Russian Jews find haven in Winnipeg — government initially only provides squalid living conditions

by Bruce Cherney

The people gathered at the public meeting heard that the recent immigrants to Winnipeg had lived in terror in Russia and had not yet become accustomed to the “blessings of British freedom.”

According to the speakers, what the immigrants really needed was the “exercise of Christian charity” that would help turn them into “good citizens.”

The January 1883 meeting at the YMCA was called to address the plight of Russian Jews who were driven from their Old World homes as a result of systematic pogroms encouraged by the Czarist government. 

A Manitoba Free Press editorial on December 26, 1881, denounced the treatment of Russian Jews as a “hideous spectacle ... in which a peaceable, intelligent and industrious element of the population is systematically subjected to brutal and bloody outrages ...”

The pogroms began immediately after the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881. By the end of the year, 215 Jewish communities in southern Russia had been attacked. 

Faced by such persecution, the Jews became refugees in their homeland — it was estimated over 100,000 Russian Jews were made homeless and $80 million in property was destroyed. The call for a haven where the Jews could live without fear of persecution was answered by the Canadian government. At the urging of Sir Alexander T. Galt, the Canadian High Commissioner to Britain, Ottawa offered to resettle several thousand refugees in Canada. The Canadian government proposed that many of the refugees were to be resettled in Western Canada on land set aside for them.

On May 26, 1882, the first of 340 Jews, impoverished in the aftermath of the pogroms, began arriving in Winnipeg, where they took up residence in the Dominion Immigration Sheds along the Red River at The Forks. The first group of 23 people arrived on May 26, the second of 247 on June 1, while the last group of 70 came on June 10. Their arrival marked the first of several major Jewish immigration movements to the city.

“If those citizens of Winnipeg who are surrounded with the comforts of life could only visit the old immigrant sheds near the Hudson’s Bay mill, they would witness a sight that ought to bring the blush of shame to their cheeks and make them remember their duty to the poor,” reported the Winnipeg Daily Sun on January 6, 1883.

“A visit to the sheds to-day revealed a sad state of affairs. Packed in that low, dingy building are twenty-five families of Russo-Jewish refugees. Each family has on average about eight members, which makes 200 human beings. True, the building is little apartments which resemble large human coffins, the only difference being that the occupants are able to move about, most of these apartments are provided with stoves, but as there is little ventilation and the stovepipes are old and defective, the rooms are filled with smoke. Such squalor was never witnessed in Winnipeg.”

The newspaper said the children had taken on a “pale, sickly look, partly from want of proper nourishment and partly from the effect of dirt and smoke,” which reddened their eyes. The children’s clothes were described as ill-clad, ragged and dirty.

None of the so-called apartments were provided with furniture, so old boxes and steamer trunks served as tables and chairs. They slept on rough, dirty straw mattresses and their blankets were “cemented together with grease and dirt.” The newspaper reporter speculated that the families were afraid to wash the blankets in fear they would fall apart.

The food provided to the families included plenty of bread, a small allowance of fish and a scant twice-weekly portion of tea.

The immigration sheds where the families resided had long been a source of embarrassment. As early as May 3, 1873 — well before the Russian Jews occupied the premises and just a year after the buildings were erected — the Manitoban reported: “The Immigration Sheds and buildings on the Red River, are in a miserable state of demoralization ... The whole building is dirty, unswept, and unfit for human habitation.”

As a result of federal government neglect in providing facilties for immigrants, the city built its own Immigration Hall on Fonseca Street (Fonseca has since been swallowed up by the Higgins Avenue extension to Main Street). The better city facility (in later years it would also be criticized for deteriorating conditions) was only used as temporary accommodations for immigrants, which ruled out its use by the Russian Jews who required a longer adjustment period before striking out on their own.

The Russian Jews arrived under dire circumstances — they were primarily penniless, unable to speak English and were forced to rely upon the goodwill of others such as Canadian and British Jewish organizations and the Canadian government. Chief among the Canadian groups was the Montreal-based Jewish Immigration Aid Society. In Britain, the Anglo-Jewish Association established the Mansion House Committee to deal with immigration of Russian Jews to other countries including Canada.

At a time when the primary immigrants the government wanted were farmers able to live off the land and turn Western Canada into the “breadbasket of the world,” the Russian Jews lacked the skills of the Mennonites to farm or even the Icelanders to fish. In Russia, the Jews had been tailors, peddlers and merchants living in cities and towns. They may not have at first been the best agriculturists, but when Eastern European Jews later came to Canada, their tradition of versatility made them valuable immigrants for a nation that was expanding its economic base. But it took the Canadian government some time before it realized independent entrepreneurs were just as desirable as farmers.

