Preliminary List of Jewish Farming Colonies in Canada (In Progress)
Compiled & developed by Dr. Howard Gontovnick
Moosomin, Edenbridge, Sonnenfield, Lipton, Montefione, Eyre, Al Sask, Bateman, Court, Maxwellton, St. Boswells, Oxbow, Rosetown, Wapella, Cupar,
Hirsch, New Hirsch, Narcisse, Fort Qu’Appelle, Pine Ridge, Bender Hamlet, Bird Hill, Camper, Charleswood, Deirfeld, Lorette, Moosehorn, Ste Anne,
Rumsey, Trochu Valley,
Cedar Vale, Charleston, Crooksville, Hambury, Hawthorne, Krugerdorf, Lemonville, Paperville, Tomstown,
Cowansville, Joliette, Kilkerny, La Macaza, New Glasgow, Ste Sophie, Ste Agathe, St. Lin, Riviere Gagnon, St. Jude, St. Jilie-de-Vercheres, St. Vincent de Paul,
Jewish Farmers: The Early Years*
Written by Howard Gontovnick, Ph.D.
At the onset of the wave of eastern European Jewish immigration in the nineteenth century, farming emerged as an option in both the United States and Canada. In Montreal, the Young Men’s Hebrew Benevolent Society and the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society were early proponents of farming colonies for newly arrived immigrants. Jewish organizations on both sides of the Atlantic contributed to the emergence of the Jewish Emigration Aid Society, with the goal at first to provide food, lodgings, medical aid, jobs and in some cases transportation to parts of Canada or the United States.
Canada in particular became a goal because of a governmental incentive program. In 1872, the Canadian government passed the Dominion Lands Act giving an opportunity for people to acquire 160 acres of free land in the West at a nominal charge of ten dollars. As part of this arrangement, settlers were required to build a home, cultivate a reasonable part of the land and reside on the premises for at least three years to acquire ownership. Enthusiastic about this project and its potential, Alexander Galt Canada’s High Commissioner in England at the time struggled to convince Prime Minister John A. MacDonald of the advantages of including Jewish immigrants in this project. Galt felt that controlling the kind and numbers of incoming immigrants would be in Canada’s favour. Moreover, Galt argued that giving support to Jewish refugees in particular would place Canada in a positive light in the eyes of the European financial elite, many of whom were Jewish.
In May of 1884, the first group of Jewish immigrants attempted to set up a farming colony in Western Canada. In the district known as Assiniboia, in what is today the Province of Saskatchewan, twenty-seven families started out in the Moosomin colony. With supporting funds from the Mansion House in England and occasional assistance from the Jewish community in Winnipeg, these settlers began by building homes, planting crops and keeping some livestock. For a number of reasons, including difficult weather conditions, poor soil, and inexperience, many settlers lost hope and began to leave after two years. Although some people (including former residents) later tried to rejuvenate the colony, calling it New Jerusalem, this effort faced the same troublesome circumstances. Two years later, in 1889, a major fire devastated the community and any chance of continuing the colony.
Another pioneering attempt was inspired by the efforts of the English businessman Herman Landau. In 1886, Landau was eager to establish a colony of Jewish farmers in Canada’s west. Dissatisfied with the pace of philanthropic efforts, Landau selected a group of Russian Jews he believed to be more competent than previous immigrants. Even though these individuals seemed more capable, the question was whether they could cope with the harsh environmental conditions in Wapella (Saskatchewan). At the onset, the surroundings were manageable and perhaps this had more to do with an organized effort in the cutting of trees. Since the area was heavily forested, many settlers used the lumber for both heating and building. This became a lucrative business venture as settlers used whatever means necessary to continue their homestead in that area. The majority worked their farms cultivating such crops as wheat, barley, oats, and raising livestock, but weather conditions made success difficult, though the Wapella community lasted longer than other such ventures. As a result, this community became one of the oldest Jewish farming colonies in Western Canada.
With considerable enthusiasm, Herman Landau believed that the idea of Jewish farming colonies had serious merit for relocating Jewish refugees. Unfortunately, there was one stumbling block – financial support. In 1887, on a trip to Paris to convey his sympathies to the Baron de Hirsch and his wife on the loss of their child, Landau used the opportunity to promote his project. Landau suggested that the Baron and his wife consider adopting as their children, the many impoverished Jews in need of assistance in order to leave Eastern Europe. When Landau returned to England, an exchange of correspondences between the two men discussed what dependable agencies that could become involved in such an undertaking. Arthur Cheil suggests that a financial project in which the Baron was involved with left him with considerable land holdings in Argentina, which would suggest that the Baron favoured Argentina as a prime location for Jewish settlement because of his personal interests.[i] However, the Israeli scholar Haim Avni, has disputed this.[ii] Nonetheless, from 1890 onward the settlement of immigrant Jews in Canada would take on a new priority with the assistance of the Baron de Hirsch and the agencies he funded.
