What the 2021 census reveals about Canada’s Jewish community—as examined by sociology professor Robert Brym

Recently released data from the 2021 Canadian census provide a new understanding of the country’s Jewish communities. Robert Brym, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Toronto, analyzed the preliminary figures for The CJN.

Canada’s Jewish population

Preliminary 2021 census results reveal 335,295 Canadians identified as Jews by religion in 2021, up from 329,500 in 2011.

Based on what we know about a number of factors that determine population change over time, most demographers and sociologists expected a small increase in the size of the Jewish population as a whole between 2011 and 2021. We are apparently receiving more Jewish immigrants than we are losing through emigration, and this positive net balance probably more than compensates for the fact that women’s total fertility rate is below the level required to maintain the size of the population. 

Who does the census count as Jewish?

Conventionally, a “yes” answer to either of the following questions results in a Canadian being counted as Jewish in the Canadian census: (1) Does the person identify as Jewish by religion? (2) Does the person identify as Jewish by ethnicity and identify with no religion?

We won’t have a count by criterion (2) for another couple months. All we know now is that 282,015 Canadians identify as Jews by ethnicity. Some of these people reported no religion, others reported their religion as Jewish, and still others reported a religion other than Jewish. Until a new data release allows us to determine how many people fall into each category, we are left with a rough estimate of the number of people who fit criterion (2).

Accordingly, in 2021, roughly 58,200 Canadians were Jewish by criterion (2). Therefore, the total Jewish population by criteria (1) and (2) combined was around 393,500. In addition, 52,000 or so Canadians identified with a religion other than Jewish but still identified as Jewish ethnically, often in conjunction with one or more other ethnicities.

In the following discussion, I sometimes refer to Jews by religion and sometimes to Jews in general. The latter includes my rough estimate of Jews by ethnicity who identify with no religion. I do not include in my figures people who identified with a religion other than Jewish but identified as Jewish ethnically.

Canada’s 393,500 Jews form the world’s fourth largest Jewish community, after those of Israel, the United States, and France. If current trends in natural increase and net migration continue, Canada’s Jewish population may exceed that of France within a decade. Both countries have Jewish fertility rates below the replacement level and aging Jewish populations, but Canada’s net migration is positive while France’s is negative.

Jewish immigrants to Canada

Between 1980 and 2021, an average of roughly 1,500 Jews by religion immigrated to Canada annually, with little variation in the total for each decade. By the end of that period, more than 91,000 Canadian residents who identified as Jewish by religion (27.1% of all Jews by religion) were immigrants. Six countries contributed nearly 62% of Canada’s immigrant Jews by religion: Israel (19.0%), the United States (12.6%), Ukraine (8.3%), Russia (8.2%), Morocco (7.8%), and South Africa (6.8%).

Immigration from Morocco and South Africa has dropped sharply in recent decades. Immigration from Ukraine and Russia continues at a reduced tempo from its height in the 1990s, although the Russo-Ukrainian war may reverse that trend. Immigration from Israel and the United States has been trending upward. The rightward drift of politics in both countries may be part of the reason.

Jewish immigration to Canada, 1980-2021

Jewish migration within Canada

Some Jews by religion born in one Canadian province migrate to another province. Four provinces account for the great majority of such people. In absolute terms, Ontario has attracted by far the most Jews by religion born elsewhere in the country—about 25,000 of them, nearly 13% of the province’s Jews by religion. The second most attractive province for Jews by religion born elsewhere in Canada is British Columbia, with about 7,800 internal immigrants, or 30% of Jews by religion in the province. For Quebec, the corresponding figures are around 5,000 and 6%, and for Alberta they are about 2,850 and 26%.

Jewish population centres

Canadian Jewry is highly concentrated geographically. More than 98% of Canada’s Jews live in only five provinces: Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Alberta. Some 95% of the country’s Jewish population lives in just 17 urban areas, 10 of them in Ontario, 2 in each of Alberta and British Columbia, and one in each of Quebec, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia.  

Nearly one-half of Canada’s Jews live in Toronto and nearly one-quarter in Montreal, with about 6% in Vancouver, more than 3% in each of Ottawa and Winnipeg, and 2% in Calgary. Preliminary data don’t permit definitive statements about which communities are growing, which are stable, and which are shrinking.

However, they suggest, perhaps surprisingly, that the decline in Montreal’s Jewish population, evident since the mid-1970s, may have ceased. If so, that may be due to two factors. First, the number of haredim in Montreal has grown to about 20,000 (more than one-fifth of Montreal’s Jewish population), and haredi families tend to have many more children than do non-haredi families. Second, Jewish immigration from France to Montreal has picked up over the last two decades because of the relatively high level of antisemitism in France, including violent attacks against Jews.

Visible-minority Jews

Roughly 14,000 Canadian Jews identified as members of a visible minority group in 2021—about 3.6% of the country’s Jewish population. Jews of Sephardi origin make up about 10% of the Canadian Jewish population, and some Sephardim may identify as members of a visible minority group. Blacks, Chinese, Indians, and others who have intermarried with Jews may also identify as members of a visible minority group. So may their offspring. Neither the United States Census Bureau nor survey researchers in the United States use the term “visible minority” in their work, but recent survey research suggests that the percentage of United States Jews who consider themselves “people of colour” is roughly twice the percentage of visible minority Jews in Canada.

Hebrew-speakers and Yiddish-speakers

The 2021 census asked Canadians several questions about their language use. Two Jewish languages were mentioned by respondents: Hebrew and Yiddish.

More than four times as many Canadians claim to know Hebrew (83,205) than claim to know Yiddish (20,155). Yiddish is still spoken by many haredim, but immediate post-Second World War Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe are elderly and rapidly declining in number. I estimate that there are about 7,000-8,000 Holocaust survivors remaining in Canada. In contrast, the 35,345 Canadians who claimed Israeli ethnicity in the 2021 census are likely all Jews who know Hebrew. And more than 40% of Canadian Jews have attended Jewish day schools, which emphasize Hebrew and pay little, if any, attention to Yiddish. Even if a small number of Canadians who know Hebrew are Palestinian immigrants, it is entirely plausible that more than one-fifth of Canada’s Jewish population knows the Hebrew language.