One out of every six Canadians belongs to a visible minority group, thanks largely to the country's growing South Asian population, the latest census figures show.

Statistics Canada, which released its 2006 numbers on visible minorities on Wednesday, said the number of people considered visible minorities topped five million (5,068,100) for the first time in census history. They made up 16.2 per cent of the total Canadian population, which was 31,612,897 in the 2006 census.

In the 2001 census, there were 3,983,800 people considered to belong to a visible minority, making up 13.4 per cent of the population.

The numbers were even lower in 1981, the year statistics on visible minorities were first counted as required by Canada's Employment Equity Act. At that time, there were only 1.1 million visible minorities, representing 4.7 per cent of the total population.

Not only are visible minority numbers increasing, they're increasing at a fast pace. Between 2001 and 2006, the visible minority population rose by 27.2 per cent, while the population as a whole only increased by 5.4 per cent.

Statistics Canada said that, at this pace, members of visible minority groups could account for roughly one-fifth of the total population by 2017.

Statistics Canada attributed the rising visible minority numbers to the high level of immigrants who have recently entered the country from non-European countries.

Sociologist Monica Boyd agreed with the theory.

"Immigration accounts for quite a bit, the vast majority, of that growth we see today," said Boyd, a professor at the University of Toronto.

"Immigration counts for two-thirds of the population growth in Canada and if you have increasing intake of immigrants from countries other than Europe, you're simply adding more and more diverse people into the Canadian population."

Statistics Canada said that in 2006, 83.9 per cent of immigrants who landed in Canada in the five years prior to census numbers being collected were from regions outside of Europe. In 1981, the number was 68.5 per cent.

While not all recent immigrants who came from non-European countries are visible minorities, many are. When looking at all the recent immigrants in Canada in 2006 who hailed from both non-European and European regions, 75 per cent were visible minorities.

In 1981, only 55.5 per cent were from a visible minority group.

Statistics Canada defines a visible minority as "persons, other than Aboriginal Peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour." The definition is the same as that used by the Employment Equity Act.

South Asians, Chinese have biggest numbers

South Asians became Canada's largest visible minority group in 2006, surpassing the Chinese.

According to the 2006 census, there are 1.3 million Canadians who identify themselves as South Asian, which includes countries like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. They represent 24.9 per cent of the visible minority population, and four per cent of the total Canadian population.

The 1.2 million Chinese make up 24 per cent of the visible minority population, and 3.9 per cent of the population in general.

The other large visible minority groups are:

  • Black (15.5 per cent of the visible minority population).
  • Filipino (8.1 per cent).
  • Latin American (6.0 per cent).
  • Arab (5.2 per cent).
  • Southeast Asian (4.7 per cent).
  • West Asian (3.1 per cent).
  • Korean (2.8 per cent).
  • Japanese (1.6 per cent).

I am Canadian

The census asked Canadians to identify the ethnic and cultural origins of their ancestors, with people allowed to pick multiple answers. Respondents gave a total of 223 different answers, the most frequent being: English, French, Scottish, German, Italian, Chinese, North American Indian, Ukrainian and Dutch.

But the most popular answer of all was Canadian. A total of 5.7 million Canadians said they were only Canadian, while 4.3 million said that part of their origin was Canadian.

In total, 32 per cent of Canadians called themselves Canadian, a decrease from the last census, when 39 per cent listed themselves as Canadian.

Mixed marriages rise by one-third

The census also found that the number of interracial marriages and unions rose by a third between 2001 and 2006.

Most of the mixed unions (85 per cent) counted in 2006 involved a person who is from a visible minority group and a person who is not, while 15 per cent involved two people from different visible minority groups.

"It's a sign of the fact that those barriers, those social barriers between racial groups, are being chipped away at a little bit," said sociologist Wendy Roth of the University of British Columbia.

"The rate of increase of mixed unions is not huge, but it's steady, and the fact that it continues to be steady in different censuses suggests that those barriers are diminishing."

With files from the Canadian Press