The debut of Canada's controversial census replacement survey shows there are more foreign-born people in the country than ever before, at a proportion not seen in almost a century.

They're young, they're suburban, and they're mainly from Asia, although Africans are arriving in growing numbers.

But the historical comparisons are few and far between in the National Household Survey, which Statistics Canada designed, at Prime Minister Stephen Harper's behest, to replace the cancelled long-form survey, which was eliminated.

The new survey of almost three million people shows that Canada is home to 6.8 million foreign-born residents, or 20.6 per cent of the population, compared with 19.8 per cent in 2006, and the highest in the G8 group of rich countries.

It also shows that aboriginal populations have surged by 20 per cent over the past five years, now representing 4.3 per cent of Canada's population, up from 3.8 per cent in the 2006 census.

Almost one in five people living in Canada is a visible minority.

And in nine different municipalities, those visible minorities are actually the majority.

Statistics Canada isn't handing out detailed comparisons to the results shown in the 2006 census.

That's because many comparisons with the past can only made reliably at a national or provincial level, said Marc Hamel, director general of the census. He said the agency suppressed data from 1,100 mainly small communities because of data quality, compared with about 200 that were suppressed in 2006.

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Statistics Canada in Ottawa released the first part of its voluntary National Household Survey on Wednesday, after the Conservatives dropped the mandatory long-form survey more than two years ago. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"For a voluntary survey, it has very good quality. We have a high quality of results at a national level," said Hamel.

Until 2006, questions on immigration, aboriginals and religion were asked in the mandatory long-form census that went to one-fifth of Canadian households. When the Conservatives cancelled that part of the census in 2010, Statistics Canada replaced it with a new questionnaire that went to slightly more households, but was voluntary instead of mandatory, skewing the data when it comes to making direct comparisons.

The result is a detailed picture of what Canada looked like in 2011, but it is a static picture that in many instances lacks the context of what the country looked like in the past at the local level.

Politicians weigh in on NHS results

Industry Minister Christian Paradis, however, said the NHS "provides useful and usable data for Canadian communities, representing 97 per cent of the population," and that more Canadians responded to the survey than its predecessor.

"More than 2.5 million households returned the survey, achieving a response rate of 68 per cent and making this the largest voluntary survey ever conducted in Canada," Paradis said in a release Wednesday. "Our government will be looking at options to improve the quality and reliability of the data generated by the 2016 census cycle."

Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who was industry minister when the long-form census was killed, said the NHS provides "very definitely useful and usable data."

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Treasury Board president Tony Clement said Wednesday he believes the National Household Survey provides the "right balance" in reflecting Canada's population. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

"I understand that more Canadians answered the national household survey than ever answered the mandatory long-form census," he said after the Conservative caucus meeting in Ottawa.

"I think that's great that we can have more Canadians answering these surveys.… We've balanced off the government's continual need for data with privacy concerns. I think we've found the right balance. That's my assessment."

However, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau told reporters after his party's caucus meeting that he "absolutely" would reinstate the long-form census.

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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau told reporters Wednesday he "absolutely" would reinstate the long-form census. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"It boggles my mind a little bit that in the data-driven 21st century, we would have a government that would choose to know less about its citizens, and about the needs and about getting good data on what people are struggling with," he said. "We have a government that has decided that it doesn't want to know what Canadians are facing."

Opposition NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair also criticized the NHS, saying after his party's caucus meeting that the survey provides "a much lower rate of return, less information which to base government programs on, and taxpayer dollars are not going to be spent as efficiently as possible."

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NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair reacted to Wednesday's Statistics Canada population survey by saying taxpayer dollars won't be spent as efficiently as possible. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz, who was in Ottawa on Wednesday and asked by reporters to comment on the NHS, said there are concerns switching from a mandatory to a voluntary survey would provide less information "to help make evidence-based decisions around public policy."

"The long-form census has changed in the last number of years. Hopefully it will change again in the future to better reflect the information Canadians are looking for."

