Manitoba History: The Young Historian: The Jewish Community of Portage la Prairie
by Michael D. Greenberg
Between 1890 and 1911, thousands of immigrants arrived on Canada’s shores to settle in the vast Canadian West. Many of these early immigrants were Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe who chose to settle in agricultural areas, and the growing prairie town of Portage la Prairie was one of their destinations in Manitoba. What follows is not only a history of the Jewish community of Portage la Prairie, but also an account of how one group of immigrants succeeded in transplanting their old-world lifestyle, and in integrating into one of Canada’s more established communities.
Portage la Prairie, Manitoba is a city on the Assiniboine River located 52 miles west of Winnipeg on CPR and CNR main lines, and on the Trans Canada Highway. Its origin dates back to 1738 when La Verendrye built Fort la Reine near the site of the present city. The name is derived from the few miles of portage across the prairie, made at this point by early French fur-traders, between the Assiniboine River and Lake Manitoba. 
The Hudson’s Bay Company established forts in the area in 1796 and in 1832, and in 1856 erected a trading post on the Saskatchewan Trail at what is now known as 18th Street N.W. 
The first white settlement was established in the spring of 1851, when the Archdeacon Cochrane of the English Church Mission Society purchased from Chief Pe-qua-ke-kan the point of land on which the present city stands. By 1870, Portage la Prairie was a village of 130 people and had a steam flour mill. In 1880 the CPR arrived and Portage la Prairie was incorporated as a town. Within a year the population doubled to 800. Growth continued to be rapid in the next twenty-five years and the town obtained city status in 1907. Thereafter growth slowed somewhat until the establishment nearby of military training facilities during World War II. 
The city continues to be the hub of the area, which is largely an agricultural community.
The first Jewish settler in Portage la Prairie was also Manitoba’s earliest Jewish physician. Dr. Hiram N. Vineberg of Cornwall, Ontario came to Portage la Prairie in 1881, and practiced there until 1883. He then left town and went abroad for a year to visit the leading European clinics, and afterwards settled in New York City. 
Dr. Vineberg was very successful during his time in Portage la Prairie. One of five physicians in the town, he soon acquired the leading practice, and was appointed Board of Health officer. 
In 1882, pogroms in Russia and some other Eastern European countries set thousands of Jews on the move to England and Western Europe. When Canada opened its doors to immigration in 1890, many decided to take up the offer of a new life. Thousands immigrated between 1890 and 1911, and among these were Portage la Prairie’s first permanent Jewish settlers, David and Temma Bonnett.
The Bonnetts were originally from Odessa, Russia, and arrived in Portage la Prairie in 1905. David Bonnett was a big and husky man, an old-world laborer, whose face always looked black from exposure to the elements.  He made his living in Portage la Prairie by breaking, or taming, wild horses for farmers in the surrounding area.  At that time horses were still the chief means of transportation. It is likely that he dealt mainly with the Ukrainian immigrant farmers, as he was from Russia and had command of the Ukrainian language.
His wife was a typical housewife of the era, minding the household chores and growing vegetables for family consumption in a large garden behind their city dwelling. 
Between 1906 and 1915, many other Jewish families arrived in Portage la Prairie: the Baron family in 1906; the Fratkin, Narvey, Rabkin and Ross families in 1908; and the Darmer, Greenberg, Rosen, and Stitz families thereafter.  These families were all immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe, and all had lived in other parts of Canada and the United States prior to arriving in Portage la Prairie. Some had even run businesses in other towns, but most had probably worked as peddlers or artisans. 
They all came to Portage la Prairie to better themselves,  and there was great opportunity to do so. At this point in history, agricultural production in Canada was expanding rapidly, due to the increase in farming by immigrants and the greater demand worldwide for agricultural goods. Portage la Prairie, being an agricultural supply centre, was expanding rapidly as well, and it was a good time to start a business.
