South and Southeast Asians of Canada

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South and Southeast Asians of Canada

ETHNONYMS: South Asians: East Indians, Indians, Pakistanis, Sikhs. Southeast Asians: Indochinese, Vietnamese, Khmer, Lao, Chinese of Southeast Asia


Identification. South Asian and Southeast Asian are broad ethnocultural categories. Each refers to a number of ethnic and national groups. All South Asians have roots in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, or Bangladesh. One third, though, originate in the South Asian diasporain communities in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Guyana, Trinidad, Fiji, or Mauritius. Being South Asian is secondary to identification with the more specific, sometimes overlapping ethnic, religious, and national groups. Southeast Asians considered here are immigrants from Vietnam (75 percent), Laos (11 percent), and Cambodia (12 percent). Those from Vietnam are either ethnic Vietnamese or Chinese. Laotians and Cambodians are primarily Lao and Khmer, respectively, though some are Chinese.

Location. Virtually all South and Southeast Asians are urban, and over 85 percent reside in Canada's major metropolitan areas. Of South Asians, 95 percent live in Ontario (51 percent, 80 percent of these in Toronto), British Columbia (26 percent, 62 percent of these in Vancouver), Alberta (11 percent of these in Calgary and Edmonton), or Quebec (7 percent, 90 percent of these in Montreal). Ninety percent of Southeast Asians live in Ontario (33 percent), Quebec (32 percent), Alberta (15 percent), or British Columbia (10 percent). Access to jobs, housing, and community support, as well as chain migration, have resulted in considerable geographical localization. Residential concentration is high for new immigrants and working-class people, but neighborhoods where either constitute more than 10 percent are rare. Most working-class Southeast Asians reside in urban core areas, especially near Chinatowns, whereas South Asians are increasingly suburban. Certain streets and neighborhoods from British Columbia to Quebec have become centers of South Asian and Southeast Asian commercial and institutional development marked by stores, restaurants, and Religious facilities.

Linguistic Affiliation. British colonial influence ensured that in all South Asian source societies English is either a lingua franca of the educated classes or a national language. Thus today English is the mother tongue of 40 percent, and 90 percent of South Asian Canadians claim some facility with it. Other mother tongues are Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, and secondarily Bengali, Sinhala, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu, with 40 to 45 percent using one of these as their primary home language; 20 to 30 percent of Immigrant women speak only their mother tongue. Sikhism places a priority on knowing Punjabi, and almost all second- and third-generation Sikhs can speak and understand the Language. Most Canadian-born whose parents have another South Asian mother tongue can understand it, but few will achieve full speaking fluency. In contrast, few Southeast Asian initially knew English or French, and a majority Presently do not have effective command of either. The key Exceptions are French-speaking professionals and children. Children nevertheless maintain the spoken tradition of their parents' languages. Virtually all immigrant adults use their mother tongue in the home and community, and often in the workplaceVietnamese (ethnic Vietnamese and some Vietnamese Chinese), Khmer (most Cambodians), Lao (most Laotians), Cantonese (most Vietnamese Chinese), and Teochiu (some Cambodian and Laotian Chinese). Cantonese operates as a Chinese commercial lingua franca in Cambodia and Laos, and many Chinese from there can speak it as well.

Demography. In 1990 South Asians numbered about 410,000, or 1.5 percent of Canada's population. The largest groups are Sikhs (130,000), Guyanese (50,000), Hindiand Punjabi-speaking Indian Hindus (40,000), Pakistanis (30,000), Gujarati-speaking Hindus from India and East Africa (25,000), Ismaili Muslims (25,000), culturally North Indian Muslims from India and East Africa (20,000), Fijians (20,000), and Trinidadians (15,000-20,000). Smaller Communities include Bangladeshis, Bengalis, Mauritians, Tamils from India and Sri Lanka, Sinhalese, and Malayalam speakers from South India. Three-quarters of South Asians are Immigrants, most coming during 1968-1980. Substantial immigration is ongoing (typically 20,000 per year), about 50 percent from India. Over 90 percent of the 150,000-180,000 Southeast Asians in Canada are post-1974 immigrants. Roughly 60,000 are Vietnamese, 60,000 are Vietnamese Chinese, 20,000 are Laotians, and 20,000 are Cambodians. About 10,000 Southeast Asians a year arrive as refugees and as conventional immigrants.

