South Asian Canadians

South Asian Canadians
Total population

(South Asian Canadians
1,660,931[1] (4.9% of the Canadian population)

National Household Survey & Government Of Canada)
Regions with significant populations
Southern Ontario  · Lower Mainland British Columbia  · Most urban areas
Canadian English  · Canadian French  · South Asian languages
Sikhism  · Hinduism  · Islam  · Christianity  · Jainism  · Buddhism
Related ethnic groups
Asian Canadians  · British Asian  · South Asian people

South Asian Canadians refers to Canadians who were either born in or can trace their ancestry to South Asia, which includes nations such as India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. In Canadian English usage, the term 'Asian' alone refers to people descended from East Asia and Southeast Asia.[2] The term South Asian Canadian is a subgroup of Asian Canadian and, according to Statistics Canada, can further be divided by nationality, such as Indo-Canadian, Bangladeshi Canadian and Pakistani Canadian, or by ethnicity, such as Tamil Canadian and Gujarati Canadian.[3]

As of 2011, 1,615,145 Canadians had South Asian geographical origins, constituting 4.9% of the Canadian population and 32% of Canada's Asian Canadian population. This makes them the largest visible minority group in Canada, followed by Chinese and Black Canadians respectively.[4] The following year of 2012, 45,000 migrants from South Asia emigrated to Canada, this brings the total population originating from South Asia to 1,660,931.[5] A quarter of the visible minority population in Canada is from South Asia. The largest communities from South Asia are found in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta. Metropolitan areas with large communities from South Asia include Toronto (834,000), Vancouver (252,000), Calgary (85,000), Montréal (79,000) and Edmonton (61,000).[6]


The term 'Asian' in Canadian English generally refers to people from East and Southeast Asia. This differs from the British English definition of Asian, which includes South Asia but excludes East and Southeast Asians terming them as Oriental or East Asian instead. Thus, the term South Asian has come into common usage referring to Asians hailing from the Indian subcontinent.[7] This includes countries such as India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives. It does not include nations such as Afghanistan or Myanmar, which have been considered South Asian in some other connotations of the term.

Canadians from South Asia may also be identified by their country of origin such as Indian or Pakistani. They may also be identified by their specific cultural backgrounds, for example Punjabi or Tamil. The term "East Indian" is a term used widely in Canada to refer to people hailing from India as opposed to Aboriginal peoples who are also sometimes referred to as "Indian." This term has been made less common after the introduction of the general term "South Asian" in areas with significant Indian Canadian populations like Toronto. Desi are also sometimes used to refer to Canadians from India. However, these terms are avoided in more formal contexts due to their ambiguity and the possibility of being seen as derogatory.

Census Canada lists both cultural backgrounds like Bengali, Gujarati, Tamil and Goan in addition to cultures like East Indian, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Pakistani.


Early 20th century

Sikh settlers on board the Komogata Maru in Vancouver

The first known record of Canadians from South Asia dates back to 1903, when Punjabi Sikhs arrived in British Columbia after hearing stories about the high wages being paid there from British Indian soldiers stationed in Hong Kong. Attracted by these wages, more Sikh men began immigrating into British Columbia, working mainly in industries such as mining, logging and railroads. Many of these men, who arrived without their families, settled in Vancouver, Victoria, northern BC, and what is now Abbotsford, British Columbia. By the end of 1908, 5,209 Canadians were from South Asia, nearly all of whom were Sikhs settled across British Columbia. Soon the Sikh community in Canada began to face the ignorance of the Europeans by discrimination and xenophobia similar to what Japanese and Chinese were enduring then. European settlers viewed Asian migrants, and included the Sikhs, as a threat to the European nature of Canada, not considering their own impact on the Aboriginal population by immigration. In addition, many Asian have small migrants had to work for lower wages, which threatened the job security of the European majority at the time. In 1907 the government in British Columbia committed atrocities such as enacting laws limiting the rights and privileges of Canadians from South Asian countries, which prevented them from voting and denied them access to holding political office, public sector jobs and other professions. On January 8, 1908 Continuous journey regulation was enacted in an effort to prevent Sikhs from immigrated to Canada. The law required that people arriving from South Asia in Canada must "come from the country of their birth or citizenship by a continuous journey and or through tickets purchased before leaving their country of their birth or nationality." This prevented Sikh soldiers stationed in Hong Kong and Japan from immigrating to Canada.

