a number of reconciliation efforts, aimed towards indigenous peoples, Chinese Canadians, Japanese Canadians, Ukrainian Canadians and Acadians (francophone people of New Brunswick and parts of Nova Scotia) in recognition of historic injustices towards their communities.
The traumatic history of Canada’s indigenous population in particular, which makes up around 4.9 per cent of the population and includes First Nations, Inuit and Métis, has been well documented. Despite the diversity of these indigenous communities, each with distinct ethnic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds and traditions, they also share similarities, including a troubled history of land rights and jurisdictional violations by corporations and the Canadian government, as well as impediments to realizing self-determination and political representation.
In 2015, after seven years taking statements from thousands of former residential school survivors, the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its initial report exploring the impact of the residential school system on its Indigenous peoples, which it declared amounted to ‘cultural genocide,’ whereby ‘families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.’ Children were removed from their homes and communities, often forcibly, and forbidden from speaking indigenous languages, severing a crucial link with their cultural identities and thus their ability to speak their mother tongue. The findings were accompanied by 94 Calls to Action to improve the lives of indigenous Canadians and address the long history of discrimination, exploitation and abuse they have suffered.
One issue highlighted by the Commission was the disproportionate impact of violent crime on some urban indigenous communities, particularly in relation to gang membership in cities. However, this is precipitated by a number of factors which influence gang and violent crime involvement. For the First Nations, Inuit and Métis of Winnipeg and other urban centres, discrimination, poverty, cultural alienation, spatial segregation, sub-standard housing and decreased access to labour markets have helped push many indigenous youth towards gang affiliation. Yet it is critical to also recognize the gains that have been made by the indigenous population: in Winnipeg, the Indigenous middle class is growing rapidly, thanks in part to increased access to better education.
Nevertheless, the urban exclusion that drives many into violent gangs has also contributed to increased rates of violence inflicted against indigenous women, which is also strongly associated with their secondary status based on gender and their belonging to a marginalized community. Indigenous groups were instrumental in increasing awareness about the high numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, as part of the Idle No More movement. This was thanks in part to the efforts of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NAWC) as well as the release of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) report in May 2014 which cited 1,017 homicides and 164 missing persons cases of indigenous women and girls between 1980 and 2012. Rights groups have also questioned the accuracy of available police statistics and believe the true figures may be much higher. What is certain is that indigenous women are disproportionately targeted. According to some estimates, for example, indigenous women aged between 25 and 44 are five times more likely to die from violence than Canadian women of other ethnicities in the same age group.
While the prevalence of disappearances and murders of indigenous women and girls over the past 30 years has increasingly becomes a focal point of public dialogue and local-level action, for most of the years prior there had been widespread public indifference. Indigenous peoples and women’s rights groups, including the NAWC, have advocated for years with little success for improved prevention initiatives. However, public apathy has begun to shift and over the last few years a number of individuals, women’s groups and indigenous rights organizations have worked tirelessly to reduce violence against indigenous women and girls. It was their efforts that helped ensure the murder of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine in 2014, as well as the sexual assault and attempted murder of 16-year-old Rinelle Harper in November the same year, both in Winnipeg, did not go unnoticed. Multi-ethnic vigils were held and groups urged local officials to take action. On a broader level, Leah Gazan, the president of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, started the ‘We Care’ movement to raise awareness of violence against indigenous women among all Winnipeggers. Most of the homicide cases against indigenous girls and women remain unsolved, despite normally high clearance rates for homicide in Canada: indigenous women consistently report a distrust in police, due to bias and misconduct, and a reluctance to report violence.
Historically, lands rights for Canada’s indigenous communities have frequently been violated, with land seizures and forced resettlements a recurrent feature of life for many decades, with echoes today as ancestral territory continues to be exploited for mining, oil and other extractive industries. However, a landmark ruling in June 2014 set a new precedent for indigenous land claims and demonstrated the ability of indigenous communities to successfully defend their traditional land titles against state and private interests. In June that year, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled on the case, recognizing the title of the Tsilhqot’in Nation over approximately 1,700 square km of land south-west of Williams Lake, British Columbia. Indigenous title as defined by Delgamuukw vs. British Columbia (1997) requires an indigenous people to prove that land was occupied by them solely prior to sovereignty, something no group had successfully done until this most recent case. In doing so, the Tsilhqot’in Nation proved that the British Columbia provincial government breached their duties to consult them 20 years ago prior to issuing logging licences on Tsilhqot’in Nation traditional lands.