History and Cultural Relations

The first South Asian immigrants were Sikh (and a few other Punjabi and Bengali) men who settled in British Columbia during 1903-1907. Economically driven anti-Asian hostility quickly focused on Sikhs, and in 1907 South Asian immigration was banned. This ban lasted until 1947, but in 1919 aggressive protest secured for Sikhs permission for wives and dependent children to immigrate. Immigrants during 1947-1962 were primarily Sikh chain migrants. In the mid-1960s the last racial, ethnic, and national immigration restrictions were eliminated. Since then, the ethnic, national, and class backgrounds of South Asian immigrants have broadened greatly, though chain migration has kept immigrant flows ethnically and nationally selective. South Asian settlement has been remarkably smooth, including relations with others. Even so, since 1975 South Asians have faced some intolerance manifest in name-calling, vandalism, and denial of jobs and housing. Relations between South Asian groups are weakly developed save for when institutionally linked needs (especially concerning religion) require them, when specific ethnocultural groups are small or when groups share a Common or closely related language. Social and cultural links with source countries remain very strong.

A thousand Southeast Asians, mostly students and professionals, lived in Quebec in 1971. Six thousand political refugees came after the fall of Thieu in Vietnam. They, too, were typically well educated and skilled. Sixty thousand boat and land people were accepted as political refugees during 1979-1980, and through government and private settlement schemes initially were spread across the country. Many soon migrated to major cities in search of relatives, community support, and jobs. Subsequent immigrants have primarily been the relatives of those already here and have joined extant big-city communities. Both intra- and intergroup relations were initially chaotic and under rapid flux. Each major ethnocultural groupVietnamese, Vietnamese Chinese, Cambodians, and Laotiansessentially went their own way, sharing neither language nor identity. Vietnamese Chinese soon established contacts with other Chinese. Most Southeast Asians at first found themselves on the receiving end of well-intentioned but paternalistic, highly asymmetrical relations with Canadians involved in facilitating their settlement. These relations did not persist, and many Southeast Asians are socially and linguistically isolated from those of other backgrounds. School-age children, though, have developed wide-ranging social relations with their peers. Active prejudice against Southeast Asians is minimal, although their stereotypical portrayal as refugees is occasionally problematic.


Until the 1960s most South Asians in the labor force were Sikh men, who worked at blue-collar jobs in British Columbia's lumber mills and logging camps. Immigrant selection preferences for professionals in the 1960s and 1970s and for skilled blue- and white-collar workers thereafter widened South Asians' range of occupations. Extensive Immigrant sponsorship also brought many unskilled people to Canada. South Asians span the educational spectrum; 30 percent claim a B.A. Degree or more, and 20 percent have less than a ninth-grade education. There is a great educational disparity between women and men. Today a very high proportion of women (70 percent) and men (90-95 percent) are economically active outside the homea remarkable shift from patriarchal source cultures, where few women are in the paid work force. One-third of men are in highly skilled occupations, and another third are in primary and secondary industries. Women are involved in clerical, service delivery, fabrication, and health-related work. Women perform virtually all household tasks, as in source cultures. South Asians have achieved at least a normative Canadian material standard of living, compensating for immigrant disabilities with class resources, extensive familial economic pooling, and community support. South Asians have strong entrepreneurial traditions, and small-scale South Asian commercial activities are well developed. These are chiefly community-based storefront businesses such as retail stores, travel and insurance agencies, service stations, and restaurants. Some South Asians are also involved in larger scale mainstream businesses, especially Ismailis, other Gujaratis, and Sikhs.

Forced migration has limited Southeast Asian economic options. By Southeast Asian standards most people are Middle class and comparatively well educated (claiming on average ten years of education). Fewer than 15 percent from Vietnam are from rural backgrounds, though this is higher for Cambodians and Laotians. As many as one-half have backgrounds in shopkeeping and small-scale manufacturing; these were Chinese economic specializations throughout Southeast Asia. Even so, Southeast Asians often have fewer occupational, class, and language resources than typical Canadians, and the majority work at relatively unskilled, poorly remunerated jobs in manufacturing and in the provision of food and janitorial services. Still, within two years of their arrival 90 percent of adults were in the labor force. Women do almost all household work, as in Southeast Asia.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

