Three years ago, community leaders were scratching their heads: where did half of Canada’s Jews go?
The 2016 census had tallied 143,665 Canadians who identified themselves as Jewish by ethnic origin. But only five years earlier, on the National Household Survey (NHS), the number was 309,650.
Was it possible that slightly more than half the country’s Jews vanished in such a short time?
A newly released study from Statistics Canada seeks to correct the record. It says that if the same methodology had been carried over to 2016 from the 2011 census, it would have found between 270,000 and 298,000 Jews.
“Problematic wording of the ethnicity question in the 2016 Canadian census resulted in a 54 per cent decline in the count of Canadian Jews between 2011 and 2016,” said Prof. Robert Brym, a sociologist and co-author of the 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada, which was produced last year by the Environics Institute for Survey Research and numerous Jewish federations.
“The solid research just released by Statistics Canada illuminates the problems bound up with the 2016 ethnicity question and provides a revised count: as high as 298,000.”
The 2016 survey asked: “What were the ethnic or cultural origins of this person’s ancestors?” A note explained that an ancestor “is usually more distant than a grandparent.” It then provided 28 examples of ethnic ancestry, with a space for respondents to write in as many answers “as applicable.”
The problem in 2016 was not the wording of the question on ethnicity, as it was much the same as it had been on the NHS survey in 2011. The difference was that in 2016, “Jewish” was not among the choices listed because five years earlier, “Jewish” did not rank among the 20 most common answers.
Since the 1996 census, the methodology for selecting examples of ethnic origins was based on the most frequent responses from the previous census, the new report explains. So in 2016, Jewish as an ethnic origin, along with Salvadorean, was dropped in favour of Iranian and Mexican, StatsCan explained at the time.
The new report “finds evidence that removing ‘Jewish’ as an example listed on the 2016 questionnaire could have influenced the decrease in reporting ‘Jewish’ as an ethnic origin” that year.
Though not as dramatic as the period from 2011 to 2016, the decrease in the total number of Jewish responses “had been a persistent pattern since 1991,” the StatsCan report says, though those dips never exceeded 10 per cent prior to 2016.
While the absence of “Jewish” from the list of examples in 2016 “exacerbated an existing trend, it did not introduce an entirely new phenomenon,” the report says.
The 2011 NHS, which was voluntary, found 329,500 Jews by religion in Canada and just over 309,000 by ethnic origin. Community planners traditionally blend those numbers for a more accurate total. The 2016 census did not ask about religion.
An accurate count “is important not just for academic and community researchers, but also for various community organizations that rely in part on government funding based on the census count of Canadian Jews,” said Brym.
To address concerns raised by the study, Statistics Canada said it is testing a new version of the ethnic origin question ahead of the 2021 census.
“This version will not include any examples on the questionnaire itself, but will instead provide respondents with a brief description of different types of origins and offer a link to an extensive list of more than 400 origins if they still require further guidance,” the agency stated.
To Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the new analysis confirms the “artificial” drop in the 2016 numbers.
The “only acceptable solution,” said Fogel, is to more clearly define ethnic origin, using “Jewish” and several other examples as guides in the question.
“Clarity in the question is uniquely crucial for Jewish respondents, given the multi-faceted nature of Jewish identity,” Fogel said.
Including “Jewish” in a list of hundreds of options “severely risks confusing respondents and perpetuating the massive underreporting of Jews on the census,” he added.
Failure to resolve the matter has “massive, tangible consequences,” Fogel said, given that Jewish federations and affiliated social service agencies collectively spend more than $100 million every year and rely on data collected from censuses “to make evidence-based decisions.”
Since late 2017, CIJA has been working with Statistics Canada, alongside a team of scholars and experts in Jewish demography, to resolve the challenge prior to the 2021 census.