A notable example of early anti-South Asian sentiments as a result of Continuous journey regulation in Canada was the Komagata Maru incident. A successful Sikh fisherman living in British Columbia attempting to circumnavigate the Continuous journey regulation chartered a Japanese steamship known as the Komagata Maru to travel from Kolkata, India to Vancouver, Canada. The ship made stops in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Yokohama, where it picked up more Eastern-Caucasian settlers. In total the ship carried 376 passengers, of whom 300 were Sikh, 24 were Muslim and 12 were Hindu. All passengers were registered as British subjects. Upon arriving in Vancouver though the ship was not permitted to dock with several British Columbian politicians such as Conservative MP H.H. Stevens campaigning against their right to dock. Some Canadians already settled in Canada began launching 'shore committees' led by Hassam Rashim and Sohan Lal Pathak. These were to protest against the decision not to allow the settlers on the Komagata Maru no to enter Canada. Passengers threatened to start a rebellion, or ghadar, if they were forced back to India. The shore committee raised $22,000 and launched a test case legal battle in the British Columbia Court of Appeal. Only July 6, the court disgracefully and unanimously decided they had no authority to interfere with the Department of Immigration and Colonization and had ordered the harbor tug Sea Lion to pull the ship out to sea in July 19. This resulted in rioting between the settlers on board and police officers. The ship was ultimately forced back to India on July 23, with only 20 of the settlers being allowed to stay in Canada.

The continuous journey regulation provision remained in effect until 1947, as did most other anti-South Asian laws. However pressure from the Eastern-Caucasian community resulted in the Canadian government allowing the wife and children of their Canadian husband/father to immigrate. Despite this by the mid-1920s this population in Canada had dropped to 1300. Despite their declining numbers Canadians from South Asia which was still primarily Sikh grew wealthier. They began to acquire their own lumber mills which they used to produce wood and sawdust for consumer purchase. During the Great Depression the tight-knit nature of the East-Indian community mitigated many of the economic effects the depression had on other communities. As a result of the recent independence of several South Asian nations such as India, Pakistan and Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, the Canadian government created annual immigration quotas which were to allow 150 Indians, 100 Pakistanis and 50 Sri Lankans the right to immigrate to Canada each year.

Late 20th century

Beginning in the 1960s racial and national restrictions were removed from Canada's immigration policies resulting in the explosive growth of South Asian community. The South Asian Canadian community grew from just 6,774 in 1961 to 67,925 just ten years later in 1971. Many of the South Asians arriving during the 60s, 70s were not directly from South Asia but instead from Southeast Africa. Discrimination in many African Great Lakes nations like Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania against Indians was growing as a result of their status as a market-dominant minority. This is when a minority group controls a disproportionately large segment of the economy due to their over representation in business and above average education. One notable incident of this was Ugandan dictator Idi Amin's expulsion of 80,000 Ugandan Indians as part of his economic war to allow indigenous Ugandans to regain control of the countries economy. As a result, nearly 20,000 Indians fled to Canada, some directly others after temperately settling in other nations in Africa. They eventually grew to be the first sizable non-Sikh South Asian community in Canada. Shenaaz Nanji's Governor General's Award-nominated novel Child of Dandelions deals with the expulsion of Indians from Uganda and their immigration to Canada.

