Manitoba Historical Society
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The Contribution of the Jews to the Opening and Development of the West

by Abraham J. Arnold

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 25, 1968-69 season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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On October 27th, 1968, more than 200 people made a pilgrimage to Edenbridge, a place you will not find on any map.

What is Edenbridge, and where is it?

It was never a town, and perhaps not even a village. Officially it was never more than a post office which took its name from a bridge across the Carrot River in Northern Saskatchewan - but it was a community of people. The only visible remains of Edenbridge today are a weatherbeaten old synagogue building standing beside the highway and a cairn with a historic plaque to mark the site. [1] Off the highway, about 500 yards, is the Edenbridge Hebrew Cemetery. The remains of a few old buildings such as the first post office and one or two of the first homes may also be detected against the skyline.

Edenbridge was born in the minds of a group of immigrants who arrived in Saskatchewan in 1906 to search for a place where they could become homestead farmers. It took a great deal of imagination to visualize this most densely wooded area as an endless panorama of cultivated fields and flourishing crops. It took years of back-breaking toil and seemingly endless tribulations to turn the imagined goal into a reality.

A group of about 20 Jewish immigrants who left their homes in Lithuania at the turn of the century and migrated first to South Africa, were inspired to make a second migration - this time to the Northwest Territories of Canada - when they read a 1905 pamphlet issued by the Department of Immigration offering 160 acres of virgin land for $10.00.

When the first of the newcomers arrived, they rejected the idea of settling on lands near the established Jewish farm colonies at Hirsch and Lipton because these areas had no trees. Instead they travelled North to Star City where the land was covered with virgin forests. They knew very little of the prerequisites for good farm land, but they did know that trees and water meant fertility. So they acquired homesteads along the Carrot River.

Sam Vickar, one of the pioneers of 1906 who arrived a few months after his brothers David and Louis, has written in his diary that it wasn't until he reached Winnipeg that he learned of the place where his brothers had chosen to settle. He was told to buy some household remedies for there was no drug store in Star City. However he was not prepared for what he found on reaching his destination. Sam Vickar writes that when he got off the train at Star City. "We expected to see a real city, but we were soon disillusioned." [2]

By today's standards Star City still looks as unlike a city as it did in 1906, but now it is the centre of a vast area of cultivated farms, rather than of virgin forests.

The disillusionment of the immigrants on arriving at Star City did not discourage them. After filing their land claims with the government they set about the task of reclaiming the land from the forest. Between 1906 and about 1913 the first group was joined by about 30 more families.

What kind of people founded the Edenbridge colony? They were composed of two groups of Jews, all of whom came originally from Lithuania and other parts of Eastern Europe. One group, led by H. Wolfovitch, M. Schweden, K. Fenster and the brothers David, Louis and Sam Vickar, were of the small traders class who first tried their fortune in South Africa. The other group, led by the Springman brothers, the Broudys, Philip and Max Gordon, Mike and Dave Usiskin, and Harry Frazis, had worked for some time in the clothing sweatshops of London, England, and they were imbued with radical ideas. They believed that by engaging in productive farm work in Canada they would achieve personal freedom and independence and would at the same time make a contribution to the solution of social ills. [3]

When one reads of the experiences of the Edenbridge pioneers as recorded in Sam Vickar's diary, and by Mike Usiskin in his Yiddish language book "From Oxen to Tractors" [4] one realizes that Edenbridge was a living example of the courage, enterprise and adaptability of the Jews. With their own hands they cleared their lands, acre by acre. They built log houses and stables, held together with clay and covered with whitewash. They did all this with their own resources. Not until their own limited financial means were exhausted did they hear of the Jewish Colonization Association and appeal for assistance.

How did Edenbridge get its name? When the farm settlement was granted a post office, the settlers discussed the choice of a name. Sam Vickar writes in his diary: "So far as I can remember we all wanted to call it the Jewish Bridge, but we thought that perhaps the postmaster general might not agree. We read through the list of names of post offices in the Canadian Postal Guide and found many names beginning with Eden. So we made a quick and unanimous decision that the name of the new post office should be Edenbridge."

A quick decision was made possible because the term "Yidden" in the Yiddish language means "Jew." [5]

The Edenbridge Synagogue was built in 1908 and continued to serve as a house of worship till 1964. Edenbridge also had a community hall and two public schools, as well as Hebrew, Yiddish and Religious classes, a dramatic society and a Jewish newspaper which appeared at irregular intervals. [6]

What is the importance of Edenbridge, a remote spot in Saskatchewan where only five Jewish families were still farming in 1968?

