2006 Statistics Canada demographics data for all of Canada:

  • 1,316,770 listed “South Asian origins”
    • 1,089,100 listed “South Asian origins” as a single response
    • 227,665 listed “South Asian origins” as multiple responses
  • 962,670 listed “East Indian”
  • 780,175 listed “East Indian” as a single response
  • 182,495 listed “East Indian” as multiple responses

Selected Timeline

1897:     First recorded visit of South Asians to Canada, Sikh detachment visited Canada after Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in London            

1904:     Official documentation of East Indian migration into British Columbia

1907:     “First attempt to organize the community … with the establishment of a Khalsa Diwan Society in Vancouver” (Lal)

1908:     Taraknath Das shifts from the United States to Vancouver – is one of the first important activists, participating in the Committee for the Management of Sikh Diwans and Temple and the Indian Association, and began a periodical The Free Hindustan.

1910:     Hindustani Association commences work, its objectives include “To defend and help any Hindu (East Indian) who might be so … threatened with deportation” and “To continue an agitation against the Canadian Immigration Act as affecting the Hindus and if possible to get the restrictions removed” (Lal).

1914:     Komagata Maru arrives off the coast of Vancouver – the Shore Committee is active, resistant and persistent, but almost all passengers are denied the right to disembark

1920s:   Very small number of Indians migrate to Canada given restrictive immigration policies

1947:     East Indians given the right to vote in Canada

1951:     Canadian government signs agreements with the government of India to accept immigrants, in limited numbers: 150 from India in 1951 (increased to 300 in 1957).

1972:     “Asians” which refers to Indians, expelled from Uganda – Canada, along with other settler societies accepts refugees

1973:     East Indian Citizens Defence Committee established in British Columbia, in response to hostile racism faced by community members, including violence.

1975:     Federal Special Joint Commission process looking for responses to Manpower and Immigration’s “Green Paper on Immigration and Population,” where 29 East Indian associations or individuals appeared before SJC and where 58 written briefs. SJC member responses include:

“There were too many in proportion to the numbers of East Indians in Canada”

“They never spoke with one voice”


1977:     24-hour emergency hotline for individuals who encountered racist attacks created by an East-Indian anti-racist group in Toronto’s east end

1980:     British Columbia Organization to Fight Racism (BCOFR) established – their work included organizing against the KKK (who hatefully targeted South Asians, among other racialized people)

1984:     During the year, approximately 100,000 tourists visit “Little India” in east Toronto

1985:     Air India disaster – over 300 individuals die, with many of them being Canadians of Indian heritage

1988:     Desh Pardesh, a multidisciplinary arts festival with political edge, begins in Toronto (it runs until 2001)

1997:     South Asian Visual Arts Centre established as a formal, artist-run centre in Toronto

2011:     Year of India in Canada


Struggles within Solidarity

“Indian” organizing in Canada has not necessarily been named as such – often, individuals with connections to what we now-called India have organized under race-based umbrellas of “South Asians” and people of colour. So, there is some difficulty in pulling out Indian-specific struggles and some risk in erasing the multitude of non-Indian South Asians involved in said struggle. Some of these struggles have reference points that are regional in nature, for example, labour struggles involving Punjabi workers in both British Columbia and Ontario; some that are related to sexuality and have involved individuals with multiple and complex identities, such as queer and trans South Asians.


Cultural Notes

Since before the birth of official multiculturalism in Canada in 1971, Indian communities and individuals have been celebrated through various cultural festivals across the countries. These festivals have sought to “celebrate” various aspects of any given communities’ history, heritage and culture. While these events have provided opportunities to reduce social isolation and make connections, they have been critiqued for reducing communities including the Indian communities to food, dress and ritual. Further, they have been critiqued for failing to acknowledge the complexities of identity and the lived reality of racism (individual and institutional), which exist in spite of official policies of “tolerance.” Critical spaces for reflection on South Asian identities more broadly have included the now-defunct Desh Pardesh festival which ended in 2001. Popular Indian culture has certainly made its presence felt in Canada – like the Hindi film industry, Bollywood, as film premieres and the International Indian Film Awards 2011 have been held in Toronto.