Around this time the Caribbean, mainly from Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, and Indo-Fijians began immigrating to Canada as well, settling mainly in Toronto, Ontario. Many of these South Asians were the descendants of indentured laborers were brought by the colonial British government to replace the slaves on plantations. After completing their work terms the majority remained in these countries. Many of the immigrants who arrived from the Caribbean, the African Great Lakes and Fiji were educated professionals who upon arriving in Canada worked in the service sector or began their own businesses. As opposed to the industrial sector which mainly early Sikhs worked in.

Starting in the 1980s South Asians arriving directly from the Indian subcontinent began to increase noticeably as well. In 1985 around 15,000 immigrants arrived from South Asia annually in 2012 that number was at 46,000 annually. In addition to the South Asians still arriving from other parts of the world like the Gulf of Arabia[disambiguation needed], Caribbean, the African Great Lakes and Fiji. As a result, the South Asian community began forming growing enclaves particularly in the Vancouver and Toronto area. Some notable areas are Gerrard Street, Brampton and several neighborhoods in Mississauga, Scarborough, Markham and Etobicoke in the Greater Toronto Area. In British Columbia notable South Asian districts include Surrey and Abbotsford.

The rise of the Khalistan movement, the secessionist movement that sought to make the Indian state of Punjab a separate nation for Sikhs. As a result, during the 1980s many Sikhs living in Canada began to involve themselves in the Khalistan movement by organizing protests in Canada and sending money to fund separatist groups back in India. These protests reached their peak in 1984 when the Indian army raided the Golden Temple which were followed by the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards and finally anti-Sikh riots throughout North India. Several major anti-Indian protests occurred in Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto with angry protesters forcing their way into the Indian embassy in Toronto carrying knives and smashing photos of Indira Gandhi. On June 23, 1985, several Canadian Sikhs led by Talwinder Singh Parmar were arrested for the Air India Flight 182 bombing, which killed 329 people. It is considered the worst terrorist attack to ever be carried out by Canadians.

With the outbreak of the Sri Lankan civil war in 1983 many Sri Lankan Tamils were forced to flee persecution and violence and see refuge in Canada. This made Sri Lankan Canadians the fifth largest source of immigrants during the 1990s. It also made Canada home to the largest Tamil Canadian population in the Western World with 140,000 Tamils living in Canada, primarily Toronto and Montreal. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, though officially recognized as terrorist group in Canada still receives widespread support among the Sri Lankan Tamil Canadian community.

21st century

Beginning in the 21st century the makeup of Canadians from South Asia had changed greatly. Sikhs had gone from making up nearly 90% of Canadians from South Asia during much of the early 20th century to just 28% in 2001. This is as a result of a more diverse background of South Asians immigrating to Canada as opposed to the primarily Sikh and Punjabi immigrants of the early 20th century. In 2006 total South Asian Canadians outnumbered the specific numbers of Chinese Canadians as the largest visible minority group in Canada with 25% of visible minorities. On February 24, 2000 Ujjal Dosanjh became the first Canadian from South Asia premier of British Columbia, representing the New Democratic Party.

During the first decade of the 21 century India remained the second largest source of invited immigrants behind China but ahead of the Philippines. Pakistan was also among the top ten sources of invited immigrants to Canada. In addition, India is also the second largest source of foreign students in Canada with 28,939 invited Indian students studying in Canada in 2012 compared with 1,747 in 2000. In 2007, BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Toronto opened in Toronto, making it the largest Hindu temple in Canada. The Aga Khan Museum is also currently under construction by Ismaili Muslims hailing from Pakistan. Several other notable places of worship have been built by Canadians from South Asia including the Khalsa Darbar Gurdwara and Baitul Islam mosque.