South Asian source cultures are characterized by patrilineality, patrilocality, class and caste endogamy, consanguineal (and where relevant, village) exogamy (some Muslims Excepted) , arranged marriage, polygyny, familial gender segregation, patriarchy, male inheritance, joint or extended family organization, extensive familial economic pooling, and the subordination of individual and community concerns to those of the family. Kinship terms vary by language, ethnic group, and religion, but typically follow either a Hawaiian or an Iroquois pattern. Lineages are often acknowledged but are not corporate. Kin relations reflect strong age and gender Status differences. In Canada, key familial relations have become deeply symbolic of South Asians' continuity with tradition. Some are also of great practical and psychological importance. The maintenance of extant family roles reduces the psychological marginality of immigrant adults brought on by great shifts in public sphere roles; chain migrants inevitably stay with relatives while establishing themselves; household income pooling by parents and children makes possible a high material standard of living; community-based roles and statuses are closely linked to family. Even so, few reestablish permanent fully extended or joint households. Nuclear families with two to three children predominate, but Households composed of nuclear families and one or two other relatives are very common. Almost all elderly reside with relatives, and children usually remain part of their parents' household until marriage, and sometimes for years thereafter. Most parents sharply limit relations of their adolescent and young adult children with those of the opposite sex, usually forbidding daughters (and often sons) to date. Many parents arrange their marriages, and most informally guide the process. South Asians commonly object to intermarriage, for it may symbolize the end of the family line or cause a loss of community status. Intermarriage rates are low, but greater among professionals and some diaspora groups like Fijians and Guyanese. Divorce is rare. The massive labor force participation of women is not yet fully reflected in husband-wife roles. Joint decision making has increased, but elements of patriarchy persist. Wives remain responsible for child rearing.

Southeast Asian patterns are broadly similar, but more closely follow Cantonese Chinese practice. The ideal Household is patrilineally based, extended, patriarchal, patrilocal (excepting Lao, who are sometimes matrilocal), and a corporate economic unit. Kinship terminology varies by group. In practice, elderly parents usually stay with the eldest son, but children typically establish their own nuclear households after marriage. Southeast Asian women (especially in Cambodia and Laos) have more power and influence than their South Asian or Chinese peers, both in the household and outside. For all groups powerful cultural values imbue in Individuals strong feelings of familial responsibility. Many have been unable to fully reestablish their families in Canada, for they have key family members who cannot leave their Countries of origin, who have found safe haven elsewhere, or who have been killed in war. Vietnamese Chinese, however, Typically do live in nuclear or partially extended households. A significant minority of Southeast Asians without families in Canada continue to live in the households of relatives or have formed households with similar individuals. Intermarriage rates so far have been low.

Socialization. South and Southeast Asians expend only selective effort to enculturate or socialize their young children into their source culture and its social practices. They have a high (though class-dependent) commitment to their Children's social and economic success, and know that along with securing the necessary education and skills comes acculturation. In fact, public school participation (nearly universal) and the influences of the mass media and their peers have produced massive second-generation acculturation. Nevertheless, South and Southeast Asians have stressed the Maintenance of certain values and practices that symbolize continuity with tradition and past experience. These include family roles, food traditions, religion, and to a varying degree, language.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Both populations exhibit extensive informal community organization and considerable institutional development. Informal community networks provide psychological support, continuity of shared experience, and the means to maintain and modify key personal statuses. They are also useful sources of information about jobs, Government and private services, housing, and the home country. Residential concentration is high for new immigrants and working-class people. For both populations informal Community networks are ethnic group-specific. Individuals typically have far more social relations with other Canadians than with members of other regional ethnic groups. South Asian associations number over three hundred. Most prevalent are ethnic group sociocultural associations and organizations supporting local religious institutions. Helping and pan-South Asian organizations are rare. Formal organizations among Southeast Asians are less numerous, though each ethnocultural group typically will have at least one representative association established in a given city.

Political Organization. Neither population has had much impact on formal Canadian politics. Neither has exerted any special issue political leverage either, excepting South Asians concerning racial intolerance. Both, however, have been at the center of political debate: Southeast Asians over how many should be accepted by Canada as refugees (now more per capita than any other Western country), and South Asians (primarily Sikhs) over whether Canadian ethnic groups should be involved in source country politics. Intragroup political action is nevertheless intense in both Populations.

Among South Asians, some individuals are involved in homeland political causes, most notably Sikhs supporting an independent Sikh state (Khalistan) in Punjab. Tamils, Fijians, Guyanese, and others also support home-country minority groups. South Asian communities are highly political, as various individuals, cliques, and groups compete for status, and spokesperson and brokerage roles. Only Ismailis have established representative community leadership structures, which in their case link households to local, regional, national, and international councils. Most South Asian spokes-persons are self-appointed, or else represent an organization or association that itself is not widely based.

In the case of Southeast Asians, they can do little to affect home-country politics. Discussion and interpretation of the home situation nevertheless is intense, and political differences, both real and perceived, factionalize all non-Chinese communities. Key individuals contest for brokerage and spokesperson roles in much the same fashion as with South Asians.

