Change in census question led to dramatic undercounting of Canadian Jews: researchers


A change in the way Statistics Canada worded a question on the 2016 census has led to a drastic undercounting of the country’s Jewish population, with numbers dropping by more than 50 per cent from 2011, researchers say.

The 2016 census, like former censuses, asked respondents to indicate their ethnicity. In previous years, the question had included a list of 24 sample responses that included “Jewish.” In 2016, however, “Jewish” was not in the list of examples, which are based on the top responses from the previous census. Over 250 ethnic origins were reported, according to Statistics Canada.

In 2016, the number of Jews who identified themselves by ethnicity dropped from 309,650 in 2011, to 143,665.

The low count has left researchers and academics, as well as Jewish advocacy groups, deeply worried about how they can continue their work without accurate data.

“Anyone who uses this information, whether it’s in the scholarly community or in the Jewish community sector, is very surprised by how deep the decline is. That’s a considerable decline,” said Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies.

Questions about religion are only included on the census once a decade (in 2011 and again in 2021). Researchers combine answers from both the religion and ethnicity categories to derive an accurate count of the Jewish population.

Many of the Jews who are missing from the 2016 census likely answered “Canadian,” or the countries their families came from, because they did not see “Jewish” on the list of suggested ethnicities, Jedwab said.

Statistics Canada cautioned, however, that how people report their ethnicity can vary for a variety of reasons, including “awareness of family of family background, or length of time since immigration.”

“Some respondents may choose to report very specific ethnic origins, while others may choose to give more general responses or give multiple origins and this can change over time from one census to another,” a spokesperson for the government agency said in a statement. “For these reasons … Statistics Canada cautions users around comparability of counts from one census to another.”

Academics are concerned that the problem will continue in the longer 2021 census, since the Jewish community has now fallen to about 50th place on the list of ethnicities and thus may not be listed as an example on the next census.

“The fear is that the ethnicity variable will not be useful in that (2021) census. If the same thing happens in 2021, we will not have a useful tool and it is absolutely a useful tool,” said Charles Shahar, research and evaluations specialist for Montreal’s Jewish Community Foundation.

The Canadian Jewish community numbers around 391,000 people, according to the 2011 census. That year, about 60,000 people listed themselves as ethnically Jewish, but did not list themselves as religiously Jewish, Shahar said.

“Those were important to include, because they are cultural Jews.… They may be secular, they may have cultural ties, ethnic ties or nationalist ties. They may be Zionists, for instance. But they certainly should be included.”

Accurate data is needed to evaluate the needs of vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, those living in poverty and new immigrants, said Shahar, who has analyzed the last three censuses for the community. The data has also been used to identify trends in intermarriage, Jewish education and a host of other topics.

“Without this information, we’re operating on the blind,” he said.

Shahar said he told the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) that the problem is “critical.”

The omission of Jews from the list would need to be corrected before the 2021 census, said Jedwab. “It’s up to the Jewish community to find a way to persuade Stats Canada to restore that list.”

CIJA CEO Shimon Koffler Fogel said his group is aware of the problem and is studying the issue with demographers.

“Obviously, the Jewish community didn’t shrink by more than half in the past five years, raising serious questions of methodology,” he said in a statement. “Our goal is to propose constructive reforms to the government, in order to improve the census and rectify this critical shortcoming.”

Sociologist Randal Schnoor, who has conducted surveys of the Toronto Jewish community, shares the concern that the 2021 census may present an inaccurate picture of the community, but doubts that Statistics Canada will adjust the census to meet the Jewish community’s concerns.

“I am concerned (about the 2021 census). I don’t think it will throw the numbers totally out of proportion, because I think that religion is still the more common variable that people choose,” he said. “I think there will be people lost if this pattern continues to 2021, there will be people who don’t write Jewish by religion and for some reason are no longer writing Jewish by ethnic ancestry where they used to write it.”

In countries such as the United States, where questions about religion are not included in the census, communities conduct their own surveys, and this has been discussed by demographers in Canada as an option, but it is not an “easy fix,” said Schnoor, who teaches at York University’s Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies.

The National Jewish Population Survey was conducted three times in the United States, but was expensive, had a number of methodological problems and was discontinued in 2000, he said.