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Number of mixed-union couples on the rise: Statscan

For the children of Pedro Sanchez and Sumita Bidaye, udya is the word for tomorrow.

Both Mr. Sanchez and his wife are first-generation Canadians: His parents immigrated from Peru and hers from India.

They are part of the country's growing number of mixed-union couples, a population that grew by 33 per cent between 2001 and 2006, according to data released by Statistics Canada on Tuesday.

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Graphic: More on mixed-raced couples

Romantic pairings between individuals of different ethnic backgrounds are still remarkably rare in Canada - only 3.9 per cent of 7,482,800 married and common-law couples across the country. But they are occurring with increasing frequency as immigration shifts the nation's demographic makeup, and the number of mixed unions has recently grown at more than five times the rate of all Canadian couples.

And as those families expand, welcoming a generation of children whose tomorrows reflect their parent's varied ethnic backgrounds, mixed unions will likely expand exponentially along with the way couples identify themselves.

"I think they'll identify as Canadian, if my wife and I largely do," said Mr. Sanchez, whose sons, age 2 and 6, often use words from their maternal grandparent's Marathi language. "I think they'll be Canadian with not necessarily deep, but strong connections to the cultural heritage of both their parents."

Children from mixed-union families face the "Obama dilemma," said Susan McDaniel, the Prentice Research Chair in Global Population at the University of Lethbridge.

The U.S. President recently sparked headlines for ticking off "African-American" on his census sheet, even though he is the child of a Kenyan father and a white woman from Kansas. Like many Canadians, his background is a mash-up of ethnic backgrounds.

"A child in one of these families might, on any given day, check a different box," Dr. McDaniel said. "I think a lot of young people, this ethnicity thing doesn't matter to them. They do the food and they might keep the religion and grandma cooks a nice whatever it is, but they don't see it as part of their self-identity."

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In the future, children of mixed unions won't even hyphenate, she said, dropping the Chinese-Canadian or Indo-Canadian labels altogether as their heritage becomes more melting pot and less mosaic.

"I see it as a natural evolution" she said. "People are in high school and university together and they're not separated by race or ethnicity, and so it's natural that they would meet and fall in love."

But this romantic integration is not occurring at the same pace within all Canadian communities. The rates of mixed union are found with higher frequency in urban centres, and the Statscan study showed that Japanese-Canadians had the highest rate of mixed unions, while Chinese- and South Asian-Canadians reported the lowest.

Pinki Manohar, vice-resident of Shaadi Canada, an online marriage service for the South Asian community, said attitudes toward dating are changing, but slowly.

"If you talk about the first-generation people who are here, no they would never go in for something like this," she said of mixed unions. "But the third generation, yes they might take the chance. Otherwise people will stick to their own communities and religion."

Mrs. Pinki Manohar, whose agency has more than 750,000 members in North America, said most South Asians looking for a partner are motivated by a desire to marry someone from the same background, a preference she says is not defined by nationalism, but influenced by religious beliefs, cultural tradition, language and even food.

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"This is holding people back from getting into mixed-background relationships, but younger generations today do take a plunge if they really like someone," she said. "Some people have modernized their thoughts so that as long as their child is happy, they wouldn't care less. But it's a minority."

Audrey Kobayashi, a professor of geography at Queen's University, said the low rates of mixed unions are also affected by prejudice.

"There's a larger society that's still very strongly racialized, where intermarriage is looked upon negatively," she said. "Intermarried couples have a difficult time, socially. They don't necessarily all get crosses burned on their lawns, but they get stared at."

Rates of intermarriage will also increase with second- and third-generation Canadians, she said, as they establish a more diverse range of social connections and overcome language barriers.

But the propensity to look beyond a specific ethnic background is influenced by more than just how long someone's been in Canada. Research has found that groups that have the most defined cultural representation have the lowest rates of intermarriage. So ethnic communities that have their own religious and community centres, shopping areas, even baseball teams, tend to marry within their own backgrounds.

"The community institutions are the places where people meet," Prof. Kobayashi said.

During the Second World War, Japanese-Canadians saw their social institutions systematically dismantled, she said. And their intermarriage rates have been increasing ever since. According to the 2006 census, they had the highest rate of mixed unions, at more than 74 per cent.

Chinese-Canadians, in contrast, have among the lowest rates, with 17.4 per cent mixed unions.

But even this seems to be shifting with younger generations.

Alfred Lau, a 31-year-old Toronto project manager whose parents are from Hong Kong and China, has been dating Denise Rodrigues for more than 2 1/2 years. Her father is Portuguese and her mother is Canadian of Scottish heritage. But their diverse backgrounds have never raised so much as an eyebrow, Mr. Lau said.

"My parents never gave us any flak for it," he said.

Anne Milan, a senior analyst with Statistics Canada, said the increase in mixed unions seems to be moving in near-perfect unison with the rising visible-minority population in Canada. "We know that the visible-minority population is expected to increase, so it's possible that we'll also see an increase in mixed unions," she said.

Mr. Sanchez, 44, said that he is not the husband his inlaws envisioned for their daughter and that the early days of their relationship were stressful. But their families have been supportive of their relationship, he said, and their children draw upon both backgrounds with ease.

"We grew into who we are and our own identities as a couple and a family now," he said. "As a parent, each moment is an opportunity for them to understand how huge and exciting the world is."

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