The irony is that many of the Jews had originally been farmers, but Czarist policy implemented in 1866 took away their land and forced them to move into towns and cities. Over decades of living in Russia, Jews were periodically allowed to establish agricultural communities, although edicts invariably followed which stripped them of  their land. 

The Russian Jews had been promised land by the Canadian government, but when they came to Winnipeg it was found that arrangements had not been made. Between 1882 and 1884, Galt wrote numerous unanswered letters requesting land for the refugees. 

The government did try to settle 40 refugee families on a land grant 320 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg near Moosomin — the community was called New Jerusalem — but the experiment ended in failure several years later. Yet other agricultural settlements established in later years by Jewish immigrants, such as Hirsch and Wapella,  did prosper. Repeatedly Canadian history has shown that regardless of race, religion or country of origin,  when given the opportunity, any immigrant group can establish successful settlements.

Galt didn’t have entirely altruistic motives when promoting Jewish immigration to Canada. He told Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald that admitting some Jews into Canada would be “of great importance” in cultivating “future influence with leading Jews” in London and Paris, such as the Rothschilds and Montagues.

“A sprinkling of Jews in the North West would do good,” replied Macdonald. “They would at once go in for peddling and politics and be of much use in the new country as cheap jacks (labourers) and chapmen (peddlers).”

For Macdonald, a few Jews were “good,” but the idea of settling thousands of Jewish refugees on land in Western Canada had limited appeal. The result was that the federal government begrudgingly provided help to refugees, expecting Jewish organizations to provide the lion’s share.

The small Jewish community — the 1881 Census indicated there were just 33 Jews in Manitoba before the arrival of the refugees — tried its best to help, but it was a lot to ask of so few people.

The Canadian government appointed Victor Victorson, a Jewish real estate broker in Winnipeg, to oversee the destitute people. Victorson found work through the summer of 1882 until the first snowfall for 60 male refugees with the Canadian Pacific Railway. The problem was that the men obviously did not understand their obligation and were persuaded by another less scrupulous individual to unload cars for him. Victorson was left to explain to the CPR authorities why the 60 men hadn’t showed up for work. He had to assure the railway company that “if the party did not go to work as agreed to-morrow he would clear the immigration sheds and let the refugees look out for themselves,” according to a June 21, 1882, article in the Daily Sun.

The men had already been exposed to others who had taken advantage of their situation. A sub-contractor for the St. Boniface brick works had hired the Jews, but failed to pay them the $95 owed for their labour — money they urgently needed. Victorson was unjustly accused by M.K. Auerbach, a Jew who had converted to Catholicism and apparently held a grudge against Victorson, of embezzling the money earned by the immigrants. But Victorson provided written proof that this had not been the case.

When it became known that the men had not received their wages, Victorson arranged a meeting with the overseer of the brickyard to have the wages paid. He was in the process of arranging the meeting when the accusation was made.

In another 1882 incident, about 60 Jews had been employed laying sewers along Portage Avenue, but struck for better pay after receiving only $2 a day after they had been promised $2.50.

In another case, some of the Jewish men with money were sold lots in Rapid City at an inflated price. Rapid City had earlier been considered the favoured location for a major CPR crossing point over the Assiniboine River. As a result, speculation in town lots ran rampant. Unfortunately the Russian Jews had not been told that the price for Rapid City lots was already in steep decline due to the CPR selecting its crossing at Brandon. Following an investigation, the two men who had swindled the Jews were arrested for fraud.

After being accused of embezzlement, Victorson threatened to resign and have nothing further to do with the refugees.

“I have worked myself to death for them,” he told a Sun reporter, “and still they are ungrateful. Yesterday I was all over the city collecting clothing for them, flour and other necessities.”

Philip Brown, a Winnipeg Jew who was present during the interview, told the reporter he advised Victorson that the indignation he experienced as a result of the accusation was sufficient grounds for tendering his resign.

“He (Brown) declared that Mr. Auerbach had done nothing to help the refugees, while others of the Jewish population had done much,” according to the Sun article of June 17, 1882.”

But Victorson withdrew his resignation after a petition was signed by all the refugees assuring him they had the utmost confidence in him, would always follow his advice and never again be swayed “by the ill-judged interference of strangers.”

