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Students Nadia Mirdha ,21, a Bangladeshi; Rickvinder Besla, 21, a Punjabi and Ravi Purushuttam, 21, of Indian descent, all attend the University of Toronto’s downtown campus. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Students Nadia Mirdha ,21, a Bangladeshi; Rickvinder Besla, 21, a Punjabi and Ravi Purushuttam, 21, of Indian descent, all attend the University of Toronto’s downtown campus. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Diversity has many shades in halls of learning Add to ...

The faces of Canada's future are not hard to find at the University of Toronto. They are everywhere, including the cafeteria of the medical sciences building, where framed faces of the past line the halls.

The difference between the two sets of faces is colour. Those in the frames, depicting bygone anatomy professors, are white. The ones in the cafeteria come in all shades, and bring to life Statistics Canada's latest projections: that people of South Asian descent will continue to form the country's largest visible minority group, and will make up one-quarter of the Toronto area's population by 2031.

For students at the vanguard of this ascendant group of Canadians, the numbers point to prospects their parents might never have had, but also to challenges as they find their place in an ever-more-diverse society.

"I was asked a few months ago what it means to be Canadian, and it was difficult to explain," said Areeba Jawaid, 22. Born to Pakistani parents in the Middle Eastern sultanate of Oman, Ms. Jawaid was 10 when her family moved to Canada.

To her, life as a South Asian Canadian in Toronto means access to a growing number of cultural centres, shops and mosques that cater to her cultural and faith needs, but it also means connecting to broader Canadian life and to people of other backgrounds.

"It's very important that people come out and see other people's cultures and what they bring to Canada," Ms. Jawaid said. "It's only through learning about each other that we can really respect each other."

This was a familiar refrain among her South Asian friends at the university yesterday, who included a Hindu born in Canada to ethnic Indians from Guyana, a Bengali Muslim and a young Indian man, also a Hindu. Canadians of all backgrounds should celebrate their heritage, but should also resist retrenching behind walls of ethnicity and religion in mono-cultural enclaves, they said.

"Then, everyone comes together and what comes out is a unique Canadian culture ... people who have been exposed to all these different cultures, and we'll have what we call the truly global citizen," said Gaurav Sharma, 21, who came to Canada from India at 15.

To varying degrees, the students said, their parents have encouraged them to pursue the dual goals of adhering to aspects of their South Asian heritage while embracing Canadian life.

Remaining apart while becoming part of a larger whole need not be conflicting pursuits, said Ravi Purushuttam, a 21-year-old born in Markham to second-generation Guyanese Indians.

At the same time, it will require "a lot of effort," more than Canadians are expending today, to truly understand each other, Mr. Purushuttam said.

Peaceful coexistence and mere tolerance aren't enough.

"Sometimes you need to put aside the political correctness and ask the hard questions" about other people's cultural and religious practices, whether it's the Hindu caste system, the Muslim concept of jihad or the Christian quest to convert.

"This is Canada; its very nature is to be multi-ethnic and a very inclusive place; but whether we're just ignoring the differences or getting used to it, I'm not quite sure," he said. "Do you actually understand that other person?"

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