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The Portuguese in Canada

( To read in Portuguese, click here )

A beautiful wooden carving that is part of the Portuguese exhibit.

Portuguese exhibit with wood carving by Mauricio Almeida


The story of the Portuguese presence in Canada dates back to the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries. Although it is not clear who may have landed in Canada prior to John Cabot’s historic voyage in 1497, it is believed that Diogo de Teive who set out from Lisbon in 1452, had previously explored the east coast of Canada. His exploration would eventually influence the likes of Christopher Columbus. It is well documented that Portuguese explorer Gaspar Corte-Real landed in Newfoundland in 1501. His statue stands proudly in St. John’s today.

A statue of a soldier with a sword stands on a big pedestal.

Statue of Gaspar Corte Real in St. John's, Newfoundland

Evidence of the Portuguese presence is manifest in the many places names of Portuguese origin in Atlantic Canada. Most notable perhaps is the name Labrador which is believed to be named after João Fernandes, a “lavrador,” (a farmer).

Some historians contend that after the Vikings the first attempt at a establishing a permanent colony in Canada was lead by navigator Alvares Fagundes cerca 1520. The location of this settlement has never been found but believed to have been somewhere in Cape Breton. Although no permanent communities are known to have lasted, the Portuguese presence in Atlantic Canada continues to this day while men fish for cod on the Grand Banks.


Portuguese-born Mateus Da Costa who was Samuel de Champlain’s interpreter in his contacts with Natives in the early 1600s might be considered the first Portuguese person to have lived in Canada. A few decades later, a handful of men, possibly mercenaries, came to settle in Acadia and New France. Most notable among them was Pedro da Silva “Le Portugais” (1647-1717) who paddled in his canoe between Montreal and Quebec City delivering mail. He has come to be known as Canada’s first letter carrier. This handful of men assimilated fully into Canadien society. They are the ancestors of the thousands of Dassilva, (sometimes spelt Dasylva or Dassylva) or Rodrigue that live in Canada today, particularly in Quebec.

Stamp of Canada with an island and red mark on it.

Stamp issued by Canada Post in 2003 commemorating Pedro da Silva on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of large-scale Portuguese immigration to Canada.

There were other scattered male migrants from the Portuguese world that made their way to Canada in the 19th century. Francisco Silva (anglicized to Frank Silver) settled in Hantsport in Nova Scotia and became a noted naïve painter. There were a few Portuguese men among the hodgepodge of gold-seekers in Dawson City during the Klondike years. Farther north, in the coastal Arctic communities Portuguese sailors, particularly men from the Azores and Cape Verde, were highly valued crew members aboard American whaling expeditions. Their descendents continue to live in northern communities such as Inuvik and Tuktoyuktuk

In the early 1900s as steamships become prevalent in the North Atlantic the number of Portuguese stowaways to Canada seemed to increase too. Most of them appear to have settled in the Maritimes and taken Canadian wives. Francisco da Silva (1900 -1936) who arrived as a young teen became a successful Lunenburg fisherman and crew member of the famous schooner the Bluenose. Antonio da Silva (1904 -1984) from Newfoundland, served as a cultural beacon for the homesick Portuguese fishermen of the White Fleet. Eduardo Antonio Alves (1898-1960) who settled in southern Ontario served as an interpreter in the Canadian Army in World War I earning a military medal from Portugal. He served overseas again for Canada during WWII and would go on to earn military medals for this country. On the west coast an enterprising sailor and fisherman, "Portuguese Joe" Gonsalves, became a pioneer settler in the Pender Harbour area just north of Vancouver. The town of Madeira Park is named after his native island.


Prior to 1953 the few hundred Portuguese that had immigrated to Canada can only be described as a trickle in relation to the veritable flood of people that would follow. Sixty-nine men aboard the Saturnia arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax on May 13, 1953. Later that month seven men arrived on the Vulcania; and on June 2nd, 103 men arrived aboard the Nea Hellas. These mark the dates that opened the doors to large-scale legal immigration from Portugal to Canada.

For the next few years these men who came from mainland Portugal, Azores and Madeira had to pass rigorous medical tests by Portuguese and Canadian inspectors before being accepted. They were contracted to work on Canadian farms and railroads. Some remain in the farming communities of southwestern Ontario and the Okanogan Valley of British Columbia or in northern mining towns to this day, but the majority dreaded the isolation. They sought to be reunited with their peers and eventually did so, particularly in Toronto and Montreal. More importantly, they sought to be reunited with their wives and children whom had been left behind. In all, some 17,000 men and women settled in Canada in the 1950s.


"With hardened hands" many endured their first years in Canada. Almost 60,000 came in the 1960s. Another 80,000 followed in the 1970s, peaking at 16,333 in 1974. By the 1980s as Portugal began experiencing greater prosperity the numbers decreased. In all, 38,187 came in that decade. In the 1990s only 22,401 arrived in Canada.

They settled in all regions, but particularly in urban centers in Ontario and in Montreal. With time many integrated into mainstream society but also sought to satisfy their saudade, that unique sentiment of longing characteristic of the Portuguese. It is during this period that many recreational, and cultural clubs and associations were formed. The Catholic Church was a central in social and religious life.

In some cities the Portuguese were sufficiently numerous to be able to form ‘Little Portugals’ – neighbourhoods where the distinctive flavour is Portuguese. This is most evident in the case of Toronto, just west of the downtown core.


In 2003, fifty years after the first wave of ‘official’ immigration from Portugal this flow can once again can be described as a trickle. Only 300 to 500 immigrants arrive annually in the first years of the new millennium. All in all, there are an estimated 400,000 people of Portuguese birth or descent living in Canada, making it one of the most sizeable ethnic communities. Like all other ethnic groups in Canada they have helped enrich arts, sports, politics, business, science, cuisine, and much more. It can be said that Portuguese living here have put down their roots and created a wonderfully unique Portuguese-Canadian culture. The community is one of the many gems that make up the Canadian mosaic.

A beautiful and colorful oil painting that depicts life in Portugal.

Travel Through Portuguese-Canadian Memory
Oil painting by Luis Paiva de Carvalho, 2003


Anderson, Grace M. and David Higgs (1976). A Future to Inherit:
The Portuguese communities in Canada, Toronto:
Mclelland and Stewart.

Alpalhão, João A. and Victor M.P. Da Rosa (1980).A Minority in
a Changing Society: the Portuguese Communities of Quebec,
Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

Marques, Domingos and Manuela Marujo (1993). With Hardened Hands:
A pictorial history of Portuguese immigration to Canada in
the 1950s, Toronto: New Leaf Publications.

Marques, Domingos and João Medeiros (1978). Imigrantes Portugueses:
25 Anos no Canadá, Toronto: Movimento Comunitário
Português e Festival Português de Toronto.

Teixeira, Jose Carlos and Victor M. P. Da Rosa (Editors) (2000).
The Portuguese in Canada: From the Sea to the City,
Toronto: University of Toronto Press.