Defining “German”

There are several ways of describing the “origin” of immigrants to Canada. Canadian censuses have used the following criteria: place of birth, ethnic origin, citizenship (nationality), and country of last permanent residence. [1]

Clearly, there are overlaps among these criteria, and especially with the “Germans” there can also be major differences. For example, a post-World War II immigrant may well have been born in Russia (birthplace) of German ancestry (ethnic origin), and will have received German citizenship upon arrival in West Germany (nationality). Even if he did not actually receive German citizenship, the country of last permanent residence would have been Germany. Or, a refugee from eastern Europe with other than German ethnic origin may not have been able to obtain German citizenship, but if he spent his last few years in Germany before emigration to Canada he would have been counted as having Germany as the last country of permanent residence.

The following examples illustrate this point.

● The wide geographical dispersion of German mother tongue speakers is shown by example in the 1936 Census which found 76,856 Albertans with German mother tongue of whom 40,706 had been Canadian-born and 75 British-born. [2] Among the remaining 36,075 foreign-born Albertans with German mother tongue, the distribution by birthplace was as follows:

Birthplaces of foreign-born Albertans having German mother tongue, 1936


Foreign-born Albertans having German mother tongue





























Other European countries


Arabic countries  


United States   


Other countries        


Source: Canadian Census 1936, Vol. I, Table 62.

● Arriving in 1966, 10,699 immigrants claimed German origin; 9,263 reported Germany as the country of last permanent residence, and 7,249 had German citizenship. Of the latter, 7,151 were of German ethnic origin; another 26 claimed Yugoslav origin, 12 Polish, 8 Jewish, and a few with other ethnic backgrounds, such as Arabic, Austrian, Czech, Hungarian, and Bosnian. [3]

● For the year 1996, 2,534 immigrants listed Germany as their last country of permanent residence, but only 1,683 held German citizenship, and only 1,751 were actually born in Germany. [4]

So, how many “Austrians,” “Germans,” or “Swiss” have there been in the Canadian population over the last two centuries? This would appear to be a relatively simple question to answer, but it is not. For instance, Hoerder [5] and Neuwirth and John de Vries [6] analyzed carefully the issue of the “true” number of Austrian immigrants to Canada, and discussed in detail the difficulties associated with immigration and census figures. [7]

This is not the place to evaluate the validity of census data, and the reader is referred to the above‑mentioned chapters for details. Among the problems with census data raised by the authors are the following:

    1. Canadian authorities had no clear idea of the multinational character of the Austro‑Hungarian Empire and therefore did not adequately distinguish between “Austrian” and, for example, “Bukovinian.” For a while, the census even provided for an Austrian mother tongue. (It is true, however, that the census authorities realized and addressed the problems with Central European data and in a number of updates provided recalculated figures.) Conversely, immigrants from the Austro‑Hungarian Empire often did not know which country they should give as their “country of birth,” especially after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Similar problems of classification arose with the immigration of Germans from all over Central and Eastern Europe after the end of the Second World War.

    2. Census data are based on self‑identification, and in times of war and its aftermath respondents tend to be less than entirely truthful about their origin. After Word War I, many Volksdeutsche [8] gave “Russian” as their origin (a fact recognized by the Canadian census authorities), and many Ukrainians who were unsure about the meaning of the census questions identified themselves as being “Austrian.” After the Second World War, it is thought that significant numbers of Germans gave “Austrian” or “Dutch” as their ethnic origin. According to Neuwirth and de Vries, changes in the self‑identification of Ukrainian immigrants to Canada as “Austrians” or “Ukrainians” explains very well the wild swings in the numbers of Austrian‑Canadians in 1921 and 1961.

    3. Canadian census definitions have been changed so many times so that data on ethnic origin are not readily comparable (see following section). For example, since the first census, racial or ethnic origin was traced through the lineage of the father. Before 1870, origin was established by the place of birth of the male immigrant. From 1871 to 1941, the racial question was asked to distinguish groups in the population having similar cultural characteristics, based on a common heritage. Then, from 1951 on, the language spoken by the male ancestor upon arrival on this continent was used to help determine a person’s origin. In 1986, ethnic origin was redefined substantially in the question: “To which ethnic or cultural group do you or did your ancestors belong?” by dropping the phrases “male ancestor” and “on arrival on this continent.” In recognition of the fact that most Canadians have many different origins in their family tree, respondents were allowed in 1981 to write in one ethnic origin in addition to the main origin. In 1986, respondents could list up to three additional origins. Further changes in the question—intended to reflect more accurately the multicultural nature of the Canadian population—were made subsequently. This change in reporting procedures to allow for multiple ethnic origins increased the number of Canadians who considered themselves to be of Austrian (or German etc.) descent.

