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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Canada : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Canada : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 1 September 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Canada is the world's second largest country with most of its population residing along its southern border with the USA.


Minority and indigenous groups include French Canadians 6.7 million (20.9%), Eastern European Canadians 5 million (15.6%), Asian Canadians 2.3 million (7.2%), First Nations 1.3 million (3.3%), Black African and Caribbean Canadians 662,210 (2.2%). Among other ethnic origins, English (20%), French (16%), Scottish (14%) and Irish (13%) were most often reported (Data: 2001 Census).

Almost 4 million Canadians identified themselves as a visible minority in the 2001 Census, accounting for 13.4 per cent of the total population. This was an increase from levels in 1991 (9.4%) and 1981 (4.7%). In Canada, visible minorities are defined as 'persons, other than Aboriginals who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour'. People of Chinese origin are Canada's largest visible minority group, with a population of more than 1 million. In 2001, they made up 3.5 per cent of the country's population, followed by South Asians (3%) and African and Caribbean Canadians (2.2%). The next largest groups are Filipinos, Arabs and West Asians, Latin Americans, other South-East Asians, Koreans and Japanese. At the provincial level, British Columbia has the highest proportion of visible minorities, representing 21.6 per cent of its population, followed by Ontario at 19.1 per cent. In Toronto and Vancouver, just under 40 per cent of the urban population is a visible minority.

The proportion of the foreign-born population is at its highest in 70 years. Currently, immigration accounts for 53 per cent of the population growth in Canada. This is expected to be 100 per cent by 2026. According to the 2001 Census, Canada has 34 ethnic groups with at least 100,000 members each.

Main languages: Canada's two official languages, English and French, are the mother tongues of 59.7 per cent and 23.2 per cent of the population. 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 Aboriginal languages of 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 5,202,245 people listing one as a first language. Important non-official first languages include Chinese (853,745 first-language speakers), Italian (469,485), German (438,080) and Punjabi (271,220).

Main religions: in the 2001 Census, 77.1 per cent of Canadians identified as being Christians; of this, Catholics make up the largest group (43.6% of Canadians or 12,936,905 people). The largest Protestant denomination is the United Church of Canada. About 17 per cent of Canadians declared no religious affiliation, and the remaining 6.3 per cent were affiliated with religions other than Christianity, of which the largest is Islam – the fastest-growing faith in Canada. Muslims constitute 579,640 people (2%), followed by Jews 329,995 (1.1%), Buddhists 300,345 (1%), Hindus 297,200 (1%) and Sikhs 278,410 (0.9%).


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 the First Nations ranged from cordial trade exchanges and military alliances, to mutual indifference, to outright hostility and armed conflict. Many of the First Nations were decimated through deliberate campaigns of extermination; a small number have been able, with difficulty, to maintain their traditional ways of life.


Canada is often described as 'a country of immigrants', perhaps implying that it is by definition both a diverse and tolerant country. However, members of certain ethnic groups and most First Nations people face widespread discrimination and endure poorer-than-average living standards in Canada. In 2000, for example, Canadian-born visible minority men earned about 13 per cent less than similarly aged and educated Canadian-born white men. As a general rule, the relative position of minorities is determined by factors such as the darkness of skin colour, popular pressures, political expedience and economic conditions. Language is also a dividing line, especially between the English-speaking majority and French Canadian minority. Many English-speakers in the French-majority province of Quebec consider themselves disempowered.

Inter-ethnic tensions divide non-Aboriginal ethnic groups, particularly English and French Canadians. Many francophone 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.

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 First Nations people 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 Aboriginal 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 his or her 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 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 is attempting to address workplace discrimination. 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.

Religious minorities in Canada include 579, 600 Muslims. Muslims report they have experienced increases in hate crimes since 9/11. Leaders in the Muslim community have repeatedly expressed concerns that post-9/11 security measures are being applied in a manner that discriminates against particular ethnic and religious groups, notably Arabs and Muslims. A particularly clear and distressing example of the discriminatory approach to security issues is the case of Citizenship and Immigration Canada's 'Operation Thread', which resulted in the summer 2003 arrest of 23 Pakistani and Indian men. The individuals arrested were formally and publicly identified by Citizenship and Immigration Canada as suspected terrorists, violating their right to be presumed innocent. However, it soon became clear that the suspicions were based on weak evidence, some of which consisted of little more than stereotypes. The allegations were soon dropped. However, because Citizenship and Immigration Canada failed to issue a public disclaimer or apology clearing those who had been arrested, media stories continued to carry headlines referring to 'suspected terrorists'.

Largely concentrated in Montreal and Toronto, Canada's 351,000 Jews have strong community institutions and are active in promoting minority rights at a political level. In the past, they have faced discriminatory policies and still face some intolerance. Jewish organizations have documented incidents of anti-Semitism, including vandalism of synagogues and hate propaganda from extremist organizations. Fortunately, such incidents have been quickly denounced by public officials.