Edenbridge was one of half a dozen Jewish farm colonies founded in Saskatchewan and Alberta in the last decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century, which flourished for more than 50 years despite the hardships of homesteading amid the vicissitudes of climate, geography, grasshoppers and depression. Edenbridge stands alongside the names of Hirsch, Sonnenfeld and Lipton-Cupar in Saskatchewan, and Rumsey, Trochu and Montefiore in Alberta. There were other Jewish farm colonies in the West which did not achieve the same kind of success, including Bender Hamlet, also known as Narcisse, Camper, New Hirsch, and Pine Ridge, all in Manitoba. Earlier still, when the homestead era first began, there was New Jerusalem near Moosomin as well as Wapella and Oxbow, located in the territory of Assiniboia which later became Saskatchewan.

Jews Under the Czar

Jewish land settlement in western Canada began in the 1880s after the start of immigration from eastern Europe.

The difficulties of the Jews in Poland, Russia and other Russian dominated countries which led to the mass migration movement began with the partition of Poland in the second half of the 18th century. The Polish Jews were in dire economic straits even before the partitions began. When 2,000,000 Jews of White Russia, Lithuania and Poland came under Russian rule they soon began to encounter restrictions and persecution. In 1791, the "pale" of settlement was established by which White Russian Jews were prohibited from moving to the interior of Russia. This was later extended to several provinces of the Ukraine, Lithuania and other districts. Jews living in villages inside the "pale" were forced to move to the cities and small towns. These geographic and economic restrictions resulted from the report of a commission of the Russian government appointed to study the problems of the White Russia peasants, still living in serfdom. The commission report blamed their troubles on the large number of traders who were exploiting them and in particular on "the exploitation of the peasants by Jewish merchants." [7]

The anomaly of the situation was that the vast majority of the Jews were themselves living in conditions of great poverty. This led to the growth of a back-to-the-land movement among the Jews, and Jewish leaders began to appeal to the Russian authorities for permission to develop land settlement projects.

In December, 1804, this permission was granted by the Czar. Farm lands were allotted to the Jews in the southern provinces and they were also permitted to engage in agricultural pursuits within the "pale". This policy continued in force until 1865, but in the following year the Russian Government cancelled all the land settlement privileges for the Jews. [8]

However, even while some Russian Jews were being permitted to settle on crown lands and a few Jewish merchants, manufacturers and artisans were permitted to live outside the "pale," the Russian government began to impose increasing restrictions on the great mass of its Jewish citizens, by means of decrees which reduced them to second and third class citizens. In 1827 a special compulsory military service law was introduced calling for 25 years of service by Jewish recruits, many of whom were children. [9] Quotas for Jews were introduced in universities and high schools. In the decade following the end of land settlement privileges, the campaign against the Jews in the Russian empire was extended from legal restrictions to physical attack.

Following the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 there was a wave of pogroms. By the end of that year 215 Jewish communities throughout Southern Russia had been attacked. The pogroms continued through 1882 and 1883 and resulted in over 100,000 Jews rendered homeless and property damage estimated at $80,000,000. [10]

It was these pogroms that caused the beginning of the outpouring of Jewish refugees from Russia and brought the first Russian Jews to the West.

Promise of Land

The Anglo-Jewish Association in England began to organize aid for the Russian Jews. A protest meeting held at the Mansion House in London led to the establishment of the Mansion House Committee. This also became known as the Russo-Jewish Committee and was responsible for assisting the immigration of Jews to Western Canada. The Committee was guided by the advice of Sir Alexander T. Galt, who was then the Canadian High Commissioner in London. Many of the refugees wanted to take up farming, and it was largely as a result of Galt's promise to help them obtain land that 340 Jewish refugee immigrants arrived in Winnipeg during May and June of 1882. [11]

Gait had begun to write to Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald early in 1882, asking for his support in assigning land to the Jews. [12] Although the Prime Minister expressed a rather cynical attitude towards the Jews, [13] he did state in a letter to the Governor-General: "We are quite ready to assign the Jews land. [14]

When the refugees arrived in Winnipeg, they found however, that no land had been prepared for them. In the summer of 1882 Galt wrote to Macdonald asking that some of the spare Mennonite townships be turned over to the Jews, or that some of the land reserved for the Colonization Companies be made available. [15] The results were completely negative. That summer 150 of the immigrants left their families behind in Winnipeg and took jobs as railroad workers with the Canadian Pacific Railway, then laying its line across the prairies. [16] All the immigrants generally had a very difficult time during those first few years, because a period of depression set in immediately after 1882.

While many of them did want to go on the land, their main concern was to earn a living and support their families and, in many cases, to earn sufficient funds to bring over relatives whom they had left behind.

