According to data from the 2016 census released late last month, there are now 143,665 Canadians who define their ethnicity – in whole or part – as Jewish. This represents a decline of well over 50 per cent from 2011 when 309,650 Canadians reported their ethnicity as Jewish in the National Household Survey.
“Obviously,” as Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs CEO Shimon Koffler Fogel told the Canadian Press (CP), “the Jewish community didn’t shrink by more than half in the past five years.”
Indeed, Jewish identity is a complicated matter and it’s not just a matter of religion. There is also Jewish ethnicity – which might manifest in historical or cultural identification, and in concepts of Jewish peoplehood, Jewish nationhood, and Jewish community.
While our aging population and low birth rate may have resulted in some decline in Canada’s Jewish population in the five years between 2011 and 2016, there could not have been the kind of statistical change we see in the 2016 numbers published by Statistics Canada.
So, how to explain the huge difference?
The problem it seems was in the methodology used to determine ethnicity. While everyone filling out a census form writes in their ethnicity (or ethnicities), ‘Jewish’ was not among the 28 ethnicities listed as possible suggestions in 2016. ‘Jewish’ was among the suggestions listed in 2011.
It’s only natural that many – if not most – people filling out the form will look at the suggestions and choose an answer from among them. And that can be especially problematic for measuring the Jewish population in census years like 2016 when religion is not even measured. (Religion is measured in the census every 10 years and is scheduled to be measured again in 2021.)
How did Statistics Canada determine which ethnicities to list as possible suggestions on the form?
Demographer Charles Shahar, the chief researcher at Federation CJA in Montreal, explains that 20 of the choices represented the ethnicities which received the most responses in the 2011 survey, four represented examples of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and four more were chosen as examples representing different geographic regions from around the world.
‘Jewish’ was the 22nd most popular response to the 2011 survey so was left off the list of suggestions for 2016 (Shahar notes that each of the four examples chosen to represent geographic regions – ‘Lebanese,’ ‘Mexican,’ ‘Somali’ and ‘Colombian’ – all had smaller responses than ‘Jewish’ in the 2011 survey).
And if Statistics Canada uses the top 20 from 2016 to determine the suggestions for 2021, ‘Jewish’ will certainly not be included as that response fell to 47th place among Canadian ethnicities in the obviously skewed 2016 census.
Accurate census numbers are a vital tool for long-term planning. Community organizations, governments of all levels, school boards, universities, hospitals, social service agencies, transportation boards and many other bodies rely on accurate census data to help determine how they serve their communities and clienteles.
Clearly, the deeply flawed 2016 numbers are not useful to Jewish community organizations – including federations such as the Jewish Federation of Ottawa – that rely on the data to formulate policy and make plans in such areas as education and assisting vulnerable segments of the community.
According to Shahar, “The 2021 census ethnicity question must include ‘Jewish’ as a sample choice in order for the question to accurately identify Jews… Otherwise the census will lose its usefulness as a primary source of demographic information.”
This is something that CIJA has quickly prioritized in the face of the 2016 numbers.
“Our goal is to propose constructive reforms to the government in order to improve the census and rectify this critical shortcoming,” said Fogel in a statement provided to the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.
The point of providing examples on the form is to help Canadians understand the kinds of possibilities they can include when responding about their ethnic or multi-ethnic identities on the census form. And because Jewish ethnicity and identity can be a more complex matter than ethnicities like Italian or Greek, it is vital that ‘Jewish’ be given as an example on future census forms beginning in 2021.
Census data needs to be reliable. At least in one area, the 2016 census results are anything but.