    4. Longitudinal immigration data are difficult to compare because different criteria were used over time to determine the country of origin. For example, until 1965, “Austrian ethnic origin” was employed. Between 1966 and 1971, the data refer to immigrants from “Austria as the country of former residence.” Application of this criterion resulted in elevated immigration figures. For example, of the 2,313 persons arriving from Austria in 1966, 633 were of Austrian ethnic origin, 995 were of Yugoslav origin, 203 had Czech and Slovak origin, and 323 had Hungarian origin, etc. Following the uprising in Czechoslovakia in 1968, the number of immigrants from Austria rose to 8,125 of whom only 657 actually held Austrian citizenship; 6,615 were Czech and 278 were Yugoslav citizens. As the refugees left Austria, numbers plummeted; by 1971, 360 of the 407 immigrants from Austria as the “country of former residence” were in fact Austrian citizens. From 1972 on, Canadian immigration statistics refer to “country of last permanent residence.” In that year, 285 persons of the 365 emigrants who came from Austria as the country of last permanent residence were Austrian citizens.

    5. Changes are made regularly to the names, boundaries, and other characteristics of geographic areas (e.g., census subdivisions may amalgamate, or there may be an annexation, or change of name or status). Consequently, the boundaries of geographic areas may change from one census to another. See, for example, the list of census subdivisions in numerical order (Standard Geographical Classification 1996, 1996/sgc96-search-subdiv.asp. Accessed on August 29, 2003) which notes the names of census subdivisions “affected either by change of name, type or code, including amalgamations and dissolutions since January 2, 1991” or “affected by boundary change or revision of population counts since January 2, 1991.” These changes usually involved boundary movements of villages and towns within rural municipalities, as they expand, or of other localities. Yet, “next to provinces, CDs are the most stable administrative geographic areas and are therefore often used in longitudinal analysis.” [9] In 2001, for example, there were only three incorporations in Manitoba, but almost 600 such changes were made in Ontario. [10]

Neuwirth and de Vries concluded their examination of the Austrian data as follows:

In this paper, we have examined data on Austrians in Canada, both with regards to the flow of international migrants into the country and with regards to the periodic inventories taken in the decennial and quinquennial censuses of population. We have shown that, for most of the period of 1901 through 1991, these data give an inflated picture of the “true” number of Austrians, that is, those Canadians who, either through ethnic identification or through their country of birth, have a connection to the present Republic of Austria. While the magnitude of inflation has declined since 1961, it is not possible to state with any degree of certainty whether the most recent figures are still inflated or whether they are telling the “true” story. [11] (p. 52)

Similar reservations apply for immigrants from Germany and Switzerland. For these reasons, the data provided in the tables on the number of Canadians born in Austria, Germany or Switzerland and Canadians with Austrian, German, or Swiss ethnic origin should be viewed only as an approximation of the “true” number of German-speaking Canadians over the last 120 years.

It should also be noted that census data are subject to “imprecision”: To ensure confidentiality, the values, including totals, are randomly rounded either up or down to a multiple of "5" or "10". To understand these data, one must be aware that each individual value is rounded. As a result, when these data are summed or grouped, the total value may not match the individual values since totals and sub-totals are independently rounded. Similarly, percentages, which are calculated on rounded data, may not necessarily add up to 100%. [12]

But then who are the “German-Canadians”? Without thinking, most people would be happy to accept the definition that they are “Canadians of German origin.” But a more thoughtful person would raise the objection that the global definition cannot cover all such groups and assign it one identity. Here are some examples of “German-Canadians”:

  • Various groups of “Palatines,” “Dutch” and “Swiss” who settled in Nova Scotia
  • The “Hessians” who settled in Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick
  • German “United Empire Loyalists” in the Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario
  • The Pennsylvania-German Mennonites in Ontario
  • Immigrants from Prussia and Mecklenburg who settled in the Ottawa Valley
  • Emigrants from the Dobrudja (Romania) und the Bukovina who settled in Saskatchewan
  • Danube-Swabians from the Banat
  • A few Reichsdeutsche and Austrian-Germans before World War I
  • Immigrants from the Russian Empire (Black Sea Coast, the Volga and central and southwestern Poland) who settled across the Canadian West (Mennonites, Hutterites, Catholics, Lutherans and others)
  • Settlers from the Austro-Hungarian Empire (esp. Galicia) who settled in the West
  • Immigrants from the Gottschee district of Slovenia (formerly Krain, Austria) who settled in Ontario
  • Immigrants from Weimar Germany between 1918 and 1933
  • Refugees from the Sudetenland who settled in northeastern British Columbia during the WWII
  • The few persons persecuted by the Nazis who were permitted to enter Canada shortly before and during WW II
  • Many tens of thousands from across East Central and Eastern and Southeastern Europe who fled from or were expelled by the Soviets at the end of the Second World War; Germans from the Baltic countries
  • Immigrants from German- and French-speaking areas of Switzerland
  • Immigrants from Federal Republic of Germany in the 1950s and 1960s
  • Refugees from the German Democratic Republic from 1949 to 1989
  • Spätaussiedler from Siberia, Tadzhikistan and other regions in the Soviet Union after its collapse
  • Re-immigrant Mennonites from South America who settled mostly in Ontario and northern Alberta and British Columbia
  • And, of course, Germans from Bavaria, the Rhineland, Prussia, Berlin, Saxony, and Austrians from Vienna and the Tyrol and Carinthia
  • Immigrants who were brought into Canada over the centuries because the were brave soldiers, hard-working adaptable farmers, hard workers in industry, skilled craftsmen, and excellent professionals
  • How many more groups and origins and characteristics?

