Education for Immigrants in Canada
Immigrants make a significant cultural and economic contribution to society. Their diversity
enriches Canadian society and their ability to participate in the workforce is vital to Canada’s
economic strength and to rebalancing the dependency ratio. The federal government has already
recognized this; Canada’s immigration policies encourage highly educated immigrants to make
their homes in Canada. Each year, the country welcomes about 250,000 immigrants, the vast
majority (75 percent) settling in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. Most immigrants come from
Asia, with growing proportions from Africa and the Middle East. In total about 18 percent of
Canada’s population consists of immigrants. By 2017, approximately 7.6 million immigrants are
expected to live in Canada, representing about 22 percent or one in five of the total population.
Unlike the past, fewer and fewer immigrants speak English or French as their mother tongue.
The public education system is the major vehicle by which immigrants, both as children and adults
learn English or French, internalize Canadian values and responsibilities, and attain the skills they
need to become productive members of society and marketable participants in the workforce. In
Toronto, Vancouver and other urban centres where growing numbers of school-age children are
immigrants from visible minorities, there are clear implications for the public education system.
More than half of the students in those two cities will soon be from visible minorities. What are the
implications for the curriculum so that it adequately respects students’ origin, culture and religion,
while ensuring they learn Canadian values as well? How should resources be allocated in the
classroom, for example for English as a Second Language and are those resources adequate? What
do teachers and communities need to deal with and attempt to ease the cultural dislocation of both
immigrant and Aboriginal students?
The pattern of immigration in Canada is also accentuating the urban/rural divide, and has the
potential to increase the country’s polarization along regional lines. The percentage of school-age
children from immigrant and/or visible minorities is growing fast in Ontario, British Columbia and
Quebec in the large urban centres (Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa). But growth is less
3rapid – even flat – in the Prairies and in Atlantic Canada. Nevertheless, all provinces will continue
to receive immigrants, even if not in great proportion and they will need to enhance strategies and
policies to address their needs. As a society that prides itself on tolerance and equity, Canada must
understand and support the needs of all of its students. The economy needs their skills and the
The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, is a Statistics Canada (2001) survey that
provides ongoing data. One specific analysis looked at the academic performance of children of
immigrants in Canada, comparing it to that of Canadian-born children. Both groups were aged 4-14.
Despite the economic disadvantages that some immigrants and visible minority families in Canada
face, children of immigrants perform just as well as Canadian-born children in our school system
overall, although initially they are weaker in reading. Those immigrants who speak English or
French as their first language in fact perform even better than Canadian-born children. But because
fewer immigrants speak either English or French when they arrive in Canada, it may signal a
problem for the performance and integration of school-age children.
The data indicate that, in general immigrants and visible minorities also go on to attain more
university education than Canadian-born youth. When these young people enter the labour market,
however, evidence of a problem begins to emerge. Members of visible minorities, either immigrants
or Canadian-born, experience higher levels of unemployment than those who are not visible
minorities. In 2001, for example, the unemployment rate among young people aged 18-24 who
were visible minorities was 18-19 percent, compared with 13 percent for non-visible minority youth
in the same age range. Once they are in the labour market, immigrants who are visible minorities, as
well as Canadian-born visible minorities, also earn less than their peers who are not visible
This experience raises a critical question. Why does the educational success of some immigrant
(and visible minority) youth not translate into the labour market? What can the public educational
system and others do to prepare all immigrant and visible minority youth to help them succeed in
school and in the job market?