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2016 censusBy BERNIE BELLAN
By now, there have been quite a few reports (including in our own paper)  suggesting that  the most recent Canadian census (2016) has badly undercounted the number of individuals who would regard themselves as Jews - at least by ethnicity, if not by religion. (Note, however: Saying your ethnic origin is Jewish doesn’t necessarily mean that you consider yourself Jewish. It might simply be an observation about your ancestry.)


All those reports have pointed to one apparent reason for the much lower number of individuals who gave “Jewish” as their ethnic origin in 2016 (143,665) as opposed to the number that was reported in 2011 (309,650):  The 2016 census, like former censuses, asked respondents to indicate the ethnic origin or origins of their ancestor. In previous years, however, the question had included a list of 24 sample responses that included “Jewish” as one of the possible answers. In 2016, however, “Jewish” was no longer listed as one of the 24 examples (which are based on the top responses from the previous census.)


As well, there was no question about the religious background of respondents in the 2016 census questionnaire. (That question is asked only once every 10 years. It was last asked in 2011.)
As a result, say many critics of the 2016 census, many individuals who, on previous censuses, had said their ethnic origin was, at least in part, “Jewish”, in 2016  did not respond that their ethnic origin was “Jewish”; instead they gave some other answer in response to the question: “What were the ethnic or cultural origins of this person’s ancestors?”
The supposition is that a good many individuals who might have answered Jewish had that choice been listed as one of the choices on the questionnaire instead either gave “Canadian” as the answer or another ethnicity related to their ancestors’ birthplace.
In Winnipeg, for instance, the number of individuals who reported that they were Jewish by ethnicity in 2016 was only 7,640 – as opposed to the number reported in 2011: 12,000. (Never mind that the Jewish Federation has been reporting that there are over 14,000 Jews in Winnipeg or even, at one time, that the Federation was claiming that there were over 15,000 Jews here. Further, with reports that over 5,000 Israelis have moved here since 2009, one might have well expected that the figure for the number of individuals listing “Jewish” as their ancestors’ ethnic origin would be well above 7,640.)


So – if thousands of individuals who might otherwise have indicated that they were Jewish by ethnic origin – had that choice been printed on the 2016 census questionnaire, gave some other answer, what are the most likely answers that they gave?
I took a long look at the results of the 2016 census as compared with the 2011 census (which was called the National Household Survey rather than a census by the Harper Conservatives), to try and determine what other choices for ethnic origin might have been given by individuals in Winnipeg instead of “Jewish”.
Here are some possibilities: The population of Winnipeg is reported to have increased from 714,640 in 2011 to 761,540 in 2016 – an increase of almost 47,000, which represents a 7% increase in numbers. Of the ethnic groups that reported the largest increases in numbers, three stand out: North American Aboriginal – from 82,700 to 95,405; Canadian – from 123,440 to 130,830; and East and SouthEast Asian, from 86,720 to 113,315. Together those three groups represent an increase of slightly more than 47,000 – which is identical to the total growth in the population of Winnipeg from 2011 to 2016. Of those two groups, I think it’s safe to assume that not many individuals who reported that they were Aboriginal or East Asian would also have reported that they had Jewish ethnic ancestry had that example been listed on the census questionnaire.


Of course, it is possible that a great many individuals who had previously reported that their ethnic origin was Jewish in the 2011 census instead reported that their ethnic origin was Canadian in 2016. As well, there were fairly sizeable increases in the number who reported that their ethnic origin was Russian (from 25,420 in 2011 to 29,575 in 2016); and Ukrainian (from 115,230 to 116, 250). It could be that many of the recent newcomers from Israel reported Russian or Ukrainian as their ethnic origin, rather than Jewish.
But, one of the surprises though was the relatively low number of respondents who reported that their ethnic origin was Israeli (an increase of only 410 in 2011 to 735 in 2016). “Israeli” wasn’t listed as an example on the 2011 questionnaire either, so it’s not as if a great many individuals who might otherwise have given that as an answer were left wondering whether they should do that any more in 2016 than was the case in 2011.
Also, given that respondents were able to give multiple answers to the question, “What were the ethnic or cultural origins of this person’s ancestors?” and the actual totals add up to much more than 761,540, the fact that only 7,640 Winnipeggers gave “Jewish” as an answer comes as even more of a surprise. It is quite possible, for instance, that someone could have answered, in response to the census questionnaire, that their ethnic origin was both Jewish and Russian or they could have given even more answers to that question, such as “Jewish, Russian, and Ukrainian”.


While a number of Canadian Jewish leaders, such as Shimon Fogel, CEO of CIJA (the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs), have expressed strong reservations about the results of the 2016 census, saying that it defies credulity to think that the number of individuals in Canada who would say that their ethnic origin is Jewish has dropped from 309,650 in 2011 to 143,665 in 2016, it still leaves open the very strong possibility that quite a few more individuals no longer think of their ethnic origin as “Jewish”. (That might be especially the case among young people who, to a very large extent, probably think of themselves as being of “Canadian” origin rather than any other ethnicity.)


Finally, if a question that allows multiple responses and which refers not to which ethnic group with which a respondent currently identifies (asking instead about their ancestors’ ethnic origins) produces such weak results for the number of individuals who say their ethnic origin is Jewish, perhaps our community leaders ought to consider the possibility that the number of individuals who actually identify as being of Jewish origin has drastically diminished.
Instead of criticizing the census’s questionnaire (which is highly unlikely to change in 2021, the next year there will be a national census), why not consider the possibility that identification as Jews is on the drastic decline? I’m not saying whether that’s good or bad; I’m simply offering that as a very real possibility – and not some statistical anomaly.

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