One in three Canadians believe that Aboriginal Peoples and Muslims are the frequent targets of discrimination, a CBC-commissioned poll suggests.

About 28 per cent of the 2,000 surveyed by pollster Environics Research Group in February and March also said Pakistanis/East Indians often suffer from intolerance, while 20 per cent said blacks regularly faced it.

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A racially diverse group of commuters crosses the street in front of Union Station in Toronto. ((J.P. Moczulski/Canadian Press))

More than a tenth of Canadians surveyed said they thought Jews, Chinese and anglophones inside Quebec suffered from persistent discrimination, while francophones outside Quebec ranked the lowest at nine per cent, according to the study, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

But if many Canadians feel discrimination happens on a regular basis, they may not feel it has a "pervasive, negative effect" on the ethnic groups, according to Jeffrey Reitz, a University of Toronto professor who studies ethnic diversity.

"These groups are minorities and if you asked people, ‘Are blacks experiencing discrimination?’ They might shrug and say, ‘Yeah, probably,’ but you know it's not something that concerns them directly. And so it's treated as somebody else's problem."

Reitz also suggests that our perceptions of racism may be coloured by our pride in multiculturalism, a policy officially declared in 1971.

"Canadians have as part of their self-image the belief in being inclusive, open, multicultural, and Canadians are proud of that," Reitz said. "It would be inconsistent to then believe that there's pervasive discrimination."

Drop in discrimination

The study also found a substantial drop in Canadian’s perceptions of pervasive discrimination against blacks (12 per cent), and Muslims and Aboriginal Peoples (nine per cent) since a similar survey four years ago.

A Manitoban aboriginal advocacy group believes the decrease in perceived discrimination has little to do with reality.

"Daily experience would suggest otherwise," said Grand Chief Morris J. Swan Shannacappo of the Southern Chiefs’ Organization.

"There still exists systemic discrimination against Aboriginal Peoples in the health-care, social-service and justice systems, particularly in the Prairies," he said.

According to the poll, Prairie residents were most likely to perceive discrimination against Aboriginal Peoples, while residents of Toronto and Montreal believe blacks and Muslims are most often targeted.

Quebecers were more likely to say blacks, Chinese, Pakistanis/East Indians and Aboriginal Peoples never face discrimination. Margins of error for regional breakouts ranged from plus or minus 4.4 to 6.2 percentage points.

Tarek Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, questioned why Muslims constituted a category in the poll.

"Discrimination in this country is essentially a race issue," he said. "If the Muslim is white, nobody has a problem. If the Muslim is black, people are petrified. So in the end it is a question about colour, not religion."

Changing views of young Canadians

The poll also suggests Canadians aged 18 to 29 are more likely than any other age bracket to say discrimination is pervasive. But that age group also saw the highest level of improvement in perceived tolerance in the past four years, a rise some see as indicative of growing acceptance.

Alena Mondok, 13, of Toronto says race has never been an issue for her. Despite having a father with Slovak heritage and a mother of Jamaican descent, Alena only defines herself as Canadian.

"I feel that I’m Canadian because I’ve lived here all my life, and I don’t know anything else."

The Mondok family says they’ve rarely experienced discrimination, recalling only one incident where a classmate called their then 10-year-old son "so black that he was like a Jamaican drug dealer," said Alena's mother, Karen.   

"It’s largely a non-issue in our family and I don’t get the sense that our kids are really focused on that at all," added her father, Brett.

A recent Statistics Canada report projects that about one-third of the population will be members of a visible minority by 2031, with whites becoming the minority in Toronto and Vancouver over the next few decades.

While there’s still disagreement over the severity of the problems of discrimination and inequality as Canada continues to grow in ethnic diversity, Reitz says, visible minorities still face challenges.

A royal commission charged with making an in-depth investigation into national issues is necessary to clear the air and find solutions, Reitz says.