On October 25, 2017, Statistics Canada released the 2016 results of the Immigration and Ethnic Origin question found on the long form. This information was collected in May 2016 and 1 in 4 Canadian households received the long form. The response rate for the now mandatory long form (hurray!) was extremely positive therefore we can all rest assured of the quality of the variable in general terms. In 2016, the count of Canadians who reported their ancestors were Jewish was 143,665, approximately half of what was measured in 2011 in the National Household Survey. This figure has shocked many Jewish organizations/researchers but let’s take a step back and really understand what is being measured.
The ethnic origin question (question #17) has been asked since the very first major Census in 1871. At that time, only 20 ethnic origins were counted with the majority indicating they were of British origin. Today, more than 250 origins were captured and over 40% indicated more than one.
Here is what the question looked like from the 2016 long form:
Pay close attention to the wording. What were the ethnic or cultural origins of your ancestors? How would you answer this question? What do you consider to be your ancestors? Well you can see just above the list of examples, Statscan defines it for you. An ancestor is usually more distance than a grandparent.
Looking at this question closely, you can see how this could never be used as a count of the Jewish population in Canada. Even if Canadians wrote in that their grandparents or distant relatives were Jewish, this question is then not a count of Jews in Canada, it is a count of Canadians who report that their ancestors were Jewish.
Having great grandparents or grandparents who are Jewish does not guarantee this person is Jewish at all. And this would not capture people who converted to Judaism.
Although some Jewish organizations may say, well at least it gives us a close estimate of the population it is rather dangerous to make such claims. A number of factors have made it more complex to report ethnicity and in particular the Jewish population. I see these in 3 main areas; Definition and agreement of what is a Jew; question changes over time and interpretation of the question in changing social contexts.
Defining the Jewish population
The definition of a Jew for statistical purposes is a complex social concept and it is difficult to measure if we are limited to using publicly available Census questions/data. However, it is generally agreed among sociologists that using ethnic origin data alone is not possible that it must be used conjunction with a question of religion (which is measured every 10 years by the Census of population). Then in 2001, Montreal researchers revised the Jewish definition to incorporate more than just religion and ethnicity. They expanded it to incorporate 6 points:
-respondent indicates they are Jewish by religion and ethnic origin
-respondent indicates they are Jewish by religion but has different ethnic origins
-respondent has no religious affiliation but has a Jewish or Israeli ethnic origin
-respondent has no religious affiliation but has knowledge of Hebrew or Yiddish
-respondent has no religious affiliation but was born in Israel
-respondent has no religious affiliation but lived in Israel prior to immigrating
It is only by analysing these criteria can we attempt to measure a true count of the Jewish population.
The ethnic origin question did undergo slight changes over time in the Census of Population. This can make data comparisons difficult. The ethnic origin question in the 2016 Census, 2011 National Household Survey and 2006 Census was ‘What were the ethnic or cultural origins of this person’s ancestors?’ In contrast, in the 2001, 1996 and 1991 censuses, the question was ‘To which ethnic or cultural group(s) did this person’s ancestors belong?’ A definition of ‘ancestor’ has been included directly in the questionnaire since 2006 Census. It is a subtle change, but that can certainly affect a person’s response.
Finally, the list of examples of ethnic origins was updated in 2016 to reflect the frequency of single responses reported in the 2011 National Household Survey. For 2016, ‘Iranian’ and ‘Mexican’ were added to the list of examples, while ‘Jewish’ and ‘Salvadorean’ were removed.
It is this change, the removal of “Jewish” in the list of examples that some have questioned would cause the drop in the number of people reporting their ancestors were Jewish. I do think that is a huge factor but it is not the only one. It is possible not seeing Jewish in the list of examples might make respondents believe that only countries of origin (exception Aboriginal cultures) are permitted as answers. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that it means that someone must be prompted/reminded that their ancestors were Jewish. Does it mean in previous Censuses, the responses to the question would be different if the prompt was not there? I certainly think so. But as the Jewish community in general becomes more and more “Canadian”, in the sense that we are now more likely to be 3rd or 4th generation Canadian, then we may conceive our ancestors as simply Canadian over time. This would happen regardless if the prompt was there or not.
In fact, we can look at the responses by generation status in table 2 below. Among those that reported their ethnic origins as Jewish and/or Israeli, they were more likely to be 1st generation Canadians.
The social context in which questions have been asked, as well as respondents’ knowledge of the ethnic and cultural history of their ancestors can influence the type of response given at the time of the census. More and more Canadians also report more than one ethnic origin. Marriages and common law unions between people from different cultural and ethnic groups will create more diversity in responses but also makes it challenging to collect. Knowledge of family history can be limited for some as well. It is therefore advised by the experts that historical comparisons of ethnic and cultural origins have limitations and should be made with caution. Source: Statistics Canada Ethnic Origin Reference Guide, 2016 Census of Population.
The Jewish community in Canada has been fortunate to have a rich source of publicly available data from the Census of Population. Although religion is only asked every 10 years, it is still an amazing free source of information which the Jewish community has been using for decades to dissect our demographic trends in various communities across Canada. The information is so solid, that to my knowledge, national Jewish organizations have never had to outsource for any nationwide surveys.
But I believe the time has come for Canada to create (and thus fund) a national survey, similar to the Pew study on American Jews conducted in 2013, that would have the ultimate goal of examining the different ways people identity as Jewish and what they consider essential to being Jewish. No Census or government sponsored database will ever be able to answer our questions on how Canadian Jews define themselves or how they practice. The subtle changes to the 2016 ethnic origin question is a preview to what will become a more challenging measurement problem as our Jewish community becomes more diverse and assimilated into Canadian culture.