By Randall Palmer
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada is more than ever a nation of immigrants, with one in five Canadians born outside the country, according to a 2011 survey released by Statistics Canada on Wednesday.
That 20.6 percent proportion of people born abroad, up from 19.8 percent five years previously, is far bigger than in most other rich industrialized countries.
Statscan said 12.9 percent of U.S. residents were born outside the country, and 11.5 percent of people in Britain. Australia's rate is higher, at 26.8 percent.
But the federal agency also admitted that it was "difficult to anticipate the quality level of the final outcome" of its survey after changes were made in the way it sought information.
In the past, Statscan sent a mandatory long-form census to 20 percent of the population. But the Conservative government abandoned that approach in favor of a voluntary national household survey, which went to one in three Canadians.
Statistics Canada assumed only 50 percent of those who got the survey would respond to a voluntary questionnaire, while the mandatory form had a much higher response rate.
The government argued the mandatory long census was too intrusive, and its decision prompted the resignation in 2010 of Statistics Canada's chief statistician, who said the decision could endanger the survey's usefulness. Business groups and social activists also said Statistics Canada needed the fuller information of the long-form census so it could assist them with planning and funding.
Canada, with a population of 32.9 million in 2011, aims to take in about 250,000 immigrants each year, partly because of a low birth rate among its citizens. Immigration brought in 1.2 million people between 2006 and 2011, and a total of 6.8 million people in Canada were born outside the country.
Almost 57 percent of the immigrants in the 2006-11 period came from Asia, with the Philippines topping the list, followed by China and India.
The survey also shows that the number of Muslims in Canada is rising strongly, while fewer people identify themselves as Christian and more say they have no religious affiliation.
The number of Christians fell to 67.3 percent of the population in 2011 from 77.1 percent in 2001, while the number with no religious affiliation rose to 7.9 million from 4.9 million in 2001.
The Muslim population nearly doubled during the decade to 1.05 million. Muslims now make up 3.2 percent of the population, up from 2.0 percent in 2001.
(Editing by Peter Galloway)