“It is quite conceivable that more or less of a murmuring and a suspicious spirit should exist at times among the immigrants in question,” editorialized the Manitoba Free Press in mid-June 1882. “Treated as they have been in the past, it is not much to be wondered at that they should have a great deal of confidence in their employers or overseers.” 

With the help of Victorson and others, many of the refugees did get work with the CPR rail crews, but it became increasingly difficult to obtain other work in Winnipeg when the land boom of 1881-82 ended. Unfortunately for the Jews, the end came just before they arrived in the city. 

“The year just passed will be recalled as the year of trial,” said the Sun in its year-end review for 1882, “when Winnipeg went through the fire of depression and reaction consequent upon the collapse of an unnatural and unhealthy real estate boom ... The boom in real estate died a natural death, and with its collapse many firms, led by the great business they had transacted for a few months during the excitement, have gone the way of the majority who indulge in over-trading.”

In the aftermath of the collapse, jobs for a time became scarce in Winnipeg.

Many federal immigration officials shared Macdonald’s view that only a few Jews were good for Western Canada. When confronted with the prospect that they would encounter hundreds of refugees, the reaction from immigration officials was often hostile.

The Daily Sun sent a reporter to the Immigration Sheds to interview immigration agent W.C.B. Grahame. The article the reporter wrote, published on November 6, 1882, revealed Grahame believed the Russian Jews were “not worth the ground they stand on.”

When asked why, he replied they were unwilling unless forced to “do anything for themselves,” and preferred to live off the government.

“But since arriving here they have found out that they had to work or starve. With reluctance they chose the latter.”

It should be noted that impoverished Icelandic immigrants, who had arrived in Manitoba in 1875 and subsequent years, had received significantly more government aid than the Russian Jews, including an $80,000 loan used for the purchase of food supplies, seed grain, implements and cattle, as well as a sizable land grant that became known as New Iceland. The loan was to be repaid by 1889, but was never fully collected.

The appreciation of the Icelanders for the aid provided was expressed through their representative, John Taylor, the Icelandic agent in Manitoba appointed by the Canadian government, who wrote to the Marquis of Lorne, the Canadian Governor-General, relating how Lord Dufferin, the former governor general, had sponsored the Icelandic settlement in Manitoba and asking that the Canadian government do the same for the Russian Jews.

In his February 15, 1882, letter, Taylor said: “The extensive fertile country now opened by the Dominion Government of Canada presents a most desirable refuge for those oppressed and persecuted ones ... I would take the liberty of suggesting that under your lordship’s kind influence and patronage, a suitable block of land might by obtained for this purpose ...” to provide “new homes far removed from the cruelties and atrocities so shamefully perpetrated on this people ...”

Taylor said providing a haven for the Jewish refugees “would be a lasting credit to this country and a bright memorial of your lordship’s distinguished administration.”

While Canadian agent Taylor looked to the federal government to help alleviate the plight of the Russian Jews, Grahame’s harsh criticism of the Jews who had been given sanctuary was filled with anti-Semite stereotypes such as  Jews being “passionately fond of money, and while they were driven to earn it, they lived like misers ... They are cunning dogs, and instead of getting homes for themselves, have hitherto occupied the old immigration sheds.”

Unless Ottawa told him otherwise, Grahame informed the Jews they would be evicted within 10 days. He had  the Jewish tailor Brown post signs along Main Street printed in Hebrew to give “them ample warning” of the impending eviction.

The reporter asked the immigration agent what the Jews could possibly do without shelter during a cold Manitoba winter.

“They must provide for themselves like other people do,” he replied.

The reporter asked: “But would it not be an act of mercy to let them remain there this winter? It will be impossible for them to get houses, and it is almost too late to build shanties.”

Grahame implied that he was evicting the Russian Jews for their own good.

“They would become a public nuisance, and their presence there would probably create an epidemic of smallpox or some deadly disease,” he told the reporter. “There never was a greater mistake than to suppose that frost kills disease, and prevents epidemics. They have a little fresh air now, but as soon as the cold winter sets in they would stop up every crevice, keep out every breath of fresh air, inhale the poison they would create. Nothing but a special providence would prevent an epidemic among them ... And what a frantic hue and cry would raise against the government if any such calamity should befall us? Let them shift for  themselves as other people do. They earn as much as others and while their competitors have to pay high rates for board and lodging, they live ten times cheaper than the cheap Chinee (sic), and are ten times dirtier.”

