Jewish groups question census results showing dramatic population decline

The size of the country's Jewish community appears, on the surface, to have seen its most dramatic decline in decades, with newly released census data on the country's ethnic makeup suggesting a 56 per cent drop in numbers over a five-year period.

'Obviously, the Jewish community didn't shrink by more than half,' says Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs

A Hasidic Jew crosses Montreal's Parc Avenue. Jewish groups use census data on language, religion — which is asked once every 10 years — country of origin and ethnicity to create as accurate a picture as possible about Jews in Canada. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The country's Jewish community appears to have seen its most dramatic decline in decades, with newly released census data suggesting more than half of Canada Jews disappeared over a five-year period.

The drop of about 54 per cent between 2011 and 2016 is the largest such drop for any group recorded in ethnicity data released late last month.

It also far exceeds smaller declines noticed in previous census cycles that have been chalked up to changing demographics seen in the wider Canadian population, namely an aging cohort with a low birth rate.

The noticeable drop raises questions about whether the finding is an accurate portrait of the Jewish population and has already raised concerns among community groups that the data from the national statistics office is useless for planning.

Statistics Canada said the figures are an accurate reflection of how respondents self-identified on the long-form census.

Lobby effort underway

Community leaders plan to lobby Statistics Canada for changes to the 2021 long-form questionnaire to prevent a replica of the results and, in their eyes, further skewing the size of the community. If their efforts are unsuccessful, they would have to find a way to conduct their own community count.

"We are concerned and the issues are definitely on our radar," said Linda Kislowicz, president and CEO of Jewish Federations of Canada.

"We have every intention of working both with the civil servants and the politicians involved in this to see if we can lobby them to change the way they're doing this."

Obviously, the Jewish community didn't shrink by more than half in the past five years- Shimon Fogel, CEO, Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

But the figures also reflect an age-old question for the community about how to define Jewish.

There are Jews who see the identity as religious and ethnic; others only see it as a cultural affiliation.

Similar questions may face groups that have a cultural and religious identities, said Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies, but not in the same way as it does in the case of the Jewish community.

Ethnically Jewish vs. religiously

Jewish groups use census data on religion — a question that's asked only once every 10 years — as well as language, country of origin and ethnicity to create as accurate a picture as possible about Jews in Canada. A six-point definition was established to counteract a long-term decline in the number of Jews who identify themselves on the census as ethnically Jewish, a category that on its own may miss swaths of Canada's Jews.

"An accurate portrait of Canadian Jewry requires a survey designed to address the nuances of Jewish respondents, for whom Jewish identity is a blend of religion, ethnicity and peoplehood," said Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

"On the census question of ethnicity, this seems to be where the 2016 survey falls short."

On the 2016 survey, 143,665 Canadians indicated Jewish as their sole ethnic origin or one of several. In 2011, the national household survey found 309,650 ethnic Jews, meaning that almost 166,000 people vanished between the two surveys.

"Obviously, the Jewish community didn't shrink by more than half in the past five years," said Fogel.

Canada's Jewish community appears to have seen its most dramatic decline in decades, according to newly released 2016 census data. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Statistics Canada's long-standing practice is to ask respondents for the ethnic and cultural origins of their ancestors, and lists almost two dozen examples based on the most frequent responses from the previous census. Jewish came off the list of examples for 2016 after falling out of the top 20 responses in 2011.

The examples then may act as prompts for Jews who may not identify as such on the questionnaire, Kislowicz said. Statistics Canada disputes that idea, saying the "examples do not limit in any way the choice respondents make."

Now that the Jewish ethnicity figures have fallen further, it is unlikely to appear on the example list on the 2021 survey that will also ask about religion and further reduce the size of the recorded population, which is why lobbying is underway for a change in wording to questionnaire.

Potential implications for other ethnic groups

The findings then have potential implications for other ethnic groups that use the census figures to lobby governments on policy and help community groups make decisions about where to invest resources and programs, Jedwab said.

"Those people who are ethnically Jewish, but religiously not, will probably not appear in the census in 2021 unless there is some rectification and the Jewish community can persuade Statcan to restore Jewish as part of the examples."

In an emailed statement, the agency cautioned about making comparisons between census counts. Figures can fluctuate over time because how people identify ethnically and culturally can change from one census to another, the agency said.

"This means that two respondents with the same ethnic ancestry, or the same respondent at two points in time, might report their origins differently and thus would be counted as having different ethnic origins," the email said.

"The responses to the question on ethnicity are correct and reflect what respondents provided on the 2016 census."


  • In an earlier version of this story, The Canadian Press included an incorrect figure for the number of Jews in Canada in 2011. The correct figure is 309,650.
    Nov 01, 2017 4:34 PM ET