South Asian Canadian culture also began to move into the Canadian mainstream in the 21st century. Bhangra music, a genre of music from India that combines traditional Punjabi music with pop and hip hop and other Western musical styles has grown increasingly popular throughout Canada. Canadians of all backgrounds enjoy and are also familiar with Bollywood. In 2011 the 12th International Indian Film Academy Awards were hosted in Toronto, which was home to nearly 832,000 Canadians from a South Asian country, one of the largest in the Western World. How to Be Indie, a Canadian children's television program produced by YTV, revolves around the daughter of Hindu Indian immigrants living in Toronto, and has since been syndicated in the United States, United Kingdom, Israel, Latin America and elsewhere. The Indian Canadian comedian Russell Peters has used his heritage as material for many of his jokes as well.

In the 2015 Canadian federal election, 16 South Asian Members of Parliament (MPs) were elected from Ontario alone, which is the most in Canadian history.[8] Four South Asian ministers have been appointed to the Canadian cabinet, which includes the Minister of National Defence, Harjit Sajjan.[9]



Historical population

The first confirmed reports on the Canadians from India were in 1908 which put the East-Indian Canadian population at 5,209. The overwhelming majority of whom were Sikh, male, and settled in British Columbia. However, as a result of laws which restricted the immigration the community had declined to only 1,300 by the mid 1920s. By 1961, right before racial restriction were respectfully removed from Canada's immigration policy, Canadians from South Asian countries rose to 6,774. With racial quotas being removed (invitations extended) during the 1960s the number of Canadians from South Asia created the diverse population we see into the present day.

Brampton, Ontario is home to the highest percentage of Canadians from South Asia with 202,000 or 38.7% of the population.

According to the 2011 National Household Survey 1,615,920 Canadians from South Asian origins and 1,567,400 other Canadians were classified as belonging to the visible minority group, generally termed, South Asian. The growth of the population is attributed to sustained invitations of immigration from South Asian nations. According to a 2006 study conducted by Statistics Canada Canadians from South Asia will grow to between 3.1 and 4.1 million by 2031 or 8.1% to 9.2% of the Canadian population overall. As of 2011, Ontario, followed by British Columbia, had the largest population of Canadians from South Asia with Alberta and Quebec being home to significant communities as well. Metropolitan areas with large communities include the Toronto (834,000), Vancouver (252,000), Calgary (85,000), Montréal (79,000) and Edmonton (61,000). Municipalities with large communities include Brampton, Ontario (38.7%), Surrey, British Columbia (29.5%), Abbotsford, British Columbia (22.7%), Mississauga, Ontario (22.0%) and Markham, Ontario (19.4%). From 2001 to 2006 Milton, Ontario saw the greatest increase in its population growing by 1378.6% with many other towns seeing their population double or triple.

Canadian provinces and territories by their "South Asian" population in 2011:

Province South Asians 2001 % 2001 South Asians 2011 % 2011
Ontario 554,870 4.9% 1,003,180 7.9%
British Columbia 210,295 5.4% 311,265 7.2%
Alberta 69,580 2.4% 159,055 4.4%
Quebec 59,510 0.8% 91,400 1.2%
Manitoba 12,875 1.2% 26,220 2.2%
Saskatchewan 4,090 0.4% 12,620 1.3%
Nova Scotia 2,895 0.3% 5,935 0.7%
New Brunswick 1,415 0.2% 3,090 0.4%
Newfoundland and Labrador 1,010 0.2% 2,005 0.4%
Prince Edward Island 115 0.1% 500 0.4%
Yukon 205 0.7% 340 1.0%
Northwest Territories 190 0.5% 200 0.5%
Nunavut 30 0.1% 115 0.4%
Canada 917,075 3.1% 1,615,145 4.9%

Canadian metropolitan areas with large populations of Canadians from South Asia:

City Province South Asians Percentage
Toronto Ontario 834,000 15.1%
Vancouver British Columbia 252,000 11.0%
Calgary Alberta 81,000 7.5%
Montréal Quebec 53,000 3.3%
Edmonton Alberta 58,000 7.2%
Ottawa Ontario 34,000 3.9%
Abbotsford British Columbia 29,000 22.4%
Hamilton Ontario 25,000 3.5%
Winnipeg Manitoba 23,000 3.5%

