Southeast Asians

Immigration of peoples from Southeast Asia to Canada is fairly recent, with the majority of immigrants entering Canada post 1974. Southeast Asia is a collection of pluri-ethnic nations from a region that has a shared history, a broad set of shared social patterns and practices, and a recognizable cultural system in which ethnic pluralism exists. Asian immigration to Canada in general has had an earlier history, beginning in the late 19th century with the movements of Chinese and Japanese pursuing work opportunities, mostly in the Canadian West, with the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, fishing, and commerce. Southeast Asia includes 11 countries, 10 of which are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (known as ASEAN). ASEAN members are: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines (see Filipinos), Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.


Southeast Asia has been, and continues to be, both a way station and a port of call for traders from throughout Asia and Africa, and later from Europe and parts of the New World. For Europeans, Southeast Asia was the "East Indies," and was a source of spices and other trade goods that became increasingly important for European daily life.

Immigrants to Canada have brought their histories as they relate to the current character of globalization that motivates the movements of people. Different groups of Southeast Asian immigrants were pushed or pulled to Canada for different reasons; for example, many Southeast Asians, especially from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, landed in Canada as refugees. Canada's protocol for refugees requires individuals to fulfill criteria to be defined as "convention refugees" under the United Nations Protocol, and to be sponsored by at least 5 Canadian citizens or a legal corporation in order to land in Canada. A convention refugee is a person outside his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return for fear of persecution due to race, religion, political opinion, nationality or membership in a particular social group.

"Indochinese" Southeast Asians (from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) have come to Canada in 5 waves. Some arrived as students during the 1950s and 1960s and remained, so that by 1970 there were about 1200 Vietnamese and a few hundred Lao and Khmer living primarily in Québec. During and after the Vietnam War, a large wave of Vietnamese refugees began arriving in Canada. The American defeat in Vietnam and the fall of the Thieu regime in early 1975 led to a mass flight of Vietnamese, about 6500 of whom were admitted to Canada as political refugees. By 1985 Canada had admitted over 98 000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, placing Canada in the top 5 countries admitting refugees from what was referred to as Indochina. Many from mainland Southeast Asia arriving up to 1986 emigrated under traumatic circumstances, and were initially seeking employment, English- and French-language training and family unification.

By the end of 1978 there were 10 000 Indochinese in Canada, the majority of whom were Vietnamese, and most Indochinese lived in urban centers. In late 1978 the exodus of predominantly Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Chinese "boat people" (a term referring to illegal immigrants or asylum seekers who emigrate in unsafe, overcrowded boats) increased dramatically, and 604 refugees entered Canada from the freighter Hai Hong. As the situation for the boat people worsened, Canada accepted 59 970 refugees and immigrants (1979-80).

From 1981-86, many Indochinese continued to emigrate as refugees and designated class immigrants: 24 000 from Vietnam, 3400 from Laos and 8900 from Kampuchea (Cambodia); however, at the same time, 16 500 people (1984-86) came from Vietnam through standard immigration channels. At the end of 1986, 130 000 Indochinese, or 95%, were immigrants: 100 000 from Vietnam, 14 000 from Kampuchea and 15 000 from Laos. Efforts by Southeast Asians in Canada to reunify their families during 1987-96 increased the immigrant population by 50%. There has been a strong secondary migration of Indochinese between Canada and the US, and since 1990, a small return migration flow back to Vietnam as well.

Southeast Asians in Canada

Since the 1970s, and especially since 1986, Asia, in general, has provided more than half of the "new residents" in Canada. Since 1996 the numbers of persons emigrating from Southeast Asia to Canada has continued to increase. For example, in 1996, Canada received 184 545 people from the Philippines. By the turn of the 21st century, that number had risen to 332 825.

In 1961 Europeans comprised 61% of all immigrants to Canada. Canada was viewed as an "immigrant receiving country" with a continual need for labour and people with identified skill sets. This history, in addition to Canada's reputation as an advanced welfare state and one of the most desirable places to live and find opportunity according to the United Nations Human Development Index, has led to an increasing number of immigrants from the so-called developing world. In the 1970s a greater emphasis on labour widened opportunities for immigrants. Potential immigrants to Canada are screened using a "point system" that evaluates them according to their ability to fill labour markets conditions. This system is perceived as putting economics ahead of discrimination and has changed the policy of the mid-nineteenth century that benefited White applicants and appeared to have an "explicit anti-Asian bias." Since 1971 Asian immigration has risen dramatically from 3.62% to a 2006 level of 58.3% of all immigrants to Canada.