Two years later, Sir Alexander Galt was still trying to get land for the immigrants of 1882. He wrote to the Minister of the Interior, Mr. Burgess, advising him of the intention: "to place on homesteads some 40 to 50 families of those sent to Winnipeg two years ago." [17] At long last, homesteads were allocated for Jewish settlement south-west of Moosomin. By the time the Jewish colonists started out for the settlement area on May 12, 1884, [18] there were only 27 families left. [19] It is hardly a matter of surprise that many of those who originally thought of settling on the land should have found other occupations in the meantime.

New Jerusalem

The settlement of Jewish homesteaders near Moosomin became known as New Jerusalem. It was more of a nickname introduced by non-Jewish settlers in the neighborhood and it was not a harbinger of success. The New Jerusalem colonists encountered many difficulties for which they were almost totally unprepared. What is perhaps even more surprising is that within a few years Sir Alexander Galt became disillusioned with the people he had been trying to help. In 1888 he pronounced the settlement a failure, described the settlers as "vagabonds" and seemed only concerned about protecting the interests of the Mansion House Committee in London who had made loans to the newcomers to help them get started. [20]

Why devote so much attention to the Jews as farmers when this does not fit the traditional picture of the Jews in Canada? One cannot discuss the role of any ethnic or religious group in Western Canada without considering their relationship to land settlement. It is very well known that the primary policy of the Canadian Government regarding Western Canada following Confederation was to open the land to agricultural settlement. It was in this context that Canada, and particularly Western Canada, became the new homeland for immigrants from so many different ethnic and religious groups. Almost all the first settlers of the ethnic minority groups came to the West as homesteaders and farm pioneers.

In 1882 before the influx of Russian Jewish refugees began, Manitoba had a Jewish population of some 30 families who had come during the preceding five or six years. To a man they were merchants, traders or peddlers. It is correct to say, however, that when the first group movement of Jews to the West got under way, those who came here consciously did so with the idea of taking up land. As a matter of fact, Jewish farm settlement in the West pre-dates that of all other ethnic groups except for the Scottish, the English, the French, the Icelanders and the Mennonites.

Canadian History and Canadian Policy

In discussing the Jews as farmers in Western Canada, one should not do it in the spirit of "We, too, did this that or the other thing" in the settlement of the West. It seems logical however that the history of any ethnic group in Canada should be dealt with essentially as Canadian history and therefore in the light of Canadian policy. When the Canadian government began to develop an immigration policy following Confederation, preferential consideration was immediately given to immigrants from the British Isles and Northern Europe. Immigrants from central and eastern Europe including the Jews, were in a secondary category. Subsequent events have shown that the Jews were not even a fully accepted part of this second category.

W. D. Scott, a Canadian historian of the early 1900s, has written: "No effort is, or ever has been made by the Government of Canada to induce Jewish immigrants to come to the Dominion and the influx has been entirely unsolicited. [21] This statement held true with regard to the settlement of the West because most Jews did not seem to fit the picture of the kind of immigrants desired for the Western territories.

It is necessary to approach this question also on the basis of an interpretation of Canadian history. Professor W. L. Morton has written that "The Canadian peoples were brought together in Confederation, not for the increase of liberty or the ends of justice, which were taken for granted, but to meet certain commercial, strategic and imperial purposes ... [22] Confederation was brought about to realize the commercial potentialities of the St. Lawrence ..." [23]

In particular regard to the West, Professor Morton wrote: "The West was annexed to Confederation as a subordinate region and so remained for 60 years ... [24] and he added: "It was the fate of the West to become the colony of a colony ..." [25]

Development of eastern manufacturing and western agricultural settlement linked by the transcontinental railway were the major elements of Sir John A. Macdonald's national policy. Western settlement implied people who would be content to stay on the land. When the immigrants to the West were Mennonite farmers, Scottish crofters or Ukrainian peasants, Ottawa felt confident that most of them would stay on the land because farming was their tradition and they knew little of other callings. When the Jews came as farmers they were ready and willing to give it a try but if it didn't work they were prepared to do something else. That something else, more often than not, began with peddling and also included tailoring and various other crafts. The Jews came with a more varied occupational and cultural background than immigrants from other ethnic groups, who were mostly of peasant stock. The Jews were by tradition more mobile and occupationally more versatile. These were not qualities that the Canadian immigration authorities considered desirable in the days of the opening of the West.

