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Canadian Jewish Community Questions Reports of Dramatic Decline in Population

Claims change in census question led to false findings

Liel Leibovitz
November 02, 2017

In 2011, the national census conducted by Statistics Canada reported 309,650 Jews; five years later, the newly released 2016 census reported only 143,665 Jews, a decline of more than 50 percent.

What happened?

To hear Canadian Jewish leaders tell it, the dramatic change does not reflect reality, but is rather due to a change in the way a key question was asked. In 2011, as in previous years, the question asking respondents to identify their ethnicity included a list of 24 sample options, one of which was “Jewish.” In 2016, however, “Jewish” was not included in the list of examples, an omission some say sparked confusion. Many of the missing Jews, Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies, said in an interview to The Canadian Jewish News, likely identified simply as “Canadian,” or selected the countries their families came from, because they did not see “Jewish” on the list of examples. And as the census asked questions pertaining to religion only once every ten years, ethnicity remained the best metric by which to count the country’s Jewish population.

Debating whether Judaism is an ethnicity, a religion, a cultural affiliation, or all of the above, of course, is an age-old theoretical pursuit, but the latest findings may have ongoing real-world ramifications: As the Jewish community is now, based on the 2016 census, only Canada’s 50th largest ethnic group, it’s likely that “Jewish” will once again be omitted from the list of examples in 2021, the next year the census will be held.

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

In a statement, Statistics Canada said that the survey accurately reflected respondents’ self-identification. “Some respondents may choose to report very specific ethnic origins,” read the statement, “while others may choose to give more general responses or give multiple origins and this can change over time from one census to another. For these reasons … Statistics Canada cautions users around comparability of counts from one census to another.”

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.