From Pogrom to Prairie: Early Jewish Farm Settlements in Central Alberta

by A. J. Armstrong 

We are walking the half-mile to our location, and are making plans as to where the house shall stand, where the barn is to be, chicken house, etc. We are walking, walking on our own soil. Our own piece of ground. Something inside you is glowing. This is all yours. The brushes, around the sloughs, all these hills and valleys, as far as your eyes can see. Oh! what a grand feeling! A feeling of independence, of self-respect, of equality. 
— Jack Hackman "Reminiscences of Rumsey 1
 
In the late 1870s, the first trickles of what would become waves of Jewish settlers arrived on the Prairies. Of course, these were not the first Jews in the Canadian West, yet they were the first to seek to create rural Jewish settlements. By the end of that decade, the vast majority of Jews in Western Canada were the urban, acculturated, and mainly secular Jews of German and West European extraction. In the 1880s, however, there was a radical shift in the demographics of Jewish immigration to Canada, which one of the chief historians of Canadian Jewry underlined with a paragraph consisting of the single sentence: "And then the Russian Jews arrived."2
 
The pogroms in the Russian "pale of settlement" from 1881 to 1882, followed by nearly four decades of internal deportations, quotas and renewed pogroms, provided the spur for mass emigration of Russian Jews. Jews in Canada responded by lobbying the Canadian government, offering sponsorship and demanding that the Canadian government provide for the refugees on humanitarian grounds. The government, already concerned that rapid American expansion into the West would impinge upon the still sparsely populated Canadian prairies, not only permitted, but also actively encouraged immigration by Russian Jews.  Jack Hackman, who was born c.1888 in Russia, remembered that, in 1906, "The Canadian government, being anxious to get immigrants to come to Canada, and settle on the land — had opened an office in Odessa, and distributed pamphlets — describing the wonderful opportunities waiting for you in Canada on the farms."3 Apparently, the hope was that the success of other ethnic groups, notably Scandinavians and Russian Mennonites, in forging new communities out of the prairie, might also be enjoyed by these Russian Jews. However, the responsibility for settling these newcomers was turned over to Canadian Jewish organizations, especially in the nascent community in Winnipeg.
 
Canadian Jews and their East European cousins shared little save their ethnicity. Even the religious expression of the two groups had remarkable dissimilarities, though both resonated with the Ashkenazic Rabbinical tradition developed over the centuries in Europe. Canadian Jews, for the most part descended from urban Jews from western Poland and Germany, had experienced neither the insular environment of the shtetl4 nor the religious revivalism which swept through Eastern Europe in the second half of the 18th century. To Canadian Jews the Vilna Gaon and Baal Shem Tov were distant, mysterious, and faintly troubling, just as Herzl and Mendelssohn were to the Russians.
 
Canadian Jews had, over the generations in Europe and the New World, lost many of the cultural accretions which radically distinguished them from their gentile neighbours. Although they retained a distinctly Jewish identity, and formed and identified with Jewish organizations and institutions, they settled in the major urban centres of Canada and quite readily adapted to and entered middle-class mainstream society. They observed major holidays and Sabbath worship, but did not in any definitive way partake of the elaborate system of halakhah5 which structured the lives of their Eastern cousins. Consequently, it was understandable that the arrival of a large number of Russian Jews, who did not speak English, had no apparent useful skills, had little farming experience, did not accept the validity of existing Jewish institutions, and would not eat the kosher food prepared for them, provoked some friction.6
 
It is easy, however, to appreciate why Russian Jews clung to the traditions of their homeland. For centuries, the very distinctiveness, insularity, and social closure that  troubled their Canadian co-religionists had been the main means of preserving their identity in the face of pogroms, expulsion, and oppression. In a new environment, they turned to the familiar — Yiddish culture, the traditions of their ancestors, and the comfort of an exclusive circle of family and acquaintances. The sheer number of immigrants, which was aided by the ascendancy of the strongly pro-immigration government of Sir  Laurier and the financial assistance of European Jews, and the insistence that they be settled on the prairies, greatly altered the shape of Jewish culture in Canada: " the face of Canadian Jewry had changed. By 1914 it was not the Anglicized, comfortable, integrated community it had been 30 years before. Rather, the majority of Canada's Jews were now Yiddish-speaking, Orthodox, penurious immigrants."
 