Let us return to the first Jewish settlers at Moosomin, or New Jerusalem. I have already pointed out that when their efforts failed Sir Alexander Galt became rather disillusioned, called them vagabonds and wrote disparagingly of the fact that they returned to their "natural calling as traders." [26] We can hardly be critical of Galt, however, because he undoubtedly did more than any other Canadian government official to open the doors for the Jewish refugees in the first place. Nevertheless, Galt was a supporter of the national policy which visualized the West as a vast agricultural hinterland.

It seems rather ludicrous that a handful of Jews who became traders instead of farmers should have caused so much concern.

In 1888 another Jewish farm settlement was established at Wapella, only 50 miles from the abandoned New Jerusalem settlement, and without any assistance from Government or Jewish organizations during its first years. [27] In 1892 the Hirsch settlement was founded about 24 miles east of Estevan, this time on the initiative of the Young Men's Hebrew Benevolent Society and with the help of Baron de Hirsch and the Jewish Colonization Association which had recently been formed. [28] The Wapella and Hirsch colonies were the first Jewish farm settlements which carried on beyond the turn of the century and existed for 50 years or longer.

In the early years, however, a high percentage of the settlers at Wapella and Hirsch left the land again soon after their arrival, and this gave added fuel to the argument that Jews were unsuited for farming. Actually the Jews who did not remain on the land were among the first independent entrepreneurs in Western Canada. But Jewish entrepreneurs were not favored as immigrants.

This view of the Jews as being unsuited to farming and undesirable as traders has also found its way into some Canadian history books. Norman MacDonald in a recent book on Canadian immigration [29] chides the Jewish refugees who arrived in Winnipeg from Russia in 1882 for not "going immediately on the land" and "monopolizing" the immigration sheds "for a whole year." And, he claims that when they finally did go on the land near Moosomin (the New Jerusalem settlement) they failed for no other reason than "because they had no aptitude for agricultural purposes." [30] MacDonald's writing is documented from the files of the Dominion Lands Office of the Department of the Interior which had jurisdiction over immigration during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth. [31] However, he ignores that part of the Galt correspondence which shows that Sir Alexander made numerous requests for land for the Jews without success between January 1882 and April 1, 1884. [32] MacDonald states, without verification, that the aid extended to the first Jewish homesteaders included "five acres ... put under crop on each homestead." [33] Seemingly he never heard that many of these early immigrants worked on the railway. He also ignores the possibility that the prospects of the first Jewish homesteaders at Moosomin were affected by the same conditions which hampered the efforts of all other homesteaders in the same district. The drastically different conditions of climate-early frost one year and general drought the next - made it almost impossible for experienced Scottish Crofters [34] to become established and assured failure for the efforts of unemployed and inexperienced East End Londoners. [35] These latter groups were among those who came west through the efforts of the colonization companies organized in the 1880s. MacDonald himself writes that the efforts of these companies were adversely affected by "three successive poor harvests." [36] He even suggests that Sir Alexander Galt was responsible for the failure of one of these land settlement companies. [37]

Ultimately, MacDonald concedes that successful Jewish colonies were formed at Hirsch, Wapella, Qu'Appelle and Oxbow, and he writes that by 1905: "The degree of prosperity was said to compare very favourably with that of other races." [38] Nevertheless the overwhelming impression of his comments about the Jews leads one to conclude that Norman MacDonald adheres to the "Laurentian Thesis" of Canadian History as enunciated by W. L. Morton: "The divorce of economics and ethics was long since made absolute and outside the moral sphere there is no freedom ... the Laurentian thesis is properly concerned with the play of economic factors which follow the fleeting but irresistible lure of the price indices, and it has taken for granted what was irrelevant to it, namely justice as between race and race, and section and section." [39]

The Lipton - Qu'Appelle Colony

The view that East European Jews were undesirable as immigrants in Western Canada because they were unsuitable for agriculture, carried over to the administration of Sir Wilfred Laurier. It has generally been assumed that the farm settlement started at Lipton in the Qu'Appelle Valley by Roumanian Jews in 1901 came about as a result of an agreement concluded by the London representatives of the Jewish Colonization Association and the representatives of the Canadian High Commissioner's office in London. [40] Such an agreement was in fact discussed and worked out between W. Preston, Canadian Immigration agent, and Alfred L. Cohen, representative of the Colonization Association. However, it is evident from the report of Mr. Preston to the High Commissioner, Lord Strathcona [41] and from the letters of Alfred Cohen to Lord Revelstoke and to Lord Minto, The Governor-General, [42] that this agreement was intended to limit the Roumanian immigration and not to encourage it. But even this agreement was not approved by the Canadian government. It was carried out to a limited extent only because close to 100 Roumanian Jews were already on their way to Canada to take up farms before the disapproval of the government was transmitted to London [43] The disapproval was contained in confidential memoranda by Clifford Sifton, Laurier's Minister of the Interior, and by James A. Smart, the Deputy Minister. [44]

Preston's original report stated that the Jewish Colonization Association gave a "written guarantee" for the expenses to be incurred for each immigrant. [45] According to Alfred Cohen, the J.C.A. undertook to advance the cost of transit plus £40 per family installation expenses, and to pay the salary up to $1,000. per year of a government appointed "superintendent inspector" to assist the immigrants in settling on the land. [46] This was the substance of the agreement on the basis of which the first group of Roumanian Jewish immigrants settled at Lipton.

