Statistics Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada
Warning View the most recent version.

Archived Content

Information identified as archived is provided for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It is not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards and has not been altered or updated since it was archived. Please contact us to request a format other than those available.

More information on Ethnic origin


2006 (1/5 sample), 2001 (1/5 sample), 1996 (1/5 sample), 1991 (1/5 sample), 1986 (1/5 sample), 1981 (1/5 sample), 1971 (1/3 sample), 1961 (1/5 sample)

Reported for:

Total population, excluding institutional residents

Question number:

Direct variable: Question 17


Respondents were asked to specify as many origins as applicable. Four lines were provided for write-in responses and up to six ethnic origins were retained. Refer to Appendix C for the 2006 Census ethnic origin classification and a comparison of ethnic origins disseminated in 2006, 2001 and 1996.


In 2006, the Ethnic origin question asked: 'What were the ethnic or cultural origins of this person's ancestors?'

A note provided above the question stated that 'The census has collected data on the ethnic origins of the population for over 100 years to capture the composition of Canada's diverse population.'

Below the question, a second note indicated that 'An ancestor is usually more distant than a grandparent' and examples of ethnic origins were listed, as follows: 'For example, Canadian, English, French, Chinese, Italian, German, Scottish, East Indian, Irish, Cree, Mi'kmaq (Micmac), Métis, Inuit (Eskimo), Ukrainian, Dutch, Filipino, Polish, Portuguese, Jewish, Greek, Jamaican, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Chilean, Salvadorean, Somali, etc'.

As well, additional instructions were provided to respondents in the 2006 Census Guide:

  • This question refers to the ethnic or cultural origin or origins of a person's ancestors. An ancestor is someone from whom a person is descended and is usually more distant than a grandparent. Other than Aboriginal persons, most people can trace their origins to their ancestors who first came to this continent. Ancestry should not be confused with citizenship or nationality.

  • For all persons, report the specific ethnic or cultural origin(s) of their ancestors, not the language they spoke. For example, report 'Haitian' rather than 'French', or 'Austrian' rather than 'German'.

  • For persons of East Indian or South Asian origin, report a specific origin or origins. Do not report 'Indian'. For example, report 'East Indian from India', 'East Indian from Guyana', or indicate the specific group, such as 'Punjabi' or 'Tamil'.

  • For persons with Aboriginal ancestors, report a specific origin or origins. For example, report 'Cree', 'Mi'kmaq', 'Ojibway', 'North American Indian', 'Métis'. Do not report 'Indian'.

Over time, there have been differences in the question wording, format, examples and instructions of the ethnic origin question used in the census. The historical comparability of ethnic origin data has thus been affected by these factors, as well as by changes in data processing and the social environment at the time of the census.

The 2006 Census ethnic origin question asked 'What were the ethnic or cultural origins of this person's ancestors?' In contrast, in 2001, 1996 and 1991, the question asked 'To which ethnic or cultural group(s) did this person's ancestors belong?' The preamble to the question was also modified slightly for 2006 and a definition of 'ancestor' was placed directly on the questionnaire. Previously, the definition of ancestor had been included only in the Census Guide.

The format of the 2006 Census ethnic origin question, an open-ended question with four write-in spaces, was the same as that used in the 2001 and 1996 Censuses. Prior to 1996, however, the census ethnic origin question usually included a list of mark-in responses. The 1991 Census question included 15 mark-in categories and two write-in spaces.

The 2006 Census ethnic origin question provided 26 examples of ethnic and cultural origins. It is not possible to list all of Canada's more than 200 ethnic or cultural groups on the census questionnaire and examples are provided only as a guide as to how to answer the question. The list of examples used each census is based on Statistics Canada's long-established methodology. For the most part, the 26 examples used in 2006 represented the most frequent single origins reported in the 2001 Census and were arranged in order of size as reported in 2001, beginning with the largest group. Examples were also included which represented Canada's Aboriginal peoples (e.g., Cree, Mi'kmaq, Métis and Inuit). The last four examples (Lebanese, Chilean, Salvadorean and Somali) were included so that an example was provided for each world region, ensuring that recently arrived groups in Canada, who might not be the most numerous, were also represented in the list of examples. The examples used in the 2001 and 1996 Censuses were similar, but not identical, to those used in 2006.

As a result of changing immigration patterns and increasing diversity in Canada, modifications are made to the specific ethnic groups and categories for which data are released each census. In general, the dissemination list for ethnic and cultural origins grows slightly each year. For the 2006 Census ethnic origin classification and a comparison of ethnic origins released in 2006, 2001, and 1996, please refer to Appendix C.

It must be noted that the measurement of ethnicity is affected by changes in the social environment in which the question is asked, and changes in the respondent's understanding or views about the topic. Awareness of family background or length of time since immigration can affect responses to the ethnic origin question. Some respondents may confuse or combine the concept of ethnic origin with other concepts such as citizenship, nationality, language or cultural identity.

As well, some respondents may choose to provide very specific ethnic origins in the census, while others may choose to give more general responses. This means that two respondents with the same ethnic ancestry could have different response patterns and thus could be counted as having different ethnic origins. For example, one respondent may report 'East Indian' ethnic origin while another respondent, with a similar ancestral background, may report 'Punjabi' or 'South Asian' origins; one respondent may report 'Black' while another, similar respondent, may report 'Ghanaian' or 'African'. As a result, ethnic origin data are very fluid, and counts for certain origins, such as 'East Indian' and 'Black', may seem lower than initially expected. Users who wish to obtain broader response counts may wish to combine data for two or more ethnic origins together or use counts for ethnic categories such as 'South Asian origins' or 'African origins'.

For additional information on issues related to the collection and dissemination of ethnic origin data, and on the comparability of ethnic origin data over time, refer to the Ethnic Origin Reference Guide, 2006 Census.