Module 1: Lessons

Defining Migration

The terms ‘migrant’ and ‘migration’ capture different forms of movement across borders. There are two main types of migration: voluntary migration and involuntary (or forced) migration. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) explains, it is important not to conflate these two types of migration, even though the term ‘migrant’ is often used as a ‘catch-all’ term. 

Voluntary migration refers to migration by choice, including the choice to leave one’s home country to for economic opportunities, for educational reasons, or to reunite with relatives in a new country. Involuntary migration, on the other hand, refers to the process of fleeing one’s country of origin to escape war, violence, persecution, or, increasingly, climate change. Involuntary migration is the result of displacement in which people leave their home because staying would likely result in death or devastation. Involuntary migrants or refugees often leave their homes because they have experienced significant trauma, and the process of fleeing their country in search of refuge can itself be traumatic. This video provides more context about involuntary migration. 

A New Generation of Forced Migration

Why Study Migration?

There are several reasons for studying migration. In any country, population growth comes from two main sources. First, from natural increases whereby the number of births exceed the number of deaths. To measure natural increases, researchers study death rates, birth rates, and fertility rates (the average number of children born per woman). The second main source of population growth is migration. Western countries, such as Canada and the United States, have always depended upon migration to grow their populations. Canada, for example, is a settler-colonial state. This means that the colonial powers – British and French – never left. There has never been decolonization in Canada. Instead, the colonial powers set up permanent settlements and institutions on Indigenous land. In an attempt to take control over territory from Indigenous peoples, Canada recruited migrants to come to Canada. Thus, by definition, Canada is a nation of immigrants — anyone who is not Indigenous is in Canada as the result of migration.

Yet, Canada has not necessarily been welcoming to migrants from the Global South. In fact, when Canada was founded in 1867, the government imposed an explicit policy of recruiting white migrants. For example, in 1885, the first Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, who believed that white people were superior, argued that migrants from Africa and Asia would dilute the “purity” of the white race. Migrants from Asia were only admitted to Canada temporarily to provide cheap labour. For example, Canada recruited Asian men to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. This was dangerous work, costing many men their lives. When the work was completed, Canada tried to prevent Asian men from staying in Canada permanently by implementing the Chinese Immigration Act (1885), which imposed upon Chinese men a hefty cost for immigrating, and prohibited Chinese women and children from entry. Further, the 1910 Immigration Act sought to prohibit certain ‘races’ deemed “undesirable” from coming to Canada. 

In the 1960s, the Government of Canada liberalized immigration policy, transitioning from its implicit “White Canada” policy focused on attracting migrants from Europe to a a points-based system. The new system opened up immigration from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Today, most migrants come to the West from the Global South. Yet, this points system privileges migrants who are wealthy, have higher education or business ventures, and do not have dependents who will require any kind of state support. In other words, migrants must be able to provide for their dependents without asking the government for help. This points-system has gendered implications. It means that men tend to be the primary applicants for immigration, with women and children typically listed as dependents, while women and children are viewed as a potential cost to Canada.

In reality, however, because immigrants pay taxes and work in Canada, immigration is an economic benefit to the receiving countries. Without migration, Canada’s population would not grow, and there would be fewer workers. Evidence shows, for example, that migration is becoming more and more important to sustaining Canada’s population growth. Fertility rates (or the number of children born per woman) have declined in Canada as people have decided to have fewer children. If fertility rates continue to remain stable, then migration will take on an even more significant role in Canada’s population growth, according to Statistics Canada. This fact calls attention to the need to study migration patterns and migrant experiences.

Despite the benefits of migration for countries like Canada, migrants often arrive in their new home and find there is little in the way of support and services to help with their transition. Canadian culture emphasizes individualism, and this can be isolating for migrants from collectivist cultures. Often, migrants encounter economic hardship because their academic and professional credentials are not recognized in their new home. This means that immigrants with law degrees, for example, will end up working low-paying jobs to support their families. This is called de-skilling. Migrants also encounter biased attitudes from white Canadians who are not necessarily welcoming to newcomers, since Canada originated in the desire for white migrants. Though Canada has gradually become more liberal and multicultural, racist attitudes persist and this can cause some migrants to feel isolated. Finally, the immigration system makes it hard for them to sponsor their family members to come to Canada, causing a disconnect between migrants and their families at home. Studies of migration can help identify services necessary to support migrants, and can shape policy change that may improve migrants’ experiences of integration.


Can you think of other reasons for studying migration?