Can all these groups be made to fit under the label “German-Canadian”? This is not the place to examine this issue in detail, and a few references to arguments and points of view will have to suffice. Hoerder (1996), for example, concludes—after having examined the multifacetted nature of German-language Canadians—that it would be difficult to “remember their past without creating an artificial group construct. Identity is self-determined, whether Canadian, ethnic, or recent newcomer”. [13] Zimmer (1998) doubts that there is “a distinctive German-Canadian identity. The different generations of immigrants are separated by their socialization in Germany and their respective different notions of what it means to be German. They are separated by the different political and cultural discourses of Germanness far more than they are united by them. Language is the only common characteristic that binds them together as German-Canadians. … It is misleading in both theory and practice to regard German-Canadians as a group with a distinct identity. “German-Canadians” denotes a group of Canadians with a very broadly defined commonality in acculturation. … To find a German-Canadian identity may thus be even more difficult than answering the question “What is German?” [14]

Bassler (1998), on the other hand, has little time for critics who dismiss the concept of a German-Canadian identity because they disregard its historical development, and provides evidence for the thesis that there have been historical, albeit transitory, formations of German-Canadian identity in the process of adaptation (p. 86). For Bassler, the concept of “identity”—i.e. the historically observable attributes and behaviour patterns shared by immigrants of German speaking background—includes the following characteristics:

It defines German-Canadian identity as dynamic, changing over time and displaying regional variants;

this identity is not a transplanted phenomenon but is indigenous to Canada;

it is primarily—but not exclusively—exhibited among the first generation. The identity in question is neither the sole nor the dominant identity in the hierarchy of multiple identities of a German-speaking immigrant.

German-Canadian identity can be observed in external patterns of settlement, adaptation, and interaction among groups of the German-Canadian mosaic or in internal patterns of self-identification and feelings towards other German-Canadians.

German-Canadian identity is not always self-chosen or self-created but also affected by ascription: it can be imposed by others. [15]


[1] For various attempts at defining “German,” see, for example, Manfred Richter, “Who are the German-Canadians?” in Peter Liddell (ed.), German-Canadian Studies: Criti­cal Approaches (Vancouver: CAUTG, 1983), pp. 42-48. In addition to dis­cussing the difficulties involved in interpreting census statistics, Richter reviewed various approaches to defining an ethnic group. Leo Driedger (“In Search of Cultural Identity Factors: A Comparison of Ethnic Students,” The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 12, 1975, 150-162) identified six cultural components in the definition of a cultural group, viz. language use, endogamy, choice of friends, religious denomination, parochial schools, and voluntary organizations. Alan B. Anderson and James S. Frideres (Ethnicity in Canada: Theoretical Perspectives, Toronto: Butter­worths, 1981, p. 40) maintained that cultural groups can be defined by eth­nic origin, ethnic-oriented religion, and folkways, i.e., the practice of certain customs unique to the group. David Artiss (“Who Are the German-­Canadians—One Ethnic Group or Several?” In Peter Liddell (ed.), German-Canadian Studies: Critical Approaches, Vancouver: CAUTG Publications, 1983, pp. 49-55) struggled with the difficulties in defining what is “German.” He suggested four tests of “German-ness”: historical, linguistic, cultural, and geographic. In relation to Lunenburg’s history, Artiss would have us ask this question: “Has this piece of land been owned and occupied by German settlers and their descendants uninterruptedly from the first days of colonization until now? If the answer is yes, may we not describe the pres­ent occupiers as German-Canadian, whether they speak German or not?” (p. 55). The difficulties inherent in dealing with immigration statistics and in defin­ing “German” were also discussed at length by Gerhard P. Bassler, “German Overseas Migration to North America in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Cen­turies: Recent Research from a Canadian Perspective,” in Hartmut Froeschle, ed. German-Canadian Yearbook, Vol. VII (Toronto: Historical Society of Mecklenburg Upper Canada Inc., 1983), pp. 8-21.

