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From Pogrom to Prairie: Early Jewish Farm Settlements in Central Alberta

by A. J. Armstrong

Page 1  |  

We are walking the half-mile to our location, and are making plans as to where the house shall stand, where the barn is to be, chicken house, etc. We are walking, walking on our own soil. Our own piece of ground. Something inside you is glowing. This is all yours. The brushes, around the sloughs, all these hills and valleys, as far as your eyes can see. Oh! what a grand feeling! A feeling of independence, of self-respect, of equality.
Jack Hackman "Reminiscences of Rumsey 1

In the late 1870s, the first trickles of what would become waves of Jewish settlers arrived on the Prairies. Of course, these were not the first Jews in the Canadian West, yet they were the first to seek to create rural Jewish settlements. By the end of that decade, the vast majority of Jews in Western Canada were the urban, acculturated, and mainly secular Jews of German and West European extraction. In the 1880s, however, there was a radical shift in the demographics of Jewish immigration to Canada, which one of the chief historians of Canadian Jewry underlined with a paragraph consisting of the single sentence: "And then the Russian Jews arrived."2

The pogroms in the Russian "pale of settlement" from 1881 to 1882, followed by nearly four decades of internal deportations, quotas and renewed pogroms, provided the spur for mass emigration of Russian Jews. Jews in Canada responded by lobbying the Canadian government, offering sponsorship and demanding that the Canadian government provide for the refugees on humanitarian grounds. The government, already concerned that rapid American expansion into the West would impinge upon the still sparsely populated Canadian prairies, not only permitted, but also actively encouraged immigration by Russian Jews. The Hackman Family at Rumsey, ca. 1928. Jack Hackman, who was born c.1888 in Russia, remembered that, in 1906, "The Canadian government, being anxious to get immigrants to come to Canada, and settle on the land — had opened an office in Odessa, and distributed pamphlets — describing the wonderful opportunities waiting for you in Canada on the farms."3 Apparently, the hope was that the success of other ethnic groups, notably Scandinavians and Russian Mennonites, in forging new communities out of the prairie, might also be enjoyed by these Russian Jews. However, the responsibility for settling these newcomers was turned over to Canadian Jewish organizations, especially in the nascent community in Winnipeg.

Canadian Jews and their East European cousins shared little save their ethnicity. Even the religious expression of the two groups had remarkable dissimilarities, though both resonated with the Ashkenazic Rabbinical tradition developed over the centuries in Europe. Canadian Jews, for the most part descended from urban Jews from western Poland and Germany, had experienced neither the insular environment of the shtetl4 nor the religious revivalism which swept through Eastern Europe in the second half of the 18th century. To Canadian Jews the Vilna Gaon and Baal Shem Tov were distant, mysterious, and faintly troubling, just as Herzl and Mendelssohn were to the Russians.

Canadian Jews had, over the generations in Europe and the New World, lost many of the cultural accretions which radically distinguished them from their gentile neighbours. Although they retained a distinctly Jewish identity, and formed and identified with Jewish organizations and institutions, they settled in the major urban centres of Canada and quite readily adapted to and entered middle-class mainstream society. They observed major holidays and Sabbath worship, but did not in any definitive way partake of the elaborate system of halakhah5 which structured the lives of their Eastern cousins. Consequently, it was understandable that the arrival of a large number of Russian Jews, who did not speak English, had no apparent useful skills, had little farming experience, did not accept the validity of existing Jewish institutions, and would not eat the kosher food prepared for them, provoked some friction.6

It is easy, however, to appreciate why Russian Jews clung to the traditions of their homeland. For centuries, the very distinctiveness, insularity, and social closure that  troubled their Canadian co-religionists had been the main means of preserving their identity in the face of pogroms, expulsion, and oppression. In a new environment, they turned to the familiar — Yiddish culture, the traditions of their ancestors, and the comfort of an exclusive circle of family and acquaintances. The sheer number of immigrants, which was aided by the ascendancy of the strongly pro-immigration government of Sir  Laurier and the financial assistance of European Jews, and the insistence that they be settled on the prairies, greatly altered the shape of Jewish culture in Canada: " the face of Canadian Jewry had changed. By 1914 it was not the Anglicized, comfortable, integrated community it had been 30 years before. Rather, the majority of Canada's Jews were now Yiddish-speaking, Orthodox, penurious immigrants."7

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