Shortly after arriving at Qu'Appelle in the spring of 1901, the first group of Roumanian immigrants were stricken with diphtheria. The Deputy Minister appointed as supervisor, Mr. D. H. MacDonald, a leading businessman at Fort Qu'Appelle and owner of the local bank. MacDonald in turn delegated the task of supervision to non-Jewish farmers and businessmen who had no knowledge of any of the languages spoken by the newcomers. It was from the Indians on the nearby reservations that the Jews learned how to put up log houses with sod roofs. The appointed supervisors used the funds, allocated to assist the settlers, in the form of a dole of day-to-day provisions, instead of working out a plan to buy livestock and equipment with which to work the land. It was not surprising that again many of the first settlers left the land. After two years the Deputy Minister asked to be relieved of responsibility for administration of the settlement. The Jewish Colonization Association turned the task over to its American affiliate, the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society of America, and the settlement was reorganized on a productive basis. [47]

Railways and Land Companies

To understand the conditions under which the first Jewish settlers took part in the opening of the West, it should be recalled that in acquiring control of the vast Northwest Territories the Canadian Government made a settlement with the Hudson's Bay Company of £300,000 Sterling in cash and 1/20 of all the lands in the "fertile belt" which eventually amounted to 6.64 million acres of land.

To get the Canadian Pacific Railway to build its transcontinental line, the government granted it 25 million acres of land plus a cash subsidy of $25,000,000. Other railway companies also entered the picture and, by 1896, a total of about 32,000,000 acres had been granted to these companies.

And as a special means of encouraging homesteaders to enter the West, the government in 1881 provided for the formation of colonization companies (referred to earlier) who were granted large tracts of land upon which they were supposed to place settlers. The results of the work of these land settlement companies have been described as follows: "the many colonization societies that sprouted like mushrooms in every direction after 1882 (were) on the whole poorly conceived, developed without reference to underlying realities and ... they caused, consequently, heavy loss of capital as well as waste of human material." [48]

Originally 2,842,742 acres were set apart as reserves for these companies and on this vast territory they settled only 1,234 homesteaders. All these companies but one went bankrupt, and when their contracts were dissolved by about 1891 "the companies became the proprietors of land in some of the best districts to the amount of 438,208 acres and held scrip to the value of $375,518.00." [49] The result was: "to place without any public compensating advantages certain eastern speculators in possession of vast blocks of arable land which with the passing of time ... became very valuable." [50] All these companies pleaded "external circumstances beyond their control" [51] and by July 1885 they were memorializing the Privy Council that they "had met with unexpected and insuperable difficulties." [52] The New Jerusalemites at Moosomin in July 1885 were still hoping for their first harvest. They had undoubtedly never heard of the Privy Council, but they were learning first-hand about the insuperable difficulties of settlement in the West.

While almost everyone of the private colonization companies, backed by many eminent Canadian and British citizens of the day, were going bankrupt, one new colonization organization, founded in 1891, has never gone bankrupt and continues its activities in Canada to this very day. [53] This is the Jewish Colonization Association originally established on the initiative of Baron Maurice de Hirsch for the encouragement of Jewish land settlement in various parts of the world. [54]

Peddlers and Storekeepers

Many of the Jews who started out as peddlers in Western Canada also had a difficult time. In the pioneer years of the opening of the west from 1882 onward the itinerant peddler was hardly better off than the homesteader. Keeping on the move however included at least the illusion of doing something to improve himself and also the hope that beyond the next turn in the trail one might sell, or barter, some item to advantage. If a peddler had to depend on sales to far-flung homesteaders and the homesteaders suffered a crop loss, what could the peddler sell them. Added to this was the distinctly unfriendly attitude of certain government officials and politicians, some of whom talked about peddlers almost as though they were the outcasts of society.

