This is an edited and abridged version of a speech given by Rebecca Landau, at Florida Atlantic University, January, 1996. The talk describes the early settlement of Jews in Saskatchewan and comments on Jewish life today in the Province.
Before looking at life in Saskatchewan from a Jewish view it is worthwhile to have some background on Saskatchewan geography and climate.
The province of Saskatchewan lies north of the states of North Dakota and Montana. It is one of Canada's three prairie provinces and encompasses an area of 651,903 square kilometers (251,700 square miles). A population of approximately 1,000,000 people live in this vast land area today. More than sixty percent live in the two urban centres.
The southern two thirds is mostly flat prairie. Before the first farmer came to Saskatchewan, herds of buffalo inhabited this land. The region was an expanse of windswept grasses.
The winter season seems to last from November through March. In these months temperatures range between 0 degrees Celsius to minus 40 degrees Celsius. On the Fahrenheit scale this is 32 degrees Fahrenheit for a high and minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit for a low. Sometimes the temperature does manage to rise above the freezing mark. Fortunately temperatures hovering in the minus 40 degree range do not usually last for more than a week.
In winter the ground is usually a beautiful white expanse. In some years the snow may only be three to six inches deep (8-15 cm.). In other years there may be over a foot (30 cm.). A layer of ice coats many of the roads in the winter. It is usually too cold to use salt. Sand is used in its place. However, in spite of these conditions activity goes on as usual. The sun rises quite late and sets quite early. In the short December days the sun rises around 9:30 AM and sets about 4:15 PM.
The summer season is much shorter than the winter season. There is plenty of daylight. The sun rises by 5:00 AM and sets near 10:00 PM. The province does not go on daylight savings time. The temperature can range as high as 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit), but usually is in the high 20s (Celsius) or high 70s on the Fahrenheit scale. The climate is dry.
What would entice anyone to settle in Saskatchewan and why did Jews choose to settle here?
To answer this question we must look back more than 100 years ago to Europe. In the 1880s Saskatchewan did not exist as a province, but was part of what was then known as the Northwest Territories. The Jews in Russia were in dire straits. In 1881 Czar Alexander II was assassinated by revolutionaries. The revolutionaries made the Jews scapegoats. Their "May Laws" of 1882 expelled Jews from all hamlets and villages and prohibited Jews from renting or buying land for agricultural purposes. Large-scale physical attacks (the pogroms) broke out in a number of cities and towns of Southern Russia.
In reaction to this chain of events Jews started a large-scale emigration. But where were they to go? Some gravitated to Palestine. Others looked westward to America. During this period the Canadian Pacific Railway was opening vast agricultural lands in Western Canada. In 1884 an immigration handbook in Yiddish was circulated in parts of Eastern Europe. It extolled the virtues of settlement in Manitoba, the Canadian province that today borders Saskatchewan on the east.
One of Canada's Fathers of Confederation, Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt, became an active member of the Russo-Jewish committee to persuade the skeptical Prime Minister of Canada, John A. MacDonald, to accept a number of Russian-Jewish refugees. These first Jews came to the Prairies because the government of Canada offered them land and the freedom to practice their religion.
A Jew who advocated settlement in Canada by Russian Jews was Herman Landau. He was a prominent Anglo-Jewish financier who made his fortune through bold speculation on the London Stock Exchange. He saw the Canadian West as an ideal land for the re-settlement of Russian Jewish Refugees. Canada's climate was similar to that of Russia. Religious tolerance was a hallmark of the land. In 1886 Herman Landau financed a family and six men to homestead in Canada. The Canadian Pacific Railroad land commissioner settled these colonists at Wapella, a town lying just west of the Manitoba border in what today is Saskatchewan.
Among those who arrived to Wapella were Ekiel and Mindel Bronfman. They didn't stay long. They moved east and founded the dynasty that is linked to Seagram's whiskey and Jewish communal leadership.
Also arriving to Wapella in 1889 was Solomon Hirsch Jacobson. Jacobson farmed there until his death in 1943. Jacobson said his reason for coming to Canada was to show the world that a Jew can a farm as well as anybody else. (1)
Jacobson said, "I realized my ambition at Wapella. Starting out alone with no experience, I uprooted trees, cleared the bush, broke the land, and made it one of the most fruitful farms in the district. All this was done by a Jewish peddler whose parents couldn't get land in Russia." (2)
Six Jewish farming communities were realized in Saskatchewan between 1886 and 1906. The first of these colonies was a novelty and evoked considerable curiosity in the district. Locals dubbed the colony "The New Jerusalem." Due to inadequate winter shelter against sub-zero temperatures, wind, driving snow, drought, etc., this settlement lasted only six years.
Another colony, Hirsch, Saskatchewan was founded in 1892. Landau enlisted the assistance of the French financier-philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch. Hirsch regarded the creation of a Jewish state as a fantasy; however, he took a great interest in Jewish agricultural colonization. Baron de Hirsch established the Jewish Colonization Association to facilitate mass emigration of Jews from Russia and the establishment of agricultural colonies in North and South America. Hirsch was the only Jewish farm colony in Canada that was directly organized and funded by the Jewish Colonization Association. Hirsch favored colonization of Argentina rather than Canada.
Edenbridge was founded in 1906. It no longer exists, but some of the members of the founding families live in the area. The Beth Israel Synagogue, built by the settlers in 1908, still stands today. It is a wooden structure similar to many Russian churches of that period. The synagogue served as a place of worship until 1964. Today it is a Saskatchewan historic site. The Saskatchewan Wildlife Association maintains the synagogue building, the adjacent cemetery, and the 40 - 100 acres of wooded lands.
