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Everything you need to know about the Indian community in Canada

Everything you need to know about the Indian community in Canada

Do you have questions about the Indian community in Canada? We have put together a guide about everything you need to know.

Canadians of South Asian descent are one of the largest non-European ethnic groups in Canada (second only to Chinese-Canadians), making up the tenth largest ethnic group in the country. In the 2016 census, 1,963,330 people of South Asian origin were recorded as calling Canada ‘home’. This number includes people from the following regions/ethnic groups:

  • Bangladeshi - 45,940
  • Bengali - 22,900
  • Bhutanese - 3,600
  • East Indian - 1,374,710
  • Goan - 6,070
  • Gujarati - 8,350
  • Kashmiri - 3,115
  • Nepali - 17,140
  • Pakistani - 215,555
  • Punjabi - 118,400
  • Sinhalese - 7,285
  • Sri Lankan - 152,595
  • Tamil - 48,670
Many people in Canada refer to all South Asian people colloquially as ‘East Indian’, with individuals choosing to self-identify as this, or the original. Many young South Asians enjoy their ‘Desi’ identities alongside feeling proudly Canadian. 

While many Indo-Canadians today are foreign born, there have been people of South Asian descent living and working in Canada since the birth of the country. They faced poor treatment and discrimination in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but today are a vital and vibrant part of the Canadian society. 

What’s in a name? Indo-Canadian vs. East Indian vs. South Asian

The term Indo-Canadian is typically used in Canada to refer to people from the many ethnic groups of the Republic of India, and other South Asian countries including Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Sometimes you will also hear the term ‘East Indian.’ 

If you are a geography whiz, you might think that this term refers only to people from the Eastern Indian states of West Bengal, Sikkim, Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram. This is not the case! It is a term that originated during the colonial period to distinguish people from India from the ‘native’ First Nations people of Canada. The term comes from the East India Trading Company, and while it is less popular today, it is still used by many government bodies.  

Some First Nations people refer to themselves as Indian, or NDN, but others find it offensive. It is always best to ask what people prefer, or listen to how they self-identify. 

The Indo-Canadian community is one of the fastest growing in Canada

Statistics Canada reports that Indo-Canadians are amongst the fastest growing communities in the country. For instance, between 1996 and 2001, respondents to the national survey who claimed that they had East Indian origins rose by 30%. During this same time period, the country’s overall population grew by 4%.

Nearly all Canadians who responded to the census that they are ‘East Indian’, responded that they are solely of East Indian origin. In the 2016 census, this was 81%, compared to 55% of other Canadians who claimed a single ethnic origin. 

Most Indo-Canadians are Sikh or Hindu

Most people of South Asian origin in Canada identify as East Indian or Pakistani. The most common religions for all Canadians of East Indian origin are either Sikh or Hindu. 

This does not match the religious make-up found in India. In Canada, the representation of a few key minority religious groups is a lot higher than in India. For example, in India, Sikhs are 2% of the population, Christians are 2.2% of the population, Hindus are 80%, and Muslims are 14%.  In Canada, Sikhs comprise 35% of the East Indian population, Hindus 28%, Muslims 17%, and Christians 16%. As you can see, this is a very different religious make-up. 

Data as of the 2001 Census:
Sikh – 239, 225
Hindu – 192, 680
Islam – 124, 650
Christianity – 117, 430

Most Indo-Canadians live in Ontario and BC

Most of the people of South Asian heritage in Canada live in Ontario and British Columbia. In fact, according to the 2016 census, 774,495 people of South Asian descent lived in Ontario, with a further 309,315 residing in B.C. Coming in a distant third place was Alberta, with 174,505, followed by Quebec, with 51,650. 

As you would expect, the largest cities in Ontario and B.C. are home to the largest populations of people of South Asian origin in the country. 10.4 % of Toronto’s residents are Indo-Canadian, with 643,370 residents in that city. Next is Vancouver, with an Indo-Canadian population of 243,135, accounting for 10% of the city’s total. 

Cities in Canada with sizable Indo-Canadian populations:

Toronto

Ontario

643,370

10.4%

Vancouver

British Columbia

243,135

10.0%

Montréal

Quebec

48,485

1.2%

Calgary

Alberta

90,625

6.5%

Edmonton

Alberta

72,245

5.5%

Abbotsford

British Columbia

33,340

18.9%

Winnipeg

Manitoba

30,800

4.0%

Ottawa

Ontario

28,945

2.2%

Hamilton

Ontario

23,390

3.1%

Kitchener

Ontario

19,295

3.7%


Indo-Canadian culture 

Canada is a multicultural state, which differs from the ‘melting pot’ practice of assimilation found the United States. This means that new immigrants to Canada are encouraged to keep practicing their own cultures, languages, religions, cuisines, and festivals. 

Indo-Canadian culture is linked to the different Indian group's religious, linguistic and ethnic backgrounds. India is a massive country with a huge population, and the culture and language in the North are very different from that found in the South. There is a true array of cultural practices found throughout Canada, including those that identify with the Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Muslim, Parsi, Christian and Jewish communities in India. 

In particular, the unique and distinct Punjabi culture and language have become a large part of Canadian culture, owing to their large numbers. Punjabi radio stations, television channels, newspapers, and cultural events are all popular in Ontario and B.C. 

Over the last two centuries, Indo-Canadian culture has developed into its own unique identity, different from that found in India and other Canadians. Young Indo-Canadians enjoy watching Bollywood and Tollywood films as much as they enjoy Hollywood blockbusters. Many people feel comfortable switching between traditional kurta pyjamas and saris into jeans and t-shirts. And like all Canadians, they love hockey!

Most people of Indian origin feel that they ‘belong’ in Canada

According to an Ethnic Diversity Survey conducted in 2002, Canadians of East Indian origin report that they feel a strong sense of belonging here in Canada. More than 82% claimed that they felt they were welcome, that they belonged, and that they were proud to be Canadian. 71% of the same group reported that they also felt strongly that they belonged to their own ethnic and cultural group.  

All these said, it is important not to exaggerate the reality. In the same 2002 study, 49% of Canadians of East Indian origin reported experiencing some form of discrimination or unfair treatment based on their race or accent.  Happily, with the changing times, the younger generations are far less likely to discriminate others based on skin color, religion, or accent. The court systems in Canada are very fair, and complaints about racism are taken seriously.

Indo-Canadians are vocal and active in all aspects of Canadian society. Canadian elections since 2018 have recorded voting activities by 66% of Indo-Canadians who were eligible to vote. 

If you are a newcomer to Canada and you are of South Asian descent, you will find a thriving, robust, and welcoming community here. Soon, you will be an Indo-Canadian proudly calling this country your home. Welcome!

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