In 1894 and again in 1895 "Jew Pedlars" became the subject of debate in the House of Commons. On both occasions the matter was raised by Joseph Martin, Liberal M.P. from Winnipeg. Mr. Martin charged that the government had paid for "the transportation of a number of Jew Pedlars from Chicago to Calgary." He claimed that the Department of the Interior had brought "a number of settlers to Calgary, presumably with the intention of locating upon farms ... while as a matter of fact, it appeared that those persons were Jews whose occupation in life had been that of peddling and that instead of coming as settlers to take up farms, those persons, after they had been brought out at a large expense to the Government, had resumed their occupation of peddling, and a number of them had found their way in a short space of time into the Calgary jail ..." [55] Mr. Martin's harangue about "Jew Pedlars" took up five pages of Hansard.

Replying to Martin, the Minister of the Interior, Mr. Daly, stated: "I think the House has arrived at the conclusion that it is a matter of indifference to the Hon. Gentleman how many Jews may have been brought to Calgary so long as he has an opportunity to get a fling at me. I am the Jew he is after ..." "... I think that three times in the course of his speech, the Hon. Gentleman repeated that we had brought in Jew Pedlars, that they were not farmers, and that most of them were incarcerated in the Calgary jail: and it turns out that only one was incarcerated and for an offence not against any of the old settlers but against one of his fellow countrymen ..." [56]

Some pedlars succeeded in overcoming all the hardships of the pioneer days and eventually became merchants and general store proprietors. One of these was the first permanent Jewish settler in Calgary, Jacob Lion Diamond, who started out from Ontario and peddled his way westward for several years until he arrived in Cowtown in 1888. [57]

Many Jews pioneered in the commercial development of the West. In towns and villages throughout the prairies the first store was often opened by a Jewish merchant. It was invariably a general store which became an important community institution in the decades when communication was still fairly primitive. Many Jewish general store operators came to play a role sometimes more important than their function as merchants. The Jewish general store proprietor could usually speak several languages of the old country. He therefore began to serve his customers not only with needed merchandise but as a translator in dealing with the government, as a postmaster and generally as a centre for the exchange of community news and information. [58]

Today the general store operator, like the homesteader, has virtually disappeared. The homesteader was gradually forced out, first by the difficult years of the depression and later, by the mechanization which led to large scale industrial farming. The general store proprietor has been displaced by the supermarket and the department store. While there are still some Jewish storekeepers in Western towns, their numbers have dwindled as the chain stores and supermarkets spread everywhere.

Jewish Population

The Jewish population in Western Canada did not grow appreciably until after 1901. In Manitoba, for example, there were only 31 Jews in 1881. After the arrival of the first 340 refugees in 1882 the number increased to 791 by 1891; and to 1,514 by 1901. Then there began a period of rapid increase: to 10,741 in 1911; to 16,669 in 1921 and to 19,341 in 1931.

In Saskatchewan there was no recorded figure until 1901 when there were 296 Jews in that province. By 1911 the period of increase had begun and the number grew to 2,066. In the next decade the Jewish population of Saskatchewan more than doubled to 5,380. Between 1921 and 1931 it began to decrease and dropped to 5,116.

The Jewish population of Alberta began in the same way with 242 in 1901. It grew to 1,486 by 1911, to 3,242 by 1921 and to 3,722 by 1931.

In the 1961 census year the total Jewish population of Manitoba stood at 19,981. The total Jewish population of Saskatchewan dropped to 2,710, while that of Alberta increased to 6,045. [59]

It will be seen that the total Jewish population of the prairie provinces has therefore never exceeded 30,000. Special note should be taken of these population figures for two important reasons. First, because of the comparative smallness of the Jewish population it is often reduced to such minute proportions in statistical reports that anyone writing about the ethnic groupings of the prairie provinces would tend to ignore the Jews if basing himself on statistics alone. The second reason is that non-Jews who become acquainted with Jewish people and become aware of their multitudinous activities sometimes get the impression that their numbers exceed the figures of the statistics. One must therefore conclude that statistics alone can sometimes be misleading, [60] just as personal impressions taken alone can also be misleading.

What to do in Winter

Returning to the historical consideration of the role of the Jews in Western Canada, it should be pointed out that the Jewish immigrants who came here in the 1880s, the 1890s, and 1900s and later, were totally unaware of the objectives of the Canadian authorities in terms of developing the Canadian West for commercial purposes. Most of them came to Canada imbued with the idea that this was a land of freedom, and of freedom in the British tradition. They had no idea that some people would have excluded from this tradition the right to become a small trader. They had no idea that powerful interests wished to preserve the West as an area that would use only manufactured products from the East.

