Reports

August 2, 2023

Immigration Snapshot: Who is immigrating to Canada and Alberta?

Immigration is important to the culture, economy, and makeup of Canada and Alberta. But changes need to be made to our existing system to ensure it is a lasting source of strength.

This commentary is the first in a series of a larger body of work on immigration, with a focus on the role of immigration in economic growth. Our goal is to inform a strategy and process for immigration that is not just numbers-driven but prosperity-driven.

Read more about our Prosperity-Driven Immigration project here.

TL;DR

  • Following decades of European-driven immigration over the country’s first century, Canada’s and Alberta’s new PRs are increasingly coming from Asia and Africa. 
  • National and provincial immigration trends are largely similar by global region, although Alberta welcomes proportionately more immigrants from the Philippines and Nigeria, and fewer from India and China.   
  • The share of Canadian immigrants choosing to live in Alberta has been increasing since the 1980s, particularly in Calgary and Edmonton. That said, while the general trend is upward, the number of immigrants moving to Alberta fluctuates with the health of the provincial economy.  
  • Both Canada’s and Alberta’s immigrants are predominantly within the younger end (25-44) of the prime working age range (25-54), closely following Canada’s stated goal to bolster the working-age population as a growing proportion of Canadians ease into retirement. 

Immigration has long been a cornerstone of the Canadian workforce. Recent increases in immigration resulted in Canada’s population growing by more than a million people last year. In Alberta, the population has grown by over 200,000 people since last spring. With the federal government planning to increase immigration targets by welcoming 1.5 million new permanent residents between 2023 and 2025, Canada’s population is slated to see its fastest growth in 50 yearsmaybe ever. In the face of such rapid growth, it is vital for Canada’s immigration policy to drive prosperity and quality of life improvements for Canadians and new immigrants alike. 

We’ve already explored what increased targets means for Canada and Alberta—particularly for the workforce. But who is immigrating to Canada, where are they from, how old are they, and through what immigration pathways are they arriving?  

This is the first of a two-part Snapshot looking at immigration trends in Canada. It focuses on the demographic characteristics of recent immigrants and how they have changed over time. Part 2, which will be released in the coming weeks, will take a high-level snapshot of the pathways new immigrants take to become permanent residents (PRs) and the programs through which they qualify.  

NOTE: The scope of this project focuses on landed immigrants (permanent residents) and does not include several other large categories of temporary who live in Canada at an given point (e.g., non-permanent resident that may have temporary work or study permits—though these individuals may later be accepted as permanent residents).

In this piece, “new permanent residents” refers to PRs that have been achieved within five years of the census data collection. For example, new PRs between 2016-2021 includes anyone who, at the time of census 2021, became a PR five years prior to data collection. 

Where are new immigrants choosing to live? 

Each census period, Canada tracks where new PRs in the previous five years have chosen to reside. To be clear, this data does not represent the province in which new immigrants land, but it does tell us where they choose to reside shortly after their arrival.  

Between 2016 and 2021, Canada’s most populous provinces became home to most the nation’s new immigrants: 

Region: Number of new PRs choosing to live in select regions (2016-21): 

Ontario 

584,685 

Quebec 

202,740 

British Columbia 

197,425 

Alberta 

193,175 

Rest of Canada 

150,395 

Notably, Alberta has, over time, become a more attractive place for immigrants to Canada. Between 2016-2021, for example, Alberta was home to 14.5% of Canada’s new PRs (up from 9.9% from 1980 to 1990) despite having just 11.5% of Canada’s total population in 2021. Put another way, Alberta attracts about 21% more immigrants than its population share suggests. Of Canada’s other large provinces, Ontario and British Columbia also saw a greater share of PRs relative to their total populations, but not as disproportionately as Alberta. Quebec, on the other hand, was home to just 15.3% of new immigrants despite being home to almost one-quarter of all Canadians. 

That said, Alberta’s share of new immigrant residents between 2016 and 2021 was lower than it was in the previous five-year period (17.2%). This trend follows the rise and decline of oil prices and likely indicates that, just as the province’s total population growth rate fluctuates with Alberta’s economic boom-and-bust cycles, so too does the rate at which immigrants choose to reside in Alberta. 

Distribution of New Permanent Residents by Province and Time Period 

Source: Statistics Canada Table: 98-10-0317-01 

Description: To explore where new PRs to Canada or Alberta have chosen to live, you can select the time period you’re interested in at the top of the visual. Click on a province in the wheel to see the number of new PRs who chose to live there and the share this represents of Canada’s new PRs during that time period. Click the selected province again to unselect it, or click away from the wheel to see Canada-wide data. 

NOTE: This StatCan data indicates where new PRs within the selected time periods have chosen to reside at the time of data collection, not necessarily the province where they landed. 

Most immigrants to Canada settle in our largest cities. Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver together attracted over half of Canada’s new PRs between 2016-2021. Calgary and Edmonton, the two next most popular destinations, became home for 6.4% and 5.6% of Canada’s new PRs, respectively. This, despite accounting for only 4.0% and 3.8% of Canada’s total population in 2021. Alberta’s two largest cities were home to more than four in five new PRs to the province. 

Where are Canada’s and Alberta’s immigrants born? 

Since before Confederation, Canada has been a destination for immigrants. Where new PRs come from, however, has dramatically shifted with policy changes—historically very often rooted in racism—and other global developments that have steadily reduced the degree to which Canada’s newest residents came from Europe. This change has been especially evident since the early 1970s. 

