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Toronto is the most ethnically diverse big city in North America and probably in the world, data from the 2001 census released yesterday suggest.

Vancouver is not far behind, according to the Statistics Canada report that shows three out of four immigrants to Canada in the 1990s chose to settle in one of the large metropolitan areas.

Toronto, with 44 per cent of its population born on foreign soil, ranks higher in ethnic diversity than Miami, home to huge Cuban and Caribbean communities. Toronto and Vancouver outdistance Sydney, Los Angeles and New York, which are known for their large ethnic communities, according to a Statscan comparison.

"We tried to use the census data from a number of other countries, particularly Australia and the U.S., to see how Toronto stacks up," Douglas Norris, director-general of the census and demographic statistics branch of Statscan, told a news conference in Toronto.

The results show that the percentage of Torontonians born on foreign soil "is higher than any of the other large cities that we looked at," he said.

It has long been been agreed that Toronto is, in ethnic terms, the most broadly based city on the continent and "perhaps in the world," said Edward Herberg, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, after examining the census data.

"It's the destination for half of all immigrants [to Canada] including ones from Asia -- every place -- and that makes it so diverse."

The concentration of new Canadians in big cities has created two very different Canadas, the census data suggest.

On the one hand, there are cities such as Regina where residents are largely descended from the first wave of settlers -- the Europeans -- and the aboriginals who preceded them. On the other, there are places such as Richmond, B.C., where visible minorities, primarily Chinese and South Asians, account for nearly 60 per cent of the population.

When Henry Beh, now the executive director of the Richmond Chinese Community Society, arrived in the city 28 years ago, his neighbours were largely of European background. That has changed dramatically over the past 10 years, he said yesterday.

People from Vancouver's suburbs once went to the big city's Chinatown to buy their Asian food.

Today, "if they want to buy barbecued pork or duck, Richmond has more variety," he said. And where once there were only one or two Chinese eateries, "the number of restaurants I can't even count now . . . some Chinese restaurants are open 24 hours and they are packed with people."

The city of Richmond, the province and the federal government have been very supportive of the multicultural communities, Mr. Beh said.

"So the local residents have got used to it. They have been living in harmony and we have no big problems."

Kishan Thind, 46, who moved to Richmond in 1982, said he likes the city for its beauty and its cultural diversity. Last April, he bought a 7-Eleven and started his own convenience store called the Grab 'n Go.

Born in India, Mr. Thind said he has lived in Toronto, parts of California and other areas in B.C., but prefers Richmond.

Of the immigrants arriving in Canada during the 1990s, the new census data show, nearly 43 per cent settled in Toronto, 18 per cent went to Vancouver and 12 per cent to Montreal.

It was a different story two decades earlier when 41 per cent of the immigrants settled outside the three big metropolitan areas. Today, that number has decreased to a little more than 25 per cent, Mr. Norris said.

In the census area of Toronto, which includes surrounding cities such as Mississauga, Richmond Hill and Brampton, nearly 44 per cent of people were born outside Canada, he said. In Vancouver, the number was 38 per cent.

"Clearly, those two large urban areas stand out from the rest in terms of the proportion of foreign-born," Mr. Norris said.

Nearly one in five people living in Toronto and Vancouver have been in the country less than 10 years. And more than a third of the people in those cities are members of visible minorities.

But other cities have also opened their doors to immigrants who are not Caucasian. We are "starting to see larger numbers of new immigrant groups going to places like Calgary, Ottawa, Kitchener and Windsor," Mr. Norris said.

"The number is a lot lower, certainly, than Toronto and Vancouver but . . . immigrant population is starting to be an important source of population growth" in those places.

Emmanuel Dick, the president of the National Council of Trinidad and Tobago Organizations in Canada, said visible minorities do face impediments.

In Toronto, for instance, he said, black people -- even those born in Canada -- have concerns about how they are treated by the police.

Immigrants also find it difficult to get jobs -- and get ahead in their jobs -- because they are not connected to those who control the system.

On the other hand, he said, they can take advantage of excellent health and education systems.

"We have a lot to be thankful for but we have a lot of work to do to make us the kind of a community we'd really like it to be."

Some minority groups dispute the final census tallies, saying their members are underrepresented.

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