[2] CC 1936, Vol. I, Table 62.

[3] Department of Manpower and Immigration, “Immigration Statistics 1966,” Tables 2, 5, 7, 8.

[4] Citizenship and Immigration Statistics 1996, Tables IM4, IM12, IM13.

[5] Dirk Hoerder, “German‑speaking immigrants of many backgrounds and the 1990s Canadian identity,” pp. 11‑31. In Franz A.J. Szabo,  Austrian Immigration to Canada. Selected Essays (Carleton University Press, 1996).

[6] Gertrud Neuwirth and John  de Vries, “Demographic patterns of Austrian Canadians, 1900‑ 1991,” pp. 33‑54. In Franz A.J. Szabo,  Austrian Immigration to Canada. Selected Essays (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1996).

[7] See John de Vries, “On coming to our census: A layman’s guide to demolinguistics,” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 1990, 11, 1-2, 57-76, for a detailed explanation of the terms used in a census and the difficulties in interpretation of census data. Nevertheless, John de De Vries and Gerda de Vries (“Demolinguistic aspects of language maintenance” in Jetske Klatter-Folmer and Sjaak Kroon, eds., Dutch overseas. Studies in maintenance and loss of Dutch as an immigrant language. Tilburg: Tilburg University Press, 1997, pp. 121-137) performed a very successful demolinguistic analysis of language maintenance and shift among Dutch-Canadians, using ratios between ethnic origin and mother tongue as well as between mother tongue and home language. They found that net ancestral language by Dutch-Canadians amounted to 17.4%—considerably lower than, for example, among the Italian (55%), the Ukrainian (29%), the Greek (73%), and the Chinese (65%) ethnic groups. Similarly, Anne Vermeer (“Language maintenance and the Dutch Heritage Language School in Ottawa” in Klatter and Kroon, pp. 131-151) used the ratio between ethnic origin and home language to determine language shift. She computed a ratio of .03 for student in the Dutch language school, compared to .10 for German, .30 for Finnish, .17 for Ukrainian, and .30 for Finnish origin students. However, she also found that the percentage of students who used Dutch as their home language and were enrolled in the language school was higher at .27 than for the Germans (.11), for example (p. 143).

[8] Volksdeutsche refers to Germans who lived outside the eastern boundaries of the German Reich, Reichs-deutsche to Germans living within the boundaries of the German Reich before 1938.

The author is very well of the fact that usage of the terms volksdeutsch and reichsdeutsch is objectionable to most people because of their etiology during National Socialism. The Nazis had popularized the term Volksdeutsche and exploited this group for their own purposes. For this reason, other designations are preferable, for example, names that more closely associate them with their earlier place of residence (such as Wolgadeutsche, the ethnic Germans living in the Volga basin in Russia). In the context of the present study, the repeated use use of phrases such as “Wolhyniendeutsche, Wolgadeutsche, Deutsche aus Bessarabien, etc.” as a generic term for “Germans from outside the borders of the German Empire” is impractical and unwieldy. But sincere apologies are offered to anyone who feels offended by these terms.
Definitional problems plague the word “German” itself, and for this reason this study uses words such as “German speakers,” “German-speaking community,” “Canadians of German origin,” etc. to reflect the complexity of the term. Clearly, Austrians are not “Germans”, and neither are the Swiss. A brief discussion of the difficulties associated with the term “German” may be found in the introductory chapter (Section 2.0).
For present purposes, an “ethnic German” is someone who considers himself, or is considered by others, to be German. Among the criteria for referring to someone as being of German origin include having a connection with German culture, speaking the German language, or having ancestors who lived in Germany or an area which at that time was part of Germany or was otherwise considered German.

[9] CC 2001 Census Dictionary, Print Version, 92-378-XPE, p. 210.

[10] CC 2001 Census Dictionary, Print Version, 92-378-XPE, p. 229.

[11] Neuwirth and DeVries, p. 52.

[12] CC 2001, Internet version, “Understanding the 2001 data.”

[13] Dirk Hoerder (1996), p. 27.

[14] Matthias Zimmer, “Deconstructing German-Canadian identity,” in Angelika E. Sauer and Matthias Zimmer (eds.), A chorus of different voices. German-Canadian identities. New York: Peter Lang, 1998, p. 32, 33, 34.

[15] Gerhard P. Bassler, “German-Canadian identity in historical perspective,” in Angelika E. Sauer and Matthias Zimmer (eds.), A chorus of different voices. German-Canadian identities. New York: Peter Lang, 1998, p. 86.

Adapted from: Manfred Prokop and Gerhard Bassler, German Language Maintenance Across Canada: A Handbook (Edmonton: 2004).

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