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Migration, Arrival, and Settlement

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Latvians/

Prior to 1921 the Canadian government classified most of the people coming from tsarist-controlled territories with Russians and other groups of the Russian Empire, but all available evidence suggests that there were few Latvians. In the 1961 census only 379 people of Latvian ethnic origin claimed that they had arrived in Canada prior to 1921, and most probably left Latvia in response to repression following the abortive 1905 uprising against Russian tsarist oppression and Baltic-German baronial power.

Latvian immigrants were registered as a distinct group from 1921 on, and 409 arrived between 1921 and 1945, but some Latvians may have come to Canada from the United States or left the country after a few years. The 1941 census listed 975 people of Latvian ethnic origin.

Post-war Latvian refugees began to arrive in 1947; their numbers peaked a year later, and the influx ended in 1957. These ten years account for 92 percent of all Latvian overseas immigrants registered in Canada between 1921 and 1965, the last year of official Canadian records on ethnicity of new arrivals.

Among Latvian Canadians there was a slightly skewed gender distribution, with 775 more women than men in 1991, attributable to the greater longevity for women and the normalization of population levels. This contrasted, however, with the skewed gender distribution among those aged fifty to sixty-nine in 1981 (560 more males), a condition possibly reflecting events late in World War II, when about fifteen thousand Latvian soldiers, having been drafted into Latvian divisions of the German army, became prisoners of war under the Allies. Meanwhile many women of comparable age remained behind in Latvia.

Latvian refugees coming to Canada were screened in their country of origin, and many with health problems, heavily disabled war veterans, and older people without sponsoring younger family members remained in Germany. As well, at the time of heaviest migration, Germany offered many more social benefits for such individuals than did Canada.

The “old Latvians” who came to Canada before 1939 displayed a distinct pattern of settlement. According to the 1941 census, 78 percent lived in the three prairie provinces, and only 12 percent in Ontario; most were found in rural areas.

Post-1945 immigrants followed a different pattern. In 1961 Ontario accounted for over 70 percent of Latvians and Quebec for over 10 percent. The prairie provinces had also received new Latvian settlers, but their share had decreased to 11 percent. By 1991 two-thirds of the 20,445 persons claiming Latvian ethnic roots resided in Ontario, 14 percent in the prairie provinces, 12 percent in British Columbia, 5.9 percent in Quebec, and 1.8 percent in the Atlantic region.

On arrival in Canada many Latvians were initially employed in rural areas because of work contracts arranged by immigration authorities. But they soon moved into urban areas to seek more appropriate jobs. By 1961 only 4 percent of Latvians were living on farms and 6 percent in non-farm, rural areas.

Metropolitan Toronto had over 7,700 Latvians in 1991, or 38 percent of Canada’s total, and is the base for most Latvian-Canadian organizations. In addition, 3,000 Latvians live within 120 miles of Toronto, in Niagara Falls, St Catharines, Hamilton, London, Kitchener, Waterloo, Guelph, and Oshawa. Such a demographic and cultural dispersion has created strains within Latvian communities further from Toronto, which sometimes feel neglected by Toronto-based central organizations.

In 1991 Vancouver had the second-largest concentration of Latvians (1,425), followed by Hamilton (1,130) and Montreal (1,010). Montreal experienced a 39 percent reduction of Latvians between 1961 and 1991, buffered somewhat by the fact that Montreal activists have been able to cooperate with Latvians in the Ottawa-Hull area, whose population doubled from 364 in 1961 to 745 in 1991. There have never been Latvian districts in any Canadian city. Latvians are sociable but prefer to make independent choices of residence, except in cottage areas, where many Latvians have clustered.

In Canada as a whole in 1991, people aged up to fifteen accounted for 21 percent of the total population, whereas those sixty-five and over formed 12 percent. In 1991, among Latvians in Canada, those under twenty formed 19 percent of the total, and those over sixty-five 26 percent. In 1981 there were more Latvians over seventy than youths fifteen or younger, and three times as many aged fifty-five to fifty-nine than those fifty years younger – that is, aged five to nine. This lopsided age distribution probably reflects the inroads of assimilation, mixed marriages, and generally low birth rates usually associated with well-educated and urban populations. The distribution in 1981 presented two statistical bulges, formed by people aged fifty-five to fifty-nine (born 1921–25) and those aged twenty to twenty-nine (born 1951–60, the post-war baby boom), and two troughs, corresponding to those aged up to fourteen and thirty-five to forty-nine.

The 1991 census pointed out clearly that younger Latvians came preponderantly from mixed ethnic-origin families. Those under twenty-five accounted for 7.9 percent of single Latvian origin individuals, but for 56 percent of those of multiple origins. Pensioners over sixty-five accounted for 44 percent of all single origins, but only 4.4 percent of multiple origins. People of single Latvian origin are the ones predominantly able to speak Latvian and also participate in Latvian society, where knowledge of the language is the main criterion of entry and membership.