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The Jews of Alberta

By Harry M. Sanders

In 1892 the Calgary Tribune published an editorial entitled "Jewish Immigration." In the writer's view, "the Jew, especially the Jew of Eastern Europe, is particularly noted for his inability to adapt himself to any but an urban occupation."1

House More than a century later, the casual observer might at first assume that the editorialist was correct. Today, Alberta's Jewish communities are overwhelmingly urban, and there is little physical evidence of any Jewish presence in the province's smaller centres and rural areas. But historical records tell a different story. The Jewish presence in Alberta predates the province's formation by more than two decades and once included farmers, ranchers, and traders as well as business and community leaders in villages, towns, and cities across the province. At least two place names in rural Alberta are named for Jews -Frank, in the Crowsnest Pass, and Nordegg, in west central Alberta. Both are in honour of men who operated coal mines in these communities, Henry L. Frank and Martin Nordegg.

While the Jewish communities in Calgary and Edmonton have thrived, those in smaller communities and rural areas have declined or disappeared. Jewish farming, in particular, is a largely-forgotten phenomenon in Alberta's history.

The first Jews known to have visited Alberta were traders and merchants who came north from Montana Territory. One of the first to be recorded was a gold prospector. The Fort Edmonton journal for September 15, 1869 states, "Mr. Silverman (a Jew) and a party Jewish group at Rumsey of 4 Americans & a Negro started for Fort Benton today."2 The next known visitor was a man named Moses Solomon who owned a saloon in Fort Benton, Montana. In 1873 he built a trading post on the Belly River, south-east of the present Fort Macleod, and traded that winter with the Indians.3  Four years later, a Jew named Ursinger brought a herd of horses from Montana to sell to the Indians signing the Blackfoot Treaty. The remainder of the herd was sold to the Rev. John McDougall.4  A few weeks later, on December 2, 1877, a Mounted Policeman at Fort Calgary wrote in his diary that "Severn, a Jew, arrived with horses to trade with the Indians."5

However, not until the 1880s and the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway did Jews begin arriving in appreciable numbers. In 1882 some 150 Russian Jews joined the CPR construction crews that built the railway as far west as Medicine Hat; at least one Jewish labourer, possibly more, worked on the line through to Calgary in 1883.6 According to one source, they worked under a Yiddish-speaking foreman, ate kosher food, kept the Sabbath, and brought a Torah scroll for worship services.7 The Winnipeg-based Repstein brothers, whose Cheap Cash Store followed the railhead as it moved west, advertised in the first issue of the Calgary Herald on August 31, 1883.

Most Jewish immigrants to prairie Canada came from the "Pale of Settlement," a zone of the Russian Empire where Jewish residents were confined to live. When revolutionaries Jewish Family assassinated Czar Alexander II in 1881, the Russian government blamed the Jews for the nation's problems. They were expelled from certain major cities and from the countryside, and they were forbidden to rent or purchase land for agricultural use.8 Vicious pogroms, anti-Jewish legislation, and military conscription drove many to leave the country, even though they had difficulty in securing permission to emigrate.

At this time, the Canadian government was anxious to colonize its newly-acquired western territory. Canada's High Commissioner in London, Sir Alexander Galt, saw Jewish refugees as prospective Canadian farmers. He convinced the reluctant Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, to admit Jews as agricultural settlers. Some of the refugees were influenced by the Am Olam movement, a Jewish "back to the land" ideal intended to "normalize" Jews by turning them into producers rather than artisans or traders. European Jewish philanthropists such as Baron de Hirsch of France, financed Jewish bloc settlements in various regions, including western Canada.
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Reprinted with permission from Harry M. Sanders and Alberta History (Autumn 1999 Volume 47, Number 4) 20-26.
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