When the Hirsch colony was being founded, a discussion was started as to what the settlers would do all winter. There is a proposal in the files of the Baron de Hirsch Institute in Montreal that each homestead family be equipped with a sewing machine to produce clothing during the winter months. According to this plan it would be necessary to erect in the colony "a building large enough to cut the goods, give them out to be made, receive them back, showroom and shipping room ..." [61] As far as is known the Hirsch factory was never started. However, other Jews who settled in Winnipeg did start a textile and clothing industry for Western Canada. Thus the Jews played a role in changing the character of the West from a natural resource preserve for Eastern interests, into an area that began to develop its own secondary industry.

The Jews in the West were not only pioneers in the development of commerce and industry; they worked in railway yards, brickworks, at construction sites and in factories. Jewish citizens in all the prairie provinces long ago set a tradition of service to the community both in public office and in voluntary association. From Winnipeg to Flin Flon, from Saskatoon to Star City, and from Medicine Hat to Edmonton, Jews have served on school boards and city councils, as reeves and mayors, as members of the legislature and as members of parliament.

In more recent decades, Jewish citizens of the West have made notable contributions in the professions and in the Arts and in many cultural fields.

From the very beginning of large-scale immigration Jews have been active in welfare and philanthropic works. They have acquired the reputation of "taking care of their own," which may be traced back to the Hebrew word for charity, which is "Tzedaka," and also means justice.

In this country Jewish charitable institutions have been influenced by the Canadian environment, especially in the matter of assisting immigrants. A key factor has been the need to guarantee that no Jewish immigrant would become a public charge, which came about as a result of Canadian immigration laws. According to Simon Belkin: "Even when immigration was relatively free, the Canadian Immigration Act required assurances that immigrants would not become public charges." [62]

The Jewish population of Canada demonstrates that an ethnic group, regardless of size, can make a significant contribution to the total cultural life of the community, and that it can adapt to the pattern of living of the general community while securing its group identity within the Canadian "mosaic." This statement applies particularly to the Jewish community of Winnipeg with its population of some 19,000, to the Jewish communities of Calgary and Edmonton, numbering some 3,000 and 2,500 respectively, and to a lesser extent to those of Regina and Saskatoon, with a population of 800 to 900 each.

Outside of these cities, Jewish community life has disappeared in many centres where it once flourished. Minimal organized Jewish activities continue in smaller localities like Moose Jaw, Prince Albert, North Battleford, Melfort in Saskatchewan, and in Medicine Hat and Lethbridge, Alberta. The western experience points to an inescapable conclusion that a viable Jewish community is feasible in Canada today only within a large urban setting.


1. The pilgrimage was made on the occasion of the dedication of the cairn and historic site plaque.

2. Sam Vickar, Zimbale to Edenbridge, Congress Bulletin Feb. 1966, pp. 6 & 8 (Canadian Jewish Congress).

3. Simon Belkin, Through Narrow Gates, pp. 79 & 80 (Canadian Jewish Congress and Jewish Colonization Association, Montreal, 1966).

4. M. Usiskin, Oksn Un Motorn - in Yiddish, (Vochenblat, Toronto, 1945).

5. Vickar, Congress Bulletin, April, 1966, p. 6.

6. Louis Rosenberg, Canada's Jews, p. 222. (Canadian Jewish Congress, 1939).

7. Belkin - Narrow Gates p. 13.

8. Ibid. pp. 13, 14. (This background information is important for two reasons: (a) The attitude to Jewish traders and merchants which we shall encounter again; (b) establishment of the fact that the Russian Jews had actually begun to gain some experience on the land during the first half of the 19th century.)

9. Ibid., p. 17.

10. Ibid., p. 27.

11. Ibid., pp. 28, 29, 30.

12. Galt to Macdonald, January 25th and February 3, 1882 (cited in B. G. Sack, History of Jews in Canada, pp. 261-262-Canadian Jewish Congress, 1939).

13. Macdonald to Galt, Feb. 28, 1882, March 23, 1882. (Macdonald papers, Vol. 21, pp. 680 & 706, Public Archives of Canada).

14. Sir John A. Macdonald Letters to Lord Lorne, 1879 - 1884, p. 241; Feb. 20, 1882 (cited in Sack, History of Jews, p. 182).

15. Galt to Macdonald, July 7, 1882 (Ibid., pp. 262, 263).

16. Belkin, Narrow Gates, p. 31.

17. Galt to Burgess, April 1, 1884 (Interior Department, Dominion Lands Bureau, Vol. 87, File 73568 (1) P.A.C.).

18. Arthur Chiel, Jews in Manitoba, p. 44 (University of Toronto Press). [Prior to the publication of Rabbi Chiel's book, all works on Jewish settlement in the West give 1882 as the date of the beginning of the homesteading efforts near Moosomin. The 1884 date is confirmed by the Galt correspondence with the Dept. of Interior, available in the Public Archives of Canada.]

