Learning Objectives

After completing this chapter, you will be able to:

  1. Outline changes in the Canadian population over time.
  2. Describe the recent populations and demography of the provinces and territories of Canada.
  3. Describe the urbanization of Canada.
  4. Discuss the desirability of a population policy for Canada.


In Chapter 10 we examined the dynamics of human populations in different countries as well as on a global scale. This information provides an international context for the examination of population issues in Canada. Canada ranks among the top 20% of nations in terms of its human population (about 36 million in 2015). Canada also ranks among the wealthiest of nations in terms of per-capita indicators of economic development, use of natural resources, and impacts on environmental quality (see Chapter 1). Because Canadians have an environmentally intensive lifestyle, our country has a much greater impact on Earth and its resources than would be predicted on the basis of its population alone.

Image 11.1. Although population densities are high in Canadian cities (illustrated by this crowd listening to musical buskers in Halifax), they are relatively low in the country as a whole. Most of Canada is not suitable for supporting a large population, mainly because of a difficult climate. Source: B. Freedman.

Because Canada has achieved a relatively high level of economic and social development, it has an opportunity to manage its environmental quality in a sustainable manner. Canada also has a responsibility to control its population growth within sustainable limits. Moreover, because of our privileged and wealthy status, Canada has an obligation to demonstrate a vision of sustainability to other nations, including less-developed countries that are hoping to emulate our achievements. A central element of sustainable development is the implementation of a sensible population policy.

It is important that Canadians become knowledgeable about national and global population issues. If Canadians understand these subjects, they will be sympathetic to population policies that are appropriate within Canada, as well as abroad.

Aboriginal Populations

Around 1000 CE, the Norse explorer Leif Ericsson made several landfalls along the northeast coast of North America. The Norse attempted a colonization, including a settlement at l’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, but that quickly failed. About 500 years later, other European explorers encountered vast regions in the Americas that had previously been unknown to them. They did not, however, find unpopulated lands. In fact, all of the Americas were fully occupied by various indigenous or Aboriginal cultures (consisting of First Nations or Amerindians, plus the northern Inuit). At the end of the fifteenth century, at the time of the voyages of Christopher Columbus and John Cabot, the indigenous peoples of the Americas had an estimated population of about 35 million people. About 30 million of these people lived in South and Central America, and 5 million in North America.

Some of the First Nations had developed advanced cultures and economies, particularly the Aztecs and Maya of Central America and the Inca of South America. These people built elaborate cities that contained great pyramids and other impressive buildings. Their nations were supported by complex physical and social infrastructures. Like cities everywhere, those of the more advanced Amerindian societies relied on the surrounding agricultural landscape to supply food, water, and other resources. Furthermore, taxes were collected from people living in the producing regions to support the rulers, administrators, soldiers, and artisans who were living in the urbanized centers.

The First Nations cultures in what is now Canada were diverse, comprising 12 language groups, some of which had many dialects. Some of the cultures, such as the Huron and Iroquois of the eastern temperate woodlands, were essentially agrarian societies. These people supplemented their agricultural livelihood by foraging for useful wild plants and by hunting deer, birds, fish, and other animals. They lived in grand longhouses in stockaded villages, surrounded by well-tended fields in which they cultivated maize, beans, pumpkin, squash, sunflower, and other crops.

Other First Nations subsisted largely through hunting and foraging lifestyles. The Bella Coola, Haida, Nootka, Tlingit, and related nations of the humid Pacific coast exploited a relatively abundant and predictable resource base, and consequently, they lived in permanent settlements. These people were mostly fishers of salmon, molluscs, and additional coastal resources, supplemented by wild plants, deer, and other terrestrial resources.

Most of the First Nations of the western prairies, such as the Assiniboine, Blackfoot, and Piegan, were semi-nomadic hunters of the enormous herds of bison and other prairie animals that existed at the time. The more northern Athapaskans, Chipewyan, Cree, Dene, and Innu of the sweeping boreal forest hunted caribou, moose, beaver, and waterfowl, and fished for grayling, trout, whitefish, and pike. The Beothuk, Mi’kmaq, and Maliseet of the Atlantic region also hunted moose, deer, and caribou, fished in freshwaters, and gathered shellfish in shallow coastal waters. All of these peoples also gathered wild plant foods when they were abundant. The northernmost Inuit were the most recent Aboriginal migrants to Canada. They subsisted on marine mammals, such as ringed seal, walrus, beluga, narwhal, and even great bowhead whales. They also hunted caribou when those migratory animals were nearby.

Not much is known about the population sizes of these Aboriginal nations of what is now Canada. Estimates are based on assumptions about their lifestyle and the presumed carrying capacity of their habitats. At about the time when the first Europeans came to Canada, the total Aboriginal population may have been about 300,000.

