Emigration refers to the act of leaving one's region or country of origin to settle in another. This is unlike immigration which is the action of arriving in a country.
In democratic countries such as Canada where there is no restriction on emigration, emigrants are not required to notify the government authorities when they leave. As such, it is difficult to assess the volume of emigration and its impact on Canada's population. However, major attempts have been made to estimate annual departures using a variety of indirect estimations. Although the different estimates of annual departures vary to some extent, they are consistent with the direction of net migration (i.e., the difference between immigration and emigration). For Canada, net migration has been mainly positive (i.e., immigration exceeds emigration).
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 prevented social mobility. At the same time, economic expansion and prosperity in the United States provided an important magnet for Canada's disappointed immigrants and unemployed citizens.
Many French Canadians left Canada to work in the United States. In total, it is estimated that between 1860 and 1900, around 510,000 migrants moved from Quebec to the US. A large number would end up working in New England’s booming industry.
Second Period, 1896–1913
During the second period, the Canadian economy thrived and people found opportunities for economic and social advancement. 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 1912–1913 — are still unsurpassed.
Third Period, 1914–1945
In the 1930s, the Great Depression produced more emigrants than arrivals. Immigration reached its lowest level, even while a steady southward stream across the border resulted again in an overall negative migration.
Fourth Period, 1946–1995
The fourth period which began after the end of the Second World War was another period of heavy immigration. Although emigration levels have generally increased since 1946, migration has remained an important contributor to Canada's population growth.
A useful way to distinguish emigrants is by their place of birth. A significant proportions of emigrants to the United States (27 per cent in the 1950s, 31 per cent in the 1960s, and 35 per cent in the 1970s) were formerly foreign-born immigrants to Canada. This percentage declined to 30 per cent 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 per cent over the hundred year period 1851–1951. During the fourth period, it declined. In 1961–1971, it was around 50 per cent. Since 1971, different estimates range from 30 per cent to 60 per cent.
Many emigrants return to their countries of birth. The highest return rate was among people born in the United States (50–70 per cent in 1950–1971). The was lowest rate was for people born in Asia (1–17 per cent ). The corresponding rates for returnees from the United Kingdom, Europe and Latin America were 30–40 per cent , 19–32 per cent and 5–12 per cent, respectively. Since 1951, although the number of emigrants declined, estimates showed that between 1961–1971 around 50 out of 100 immigrants emigrated. After 1971, the figure fluctuated between 30 and 60 per cent.
In absolute numbers, annual departures from Canada after 1946 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 new restrictions in American immigration law in 1968, as well as to the comparative prosperity in Canada.
Between 1991 and 1995, 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 increased immigration levels and higher return migration, especially among elderly visible minorities.
Fifth Period, 1995–Present
The North American Free Trade Agreement may have resulted in temporary emigration to the United States, especially among professionals. The 1990s was also a period which experienced an exodus of Hong Kong migrants to Canada resulting from the uncertainty surrounding the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
Some new immigrants have been confronted with a sluggish Canadian economy. Structural barriers have also been a problem as they discredit their qualifications and disregard their previous work experiences. Consequently, immigrants who experience unemployment and underemployment return to their countries of origin to work.
Some have described emigration as a “brain drain.” This 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. However, studies looking at migration between the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries have presented more nuanced findings. It has become more apparent that the flow of researchers, students, managers and other specialists is more temporary than once thought: the flow is better characterized as a “brain churn.” Nonetheless, between 1995 and 2010, the net migration rates increased from 5.2 to 8 per 1000 people.
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, among returnees 60 years and older, more than double were immigrants (18 per cent) compared to Canadian-born (9 per cent). Returning emigrants age 60 and over comprised a small percentage of all returnees. The majority of emigrants who return to Canada were in their prime working years.
Since 2010, Canada has maintained a relatively high but declining emigration rate compared to other countries. In 2020, the net migration rate in Canada was 6.6 per 1,000.. This is noticeably higher than other industrialized countries such as the United States (2.9), the United Kingdom (3.9) and France (0.6).