Most immigrants from Asia, Mideast

The NHS results indicated that, overwhelmingly, most recent immigrants are from Asia, including the Middle East, but to a lesser degree than in the early part of the decade. Between 2006 and 2011, 56.9 per cent of immigrants were Asian, compared with the 60 per cent of the immigrants that came between 2001 and 2005.

The Philippines was the top source country for recent immigrants, with 13 per cent, according to the National Household Survey. although a footnote warns that the survey data "is not in line" with data collected by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. China and India were second and third as source countries.

The decline in the share of Asian immigration was offset by growth in newcomers from Africa in particular, and also Caribbean countries and Central and South America.

As in the past, newcomers are settling in Canada's biggest cities and are generally younger than the established population. Newcomers have a median age of 31.7 years, compared with the Canadian-born population median age of 37.3.

Of Canada's 6.8 million immigrants, 91 per cent of them live in metropolitan areas, and 63.4 per cent live in the Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver areas.

The Toronto area continues to be the top destination for immigrants, but newcomers are increasingly settling elsewhere, especially in the Prairies. Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax and Montreal all saw their shares of newcomers expand, compared with the 2006 census.

While Statistics Canada did not make the comparison, the Toronto area drew in just 32.8 per cent of recent immigrants in the past five years, compared with 40.4 per cent in the 2006 census and 43.1 per cent in the 2001 census.

Analysts had been anxious to see whether province-driven immigration policies had led to growing numbers of immigrants settling in smaller towns and cities, but the NHS does not make comparisons at that level.

The survey does show that suburbs in particular are a magnet for visible minorities. The Toronto suburbs of Markham, Brampton, Mississauga and Richmond Hill all have visible minority communities that make up well over half the population. The same pattern is seen in areas around Vancouver: in Richmond, Greater Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey.

Aboriginal population rises

Aboriginal peoples are also claiming a larger share of the Canadian population. More than 1.4 million people told Statistics Canada they had an aboriginal identity, comprising 4.3 per cent of the population compared to 3.8 per cent in the 2006 census.

Webcam live chat

In this week's episode of CBC Live Online, we'll be taking a closer look at these first results from the voluntary questionnaire and put the data in context.

We'll review the differences between the voluntary survey and the long-form census, talk about the speed of the transition between the two, and work through some the concerns expressed by analysts, statisticians and others who rely on census data.

RSVP here to chat with us, and pose your own questions to our panel.

The aboriginal population grew by more than 20 per cent between 2006 and 2011, compared with 5.2 per cent for the non-aboriginal population. However, Statistics Canada warns that not all of this growth was because of people having more babies. Rather, changes in legal definitions and survey methodology account for some of the difference.

First Nations populations grew by 22.0 per cent, while Métis people grew 16.3 per cent and Inuit by 18.1 per cent.

"While we have concerns about the new process for collecting information, the results released today further highlight the importance of First Nations as one of the fastest growing and youngest population, and as drivers of and partners to economic development," Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo said in a statement Wednesday.

The data so far does not delve into social conditions among aboriginal peoples, but the NHS does offer a glimpse. Aboriginal children are far more likely to be living with a single parent, usually a mother. Half the foster children under the age of 14 are aboriginal, the survey shows. And less than half of First Nations children live with both parents.

The AFN also expressed concern about data from the survey that showed that the number of people speaking First Nations languages is declining.

As for religion, Canadians are increasingly turning their backs.

While two-thirds of Canada's population said it was Christian, almost one-quarter of respondents said they had no religious affiliation at all. That's up from 16.5 per cent a decade earlier in the 2001 census.

At the same time, immigration patterns have led to growth in the numbers of Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist worshippers.

The other two parts of the NHS will be released on June 26 (covering labour, education, place of work, commuting to work, mobility and migration and language of work) and Aug. 14 (providing data on income, earnings, housing and shelter costs).

With files from CBC News