European Contact

The European colonization of the Americas began in the early sixteenth century, following the “discovery” of these lands in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, who was a Genoan sailing on behalf of the Spanish Crown. Columbus was seeking an oceanic passage to the rich spices and silks of China, India, Japan, and Southeast Asia, but he blundered on the Americas, with his first landfalls occurring in what are now the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola. In 1497, John Cabot, also a Genoan but employed by the King of England, sighted Newfoundland and possibly Cape Breton.

Soon after the arrival of the Europeans, the numbers of Aboriginal people began to precipitously decline. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Amerindian population of North America was only about 20% of their initial 5 million. The most important causes of this calamitous mortality were infectious diseases, particularly measles, smallpox, tuberculosis, and influenzas. Europeans were relatively tolerant of these diseases that they brought to the Americas, but the indigenous peoples were extremely vulnerable. Epidemiologists refer to populations that are hypersensitive to infectious diseases as “virgin fields”. Such populations can suffer intense mortality from introduced diseases (known as virgin-field epidemics).

In addition, huge numbers of Aboriginal peoples died as a direct and indirect result of conflicts associated with the European conquest. Others died during inter-tribal wars, some of which were precipitated when competing European nations upset previous balances of power among indigenous groups, in part by providing their Aboriginal allies with advanced weaponry. In addition, many people starved when they were dispossessed of their resources and livelihoods by European colonists and governments. For example, the rapacious 19th-century slaughter of the great bison herds was partly a stratagem to deprive the Plains First Nations of their crucial resource base.

In 1500, there were about 300,000 indigenous people in Canada, a population that subsequently collapsed to perhaps 60,000. The Aboriginal nations of Canada now number about 1.4 million people whose self-identified ancestry is First Nation (or Indian; 852-thousand), Métis (452-thousand), or Inuit (60-thousand) (2011 data; Statistics Canada, 2012).

Early European Immigration

The initial wave of Europeans coming to Canada were mostly French and British adventurers seeking furs, fish, timber, agricultural land, trade, and colonial lands. Compared with their European homelands, which even then were relatively densely populated, Canada represented a great frontier to these colonists, replete with boundless opportunities to develop livelihoods and make money. The fact that these lands were already occupied by Aboriginal cultures did not matter much to the European colonists because the dominant world views of the time were aggressive and imperialist. These beliefs served to legitimize the displacement of indigenous peoples by the technologically empowered Europeans.

Slowly over the first century or so, and then as a great flood of immigration, colonists came to Canada from France and Britain, and later from many other countries. Today, the population is an amalgam derived from a rich diversity of immigrants from virtually all parts of the world, plus descendants of the original Aboriginal cultures.

Between 1500 and 1700, the population of the North American continent increased to about 6 million people. This included about 1 million black slaves, who had been brought unwillingly from Africa to the southeastern colonies to work on plantations. Under laws of the time, slaves were the human property of their “owners,” having no personal freedom and few rights. Although people in the northern colonies had few slaves, they did employ large numbers of indentured servants, mostly of European origin, who were bound to their employers by contracts and debts that in many cases were impossible to pay off. Those difficult obligations were not much removed from slavery.

Following this initial phase of colonization, the pace of immigration markedly quickened. Data are not available for the entire period, but between 1820 and 1930 at least 50 million persons of European birth migrated to colonies and former colonies around the world, but particularly to the Americas. This immense human dispersal involved about one-fifth of the population of Europe during the period. The mass migration was stimulated by a combination of factors: rapid population growth in Europe, a shortage of arable land there, famine in Ireland and other countries, and rivalries among the imperial powers to develop empires and dominate world trade. In addition, some religious and ethnic minorities were heavily persecuted in European countries, and this persuaded many of those oppressed peoples to emigrate to North America or elsewhere.

As was noted in Chapter 10, this great 19th and 20th-century dispersal was a critical factor in allowing European countries to have a relatively easy passage through their demographic transitions.

Canadian Focus 11.1. The Legacy of Daniel LeBlanc and Françoise Gaudet
In 1650, Daniel LeBlanc emigrated from France to Acadia. He married Françoise Gaudet, also an immigrant, and settled into subsistence farming near what is now Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia. Many families during that time were large, which was considered a good thing because children helped with the onerous labour of clearing the forest, tending crops and livestock, and taking care of the home and extended family. In fact, fecundity remained high among French Canadians for more than three centuries until the 1950s and 1960s, when birth rates began to plummet.

Daniel and Françoise had seven children – six sons and a daughter. Five of their sons married, presenting Daniel and Françoise with 35 grandchildren. Today, the LeBlanc family has an enormous legacy of descendants, estimated to number more than 300,000 in Canada and the United States (many have the anglicized surname White). The LeBlanc clan is the largest of the Acadian lineages. This extraordinary case demonstrates the awesome power of human population growth.

Canadian Focus 11.2. A Remarkable Legacy of New France
The best early demographic data for any area of Canada are for New France. This region encompassed the valley of the St. Lawrence River in southern Quebec, and the Acadian regions of what are now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island.

