03/31/2016 11:55 EDT | Updated 04/01/2017 05:12 EDT

Is Canada A Nation Of Immigrants?

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According to a January 2016 Leger survey for the Association for Canadian Studies, some two in three Canadians agree that "with the exception of Canada's aboriginal peoples everyone that settled in Canada is an immigrant." The 2011 Canadian census reports that there are more than 31 million non-Aboriginal Canadians. That would make for a very substantial number of immigrants and clearly not correct with the official figure reported in the census being just below 6.8 million.

That number represents some one in five Canadians, the second highest share of foreign-born in the world (behind Australia). In Greater Toronto nearly half the population is foreign-born. With much of Canada's historic growth fueled by multiple waves of migrants, the country is often described as a nation of immigrants. In the same 2016 ACS-Leger survey nearly three in four Canadians acknowledge that they "have an ancestor that comes from another country."

But even if many Canadians are willing to subscribe to the awkward notion that the vast majority of us are immigrants, native-born Canadians do not describe themselves as such. Both de facto and de jure Canadians think of immigrants as persons born outside of the country. Most will rightly view the notion of a Canadian-born immigrant as a contradiction in terms. Indeed when surveyed, many of the same people that presumably believe we're all immigrants agree with such statements as "immigrants are not good for the economy, that there are too many immigrants, that immigrants don't share our values."

Rest assured that they are not thinking of themselves as immigrants when making these observations. After a certain period of time living in the country, many foreign- born Canadians no longer regard themselves as immigrants. They tend to reserve that category for recent arrivals that are frequently referred to as newcomers. Hence, while it may appear paradoxical, you'll occasionally hear someone that's foreign-born make an unflattering comment about immigrants. Indeed I've found myself gently, or less so, reminding such individuals that they're immigrants (or at least they once were).

But there a significant segment of the Canadian-born population that sometimes wrongly gets labeled as immigrants. I refer specifically to persons born in Canada of foreign born parents (a group to which I belong). Much social science literature in Europe refers to these children of immigrants as "second generation immigrants". To many North American observers the term must seem like an oxymoron. It nonetheless gets employed by a number of Canadian scholars.

There are statistical breakdowns in the census of Canada on the basis of generational status. Immigrants are generally designated as the first generation, their children as second generation and there is a category for third generation or more. It's inaccurate to refer to second generation Canadians as something other than non-immigrants with whom they are grouped in the census question on immigrant status.

The confusion that is created by designating them as "second generation immigrants" is sometimes influenced by European analysis with the practice in several EU countries of not automatically conferring citizenship on persons born in the country. For example, children born in France of foreign born parents do not become citizens until reaching the age of the majority. Switzerland does not automatically extend citizenship to a child that is born in the country. Rather, a person is automatically Swiss if at least one of the child's parents is Swiss.

Relatively few Canadian scholars that use the term second generation immigrants necessarily think of such individuals as immigrants. Rather most simply echo terminology that is used in some of the Canadian literature on immigration and citizenship and/or seek to engage with European policy-makers or scholars by employing a common vocabulary. But the Canadian-European comparisons can be problematic and regrettably they sometimes don't make for good scholarly work.

Is Canada a nation of immigrants? It is certainly a nation with many immigrants who have played a critical role in the process of nation-building. But it is simply too limiting a concept when "the nation of immigrants" conveys the idea that immigration is the country's principal defining characteristic.

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