For the Baron, contributing to Jewish charities around the world became a full time passion after 1890. His involvement was based on a philosophy that became the basis of his philanthropic behaviour. In the American Review of July 1891 he wrote, “... my efforts shall show that the Jews have not lost the agricultural qualities that their forefathers possessed. I shall try a make for them a new home in different lands, where, as free farmers, on their own soil, they can make themselves useful to the country.”[iii] The Baron expressed a willingness to extend his great wealth toward his “companions in faith with the possibility of finding a new existence, primarily as farmers, and also a handicraftsmen...”[iv] He supported Jewish relief efforts through the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Paris and the Mansion House Committee in London. Beginning with a few early donations to American relief organizations and the Young Men’s Hebrew Benevolent Society in Montreal, Baron de Hirsch set the stage for what would become the Jewish Colonization Association in both countries.
As the number of Jewish immigrants flowing into Canada increased, so were tensions in certain parts of the country. In 1887, a meeting of local residents in the Wapella region was upset with the good will granted to the immigrant Jews by the railway. Responding to what it considered special privileges for the new residents, the group stated that, “our honourable friends the Government are unaware of the injury done to us by reserving sections in ...this distinct for the settlement of Jews. Not only are Jews a most undesirable class of settlers but they are keeping a number of desirable settlers out...”[v] The phrase, “most undesirable class…” indicates that the issue was more than the favouritism by the railway.
In 1891, the Premier of the Province of Manitoba, Thomas Greenway, visited England to promote Canada and encourage European farmers (including Jews) to migrate to his province. In response to thiseffort, Professor Goldwin Smith of Toronto, known for his anti-Jewish rhetoric, sent a letter to the Manitoba Free Press referring to the Jewish settlers in which he wrote, “these people, besides their want of agricultural aptitude, are as a rule, not producers of native labour. It is on this account and from hatred of their financial practices, not on account of their religion, that the people of Europe, and especially the peasantry, began rising against them.”[vi] Whether or not Goldwin Smith’s remarks were a true indication of the Canadian attitude toward Jews is uncertain. However, it is likely that they may have represented an undercurrent of public opinion in areas of Jewish settlement.
[i] Arthur A. Cheil, The Jews of Manitoba. (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1961), p. 48.
[ii] Personal correspondence with Haim Avni, September 12, 2009.
[iii] Edgardo E. Zablotsky, “Philanthropy vs Unproductive Charity – The Case of Baron Maurice de Hirsch”. Electronic
Version – http://ssrn.com/abract=1013671. May 2004
[iv] Samuel Joseph, History of the Baron de Hirsch Fund. (Fairfield, Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, 1978), p. 10.
[v] Leonoff, “The Jewish Farmers of Western Canada”, p. 10.
[vi] Cheil, Arthur A. The Jews of Manitoba. pp. 49-50.
"East European Jewish Immigration and Jewish Farming Colonies".
In Robinson, Ira. Canada’s Jews In Time, Space and Spirit. Academic Studies Press, Brighton, MA 2013.
Conclusion From "Planting the Seed of Indentity"
The Contributions of The Early Jewish Farmers of North America" (2016)
Written by Howard Gontovnick, Ph.D.
Although the activities of Jewish farmers and their settlements have been recognized and documented, there is still no comprehensive account of this period. There is ample evidence that Jewish farming settlements played a significant role in the development of the Jewish community in both Canada and the United States. These colonies provided work and settlement opportunities for Eastern European Jewish immigrants escaping persecution between 1880s and 1940s. These newcomers did not have an easy time building new communities where none had previously existed, in sparsely settled regions of North America. Farming unsettled lands was a means for Jews to display to other North Americans their commitment to their new home and their capacity for hard work.
Over time, these farmers began taking in boarders to generate extra income. Later, they began opening small hotels, mostly famously in the Catskills of New York State, which became associated with the development of the Jewish community in America. Indeed, the Catskills also served as a model for resort development and the entertainment industry more broadly.
It is difficult today to measure the contributions of Jewish farmers and the settlements they built; that said, it would be a mistake to underestimate their contribution to North America's Jewish community as a whole. As shown in this chapter, the Jewish farming movement strengthened the foundations of the broader North American Jewish community. In turn this strengthened the ever-evolving Jewish identity - something Michael Myers refers to as "a complex sociological phenomenon central to the modern Jewish experience”. Unfortunately, scholars cannot agree on one universal model that explains how the "modern Jewish experience" came to be. Even so, most accept that "a healthy identity, like a healthy body, depends on what one consumes or absorbs during the period of maximum growth in childhood and adolescence. A healthy diet of Jewish experiences and education at this time helps to produce a strong Jewish identity?" In an era when Jewish immigrants were establishing who and what they were as a community, the lifestyle and contributions of Jewish farmers clearly played a role. Perhaps if one considers the presence and contributions of Jewish farmers, what on the surface might seem minor may have indeed been significant as a whole.
Gontovnick, Howard. Thoughts of Identity in Jewish farmers Across North American.
In Stiefel, Barry and Tesler-Mabe, Hernan.
Neither in Dark Speeches nor Similitude’s: Visions of Jewishness in Canadian & American Jews.
Wilfred Laurier Press (In Press - Fall 2016)