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Robert Brym is S.D. Clark Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto.

Many Canadians recall what happened when the former Harper government cancelled the compulsory 2011 census and replaced it with the voluntary 2011 National Household Survey (NHS). The head of Statistics Canada resigned in protest. Ethnic, business, health, social service, academic and other organizations protested. As feared, low-income and Indigenous Canadians were underrepresented in the NHS. Data from some census districts in Saskatchewan were never reported because the response rate was so low it rendered the data unreliable.

All was supposed to return to normal when the Trudeau government came to power. Just one day after taking office, it announced that the 2016 census would revert to its traditional, compulsory form, once again providing Canadians with reliable data about their economic, demographic, housing and ethnic status. But at least one category of the population – Canada's Jews – may be miffed to learn that more than half their number went missing between 2011 and 2016. Statistics Canada reported this "fact" in a recent 2016 census release.

The 2011 NHS reported 309,650 Canadian Jews by ethnic ancestry, which is believable because it is in line with 2006 census data. In contrast, the 2016 census reports just 143,665 Jews by ethnic ancestry – a decline of nearly 54 per cent in five years. That number defies reason.

The problem is that Statistics Canada mucked around with the wording of its ethnic question in a way that renders at least one of its findings highly suspect. In 2011 and 2016, respondents were asked about the "ethnic or cultural origins" of their ancestors. On both occasions they were asked to "specify as many origins as applicable." On both occasions they were presented with 28 examples of ethnic or cultural origins. But only in 2011 was one of the examples "Jewish."

In the 2016 census, all of the suggested responses are national or Indigenous groups. But Jews are neither. They are a cultural group, members of which come from many nations. Accordingly, it seems that the responses suggested by Statistics Canada in 2016 led many Canadian Jews to indicate their ethnic or cultural origin as Canadian or Polish or Tunisian or French, not Jewish. And so more than half the Jewish population was not counted.

Of course, no survey is perfect. The purveyors of the Canadian census may be excused for reporting that in 1971 the language most often spoken at home by 25 members of the "Indian and Eskimo" group was Yiddish. (Another 25 reported Chinese and fully 125 reported Gaelic and Welsh.) But it is unacceptable when more than half of a sizable cultural group suddenly disappears because of poorly thought-through question-wording.

No one could reasonably suggest that more than half of Canada's Jews were removed from the census intentionally. However, the Jewish community has every right to be upset that its educational and social-service planning will be imperilled by the vagaries of Statistics Canada's work and that the community is less likely to be recognized for its contribution to Canadian society now that its numbers have dropped so precipitously in the official population count.

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