Subdivisions with notable Canadians from South Asia

Source: Canada 2011 Census

National average: 4.9%


British Columbia




Religions of Canadians from South Asia aged 15 years and above (2001)[3]
Religion Percent
No religion

Canadians from South Asian tend to be significantly more religious than Canadians as a whole, with only 4% claiming to have no religion compared in 17% of Canadians in 2001. In addition 28% of Canadians from South Asia were Sikh, 28% Hindu, 22% Muslim and 16% Christian. Religious affiliation can vary greatly based on nationality as well. The majority of Pakistani Canadians and Bangladeshi Canadians profess to follow Islam, while the majority of Sri Lankan Canadians are Hindu with a significant minority following Christianity. Indian Canadians are split between Sikhs and Hindus with large minorities being Christian and Muslim as well. There are also a sizeable community of Canadians from South Asia adhering to religions such as Jainism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism.

Religion is found to play an important part in the lives of many Canadians from South Asia and serves as defining point in their identity, as with many people. Religious institutions such as gurdwaras, mosques, mandirs and churchs have often serve as points for the community. Religion can also play an important role in the marriage of some young Canadians from South Asia (who were born in Canada or in a country from South Asia). Some families believe that the couple must share the same religious heritage, which may also include caste, although this is becoming outdated. In recent years, Canadians from South Asia have opened private schools in order to preserve their religious heritage (as with Catholic schools), though the greatest majority attend government run schools.

In 1990 Baltej Singh Dhillon, a Canadian Sikh challenged the traditional dress code of the RCMP in order to accommodate his turban, a mandatory article of clothing worn by many Sikh men. The caused controversy with opponents arguing that the uniform of the RCMP was a national icon to be preserved, while proponents pointed out that Sikh soldiers served in the British army during World War I and World War II and also served in many Canadian police forces. On March 16, 1990 the policy was amended to include Sikhs to serve while wearing a turban. More recently in 2013 the Quebec Soccer Federation had banned Sikh players in turbans from participating in matches, citing that turbans were a health hazard, though it is practiced in India. This move created controversy among the Sikh community in Canada and condemned by FIFA.


For much of the early 20th century restrictions such as the continuous journey regulation and quotas were placed on people immigrating from the countries of South Asia to prevent them from immigrating to Canada. When these restrictions were removed in the 1960s immigration from the Indian subcontinent and other places like the African Great Lakes, the Caribbean and Fiji gradually increased. As of 2012, India was the third largest source of immigrants for Canada behind the Philippines and China respectively. Pakistan was the fourth, Sri Lanka the seventeenth, Bangladesh the nineteenth and Nepal the thirty-eighth. In addition immigrants to Canada arrive from regions such as the Arab States of the Persian Gulf, the Caribbean and the African Great Lakes (as well as European countries). Historically, British Columbia was the traditional destination for Punjabi immigrants. Beginning in the 1970s, however, Ontario grew to become the top destination due to its job availability. In recent years migration to Alberta has also increased due to its comparatively stronger economy and better job market.

Year Indians admitted Pakistanis admitted Sri Lankans admitted Bangladeshis admitted Nepalis admitted
2000 26,122 14,201 5,849 2,715 247
2001 27,901 15,353 5,520 3,393 273
2002 28,838 14,173 4,968 2,615 418
2003 24,595 12,351 4,448 1,896 440
2004 25,573 12,793 4,134 3,374 594
2005 22,141 13,575 4,690 3,940 714
2006 30,746 12,329 4,490 3,838 640
2007 26,047 9,545 3,934 2,735 564
2008 24,548 8,051 4,508 2,716 639
2009 26,117 6,213 4,270 4,270 627
2010 30,252 4,986 4,181 4,364 1,502
2011 24,965 6,073 3,104 2,449 1,249
2012 28,943 9,931 3,152 2,449 1,311
Total 346,788 139,574 57,248 35,856 9,218

See also


Further reading

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