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Canada's megacities are absorbing an ever increasing number of immigrants, a demographic revolution that has created a country of two solitudes and put unprecedented strain on everything from health care to public transit.

Seventy-three per cent of the 1.8 million immigrants who arrived in Canada from 1991 to 2001 settled in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, a new trend according to a Statistics Canada study released yesterday.

The study, which analyzed census data from 2001, 1991 and 1981, found that 20 years earlier just 58 per cent of recent immigrants lived in Canada's three largest metrolitan centres.

Urban planners say the federal government has failed to create programs to disperse immigrants to smaller cities, where populations are aging and in decline, while Ottawa says it is impossible to force newcomers to settle in remote places.

"We're turning a half-dozen cities into intensely multicultural and multilingual places and creating these fantastically vibrant but underserviced cities while the rest of the country remains homogeneous with a declining and aging population," said Larry Bourne, a University of Toronto geographer and urban planner. "We may be creating new kinds of divides in Canada, a far more important trend than the east-versus-west division or big city versus small."

About 90 per cent of Canada's recent immigrants -- defined as refugees, and business or family-class immigrants who came to Canada between 1991 and 2001 -- live in the country's 10 largest cities, with a very small percentage going to such places as Sudbury, the Maritimes or smaller urban centres in Quebec.

Prof. Bourne believes that Ottawa doesn't take geography into account when it sets immigration policy targeting 220,000-250,000 newcomers a year.

"In Canada, 45 per cent of urban centres are actually declining in population," he said. "We need efforts to disperse immigrants."

Frank McKenna, New Brunswick's former premier, predicted this year that Atlantic Canada will face a "long, slow and tortuous" decline unless it attracts more immigration to the region.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada is aware of the problem of the two solitudes -- overtaxed megalopolises and waning small towns -- and in January a meeting of federal, provincial and territorial immigration ministers was held to address the concerns raised in yesterday's report.

Jean-Pierre Morin, CIC spokesman, said the provincial nominee program was created in the 1990s to allow provinces to select independent immigrants overseas. Manitoba, for example, has recruited small numbers of Jews from Argentina in an attempt to boost its declining Jewish population.

"It's understandable immigrants would want to settle in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal," Mr. Morin said. "These three cities are known worldwide. . . . Immigrants often make their choices before leaving because of family ties and accessibility. We cannot force people."

The demographic revolution not only has profound consequences for Canada's urban landscape, but also for public services, housing and infrastructure. The Statistics Canada study found that recent immigrants are more likely to use public transport and require English-language classes, housing and other immigrant-support services.

"Ottawa only spends $500-million a year on immigrant-support services, which amounts to $1,500 per newcomer," Prof. Bourne said. "But there is an immense pressure on local infrastructure and a huge cost to municipalities, and the federal government should do more."

In Montreal, for example, 47.8 per cent of recent immigrants take public transport to work, compared with 20.1 per cent of Canadian-born residents. In Toronto and Vancouver, about one-quarter of all children up to the age of 17 were recent immigrants or the children of immigrants and account for a significant share of the student population. Most lived in households where the primary language spoken was not English or French.

"With the changing demographics of Canada's largest cities, it's imperative to have city-level data to effectively assess whether quality of life can be sustained," said Grant Schellenberg, the report's author and a Statistics Canada senior researcher.

Experts say it's understandable that newcomers gravitate toward cities with robust job markets where they can rely on fellow immigrants to help them find housing and jobs, as well as familiar places of worship and stores that carry food from their homelands.

"I went to Saskatoon when I first came here 12 years ago but I was so lonely and it was hard to find work," said Meniy Zewde, a parking-lot attendant from Addis Ababa who now lives in Toronto. "Here there is a large community of Ethiopians. I go to the Evangelical Church of Ethiopia and we have lots of Ethiopian restaurants."