19. Belkin, Narrow Gates, p. 56.

20. Galt to Burgess, Minister of Interior, Jan. 30/88/ (Dominion Lands Bureau File 73568 (1) Vol. 87, P.A.C.).

21. W. D. Scott, Immigration by Races (Canada and its Provinces, Vol. 7, p. 571, Adam Short and Arthur Doughty Editors, 1913).

22. W. L. Morton, Clio in Canada: Interpretation of Canadian History - Approaches to Canadian History, p. 43 (Canadian Historical Readings 1, University of Toronto, 1967).

23. Ibid., p. 46.

24. Ibid., p. 47.

25. Ibid., pp. 47, 48.

26. Galt to Burgess, Jan. 30, 1888, (Dominion Lands Bureau, 73568 (1) Vol. 87, PAC).

27. Louis Rosenberg, Canada's Jews, pp. 218-219.

28. Belkin, Narrow Gates, pp. 70-72.

29. Norman Macdonald, Canada: Immigration and Colonization, 1841 - 1903. (MacMillan of Canada, Toronto, 1966).

30. Ibid., p. 222.

31. Dept. of Interior, Dominion Lands Bureau Files, P.A.C., 73568 (1) & (2) (R.G. 15, B-la, Vol. 87). Files 269180 (1) & (2) (RG 15, B-la Vol. 187). Files 269180 (3) (RG 15, B-la, Vol. 188).

32. See footnotes 12, 13, 15, 17.

33. Macdonald, Canada: Immigration, p. 220.

34. Ibid., p. 247.

35. Ibid., p. 244.

36. Ibid., p. 241.

37. Ibid., p. 245.

38. Ibid., p. 224.

39. Morton, Clio in Canada - Interpretation of Canadian History, p. 45.

40. Belkin, Narrow Gates, pp. 75, 76.

41. Preston to Lord Strathcona and Israel Tarte, July 27, 28, 1900; (Tarte papers, Colonization 1900 - 05; MG 27 - 11; D 16 Vol. 15, PAC.).

42. A. L. Cohen to Lord Revelstoke, July 13, 1900 and to Lord Minto, Aug. 22 and Nov. 10, 1900; Jewish Immigration into Canada from Roumania, 1900 - 1901; (Governor General's External Affairs RG 7 - G18, Vol. 100 (4) - PAC).

43. A. L. Cohen to Lord Minto, May 3, 1901 and to J. A. Smart, May 4, 1901 (Ibid.)

44. Clifford Sifton to Laurier, Confidential Memorandum, April 15, 1901; Jas. A. Smart to Sifton, Confidential Memorandum, Dec. 10, 1900. (Ibid.).

45. Preston to Strathcona, July 27, 1900, p. 3 (Tarte Papers, Colonization).

46. A. L. Cohen to Revelstoke, July 13, 1900, p. 3 (Jewish immigration from Roumania, GG's External Affairs).

47. Louis Rosenberg, Canada's Jews, p. 221.

48. The Report of the Saskatchewan Royal Commission on Immigration & Settlement, 1930, p. 381.

49. Ibid.

50. Ibid.

51. Macdonald - Canada: Immigration, p. 240.

52. Ibid., p. 240 and p. 329.

53. Belkin, Narrow Gates, p. 37. [According to a letter of Sept. 30, 1968, from M. J. Lister, Montreal, Manager of the Jewish Colonization Association of Canada there were 163 Jewish farmers in Canada known to the Association as of that date, including 38 in Western Canada. According to a table prepared by Louis Rosenberg based on the 1961 census figures, there were 141 Jews in the labour force of the Prairie Provinces (15 years of age and over) then engaged in agriculture.]

54. Belkin, Narrow Gates, p. 37.

55. Hansard, April 25, 18955, pp. 241, 242.

56. Ibid., p. 251.

57. Mel Fenson, Jews in Alberta, Canadian Jewish Reference Book, (Gottesman 1963, p. 281).

58. Louis Rosenberg, Canada's Jews, pp. 183-184.

59. All population figures from census figures, Bureau of Statistics, Ottawa.

60. Census statistics for the Jews may also be misleading because Jews are listed under "religion" and also under "ethnic group." The figures under these two headings do not correspond mainly because of the confusion over the definition of "ethnic group."

61. Unsigned proposal dated "Montreal, 11th January, 1892" with Baron de Hirsch Institute correspondence.

62. Belkin - Narrow Gates, p. 46.

Page revised: 2 November 2021

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