Trouble with the census
These are not easy days for print media, so it was with a bit of dark humour that your devoted scribes here at the Independent reacted to the latest tranche of Canadian census information released last week.
According to the census, the number of Jews in Canada fell to 143,665 in 2016 from 309,650 five years earlier – a precipitous decline of more than 50%. Looking on the bright side, we concluded that, by that measure, this newspaper’s circulation had just doubled based on the proportion of Canadian Jews who subscribe. Great news, right?
But the census figures are actually not a laughing matter. Governments at all levels rely on this information to make determinations about spending allocations, policy determinations and all manner of decisions. Likewise, nonprofit organizations, think tanks and academics base their research and outreach on the figures, providing Canadian society, decision-makers and legislators with evidence-based policy recommendations and solutions to tough problems.
The Jewish community in Canada faces a number of challenges, including assimilation, de-affiliation and low birth rates among most denominations. But a decline of 50% in five years does not reflect any or all of these issues. There is a larger structural concern. To have a population decline with such speed is clearly a sign of flawed science, an issue immediately identified by various experts when the numbers were released.
In 2011, during that census, Canadians were asked to identify their ethnicity and “Jewish” was among the 24 examples offered. More than 250 ethnic identities were reported, however, and the examples on the 2016 census form were determined based on the most prevalent responses from 2011. This did not include “Jewish.”
Without “Jewish” as a choice, some scholars and policy analysts suspect that many Jews selected “Canadian” as a response or may have entered their or their ancestors’ countries of origin, for example, “Russian” or “French.”
Calculating the number of Jews in North America has never been an exact science. A century ago, some jurisdictions estimated the number of Jews based on school absenteeism during the High Holidays.
But technology and systems for assembling and analyzing data have improved over time so that estimates of populations and identities should have become easier and more reliable. That said, we cannot expect to arrive at accurate answers if we do not ask the proper questions. No matter how advanced the systems, software or algorithms, bad data will result in bad analysis.
While it makes some sense that Statistics Canada failed to include “Jewish” as an example – given the reasonable explanation that the examples they chose were based on the most common responses from the previous census – the problem raises the issue of how much the prompts given, or the wording of the census questions in general, affect the results. It also raises concerns about the lack of understanding and consensus about Jewish identity. This confusion is not limited to government apparatchiks, but to many Jews ourselves.
Judaism is a religion. Jewish is an ethnic identity. There are Jews who are atheists and do not adhere to Judaism, but this does not negate their Jewish ethnicity. (This is additionally problematic, it should be noted, because identifying Jews – and using proscribed genealogical theorems to do so – has been a tool used to discriminate against us and in the service of genocide.) Even discussing ethnicity is a fraught topic today, with a hearty discussion taking place right now over the inclusion of Jews under the larger “white” umbrella.
If there is one thing we can perhaps agree on it is that ticking boxes on a form, by definition, literally forces people into figurative boxes. This may not raise difficulties if one identifies straightforwardly as, say, “French” and “Roman Catholic” or “Scottish” and “United Church.” It may be easy for an individual who is a religious Jew to identify themselves as Jewish both in religion and ethnicity. But those whose religious identity may not align precisely with their Jewish ethnicity can stare at a census form and choose an identity that does not entirely comport with their reality.
Even the foregoing statements, broad generalizations that they are, should raise some debate over the accuracy of self-definition and the meanings of the term “Jewish.” While we may not have captured everyone’s interpretation of what the term “Jewish” means to them, this is evidence of the larger case: that forcing people with complex identities to tick one box on a form is to force square pegs into round holes. It creates a challenge for Jewish Canadians. And, in a country that prides itself on encouraging self-expression and welcoming diversity, the census problem raises questions that go to the heart of multifaceted identities and Canada’s willingness to recognize them.
Before the next census, in 2021, Jewish Canadians should have a collective discussion that helps us clarify our own relationships with the terms “ethnicity” and “religion,” and then ensure that the government understands that counting populations accurately requires a recognition of the complexities.