The ruling therefore has wide implications for future development projects planned by the Canadian government over the next decade, amounting to hundreds of billions Canadian dollars of investment in mining, forestry, gas and oil projects, many of them to be undertaken on traditional indigenous lands. The creation or extensions of pipelines from the oil sands of Alberta to other areas within Canada or onwards into the United States have been strongly opposed by indigenous communities. While the extension of the Keystone XL pipeline was hotly debated and protested against in the United States, other pipelines such as Enbridge’s proposed C$7 billion Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry oil from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia, has been publicly opposed by indigenous groups since 2010. In the summer of 2014 several First Nations from British Columbia launched as many as nine legal challenges trying to block the pipeline and by September the legal case lodged by Gitxaala Nation became the first approved for hearing by the Federal Court of Appeal. Following the election of Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister in 2015, a ban on tanker traffic was put in place in the northern coast of British Colombia and in 2016 the rejection of the proposal was formally announced.
However, other land rights violations have continued, including the much contested extension of the Kinder Morgan Pipeline. If constructed, this would significantly expand the existing pipeline, first built in the 1950s and subject to a series of oil spills since then. While the proposed expansion has generated widespread protests from indigenous and environmental activists since Kinder Morgan announced its plans in 2013, in November 2016 the Canadian government approved the construction, though with 157 provisions that it claimed would address indigenous and environmental concerns. However, indigenous representatives argued that the government had not properly consulted the communities who would be most affected by the pipeline. Amidst ongoing demonstrations, the Canadian government announced in May 2018 that it would acquire the pipeline and then seek outside investors to complete the work. Despite the Federal Court of Appeal reversing in August 2018 the government’s approval of the Trans Mountain Expansion project on the basis that indigenous communities were not meaningfully consulted, nor the threats posed to fragile marine life adequately resolved, the government nevertheless purchased the pipeline for C$4.5 billion the day after the ruling.
Among Canada’s religious minorities, particularly the country’s Muslim population, hate crime has recently been on the rise, with a reported doubling in the frequency of anti-Muslim hate crimes in Quebec in 2017. The beginning of the year saw a French Canadian student launch a deadly attack against worshippers at one of the city’s mosques, killing six people, and anti-Muslim sentiment has also intensified in the wake of violent incidents such as the July 2018 shooting carried out by a Canadian of Pakistani descent in the Greektown distrinct of Toronto that killed two people. Hostility towards the country’s Muslim minority is troublingly high, especially in Quebec, with a study published in 2018 suggested that as many as 70 per cent of Quebecers harboured ‘significant’ negative attitudes towards Muslims.
While there have been some positive developments in terms of political recognition and freedom of religious expression for Canada’s Muslim – Naheed Nenshi, for instance, became the first Muslim mayor of a major city not only in Canada but throughout North America when elected as mayor of Calgary in 2010, with consecutive re-election in 2013 and 2017 – Muslim communities also appear to be targeted a policy level. The proposed Quebec Charter of Secular Values, bill 60, first introduced by the conservative Parti Québécois (PQ) in November 2013 but later dropped by the Liberals following the August 2014 elections, had proposed banning government employees from wearing religious symbols at work: while it had implications for individuals of all religions, concerns were raised that it was specifically discriminatory against Muslim women who wear various forms of hijab. Yet despite this victory in defeating a bill that progressives denounced as racist and xenophobic, following the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris in January 2015, support for the charter rose and efforts to pass the bill were reignited among the PQ. This culminated, in October 2017, with the Quebec government passing legislation banning all face coverings, including the burqa and hijab, with the ban coming into effect in July 2018.
Updated May 2020
Canada is the world’s second largest country with most of its population residing along its southern border with the USA. It has 10 provinces and three territories which extend to the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans. The seat of government is located in Ottawa.
When European settlement began in the 1600s, the entirety of the territory that was to become Canada had already been settled by millions of indigenous people and divided into hundreds of nations, each with a distinct language, culture, social structure and political tradition. European settlement was pioneered by the French, who established Quebec City in 1608 and Montreal in 1642, and declared New France a colony in 1663. Britain acquired these territories from the French in a succession of military victories between 1759 and 1763. Canada achieved independence from Britain in 1867 and is now a federal dominion of ten provinces and three territories.
Initial relations between Europeans and indigenous peoples ranged from cordial trade exchanges and military alliances, to mutual indifference, to outright hostility and armed conflict. Many of the indigenous peoples were decimated through deliberate campaigns of extermination; including the devastating impacts of residential schools.
As European settlement progressed in the 1800s, intensive development spread into the interior in the form of railways, roads, mines, urban growth, farmland, logging and later hydroelectric development – in the process steadily pushing indigenous communities off their ancestral territories through assimilation, compulsory schooling and resettlement in Native ‘reserves’.
Particularly damaging was the widespread practice of residential schooling imposed by the government on many indigenous families through various forms of coercion, including the threat of withdrawing federal funding. Only in recent years has there been recognition of the abuses this system exacted on indigenous Canadians, including the deaths of at least 3,000 children, the physical and sexual abuse of thousands of others and their enforced separation from their native languages, customs and spiritual beliefs. The impacts continue to be felt to this day, with ongoing issues such as suicide, alcoholism and abuses linked to the legacy of the residential school system.
