VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Visible minorities now make up more than 16 percent of Canada's population, according to 2006 census data released on Wednesday, with South Asians becoming the largest such group for the first time.
Immigration helped increase the number of visible minorities from an estimated 13.4 percent of the population in 2001, with most living in the major urban areas of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, Statistics Canada said.
Canada, which prides itself on its multicultural makeup, also continued to diversify along ethnic lines, with more than 200 different ethnic origins identified in the 2006 survey. That compares with only 25 recorded by census-takers at the beginning of the last century.
The country has a total population of over 31 million, of which more than 5 million were considered members of a visible minority -- identified as anyone other than aboriginal Canadians who are non-white.
Canada began tracking the number of visible minorities in 1981 when they were estimated to make up 4.7 percent of the population.
More than 1.2 million people identified themselves in the 2006 survey as being South Asian, including East Indians and Pakistanis and Sri Lankans, an increase of nearly 38 percent from 2001 and surpassing Canada's ethnic Chinese population.
Blacks were Canada's third largest visible minority.
Toronto had the largest number of visible minorities in the country due partly to the large number of recent immigrants who settled in the country's most populous city between 2001 and 2006, Statscan said.
University of British Columbia sociologist Rima Wilkes said she was struck by the growth of the South Asian population in the Toronto area, and that would have played a role in the national figures.
"The South Asian population grew a lot faster in Toronto than the Chinese population," Wilkes said, comparing the 2006 census figures with those from 2001.
Blacks and Arabs were the largest visible minority groups in the Montreal area, while Chinese and South Asians were the largest minority groups in the Vancouver area on the Pacific coast, according to the census takers.
The median age of Canada's visible minorities was 33 years, compared with 39 for the population as a whole.
The Canadian government has said previously that by 2012, immigration is expected to account for all net growth in the labor force. Currently, the country accept more than 250,000 permanent residents annually.
Reporting Allan Dowd, Editing by Rob Wilson