Racial and ethnic categories in Canada

Canada’s unique history led to a distinct set of racial and ethnic classifications for purposes of enumeration and policy development, including those of European descent, those of “Aboriginal” (that is, indigenous) ancestry, an increasing number of immigrants who fit neither category, and those of multiple ethnic origins. Questions regarding race and ethnicity were modified on the 1996 census.

Before 1996, the 15 most frequent origins were listed after the question, “To what ethnic or cultural group(s) did this person’s [the respondent’s] ancestors belong?” along with two blank spaces for others answers to be included. In 1996, no prelisted categories were included after the question, although 24 examples of possible origins were listed, including, for the first time, “Canadian.” In 1996, 5.3 million persons (19 percent) considered “Canadian” as their only ethnic origin, while another 3.5 million persons (12 percent) reported their origins to be “Canadian” and some other ethnic group. As a result of this change, which allows almost unlimited self-identification, it is difficult to compare ancestry figures before and after 1996. With no prelisted census categories, Statistics Canada categorized responses for compilation purposes.

Most ethnic questions were self-explanatory, though some require clear definition. Respondents who reported “French-only ancestry” include both those who listed France as the country of origin and those who listed Acadia as the basis of their ethnic origin. Both “North American Indian ancestry” and “Métis ancestry” (European and Indian) were considered in the compilation of “Aboriginal” figures. Finally, using the Employment Equity Act definition, the census defined a “visible minority” as “Persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are not-Caucasian in race or non-white in color,” and incorporates in this category self-identified responses including Chinese, South Asians, Blacks, Arabs and West Asians, Filipinos, Southeast Asians, Latin Americans, Japanese, Koreans, and Pacific Islanders. See also Canada—immigration survey and policy review;

A–Z index