uring the three decades between 1880—1910, about a dozen distinct Jewish farming communities were founded on the Canadian Prairies, the vast majority in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Given the absence then of an established urban community of Jews west of Winnipeg, there was understandable reluctance to travel as far into the unknown (and away from the aid of Jewish institutions) as Alberta. Rumsey, the best-known of the Alberta settlements, was not established until 1906, and even the settlements in western Saskatchewan were established comparatively late. Consequently, the tiny, and ultimately untenable, settlement at Pine Lake, Alberta (southeast of Red Deer), provokes some curiosity.
 
Pine Lake was established in 1892 or 1893, and very little is known about it. At that time, the nearest Jewish communities would have been clustered around the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border, an enormous distance before the advent of extensive road networks. The Pine Lake community was only in existence for three or four years, and had fallen from an initial population of 15 families to only six after its first year. This community raises the question of why they had travelled so far west and why they failed so tellingly. Part of the answer lies in the nature of the Dominion Lands Act which dominated the structure of settlement in the Canadian West. The Act required immigrants to claim a quarter-section of land, which they would improve, reside on for a minimum of six months every year, and receive full title to only after three years. This system was very effective at settling the prairies en masse, but the requirement of residence on the land precluded the formation of the sort of settlement that was familiar to Russian Jews. Until the Act included a settlement clause — originally proposed to permit the traditional communal farming of the Mennonites — it was illegal for homesteaders to establish villages and reside away from their farms.
 
Some official comments about the Pine Lake Jews are instructive: "correspondence between the Agent at Red Deer and the Commissioner of Dominion Lands reveals that the Agent had warned the group to make legal entry on their lands, something they were, curiously, unwilling to do" and "the colony was operated on co-operative, or possibly communist principles, and the settlers were loathe to accept money as individuals."8  Their refusal to reside on their homesteads, since they preferred to live in close proximity to each other, and the apparent communal government are strongly reminiscent of the shtetl communities from which these Jews had emigrated. It is also interesting to note that the settlement at Pine Lake was composed of families, rather than the later, predominantly bachelor initial settlement at Rumsey. Furthermore, the Pine Lake community had, as its leader, an individual identified as Rabbi Blank or Blanche.9
 
The evidence indicates that the Jews of Pine Lake had sought to establish a traditional community, communally governed, with the family the base unit, under the leadership of a rabbi. In all probability, this community was originally modelled on the shtetlakh of Eastern Europe. This perhaps explains why they had travelled so far from other rural Jewish communities, which had been established along less conservative lines. Sadly, the experiment proved to be short-lived. A lack of familiarity with farming, the antipathy of their neighbours, and the devastating winter of 1895-96 finally forced the community to abandon their farmsteads. Such a traditional Jewish community was only attempted one more time in the Canadian West at Bender Hamlet near Winnipeg, in 1903.
 
There is little information on where the settlers at Pine Lake went. Some probably returned to Winnipeg, and may have joined later settlements. One source indicates that several of the families migrated to California, taking up (somewhat more successfully) the trade of chicken ranching, and forming a "Montefiore Society" which still exists. Little remains of their settlement. The foundation excavations for a few dwellings, now shallow and filled with stones, are scattered around a tiny lake that nearby farmers still refer to as "Blanche Lake," after the rabbi of the small settlement. These excavations probably led to the preposterous tradition, repeated in a local history, that the Jews of Pine Lake had lived in caves or holes dug in the ground.10  However, there is a footnote to the Pine Lake story. Over half a century later, but less than half a day's walk away, camp B'nai Brith, a summer camp for Jewish children, was established. There is no evidence that the founders of the Camp had any knowledge of the earlier settlement, but it is good to note that today, a century after the failure of the Pine Lake settlement, for two months every summer the area near Pine Lake boasts the largest concentrated Jewish population in Alberta.
 