While future work in our Prosperity-Driven Immigration for Canada project will explore the changes in national immigration policy strategy that resulted in this shift, the present work is more concerned about understanding where recent PRs were born and how these patterns have changed since the 1980s. 

Below you’ll find an interactive chart that shows where new PRs residing in Canada broadly, or Alberta specifically, were born, and how the distribution of new immigrants’ birthplaces has changed over time. 

Canada-wide, a few trends emerge: The share of PRs immigrating from Asian and African countries has increased steadily between 1980 and 2021, and the share of new European PRs has steadily decreased. Whereas Vietnam, Hong Kong, India, Poland, and the United Kingdom ranked as the top birth countries for immigrants between 1980 and 1990, an almost entirely new set of countries made up the top five from 2016-2021 (India, the Philippines, China, Syria, and Nigeria). 

The origins of immigrants who settle in Alberta are largely similar to what we see nationally. Just under nine in ten immigrants to Alberta from 2016 to 2021 came from Asia, Africa, or Europe (89%), compared to 88% nation-wide. Canada-wide, Asians and Africans made up 62% and 16% of new PRs respectively, whereas in Alberta their respective shares were 63% and 18%. Europeans were the next largest cohort of immigrants during that period, accounting for about 8% of immigrants to Alberta and 10% to Canada as a whole. 

There are some differences in the share of immigrants to Alberta who came from outside Asia, Africa and Europe compared to the national average, but their numbers are too small to represent a significant share of total PRs provincially or nationally.  

While there are broad similarities between Alberta and Canada when looking at the world regions from which immigrants arrive, there are notable differences in immigration by country within those regions. Between 2016 and 2021, for example, the single largest birthplace for new PRs in Canada was India (approximately one-in-five new PRs) with the Philippines placing second (approx. one-in-ten). Alberta saw the inverse: the Philippines accounted for about one-in-four new Albertan PRs and India, about one-in-six. Furthermore, China was the birthplace of a notably larger share of new PRs across Canada (8.9%) compared to Alberta (4.9%). Alberta welcomed more PRs from Nigeria (5.1%) than China over that five-year period. 

Birthplace of New Permanent Residents to Canada and Alberta by Time Period 

Source: Statistics Canada Table: 98-10-0317-01 

Description: To explore where new PRs to either Canada or Alberta were born, select your preferred variables on the righthand side and click on/hover your cursor over the wheel to display the number and share of new PRs coming from each world region or country.  

Note: This does not include new PRs who were born in Canada (approx. 1,240 since 1980, and about 375 between 2016 and 2020, for scale).

What is the age and sex of new immigrants? 

As the two population pyramid charts below indicate, Canada’s and Alberta’s new PRs are disproportionately younger than the general population. Canada’s population is aging, with the median age reaching 41.1 in 2021 compared to just 26.2 in 1971. And, though it remains the youngest province in the country, Alberta is getting older, too, with a median age of 38.0 in 2021 compared to 24.9 in 1971. In fact, only 54.3% and 59.9% of Canada’s and Alberta’s general population is under age 45, respectively.  

In contrast, both Canada’s and Alberta’s new PRs are disproportionately younger. A full 83.9% of immigrants to Canada are under 45, while in Alberta that share is 83.0%. And most of those PRs are between 25 and 34.  

At the other end of the spectrum, 19.0% of Canadians and 14.8% of Albertans are over 65 years old. Meanwhile, only 4.2% of new immigrants to Canada are in that age range, and just 4.3% of immigrants to Alberta.  

Canada accepts immigrants for a variety of reasons: to drive economic growth, humanitarian need, and family reunification, to name a few. But slowing the trend of an aging population is among the stated policy reasons for doing so. As a growing share of Canadians enter their retirement years, there are proportionately fewer people in their prime working years generating the income and tax revenue needed to support them. Adding more young immigrants helps to contribute to the sustainability of public services in the near term—particularly health care.

A final point regarding the demographic characteristics of immigrants to Canada and Alberta: there are more new female PRs than male. In total, about 52.3% of PRs in Alberta from 2016 to 2021 were female, compared to about 51.4% for Canada as a whole.  

This gender imbalance is even more skewed for younger immigrants. About 54.2% of PRs aged 25-44 who came to Alberta from 2016 to 2021 were female, slightly higher than the national average of 52.4%. The gender imbalance is even more pronounced at the lower end of that age range. 

NOTE: The data in the population pyramids on the right side of each chart above indicates where PRs had decided to reside at the time of data collection (census 2021), not necessarily where they landed.

Conclusion

Canada’s immigration policy has significantly shifted since the late-1960s and early-1970s. Whereas the flow of new immigrants was dominated by Europeans in our country’s first 100 years, it is now dominated by new residents from Asia and Africa. Similarly, because of an aging population over the last 50 years, Canada has predominantly selected new immigrants in the earlier years of the prime working age range to help generate the income needed to pay for the services an older population relies on.  

While the immigration trends of Alberta and Canada are very similar, a few points stand out: For one, Alberta is attracting a disproportionate share of immigrants relative to its share of the national population. And secondly, compared to the national trend, Alberta has been attracting proportionately more immigrants from the Philippines and Nigeria and fewer from India and China. 

As immigration becomes a greater component of our workforce in the years ahead, Canada’s and Alberta’s immigration strategies will become an increasingly important component of ensuring everyone’s prosperity. Part 2 of this snapshot will help inform the development of a prosperity-driven strategy by contextualizing the immigration pathways and programs that new immigrants take when becoming permanent residents. 

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