THE BEGINNINGS OF THE
JEWISH COMMUNITY IN MANITOBA
by George Siamandas
On June 10 1882 70 Jewish families arrived in Winnipeg. They were Russian Jews that were being massacred throughout south western Russia because it was thought they had something to do with Czar Alexander's death in 1881. Years of oppression caused a mass exodus lasting from 1882 to 1914.
Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt Canada's high commissioner to Great britain became involved in a relief committee called the Mansion House committee whose role was to raise funds and assist emigration from Russia. Galt proposed that they come to Manitoba. By spring of 1882 his proposal was accepted and 400 Jewish refugees left the Austrian Galician city of Borody bound for Winnipeg. Most were small traders and mechanics of various trades. They were expected to become farmers.
About 30 Jews had lived in Winnipeg as early as 1877. Most were of british or german origin and they were of the reform branch which was fairly well assimilated into the larger society. The existing community arranged for use of the immigration sheds and provided food and interpreters. They raised 1,200 in just a few months. The spirit of humanitarianism was strong in Winnipeg and Bishop Machray and Mayor Alexander Logan helped in increasing the donations. The papers were also supportive and helped create a very sympathetic climate.
About 150 became involved in the construction of the CPR laying track as far west as Moose Jaw. Their families lived with them and their observance of high holidays was tolerated. But by fall they fell into great difficulties as a recession fell over Winnipeg. Jobs were impossible to find after the collapse of the real estate boom and there were no places to live.
As winter was approaching efforts were made to move the families east but it did not come about. There were delays in giving them land to farm either in Manitoba or in the Q'Appelle valley. The authorities were just not ready for them and how to plan for them as they had done with the Mennonites and the Icelanders. Temperatures plummeted to
-50, they almost starved because they would not eat food they were offered. By the late 1880s the Jews had already established a multi cultural society. Despite their differences they all share a religion, a history as a people apart and Yiddish.
The newcomers were quite different. Different even than their English and German counterparts. They spoke a different language, ate different food, and kept solely to themselves. They were not interested in farming and had no money to become involved in any new activities. They faced a fair amount of racism and were excluded from elite clubs. Over time the children of the labourers, pedlars and store owners became doctors, lawyers and scientists.
By 1931 there were 20,000 people identifying themselves as Jews in Manitoba. Today the Jewish community numbers about 15,000 to 16,000 almost all urban but as their children seek better opportunities elsewhere numbers are dwindling.