 The next attempt to form a Jewish settlement in Alberta took place at Rumsey, sometimes referred to as the Rumsey-Trochu area. This settlement was not begun until 1905-06, well into the major period of immigration for Russian Jews. The Jews of Rumsey did not arrive as a bloc; most did not know each other prior to establishment of the community. However, after the area was surveyed by the Gurevitch brothers and Elias Sengaus, word spread so that Jewish immigrants arriving in Calgary heard of the new Jewish settlement. By 1910, there were approximately 70 Jewish families living in the area. In the early years of this settlement, most farmsteads were claimed by bachelors or by groups of fathers and sons. Most wives were left in Calgary while the land was broken and the house was erected. Frequently, the wives and younger sons sought employment in Calgary in order to support the family as the farm was established. Just like their Pine Lake predecessors, the Russian Jews of Rumsey had little or no experience farming. Jack Hackman's experience is typical: "We — farmers?! We are to plow the land? I — to drive horses?! I to ride horseback? I — who had handled a pen and pencil all my young life — the only tools my white lily hands handled in the bank where I was employed?11 William Sengaus reported that his father Elias had never been close to oxen or horses prior to arriving in Rumsey.
 
However, the Rumsey settlement enjoyed considerable success, compared to its predecessor. The new community flourished, probably due to the larger Jewish population and the infrastructure that had developed in Calgary and nearby Stettler to support the new homesteaders. Roving cattle, insects, fouled wells, caterpillar worms, and other trials were met and overcome. Some accounts indicate that local gentile farmers helped the Jews learn the farming techniques they needed to know. However, by 1910, the majority of farmsteads and dwellings were sufficiently well established that wives could be sent for or courted. Several more years passed, though, before the occasional necessity for one or more sons to work in Calgary to support the family waned. By the beginning of WWI the settlement was firmly established.
 
 Hackman noted in passing that his father would eat only kosher food and carried sandwiches when he travelled. His tone suggests that he and other members of the younger generation were not as strictly observant as their parents, which probably was a necessity for pioneer life, when the nearest source of kosher meat could be weeks away. Despite retaining a distinctly Jewish ethnicity (the wives courted in Calgary and other urban Jewish communities were universally Jewish), the Rumsey community was not distinctly religious, originally. However, greater leisure after 1914 permitted a recovery of those traditions. Sometime between 1917 and 1919 a modest synagogue was constructed with funds donated by the Baron de Hirsch fund. The synagogue housed Sabbath and High Holiday worship, as well as a Hebrew and Yiddish school for Jewish children. Social dances and meetings were also held at the synagogue, which rapidly became the social centre for the community. A shochet (ritual slaughterer) was engaged to provide kosher meat and instruct children in Jewish subjects. Matzah (unleavened bread) which Jews eat during the Pesakh (Passover) festival, and other kosher foods were imported from Calgary or Winnipeg for holidays.
 
Between the wars, the community gradually faded. Children, sent to study or find spouses in the urban centres, often found new homes there, too. Older members of the community, no longer able to withstand the rigours of farm life, retired to Calgary or Vancouver: "By 1940 it seemed that the synagogue had served its purpose as a community centre; even during the High Holidays, it was no longer used."13 Several families, although they remained in the area, sold, traded or rented their farms in order to open stores or other businesses. The urban shift, which so marks Jewish demographics in Canada, had come to Rumsey. By the 1950s, although a few families remained in the area, the Jewish farming settlement in Rumsey had faded away.
 
The Rumsey settlement, whose members succeeded in pioneering the land while retaining their Jewish identity, is an important chapter in the history of Jews in Alberta. With the notable exception of Israel, in few other places in the world could Jews experience the task of shaping a land and proving their place on it. Alberta Jews are now primarily urban, but they include many descendants of those early settlers, and share their origins with those of the Province — a unique and sobering experience for those whose ancestors left a land where they were reviled.