The French effort of colonization began in 1604, when Samuel de Champlain led an expedition that settled near Annapolis Royal in the lower Bay of Fundy, followed by another mission that founded Quebec City in 1608. In the early 1600s, there were about 500 French colonists in the region known as New France. In 1663, after a half-century of tentative colonization, a census reported 3,215 people of French origin in Quebec, while another in 1671 found about 400 in Acadia. Most were single men who had journeyed to the Canadian frontier as soldiers, as priests hoping to convert indigenous people to Roman Catholicism, as government administrators, or as adventurers seeking their fortune through the fur trade.

In the following decade, the pace of colonization quickened markedly because of renewed sponsorship by the French government. Many families of settlers arrived from France, intent on developing agriculture in the fertile lowlands of Acadia and along the St. Lawrence River. The immigration of single women was also encouraged to offset a substantial deficit of females in New France. Many of these young women were recruited from Parisian orphanages and were known as les filles du roi. In 1673, there were about 6700 Francophones in New France.

Immigration then greatly slowed because royal sponsorship of emigrants ended and there were also dwindling prospects for finding work in the colonies. French immigration to Acadia ceased when that area was ceded to Britain in 1713, and it terminated to Isle Royale (Cape Breton Island) after the fortress of Louisbourg was lost to a British siege in 1758. Immigration to Quebec then also ended after the British victory at the Plains of Abraham in 1759, which effectively ended the colonization of eastern Canada by France. Population growth after this period was almost entirely due to natural increases, owing to the excess of births over deaths.

Birth rates were high in New France (and elsewhere) during the 18th century, typically about 50-60 per 1000 people in the population. Anecdotal evidence suggests there was great fecundity in early colonial times – one soldier serving under the Marquis de Montcalm is said to have had 250 descendants when he died. Families of 15-20 children were not uncommon. Even though infant mortality was high, particularly from communicable diseases, the population grew quickly.

By 1770, the francophone population of Quebec had increased to 86,000. After 1759, all the growth of the French-Canadian population was due to the natural excess of births over mortality, while much of the growth of the non-francophone population was due to immigration. By 1815, the francophone population of Quebec was 269,000 (there were also about 60,000 British colonists), and in 1885, it was 1.18 million (plus 250,000 non-Francophones). During the nineteenth century, the average number of births in Catholic families in Quebec was about seven (this refers to all Catholics, but the great majority of them were French). This high fecundity is typical of populations at the beginning of their demographic transition. It should be pointed out, however, that high fecundity was not unique to Quebec – it was also typical of areas elsewhere in Canada, including Ontario.

In 1926, there were about 3 million Francophones in Quebec, elsewhere in Canada, and in the United States. Almost all of these people were descendants of the original few hundred emigrants from France. At the present time, there are about 6.8 million French Canadians. This includes about 5.9 million Francophones living in Quebec, 300-thousand Acadians, and smaller numbers in other provinces. There are also hundreds of thousands of Americans of French descent, many of whom live in Louisiana and New England.

Population Growth

Reliable information is available describing early population growth in some regions of what is now Canada, notably in the eastern tracts known as New France (see Canadian Focus 11.1 and 11.2). The first credible estimate of the population of all of Canada is for 1851, when there were about 2.4 million people (Figure 11.1). By 1867, the year of Confederation, the population was 3.3 million, and by the turn of the twentieth century it had increased to 5.4 million. Much of the population growth resulted from a natural rate of increase of 1.3-2.0% per year, with birth rates of 36-45 per 1000 people and death rates of 18-21 per 1000. In fact, because of a relatively depressed economy during the first several decades after Confederation, immigrants to Canada were fewer than emigrants.

Figure 11.1. The Population of Canada. In 1851, the Canadian population was about 2.4 million. This graph shows the steady growth of the population up to 2015, when it was 35 million. Data from Statistics Canada (1992, 2014a) and World Resources Institute (2008).

During the 20th century, birth and death rates both declined steadily, although the natural rate of population increase remained greater than 1% per year until the mid-1970s. This natural growth, coupled with vigorous immigration, led to continued rapid increases in the population of Canada. Population growth rates were as high as 3% per year and averaged about 1.6% per year overall. By 1950 there were about 14 million Canadians, and in 2015 more than 35 million.

The natural rate of growth of the Canadian population (birth rate minus death rate) has slowed markedly during the past century (Figures 11.2 and 11.3). This has happened mainly because of rapid decreases in the birth rates, which now almost counterbalance the death rates (which had declined earlier).

Figure 11.2. Components of Natural Growth of the Canadian Population. The data are standardized per 1000 people in the population and are annual rates. Note that an annual growth rate of 10/1000 is equivalent to 1% per year. Data from Kalbach (1988), Dumas and Belanger (1998), and Statistics Canada (2014a).