Social Control and Conflict. Reconciliation of changes brought on by immigration with personal values and traditions often engenders considerable marital stress, which is typically resolved (if at all) within the household or with the assistance of close relatives. For South Asians the issue of children's cross-sex relations is often contentious, and Southeast Asians increasingly face intergenerational value conflict stemming from great cultural differences. Community and home-country conceptions of appropriate conduct place great conformity pressure on adults, though in no ethnic group save for Ismailis could there be said to be formal institutions of social control. Neither population makes extensive use of the courts, police, or social welfare institutions to address interpersonal conflict.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. These groups all participate in their traditional religions described. Only beliefs and practices specific to Canada are noted here.

Among South Asians, the one-third who are Sikh have been highly committed to their faith. Since 1908 they have founded gurdwaras (temples) all across Canada. Each is Organizationally independent and dependent on local financial support. Where several exist, membership often reflects class, caste, source locale, political orientation, or degree of acculturation. Sikh religious practice and belief are not markedly different than in urban India, save for minor accommodations made to Canadian dress, work routines, and the like. As in India, there is no consensus as to what marks one as a "true Sikh," and this can be very contentious. Symbolic "retraditionalization" among Sikhs has occurred since 1984 in Response to perceived state oppression in Punjab, and more adult men now wear the five kakkas that mark their Khalsa commitment. Instruction of children in religion and in Gurmukhi script is increasing and intergenerational transmission of the religion is high.

About 25 percent are Hindus. Hinduism in India and the non-Western diaspora is highly variable and embedded in everyday family and community life. As such, it has faced challenges becoming established in Canada. Adults continue with their private devotions, and most maintain some dietary restrictions and participate in important calendrical celebrations. Commensal and associational rules limiting contact with others have largely disappeared. Multiuse Hindu Temples have been established in major cities and offer life-cycle and weekly services. It is unclear to what degree Hinduism is being transmitted to the Canadian-born.

Of the 25-30 percent who are Muslims, Ismailis have the most well-developed religious institutions. Composing a Shia sect following the spiritual leadership of the Aga Khan, they have organized jamat khana for worship everywhere there are practitioners. Otherwise highly acculturated, Ismailis effectively have transmitted their religious tradition to the second generation. Almost all other South Asian Muslims are Sunnis. Save for where particular ethnic or national groups are numerous, they use and support multiethnic/national mosques with Arabs and others. They also seem to be effective in teaching their religion to their children.

Roughly 10-15 percent are Christian from Kerala and Goa in India, Sri Lanka, Guyana, Trinidad, Fiji, Mauritius, and Pakistan. Christians tend to become members of established Canadian congregations, and to adjust their religious practice accordingly. About 2 percent are Sinhalese Theravada Buddhists.

Among the Southeast Asians, most Vietnamese and almost all Chinese are at least nominally committed to a mix of Confucianism, Taoism, and Mahayana Buddhism. Most Vietnamese participate in religiously linked celebrations such as the New Year and Veneration of the Dead, and Vietnamese Buddhist temples have been established in several places in Canada. Chinese typically use the religious institutions of extant Chinese communities. Many Vietnamese and Chinese continue to practice ancestor veneration in their homes. A significant minority of Vietnamese are Catholics, who largely have joined mainstream congregations. Lao and Khmer, and some Laotian and Cambodian Chinese are Theravada Buddhists. Few in number, they have not established many Permanent temples outside of Quebec. Lao and Khmer monks, however, circulate among communities.

Arts. South Asians have made a considerable commitment to the arts in Canada. Instruction in Indian classical and folk dance is widespread, and South Asian folk, religious, classical, and popular music groups have been established in many places. South Asian Canadian literature in English and in vernacular is well developed. Among Southeast Asians are many with literary and artistic skills, especially in poetry and singing. Instruction in the arts is, however, not yet extensive.

See alsoEast Asians of Canada


Buchignani, Norman, and Doreen Indra (1985). Continuous Journey: A Social History of South Asians in Canada. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Chan, Kwok B., and Doreen Indra, eds. (1987) Uprooting, Loss and Adaptation: The Resettlement of Indochinese Refugees in Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Public Health Association.

Dorais, Louis-Jacques, Kwok B. Chan, and Doreen Indra, eds. (1988). Ten Years Later: Indochinese Communities in Canada. Montreal: Canadian Asian Studies Association.

Dorais, Louis-Jacques, Lise Pilon-Le, and Nguyen Huy (1987). Exile in a Cold Land: A Vietnamese Community in Canada. New Haven: Yale Southeast Asian Studies.

Israel, Milton, ed. (1987). The South Asian Diaspora in Canada: Six Essays. Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario.

Kanungo, Rabindra N., ed. (1984). South Asians in the Canadian Mosaic. Montreal: Kala Bharati Foundation.


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South and Southeast Asians of Canada

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South and Southeast Asians of Canada