Settlement Patterns

By 2006, Asian immigration outpaced the rate of immigration from Europe for the first time in Canadian history. At that time, 94.9% of the foreign-born population and 97.2% of recent immigrants who landed in Canada during the previous 5 years lived in metropolitan areas and urban communities, compared to 77.5% of the Canadian-born population. Most working-class Southeast Asians reside in urban core areas with Asian and Southeast Asian commercial and institutional development marked by stores, restaurants, and religious facilities.

Barriers to Canadian society stem from immigration policies, language and other cultural differences, societal racism and other social barriers, and reinforcing settlement patterns into urban ethnic enclaves, limiting cross-cultural interaction. Research has shown that many Southeast Asians in Canada feel that they are members of a marginal group and this designation limits their economic opportunities, as well as full participation in education and civil society. However, with the increasing integration in the West, particularly British Columbia, the economies, politics, and cultures of the Pacific Rim and attitudes about Asian immigrants have changed.


Southeast Asia today contains more than half a billion people, representing a wide range of economic and political systems. The region has a multitude of cultures and religions and has recently experienced dynamic economic growth, with impressive gains in broad-based growth rates and in poverty reduction. The Southeast Asians who continue to immigrate to Canada embody the histories, cultures, and societies from which they originate.

Virtually all immigrant adults use their mother tongue in the home and community, and often in the workplace. Cantonese operates as a Chinese commercial language in Cambodia and Laos, and many Chinese from there speak it as well. Southeast Asian Chinese migrants from Vietnam share many cultural and linguistic commonalities with other overseas Chinese in Canada whose ultimate origins are Canton. Vietnamese Chinese nevertheless strongly identify with their unique heritage and have formed cultural associations in several Canadian cities.

Most Vietnamese practise Mahayana Buddhism and have formed Buddhist associations across Canada. Many of the religious observances of Mahayana Buddhists, Confucianists, Taoists and ancestor worshippers are done in the home; for life cycle-based religious events, members of these groups make use of Chinese Canadian institutions. Vietnamese Catholics usually affiliate with extant Canadian Catholic congregations, but sometimes have their own religious organizations and congregations, as do those of other Christian denominations. The Vietnamese have developed formal community organizations across Canada for cultural celebrations, recreational activities and sociocultural maintenance. Nationally, the Canadian Federation of Vietnamese Associations has many local member associations and is concerned primarily with maintaining Vietnamese culture and facilitating social integration into Canadian life.

The Lao and the Khmer are both Theravada Buddhists, and as such are quite religiously distinct from Buddhists from Vietnam. Lao and Khmer monks and religious organizations in various parts of the country perform an increasing range of religious ceremonies important to Khmer personal and collective identities. Lao and Khmer cultural associations are not yet as extensive as those of their Vietnamese counterparts. Most Malaysians and Indonesians who have immigrated to Canada are Muslim as the citizens of these two countries constitute the majority of Muslims living in Southeast Asia, although a significant number of Muslims live in the Philippines, with smaller numbers of persons adhering to Islam living in Thailand as well.

The Malaysian Association of Canada is located in Toronto and organizes many events for Southeast Asians in the area. McGill University, Queen's University, and the University of Alberta all have Malaysian students associations, and several Canadian universities have Southeast Asian student associations that represent members from a number of ASEAN countries.

Southeast Asians in Canada Today

Southeast Asia remains a source for raw resources; however, the world also comes to many of the countries of Southeast Asia in search of cheap labour, turning areas in the region into manufacturing zones that have had enormous impact on the movements and migrations of people within and outside the region.

Adjustments to Canadian society for Southeast Asians represent efforts to assimilate into Canadian life while at the same time maintaining ethnic affiliations and identity. Less positive adjustments are illustrated by the prejudice and discrimination some Southeast Asians face in their efforts to enter the marketplace, workforce and cultural landscape that is Canada. Perceived discrimination, unemployment, and language barriers continue to plague Southeast Asians living in Canada. These "resettlement stressors" generate strong feelings of ethnic identity that may inhibit acculturation in Canadian society and overall well-being. Segments of these immigrant groups have opted for associations with criminal organizations and gangs. Vietnamese have been particularly visible in these associations, establishing and joining criminal groups that place high priority on ethnicity for membership. Research into this area is scarce, however, the few studies that do exist report various levels of discrimination that span the typical scope to include subtle discrimination, overt prejudicial treatment of individuals, and discrimination directed against the Southeast Asian community. These and other issues face the many Southeast Asian communities that have established themselves after emigration to Canada.