First Nations and African Canadians continue to find themselves at the bottom of Canada's social ladder. A cultural, social and political revival has occurred among many minority groups and First Nations in Canada that has strengthened their communities, cultures, institutions and languages. Especially involved are minority and First Nations youth. The commitments made by the federal and provincial governments to address First Nations 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 First Nations, 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.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

In March 2005, the federal government adopted Canada's first ever Action Plan Against Racism. The Action Plan represents a call for action in six priority areas: (1) assist victims and groups vulnerable to racism and related forms of discrimination; (2) develop forward-looking approaches to combat racism and embrace diversity; (3) strengthen the role of civil society; (4) strengthen regional and international cooperation; (5) educate children and youth in the fight against racism; and (6) counter hate and bias. In July 2005, Canada signed the Council of Europe's first Additional Protocol to the Convention on Cybercrime, concerning the criminalization of acts of a racist and xenophobic nature committed through computer systems, as well as hate-motivated threats and insults. At the provincial level, the Ontario Human Rights Commission adopted a new Policy and Guidelines on Racism and Racial Discrimination in June 2005. Although it is not binding on judges or human rights tribunal members it does represent the Commission's current interpretation of the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Despite these progressive efforts, racism remains a deep social problem in Canada as evidenced in a March 2005 survey. About one in six Canadian adults – roughly 4 million people – claim to have been victims of racism. One in 10 respondents said they wouldn't want people from another race as next-door neighbours. A greater number -13 per cent – told pollsters they would never marry or have a relationship with someone from another race.

Muslim Canadians continue to be concerned about the impact of the Anti-Terrorism Act and Security Clearance Forms on their communities. In June 2006, 17 suspected terrorists were arrested, all of them from the Muslim community in the Toronto area. Shortly thereafter, a Toronto mosque was vandalized. Muslim religious leaders across Canada have continued to issue statements to denounce unequivocally terrorism and call on all Canadian Muslims to challenge and confront extremism.

Controversy continues over Canada's policies of multiculturalism in education, law, and social life especially with respect to allowing the application of Sharia law in certain cases involving Muslim citizens.

Canada maintains relatively liberal immigration policies but the debate also continued over possible entry into Canada of immigrants involved in terrorist missions.

According to Amnesty International's 2007 Report, indigenous women continue to suffer discrimination and violence and no comprehensive national strategy exists to address the problem. The policies and practices of police forces in response to such violence were inconsistent.

Despite calls by the UN Human Rights Committee on Canada in 1990 and 2005 to make every effort to resolve the issue, there is still no progress in resolving the long-standing land dispute with the Lubicon Cree in Alberta.

Amnesty also notes that the approach to child protection for indigenous children continues to be discriminatory in 2007, both in the levels of funding provided and in the disproportionately high levels of indigenous children taken into care.

Although Canada never ratified ILO 169, it greatly supported the drafting and provided a relatively progressive example of policy reform and reconciliation between Government and indigenous nations. Moreover its policy of multiculturalism also stood as a model of diversity. However events during 2007 have called into question full national commitment to these issues.

Terrorism and First Nations

Increased focus on terrorism also threatened the ability of Canada's 612 different First Nations to demand their rights and protest injustices.

Controversy arose in April 2007 following Canadian media reports that the indigenous Mohawk Warriors Society had been included in the Department of National Defence's counter-insurgency draft training manual along with other groups labelled as international security risks.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine protested what he described as a move to criminalize the legitimate rights of Canada's indigenous people to obtain redress and demanded immediate removal of any reference to First Nations from the document. Especially since it seeks to associate aboriginal protest groups, with large well-armed radical militia such as the Tamil Tigers, Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad.

Following the media attention the Canadian government made a special effort to assure indigenous leaders that the references will not appear in the final version of the manual, which recommends the army's use of deception, ambushes and assassination against insurgency groups.

There were renewed efforts by Canada's first nations to continue generating awareness of the socio-economic status of some First Nations communities in the country as highlighted on the June 29th 2007 National Day of Action.

Indigenous areas continue to represent 92 of the bottom 100 communities in the country according to the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, As in the rest of the region this minority lags badly on practically every social indicator, including education, health, and employment.

Aboriginal poverty, traditional land rights, control of resource extraction and tourism and discrimination remain among the major issues. Protests and civil disturbances including blockades continued in some Provinces notably in Ontario and Manitoba related to failure of the provincial governments to consult with native groups over sale and use of disputed treaty lands.

In April 2007 the Manitoba provincial government along with First Nations leaders signed the The Wabanong Nakaygum Okimaw accord. It mandates each provincial First Nation create its own lands development plan including decisions on resource extraction, housing and any other development.

Signatories hope to create a UNESCO World Heritage site to preserve and promote one of the last intact parcels of primary boreal forest on the entire North America continent. Along with environmental conservation it is intended to enable aboriginal people to control and gain revenue from traditional lands.

Nevertheless Indigenous groups argue the Manitoba government is failing to fully uphold the agreement regarding consultation and only selectively applying the accord.

Canada and ILO 169

Despite Canada's regional lead in granting land titles, greater degrees of autonomy, self-government, and indigenous control over resources, Canada's indigenous communities became very concerned in July 2007 when the country joined six other states and signed a letter to the UN calling for redrafting of key provisions of ILO 169.

Canada's Assembly of First Nations, along with ecumenical groups, indigenous NGOs and human rights bodies like Amnesty International immediately sent an open letter reminding the Conservative government that by seeking to redraft ILO 169, Canada was failing to honour its international obligations as an elected member of the Human Rights Council. Moreover it was reversing its own positions, and arguing against content it had participated in drafting originally.

In September 2007 Canada ended up being among the only four countries that cast a negative vote in the General Assembly. Among its range of concerns was that the ILO 169 article related to providing redress for property taken without free, prior and informed consent could be interpreted as promoting the re-opening of settlements already reached between States and indigenous peoples.

There seemed to have been no similar concern during 2007 about re-opening the debate over the territorial integrity and future status of the French minority within Canada. The Prime Minister had earlier revived status-discussions over Quebec and declared that the predominantly French-speaking province should be recognized as a nation "within a unified Canada."

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