Emigration refers to the act of leaving one's region or country of origin to settle in another. In democratic countries such as Canada where there is no restriction on emigration, and emigrants are not required to notify the government authorities when they leave, it is difficult to assess the volume of emigration and its impact on the growth and structure of Canada's population. However, major attempts have been made to estimate annual departures using a variety of indirect estimation procedures. Although the different estimates of annual departures vary to some extent, they are consistent with the direction of net migration (ie, the difference between IMMIGRATION and emigration). For Canada, net migration has been mainly positive (ie, immigration exceeds emigration). All of the estimates are in agreement as to the periods during which emigration exceeded immigration.

To understand the trends and patterns of emigration, it is useful to divide the history of emigration into four periods: 1861-1895, 1896-1913, 1914-1945, and 1946 to the present.

First Period, 1861-1895

The first period was a time of net negative migration. During these years the Canadian economy was generally depressed and the lack of economic opportunities inhibited social mobility. At the same time, economic expansion and prosperity in the United States provided an important magnet for Canada's disappointed recent immigrants and unemployed citizens.

Second Period, 1896-1913

During the second period, Canadian society assumed a very different guise. The Canadian economy was buoyant and people found ample opportunities for economic and social advancement and assured means of security. Emigration to the United States was no longer the only alternative for upward social mobility. Emigration continued, but its demographic impact was no longer negative because of an unprecedented increase in the number of immigrants. The record annual levels of immigration during this period — 300 000 to 400 000 in 1912-13 — are still unsurpassed.

Third Period, 1914-1945

The year 1914, the beginning of the FIRST WORLD WAR, marked an abrupt end to the wave of immigration. Since then, there has been a steady decline both in emigration and immigration. As with the previous economic depression, the GREAT DEPRESSION of the 1930s produced more departures than arrivals. Immigration reached its lowest level, even while a steady southward stream across the border resulted again in an overall negative migration.

Fouth Period, 1946-Present

The fourth period, beginning in 1946, was another period of heavy immigration. Although the emigration level has increased since 1946 with some fluctuations, the net positive migration has been an important contributor to Canada's population growth. To understand the composition of the emigrant stream of Canadians to the United States, it is useful to distinguish the emigrants by their place of birth. Significant proportions of them (27% in the 1950s, 31% in the 1960s, and 35% in the 1970s) were formerly foreign-born immigrants to Canada who, in effect, used Canada as a stepping stone to the United States. This percentage declined to 30% in the 1980s. If all emigrant destinations are included, the percentage of foreign-born citizens in the emigrant stream was much higher, amounting to 80% over the hundred year period 1851-1951. During the fourth period, it declined. In 1961-71, it was around 50%. Since 1971, different estimates range from 30% to 60%.

Many emigrants to Canada return to their countries of birth. The highest return rates have been persons born in the United States (50-70% in 1950-71), and the lowest for persons born in Asia (1-17%). The corresponding rates for returnees from the United Kingdom, Europe and Latin America were 30-40%, 19-32%, and 5-12%, respectively. Since 1951, although the number of emigrants declined, the variety of estimates showed that between 1961-71, it was around 50 or more emigrants per 100 immigrants; and the corresponding figures after 1971 range between 30 and 60%.

In absolute numbers, annual departures from Canada during the last century varied from 24 100 to as many as 108 900. The lowest numbers occurred during the depression from 1931 to 1941, and the highest from 1911 to 1920. After 1946, the number of departures increased steadily from 37 900 to 108 462 in 1967. Thereafter, there was a steady decline up to 1990, which reached the level of 37 587. The steady decline after 1967 was partially due to a restrictive new American immigration law in 1968, as well as to the comparative prosperity in Canada.

During 1991-95, the number of departures from Canada rose from 37 587 to an average of more than 44 000. This may have been partly due to the increased immigration levels with higher return migration because of lack of social integration, especially among the elderly visible minorities.

The Canada-US FREE TRADE agreement may have resulted in temporary emigration to the United States, especially among professionals. This was also a period which experienced an exodus of Hong Kong migrants to Canada resulting from the uncertainty surrounding the reversion of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

Some new immigrants are confronted with a sluggish Canadian economy and structural barriers that discredit their qualifications and disregard their previous work experiences. Consequently, immigrants who experience unemployment and underemployment return to their countries of origin to work, leaving their families behind in Canada. A view of emigration described as the “brain drain” implied Canada suffered from a loss of human capital as productive, educated individuals left for other countries. During the 1990s, emigrants in general were better educated, higher income earners, and the majority were prime working age. With more studies of the migration between the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, it has become more apparent that increasing migration and the flow of researchers, students, managers and other specialists is more temporary than once thought, and the flow is better characterized as a “brain churn.”

In 2006, about two-thirds of emigrants who returned to Canada were Canadian-born and about one-third were immigrants. More than three-quarters were between the ages of 20 and 49, however of the returnees 60 years and older, more than double were immigrants (18%) compared to Canadian-born (9%). Returning emigrants age 60 and over comprised a small percentage of all returnees and the majority of emigrants who return to Canada were in their prime working years.

More recently, Canada has reported a relatively high emigration rate compared with other countries: in 2010 the net migration rate was 7.2 per 1 000 which was higher than other industrialized countries such as the United States (2.9), the Russian Federation (1.8) and France (1.2).