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Margaret and Sarah Kassem (l-r) look through jewellery at a department store after buying Sarah's prom dress inside Erin Mills Shopping Centre for the "Sisters Prom".

Charla Jones/Charla Jones/ Globe and Mail

The term "visible minority" may have outlived its usefulness in Canada. That demographic category, used by Statistics Canada and in federal employment-equity law, refers to non-whites, with the exception of aboriginals.

A new survey shows, however, that visible minorities are a very heterogeneous group, and that other demographic markers – such as religion and class – can more accurately predict discrimination and other barriers that certain groups face.

The poll of 2,345 Canadians found that Muslims are viewed in a predominantly unfavourable light. Only 43 per cent of Canadians hold a positive view of Muslims. In contrast, three-quarters view blacks, Hispanics and Chinese positively, and 61 per cent view aboriginals positively. Sixty per cent of respondents also viewed relations between the upper and lower classes negatively.

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These findings show important new fault lines in the Canadian mosaic, and new challenges to social cohesion.

"The category of 'visible minority' does not provide any meaningful insight any more," notes Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies, which released the study. "It creates an artificial grouping of people who in fact may have nothing in common."

Two-thirds of respondents in the study view relations between Muslims and non-Muslims negatively. And 60 per cent view relations between aboriginals and non-aboriginals negatively.

These perceived tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, and between upper and lower classes, are replicated in the United States and Britain.

In order to promote cross-cultural understanding, public education around the image and perceptions of Muslims and aboriginals would be useful, as opposed to a blanket approach that targets discrimination against all visible minorities. The Toronto District School Board should be credited for its recent plan to assist certain categories of students who are underachieving in high school. The board will aim to support Roma, aboriginal and black students, but will not introduce a program for all visible minorities.

With almost one-fifth of Canada's population being non-white, there really is no cohesive visible-minority population. Instead, there is deep diversity, with newcomers living very different realities, and facing very different challenges.

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