Geek looking at data

Census Reveals An Increasing Culturally Diverse Population

Published Oct 25, 2017, 09:36 AM by Doug Norris, Ph. D.

Statistics Canada released the fifth wave of data from the 2016 Census this morning, information covering three topics: immigration and cultural diversity, aboriginal peoples and housing.




Ethnicity is the broadest measure of cultural diversity. In 2016, Canadians reported over 250 ethnic origins or ancestries. The Census allows responders to report membership in up to six different ethnic groups, and in 2016 just over 41 percent of Canadians reported multiple ethnic groups. Multiple reporting was highest for aboriginal, British and French groups, populations that are long established in Canada. Approximately one-third (11.1 million) of the populace reported Canadian as their ancestry, with 42 percent reporting only Canadian and the rest reporting Canadian and at least one other group.  


Immigrants now represent 21.9 percent of the total Canadian population, up from 19.8 percent in 2006. Canada has the highest percent of foreign born among G-7 countries; among all nations, it trails only Australia with 28 percent. In comparison, immigrants in the United States represent about 13 percent of the total population.

The Census reported that 1.2 million immigrants arrived since 2011. The majority of these new immigrants (60.3 percent) were admitted under the economic category, 26.8 percent were admitted under the family class—joining relatives already in Canada—and 11.6 percent were refugees.

The pattern of immigrant settlement has shifted somewhat over the past 15 years, with fewer immigrants going to Ontario and British Columbia and more settling in the Prairie Provinces. Over the period 2001-2016, the share of recent immigrants (those arriving in the five years before the Census) settling in Ontario dropped from 55.9 percent in 2001 to 39.0 percent in 2016, while the share settling in British Columbia dropped from 19.9 percent to 14.5 percent in 2016. In 2016, Quebec had the second highest share of recent immigrants (17.8 percent), up from 13.7 percent in 2001. 

Approximately three-quarters of all immigrants are living in Canada’s six largest census metropolitan areas (CMAs) which, taken together, account for 47 percent of the total population. In the Toronto CMA, 46.1 percent of the population are immigrants, and in the Vancouver CMA, 40.8 percent are immigrants. The Ottawa-Gatineau CMA ranks third in immigrant concentration with 29.4 percent.

Overall, 41.6 percent of the Canadian population are first-generation or second-generation (the children of) immigrants. First- and second-generation immigrants account for 77.6 percent of Toronto’s CMA total population and 69.8 percent of Vancouver’s CMA total population.

Asia accounted for 61.8 percent of recent immigrants arriving in the 2011-2016 period. Africa was the second source continent, accounting for 13.4 percent, surpassing Europe at 11.6 percent. The Philippines was the leading country of origin for recent immigrants, numbering 189,000, an increase of close to 50 percent compared to the 2006-2011 period. The next two countries of origin for recent immigrants were India (147,000) and China (129,000). The Census also reported 30,000 recent immigrants from Syria who arrived before May 2016. 

Overall, in 2015, 17.9 percent of immigrants lived in a low-income household compared to 12.5 percent for the non-immigrant population. The incidence of low-income households declined the longer immigrants lived in Canada. The low-income rate was 31.4 percent for those who arrived during the 2011-2016 period, compared to 11.1 percent for those who arrived before 1981.

Visible Minority Population

In 2016, 7.7 million Canadians (22.3 percent) reported themselves as members of one of the 10 visible minority groups. This is an increase from 2011’s 19 percent and 1981’s less than 5 percent. 

The visible minority population increased by 22.5 percent over the period 2011-2016, compared to less than a 1 percent increase for the non-visible minority population. The second-generation visible minority population now accounts for 27.7 percent of the total visible minority population.

The largest visible minority groups were South Asians (1.9 million), Chinese (1.6 million) and Black (1.2 million). Arabs constituted the fastest-growing group for the period 2011-2016, with a 37.5 percent increase, followed by West Asians (27.8 percent) and the Black population (26.7 percent)

Some visible minority groups are still challenged financially. In 2015, the median individual income of the visible minority population aged 25-54 was $34,256 compared to $46,337 for the non-visible minority population. However, the second-generation visible minority population had a median income much higher than the first generation ($44,591 compared to $32,676).  In fact, the median income of the second-generation visible minority population varied from $55,686 for the Chinese group to $35,246 for the Latin American group.

Aboriginal Population

The aboriginal population in Canada is growing. The Census reported the total aboriginal population to be 1,673,785, an increase of nearly 20 percent from 2011. First Nations accounted for 58 percent of the aboriginal population, and 35 percent were Metis. The Inuit population numbered 65,000, or 3.8 percent, of the total aboriginal population. Part of the increase in the aboriginal population is a result of more individuals identifying as an aboriginal person for the first time. This phenomenon, sometimes known as ethnic mobility, has been observed in the Census for nearly three decades.

Ontario reported the largest aboriginal population (374,395), but Manitoba and Saskatchewan had the highest concentrations at 18.0 percent and 16.3 percent of the total population, respectively. 

The aboriginal population is very young, with about 27 percent of the population under the age of 15 compared to 17 percent for the total population. Only 7.2 percent of the population is aged 65 or older, although aboriginal seniors increased by 47 percent between 2011 and 2016.

A majority of young aboriginal children live with two parents, but the number is lower than the non-aboriginal population. Just over 60 percent of aboriginal children aged 0-4 live with two parents, compared to 78 percent of non-aboriginal children. Slightly more than one-third of young aboriginal children live with one parent.

