Measuring the Latin American population in Canada – why is it important?

Eduardo M. Oliveira

The numbers of the Latin American population in Canada are highly controversial. The Latino community argues that the data does not represent the demographic reality and the population is largely underrepresented. Problems with self-identification are highlighted as a main obstacle to having the right numbers. Additionally, the Canadian census does not categorize race and ethnic origin separately like the United States Census Bureau. Both issues will be discussed below.

Although the immigration of Latin Americans to Canada is relatively new compared to other groups, it has increased significantly in the past few decades. For example, only between 1996 and 2001, the number of people declaring themselves as Latinos rose by 32%, while at the same time the overall population grew only by 4% (Lindsay 2007, 7). According to the Canadian official statistics, in 2001, around 250,000 people were reporting Latin American origins; later modifications adjusted the number to 611,000. In 2016, the official number was about 640,000 or 2% of the population, but after the adjustment, it reached 1 million. However, there are many issues related to the way the population is measured that raise doubts about the official data.

First of all, self-identification methods pose a unique challenge for the measurement of the Latin American population. The Survey on Canadian Latin Americans (Armony 2014, 21) demonstrated that while other groups focus more on religious backgrounds, Latino communities in Canada tend to define themselves based on ancestry, language and place of origin. Even though scholars agree that self-identification is a crucial tool to avoid assuming fixed identities, it can cause a different kind of bias. In the case of Latinos in Canada, a self-declaration about ethnicity could result in a pattern of racialized Latin Americans declaring themselves as having a Latin origin while white descendants do not.

The categories used in the Canadian census are another significative issue for the Latino community. In the visible minority question, the respondent must choose between options like “white”, “Chinese”, “black”, or “Latin American”. The main problem is the confusion between the concepts of race and ethnicity. Despite not making any direct reference to race, it is implied that the question is treating the Latin American origin as a racial category. It is also possible to declare more than one ethical group/race. However, if someone reports being Latin American and white, he or she will not be counted as Latin American for the visible minority variable. Considering that the information about the visible minority population is the primary source for equity programs (Statistics Canada 2017a, 1), not counting white Latinos makes a significant difference for the community.

Besides the visible minority variable, there is another question on ethnic origin that asks “What were the ethnic or cultural origins of this person’s ancestors?”. It is allowed to write many different origins, and they give some examples of possible answers such as “French”, Chinese”, “Mexican”, or “Italian”. As the reference guide emphasizes, ethnic origin responses are a reflection of each respondent’s perception of their ethnic ancestry (Statistics Canada 2017b, 1). Statistics Canada aggregates all nationalities from Central and South America in order to reach the total amount of Latin Americans in Canada. However, this aggregation is problematic because people from Caribbean countries are not counted at all. For instance, Belize and Guyana are taken into account, whereas Cuba and Dominican Republican are not (Armony 2011, 19).

By contrast, the United States census treats Hispanic origin and race as different categories. There is a specific question asking if the person has a Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin and another question asking explicitly about the race. Therefore, when individuals declare themselves as Hispanic, the Census Bureau assumes that they are only Hispanic regardless of their answers to the race question. The reason for taking this approach is that Hispanics can be of any race. In 2015, the Census Bureau tested a new format to have only one question about race and ethnicity (Mathews et al. 2015), so that it would be possible to categorize someone as Hispanic and white at the same time. However, the 2020 census did not adopt this format.

Even though Latin Americans still underrepresented in Canadian official statistics, some recent changes were vitally important to start correcting the Canadian numbers. A reclassification of the 2016 census adopted the definition of the Canadian Hispanic Congress, including those who have only one Hispanic parent. After the reclassification, the total population that was around 640,000 increased to over a million. Nonetheless, the greatest challenge still ahead, it is necessary to debate the categories of race and ethnicity in the Canadian census.



Armony, Victor. 2014. “Latin American Communities in Canada: Trends in Diversity and Integration.” Canadian Ethnic Studies, 46 (3), p. 7-34.

Lindsay, Colin. 2007. “The Latin American Community in Canada”. Analytical Paper – Profiles of Ethnic Communities in Canada. Statistics Canada.

Mathews, Kelly, Jessica Phelan, Nicholas A. Jones, Sarah Konya, Rachel Marks, Beverly M. Pratt, Julia Coombs, Michael Bently. 2015. 2015 National Content Test Race and Ethnicity Analysis Report. The United States Census Bureau.

Statistics Canada. 2017a. Ethnic Origin Reference Guide. Ottawa: Ministry of Industry.

Statistics Canada. 2017b. Visible Minority and Population Group Reference Guide. Ottawa: Ministry of Industry.