Air India Flight 182

In 1985, Air India Flight 182 was downed off the coast of Ireland, killing over 300 passengers and crew members on its way from Montreal to Delhi (originating in Toronto as Flight 181). Many aboard were Canadians of Indian heritage. The official statement of Canada’s Prime Minister at the time, Brian Mulroney, was to offer condolences to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Many were outraged by this. In 2006, after two decades of questions, victims’ families’ demands for accountability, and legal battles, a public inquiry was announced. Released in 2010, the inquiry made clear the inadequacies of the RCMP, CSIS and the Canadian government in relation to the Air India disaster. Prime Minister Stephen Harper made an official apology stating “I stand before you … to offer on behalf of the Government of Canada and all Canadians, an apology for the institutional failings of 25 years ago and the treatment of the victims’ families thereafter.”


Immigration Policies

Since the early 1900s, exclusive immigration policies in Canada have directly impacted individuals with Indian heritage. Examples range from the “Continuous Journey” regulation of 1908, to the quotas established in agreement with the Indian government in 1951. In 1962, an immigration regulation was introduced that allowed European and American immigrants to sponsor a wider range of relatives because of a fear of an “influx of relatives from India”[1], while the government cautiously accepted those being expelled by Uganda in 1972 as refugees, while facing  public opposition. There was also the amendment to Bill C-84 (the Refugee Deterrents and Detention Bill) in 1987 in response to a group of asylum seekers fleeing violence in India who reached the shores of Nova Scotia; and, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act in 2002, informed in part by an independent panel report Not Just Numbers which urged a “simpler, but tougher” system. The recent Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act (Bill C-31) includes amongst its sweeping reforms the creation of a “safe” list of countries that would be “unlikely” to produce refugees – determined by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration.


Language: A Cautionary Tale

Language has power: who does the naming, how, in what context, and what are the implications? For some, a set of community snapshots focused on “South Asian” communities must include a profile of Indians; for others, this is a more complicated task. The term “Indian” is a loaded one …

  • Indians and Indians

With what we now call “South Asia” being a desired land in terms of resource exploitation and trade, Christopher Columbus’ mis-naming in 1492 lives on. As Columbus believed that islands he reached were India, he called the native population of what we now call the Caribbean, Indios, Spanish for Indians. This name has been perpetuated by various colonizers, by government policies, and by popular culture. For some Indigenous peoples of North America, the term “Indian” is a comfortable self-identifier, and has been used in mobilizing efforts such as the American Indian Movement (AIM). For others, the misnomer is problematic, a constant reminder of neo-colonial presence through the most basic aspects of identity – what one is called.

  • Indians and Regional/Religious/Cultural Identities

The borders of the nation state we now call India are not historically fixed. While would-be colonizers referred to “South Asia” as India, in the centuries since, the borders have shifted significantly. The great diversity within the subcontinent has allowed for distinct identities to flourish. For many, regional, religious or cultural identities are primary, and the identity related to the nation state comes second. By valuing regional, religious and cultural identities, we challenge the idea of a homogenous Indian identity. While a demographic survey may capture “Indians” based on country of origin, the self-identity being a region, religious or cultural one must be brought into the light.

  • Adding the “East”

Again, based on the original error of Columbus, the area of the Caribbean was referred to as the “West Indies” and later, the distinction between “East” and “West” Indian needed to be made in settler societies like Canada. Statistics Canada asks about origin, providing options including “East Indian” and “South Asian.”

  • “Twice Removed”

For individuals who can trace their heritage to India and have been born or raised in places including East and Southern Africa, Fiji, the Middle East and East Asia,  before migrating to Canada, the “Indian” identity can be a complicated one.



[1] Knowles, Valerie, Strangers at our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2006, 2007, p. 187


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