The settlers of Edenbridge were Lithuanian Jewish refugees who had temporarily settled in South Africa. They were lured to Canada by a federal government promise of 160 acres of farmland for only $10. Charles Vickar, whose father settled Edenbridge in 1906, stated that owning land was everything to the Lithuanian Jews. (3) When the refugees were assured that they could freely practice their religion they jumped at the opportunity. They had no knowledge of farming. They did not know how to use a plough or an axe. They were Talmudic students and petty tradesman.
These Lithuanian Jews took the Canadian Railroad as far west as it went at the time. When they arrived at the end of the line, the Jewish pioneers opted to go north where they heard there was more wood and water. The farther north you go in Saskatchewan the more woods there are. Instead of joining some of the established farming communities in the level open country, they picked a spot by the Carrot River. The name, Edenbridge, means Jew's bridge. The settlers devised the town name in 1907, when a bridge was constructed over the Carrot River.
The Jewish farm population in Canada reached a peak of 2, 568 by 1921. (4) The 1931 census states that there were 2,1888 Jewish farm residents. (5) Sixty-nine percent of Jewish farmers lived in Western Canada with the majority residing in Saskatchewan. By 1939, it was estimated that one out of every 16 Jews who were working on the Canadian prairies made his livelihood on the farm.
Most of the Jewish farming colonies lasted to the mid-point of this century. Jewish farm colonies disappeared as a result of the great drought and depression. World War II also was a contributing factor. Young Jews left the farms to serve in the armed forces. Jews were barred from entering the country. A third factor was the high cost of land and farm machinery.
The rural settlements were the first Jewish communities to develop in Saskatchewan. Inevitably the Jews migrated to the larger urban centers. Farming was a difficult life. Cities enabled Jews to live close together, which was important for community worship.
In the urban centers, Jews returned to merchandising, a way of life they were familiar with from Europe. One could get started on a shoe-string budget. The early businesses were either connected with the garment industry, affectionately known as the shmata (rag) trade, grocery stores, or dry goods. Except for the farming experience in Saskatchewan, the Jewish community in Canada developed along the same lines as did Jewish communities in the United States.
At one time there were more than a half dozen towns in Saskatchewan with sizable Jewish communities. Today the majority of Jews live in one of the two large cities, Regina and Saskatoon. Regina is the seat of the provincial government. Saskatoon is a university town and business center. The cities are 180 miles (280 km.) apart or a 2 1/2 hour drive. Both have a population of approximately 180,000 and each has a Jewish population of approximately 200 families.
In Saskatoon there is one synagogue. It is affiliated with the Conservative movement.
In Regina there is one synagogue that is not affiliated with any of the North American mainstream movements. Originally it was founded as an Orthodox synagogue and today calls itself traditional. About 150 families belong. About six years ago a Jewish family established a congregation affiliated with the Reform movement. It has approximately 30 members, but no building of its own.
Regina's Jewish community dates back to 1904 when the Chevra Kadisha, (burial society) was formed. Some Jews lived in Regina prior to 1904. Later an Orthodox synagogue and a Talmud Torah (Hebrew school) were built. Land for a Jewish cemetery was secured.
The businessmen were the first settlers in Regina. Jewish professionals arrived on the scene later. During the early period of settlement, Jews lacked the savings to send their children to university to study law or medicine. Additionally throughout Canada, there were heavy restrictions and quotas on the admission of Jews to professional schools.
Today, in Regina we find Jews represented in all the professions. While the older generation are businessmen, those in the thirty through fifty age bracket are likely to be professionals. The majority of these younger Jews were not born in Regina, but moved to Regina for employment. A number are professors at the University of Regina. Others work for the provincial government.
The majority of these professional Jews originate from other Canadian provinces. Of the total Jewish population in Regina today, the majority are Canadian-born. However, other nationalities are present. Jews from Panama, Germany, Great Britain, the United States, and Russia also live in Regina. The Orthodox Rabbi hails from Africa. In the late 1980s there was an influx of South Africans into Saskatchewan. The reason for this was that the Saskatchewan government allowed South African doctors to practice medicine. Many of these new South African immigrants are Jewish. Four out of five families have made their home in Regina. Within the last ten years a number of Israelis have lived in Regina for a year or two at a time. Israel has a company that produces yellow pages for telephone companies all over the world, Sweden, New Zealand, the United States, and Regina, Saskatchewan.
While the number of Jews is small, major Jewish organizations including B'nai Brith, Hadassah-WIZO, Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University, etc., are represented. There is one organization that is unique to Canada, the Canadian Jewish Congress, an umbrella organization. It has a small communities section. In Saskatchewan the Congress is represented by the Saskatchewan Jewish Council. Operating in both Regina and Saskatoon, it sponsors programs for all Jews in Saskatchewan. In Regina it hosts a Chanukah Book Fair, the Annual Holocaust Remembrance Day program, and speakers throughout the year. In the spring of each year there is a Saskatchewan Jewish weekend retreat to which all are invited.
In this talk a general description of the geography and climate of Saskatchewan is presented as well as a look at the settlement of Jews in Saskatchewan and some aspects of Jewish life in Saskatchewan today.
(1) "Jewish pioneer settlements" by A.J. Arnold, The Beaver, Autumn, 1975 p. 26.
(3) Oral comments of Charlie Vickar, May 1994.
(4) "Pioneer, Plough and prayers: the Jewish farmers of Western Canada" by Cyril Edel Leonoff. (Vancouver: The Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia and the Western States of the Jewish History Association, 1984) p. 12.
First prepared on March 3, 1996.
Copyright © 1996, updated July 26, 2015 by Rebecca Landau.