Further migration in the late 1800s, particularly from Eastern Europe, saw the development of new minority communities in Canada who also struggled with discrimination. This included, notoriously, thousands of Ukrainians who having fled the Austro-Hungarian Empire found themselves ostracized following the outbreak of the First World War. They were subsequently incarcerated in harsh living conditions for the duration of the war.
In recent decades Canada has made significant strides in the recognition and protection of its indigenous and minority communities, including a series of landmark rulings acknowledging historic abuses and the granting of a number of land agreements reaffirming the territorial rights of indigenous peoples over some, though by no means all, of their historic territories. Nevertheless, many issues persist: indigenous Canadians continue to experience targeted violence, for example, in particular representing a disproportionate number of the country’s murdered and missing women and girls.
Inter-ethnic tensions divide non-indigenous ethnic groups, particularly English and French Canadians. Many francophone Canadians are critical of the provisions of the Canadian federation. In 1994, a provincial government was elected in Quebec dedicated to achieving independence for the province. It held a referendum the next year, which the pro-independence movement lost very narrowly. The federal government has since passed the Clarity Act (1999) to regulate future bids for secession. Despite a strong desire among ordinary Canadians to accommodate Québécois demands and aspirations within a united Canada, communal divisions remain, although less marked than in previous periods. In recent years, however, popular demands for secession appear to have reduced.
A solid legal framework exists in Canada to promote the principles of diversity and the rights of all individuals, protecting them from discrimination. In 1971, Canada was the first country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy (see the Canadian Multiculturalism Act). In 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognized the importance of preserving and enhancing the multicultural heritage of Canadians. In 1985, the equality article of the Charter, Section 15, came into effect, specifying that every individual was equal before and under the law and had the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination. Minority groups may appeal to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Part I of the Constitution Act of 1982) and to similar provincial charters to defend themselves from discrimination.
Overall, the legal position and rights of indigenous peoples are determined by the Indian Act, the Constitution, and such treaties as were concluded between them and the colonial powers (with Canada as successor). Certain indigenous peoples’ rights, like the right to hunt, trap and fish, were enshrined in the Constitution, as were all existing treaties signed between the federal government and First Nations. Practically, however, the enshrinement of these rights has often meant gains on paper only. Several important court cases have aided in the implementation of these rights.
An individual who claims that her or his rights were violated can appeal to both federal and provincial government human rights commissions, which rule on complaints depending on jurisdiction. The commissions have helped many complainants seeking redress, but they are understaffed and lack resources. Minority and indigenous activists complain that while the commission process may solve individual cases of abuse, little has been done to dismantle systemic patterns of discrimination or promote full and effective equality.
The Employment Equity Act of 1996 attempted to address workplace discrimination for indigenous peoples, women, persons with disabilities and ‘visible’ minorities, defined as ‘persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour’. This includes members of the Chinese, South Asian, Black, Arab, West Asian, Filipino, Southeast Asian, Latin American, Japanese and Korean minorities. The Act applies to private and public sector employers under federal jurisdiction that employ 100 or more employees. Unlike the US model, the Canadian process is not based on quotas and requires the removal of barriers to the employment and advancement of designated group members without imposing numerical targets on employers. Canadian employers are required to conduct a workforce analysis and are expected to close gaps in representation based on labour market availability in their recruitment area, as determined by census data.
Updated May 2020
African Canadian Heritage Association
African Canadian Legal Clinic
Congress of Black Women of Canada
Jamaican Canadian Association
Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA)
National Association of Japanese Canadians
Eastern European Canadians
Ukrainian Canadian Congress
Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society
National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation
Native Women’s Association of Canada
Assembly of First Nations
British Columbia Treaty Commission
Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations
Congress of Aboriginal Peoples
First Nations University of Canada
Grand Council of the Crees (of Quebec)
National Centre for First Nations Governance
Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs
Métis National Council
Women of the Métis Nation
Inuit Circumpolar Conference Canada
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami
Labrador Inuit Association Head Office
Pauktuutit Inuit Women’s Association
St John’s Native Friendship Centre Association
Alliance des femmes de la francophonie canadienne (AFFC)
Fédération culturelle canadienne-française
Fédération des Communautés Francophones et Acadiens du Canada
Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ)
Société Nationale de l’Acadie
Société St Jean Baptiste du Québec
Canadian Council for Refugees
Canadian Council of Muslim Women
Canadian Ethnocultural Council
Canadian Human Rights Commission
Canadian Islamic Congress
Canadian Jewish Congress
Canadian-Muslim Civil Liberties Association
Canadian Race Relations Foundation
Centre de recherche-action sur les relations raciales
Council on American-Islamic Relations CANADA (CAIR-CAN)
National Anti-Racism Council of Canada
National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women of Canada
Updated May 2020
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Sources and further reading
Minorities and indigenous peoples in
- African and Caribbean Canadians
- Asian Canadians
- Eastern European Canadians
- First Nations
- French Canadians