Housing is an important issue for the aboriginal population. In 2016, 19.4 percent of the aboriginal population lived in a dwelling that was in need of major repairs compared to 6 percent of the non-aboriginal population. 

In 2015, nearly one in four aboriginal people (23.6 percent) not living on reserve or in the North—where the low income concept is not applied—lived in a low-income household. This compares with 13.8 percent for the non-aboriginal population.


More than two-thirds of Canadian households (67.8 percent) are homeowners, down slightly from 2011 (69 percent) and 2006 (68.4 percent). There was a slight decline in home ownership for all ages under 65 but a slight increase for those aged 65 or older. In 2016 the ownership rate for persons aged 25-34 was 48.4 percent, down from 52.4 percent in 2011. At the other age extreme, the home ownership rate for those aged 65 and over in 2016 was 74.4 percent, up from 73.6 percent in 2011.

Meanwhile, there was little change in housing affordability between 2011 and 2016. In 2016, about one in four households devoted more than 30 percent of their income to shelter costs: 39.3 percent were owners with a mortgage, 7.3 percent were owners without a mortgage and 53.4 percent were renters. Among owners, young people had the highest relative shelter costs: 21 percent of those under age 35 spent more than 30 percent of their income on shelter, compared to 14 percent among owners aged 65 and over. To a large extent, this pattern reflects the presence of a mortgage. Renters, both young and old, had the highest relative shelter costs: 40 percent of those under 35 and 50 percent of those 70 and over devoted more than 30 percent of their income to shelter.

Condos continue to grow in popularity. Between 2011 and 2016, one-third of all dwellings constructed in Canada were condominiums, compared to 21 percent of those constructed 2001-2006. About 43 percent of recently constructed condos were high-rise condos of five or more stories. In the Toronto CMA, 43 percent of all new dwellings constructed between 2011 and 2016 were high-rise condos. Both the young population under age 35 (29.1 percent of high-rise condos) and seniors aged 65 or older (27.7 percent) were attracted to high-rise condo living.



Cultural Diversity

With Canada’s population drawn from many parts of the world, marketers need to understand how the needs and preferences of consumers vary. The way consumers hear and interpret messages may be shaped by their past, and marketers will need to consider these influences when developing promotion campaigns.

Marketing campaigns need to consider not only the size of Canada’s visible minority population but the diversity of the groups when developing offers and creative pieces. Although increasingly businesses want to connect with the new market, this fast-growing, diverse population presents marketers with a number of challenges. A first challenge involves understanding the extent to which your current customer base includes various visible minority communities. As diversity spreads out from the traditional markets of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, attention needs to be given to other urban areas with growing immigrant groups.

Another challenge for businesses is defining the target population of interest. The Census provides a rich source of data on the diverse Canadian population. Information is available on each of the visible minority groups, but as discussed above, there’s also diversity within these groups. For example, marketers must decide on whether to focus on the entire group or only more recent immigrants. Should the second generation be included? Should temporary residents be included? 

Even within a visible minority group, marketers must determine what target population they want to engage. Is a broad category, such as South Asian or Latin American consumers, sufficient or do marketers need to further divide a group in terms of countries or languages of origin? Should they focus separately on the Chinese populations from Hong Kong and China or those that speak Mandarin or Cantonese? The decision on what groups to focus on depends in part on the extent to which factors such as values, media and consumer behaviour are distinct.

Another important question concerns which language to use when communicating messages and placing ads in so-called ethnic media. The Census provides data on a number of different language dimensions, including mother tongue, language spoken most often at home, other languages spoken regularly at home and knowledge of languages. And marketers should keep in mind that knowledge and use of English and French vary widely in these groups. A related question for consideration is the extent to which various groups consume ethnic media. Clearly, increasing diversity presents both opportunities and challenges for marketers. 

Aboriginal population

As the Census showed, Canada’s young aboriginal population is growing much faster than the rest of the population. In areas of high concentration, the young aboriginal population will be an important source of labour at a time when growth in the overall labour force is slowing. Governments and employers need to reach out to aboriginal youth to help them gain the education and training required to become members of tomorrow’s workforce. More generally, housing and other living conditions on many reserves continue to need attention. Marketers also have the opportunity to reach out and attract aboriginal consumers, especially in urban areas that are home to higher concentrations.


As the large population of Baby Boomers move into their sixties and seventies, they face many decisions about how and where they want to live as seniors. The evidence to date suggests Boomers will follow many different paths.

Some will decide to stay in their family home, perhaps undertaking renovations to upgrade and make their home more accessible. Others may choose to downsize, some to an adult community, others to a condo and still others to a high-end rental property. Assisted living residences for seniors will also attract increased attention as health problems arise among aging Canadians and their ability to live independently wanes.

Housing for seniors who wish to remain in familiar suburban areas also will be increasingly important. The recent past has already seen shifts in the types of dwellings constructed and much more change is ahead. Homebuilders and renovators need to better understand the preferences of seniors today, whose tastes are very different from the seniors of yesterday. Moreover, innovative homebuilders can show leadership in developing new housing alternatives that allow the older population to age in place and remain in their communities where they can be close to family and friends. The shifts in housing requirements and mobility limitations will spawn additional consumer needs that astute marketers in all industries—from grocery stores and entertainment venues to home furnishings and healthcare—should be looking to meet with targeted offers and tailored services.



One of Canada’s leading experts on the Census, Doug Norris, Ph.D., is a Senior Vice President and Chief Demographer at Environics Analytics.
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