While Grahame had only contempt for the Jews, he praised other European immigrants as a “first-class lot.” He said not all were farmers, but even English clerks who came were willing to try their hand at anything, and Scandinavians and Germans were “among the finest settlers in the whole Northwest.” He also praised American settlers, many of whom had been farmers in the United States. 

On the other hand, according to Grahame, he had seen first-hand the “beastly habits” of the Russian Jews. If they didn’t go willingly from the Immigration Shed, Grahame said he would round up a posse of police to evict the 50 families. “If that fails I will tear down the building,” he added.

The immigration agent’s threats were overturned and the Jews stayed in the Immigration Sheds over the winter, although the conditions remained deplorable — something that was far from their fault as the buildings had become rundown and seedy well before their arrival, but that was a matter Grahame failed to take into account when complaining about the refugees.

In June 1882, refugee S.F. Rodin wrote to the Odessa, Ukraine,-based Hebrew publication Ha-Melitz that tears were flowing from the unfortunate eyes of the immigrants due to “their lamentable condition. One hears nothing but weeping and wailing over the prospect of wasting one’s youth and spending it vainly in this desolation known as Winnipeg ... We were exiled to a wilderness. Even such work as chopping wood, hewing stone or digging soil is not to be found, and the cost of living is extremely high.”

Yet three months later, Robin wrote that “perhaps I have exaggerated,” and conditions had dramatically improved. As well, the people were becoming accustomed “to the hard work ... even the cultured and well bred among us had to discard our starched shirts and properly shined shoes and have gotten down to work.” 

Until the refugees’ lot in life improved, Winnipeggers rallied to provide assistance. In sharp contrast to the beliefs of immigration officials,  Winnipeggers only saw the people for what they were — poor immigrants who fled  a brutal regime and needed help until they could fend for themselves in a strange land.

At the YMCA meeting, Rev. Isaac Pitblado said: “if men, women or children were hungry, they must be fed; if they are naked, they must be clothed; if they are sick, they must be taken care of — no matter who or what they are or where they come from.”

Several Winnipeg Jews explained they had given some $1,200 to the cause, but their available funds had been exhausted and they could do no more to relieve the financial circumstances of the Russian Jews.

While many of the men had obtained jobs with the CPR, Brown told the YMCA crowd that only four or five of the women were young and strong enough for domestic service, and they were already doing what they could “by scrubbing, washing, etc.” In addition, their religious observances often hindered them from being hired out to families.

A relief committee made up of Rev. D.M. Gordon, Rev. George Bryce, C.F. Hamilton, Alderman McCrossan and Victorson was appointed “to superintend the removal of the sick and hungry families from the pens in the old (immigration) shed and the hovels on Notre Dame Street and near the railway depot to the city immigrant shed; to receive contributions of food, money, fuel and clothing and distribute the same, and do whatever else was deemed necessary to save them from hunger and cold.”

The committee appealed to the public for donations of clothing, especially flannel underwear, boots and stockings for the children. Another appeal went out for work for the men and young women “at reasonable wages.”

Monetary contributions were to be sent to C.E. Hamilton of Aikins, Culver and Hamilton, solicitors, 303 Main St.  The money was to be distributed by Brown. McCrossan told those at the meeting that city council had already awarded $100 to be distributed to the refugees.

Shortly after the meeting, the committee reported that 1,200 pounds of flour, 11 cords of wood and a good supply of groceries, fish and clothing had been collected for the relief of the refugees. Newspapers provided lists of Manitobans who gave whatever money they could to help the immigrants, such as Julian Kerr $2, Mr. Hamilton $10, A. McDonald $6, W. Murray $20.25, Mrs. Nursey $10, Miss Minnie Winks $5, and a Stonewall friend $1.

The fund-raising effort even included a curling game with the prize being a “bag of flour for the suffering Jews.”

The Russian Jews spent a year in the building along the Red River before they became accustomed to their new surroundings and spread out to live in other parts of the city and province.

From just 33 individuals recorded for all of Manitoba in the 1881 census, the Jewish population in Winnipeg had increased to 1,156 by 1891. Subsequently, the local Jewish population would increase to the point that it briefly represented the most numerous non-Anglo-Saxon group in Winnipeg.

“In professional, mercantile, and industrial pursuits, the Jews of Winnipeg have done their full share toward the development of the city ...,” wrote Jewish historian Joseph Jacobs in a 1905 Jewish Encyclopedia article.