Most of the Jewish families heard about the opportunities of the area by word-of-mouth, as most immigrants were not literate in English. A few may have received letters from relatives residing in Winnipeg written in Russian or Yiddish. They arrived in Winnipeg first, coming from New York or Toronto or other large cities. Jobs were scarce in these saturated urban centres, and people heard of better opportunities in the Canadian West. So, they took heed, heading straight to the largest city in the West (at the time), Winnipeg. Jobs in Winnipeg were scarce as well, so most were forced to look in rural areas for work. They found it in Portage la Prairie, and re-settled, becoming merchants.
Although Portage la Prairie was an agricultural centre, the Jews who settled there did not become farmers like the Jewish immigrants of the Edenbridge and Qu’Appelle farm colonies did. Instead, they became merchants, and became an integral part of the business community, contributing to Portage la Prairie’s economic livelihood.
The Jewish community resided in the north end of town, which was where the largely Ukrainian immigrant population lived.  It was also in this area that they established their little stores, selling dry goods, food, garments, and second-hand goods. They dealt mostly with the other residents of the area; being Russian immigrants themselves they had a good command of Ukrainian and other dialects, and the clientele preferred to deal with those they could communicate with. 
The Jewish merchants established their businesses using capital they received from the sale of old businesses, or money they brought with them or earned from other jobs.
The children of the first generation followed their parents, joining the family business or opening up businesses of their own. A few left home to study at university in other cities, an opportunity their parents did not have in the old country. Some returned to Portage la Prairie and started practices in law and medicine, while others moved away to practice in other cities.
The second generation had an advantage over their parents in that they had interacted with the rest of the community in growing up. They all attended public school in Portage la Prairie and met other children of different backgrounds. When they went into business, these childhood acquaintances became their customers as well. As a result, the business community became less segregated.
During the 1930s, Western Canada was hit hard by the Great Depression and the “dust bowl”, or drought, that plagued the Prairies. Portage la Prairie was the exception, a paradise in comparison to the rest of the country, being on the edge of a semi arid climate zone. Grain grew, the grass was green, vegetable gardens flourished, hay for animals was plentiful, and the only real hardship was in having to get along on very little money.  The Jewish merchants were slightly better off than some other businessmen, due most likely to the nature of their businesses. They sold goods that people required day to day, mostly food and, when it became absolutely necessary, clothing.
It was also during this period that a Jewish businessman made a significant contribution to Portage la Prairie’s small industrial community. Sam Greene established the area’s first garment factory in 1935, Greene Manufacturing, producing pants and outer wear. He employed about 50-60 workers in a giant old house in the north end. However, times were tough, and he sold out the following year to a Jewish businessman from Winnipeg. 
The third generation mostly left home to study at university. With the more liberal attitudes of the 1960s, many felt less of a responsibility towards continuing in the family business. A few returned to work in Portage la Prairie and still do, but for the most part this age group has moved away to live and work in other cities. Portage la Prairie is still relatively small and has less to offer than large urban centres. If a parent passed away, the children were more likely to sell the business instead of continuing the operation of it.
Many of the old businesses still remain. Narvey’s Men’s Clothing is still family operated. Greenberg’s Groceteria, opened in the 1930s, continues to operate as well, as does the Greenberg and Greenberg Law Office, established in 1941. Others have conducted successful ventures in real estate and new businesses, such as automobile dealerships, cold storage facilities, and a bowling alley. The Jewish businessmen have become an integral part of the business community and continue to contribute to the economic life of the area.
4. Harry Medovy, M.D., “The Early Jewish Physicians in Manitoba,” Jewish Life and Times: A Collection of Essays (Jewish Historical Society of Western Canada, January 1983), p. 65.
Addendum (11 July 2011)
Marc Baron adds: “Philip Baron and his brother Harry Baron arrived in Portage la Prairie in 1906 with their parents. Below is a photo of Philip’s first store in Portage’s north end.”
Page revised: 12 July 2011Back to top of page