Manitoba History: Doomed to Failure: The Jewish Farm Colony of Hirsch, Saskatchewan

by John C. Lehr
University of Winnipeg

Number 89, Spring 2019

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Today there is little evidence in the landscape around Hirsch, Saskatchewan to suggest it was once an active Jewish agricultural colony. The cemetery, now disused, is a Provincial Historic Site; the lone surviving synagogue, now converted into a residence, is barely recognizable as such. Yet in the early1890s Hirsch was the destination for hundreds of Jewish refugees fleeing economic turmoil and pogroms—anti-Jewish riots—in eastern Europe’s Pale of Settlement, a region of western Russia to which Jewish settlement was confined.

Strangely, Hirsch’s history is not well known, although the broad outlines of Jewish agricultural settlement on the prairies have received attention from a variety of perspectives. Until recently, the literature on Jewish settlement on the Prairies has been descriptive rather than analytical. Abraham Arnold, Cyril Leonoff, and Simon Belkin established the broad outline of its history, with Leonoff also providing an account of the settlement at Wapella, based on interviews with original settlers. The failed attempt to establish a Jewish farm village at Bender Hamlet in Manitoba’s Interlake was examined by James Richtik and Danny Hutch.[1] Jewish settlement was analyzed as a Utopian experiment by Anthony Rasporich, who concluded that many early Jewish settlements were suffocated by paternalism, [2] while Yossi Katz and John Lehr attempted to explain the demise of Jewish agricultural communities in terms of conflict between religious demands, the requirements of the Dominion Lands Act, and the lack of a strong theocratic control within Judaism. [3] More recently, in-depth studies of individual Jewish colonies have appeared, notably Anna Feldman’s examinations of the stability of the Sonnenfeld colony, in which she argued that Jewish farmers were no more likely to leave the land than their Gentile neighbours. [4] The only other in-depth published studies of a Jewish farm colony are Theodore Friedgut’s meticulously documented examinations of the forces that shaped the Jewish colony of Lipton. [5] The origins and role of the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) worldwide has been described by Kennee Switzer-Rakos; more recently John Lehr reviewed the role of the JCA in Canada. [6]

Hirsch was not the first attempt to establish a Jewish agricultural settlement on the Prairies; there were two earlier attempts, at Moosomin and Wapella, in the 1880s, but only Wapella survived, [7] but Hirsch was unique in its genesis. It was the first Jewish colony to be established by the Young Men’s Hebrew Benevolent Society of Montreal, with aid received from the Baron de Hirsch Foundation.

Its formation, management, and eventual decline illustrate the role of political, social, and economic ideologies in sponsored settlement and the tensions occasioned by attempts to impose institutional values on mostly involuntary migrants.

Sarah Carter, in her study of Indigenous agriculture on the Prairies, has pointed out that before the arrival of Jews at Hirsch, Indigenous people in the area covered by Treaty Four—and the westernmost part of Treaty Two, the region within which Hirsch was located—had engaged in farming following the conclusion of the numbered Treaties. Their endeavours ultimately failed, not due to lack of prior experience in agriculture or any cultural or religious taboos, but due to lack of capital, the vagaries of the climate, and bureaucratic ineptitude on the part of the Dominion Government. [8] There are striking parallels with the experiences of the Jewish immigrants who were settled at Hirsch.

Events in Europe and Montreal

The decision to establish a Jewish farm colony in Saskatchewan was taken in direct response to a refugee crisis. In the 1880s, Jews in Russia’s Pale of Settlement experienced a wave of pogroms ignited by the assassination of Czar Alexander II. Their misery was compounded by changes in the economy that eliminated many occupations traditionally held by Jews. Many fled from Russia to western Europe where Jewish aid agencies assisted their emigration to North America. The result was a deluge of Jews, mostly of an urban background, into the port cities of the North American eastern seaboard, one of which was Montreal. Those who arrived in Montreal tended to remain there, attempting to make a living practising the small trades and peddling. The Young Men’s Hebrew Benevolent Society of Montreal (YMHBS) gave aid to impoverished Jewish arrivals but its resources were limited. [9] It was soon overwhelmed and sought aid from the better-funded Baron de Hirsch Institute. [10]

Moritz Freiherr von Hirsch auf Gereuth (1831–1896) was a wealthy Jewish philanthropist who established the Jewish Colonization Association, endowing it with an initial gift of $2.4 million in 1891 and giving it a global mandate to facilitate Jewish agricultural settlement.
Source: Canadian Jewish Archives, PC12-JCA-Album-01

Baron de Hirsch was a wealthy Jewish philanthropist who established the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA), endowing it with an initial gift of $2.4 million in 1891 and giving it a global mandate to facilitate Jewish agricultural settlement. [11] Baron de Hirsch was a firm believer in the redemptive power of the soil and envisaged the creation of a class of Jewish yeoman farmers in lands being opened to European colonization. [12] With its administrative headquarters in Paris, the JCA became the principal actor in the promotion of Jewish agricultural settlement around the world. [13] In Canada, until 1906, it operated through the Baron de Hirsch Institute and the YMHBS in Montreal. [14]

Late in 1891, the Alliance Israelite in France wrote to the YMHBS asking whether Russian-Jewish refugees in France could be sent to Canada. [15] The YMHBS concluded that further Jewish refugees could not be absorbed into Montreal and resolved they “must either colonize or else stop emigration.” [16] Few, if any, of the YMHBS board had any conception of the realities of colonization on the prairies when they suggested sending refugees there. Few people did. Optimistic appraisals of settlement opportunities by the Government and railway companies did little to clarify things. [17] The Board of the YMHBS, composed of acculturated middle-class Jewish businessmen, had little in common with their eastern European brethren apart from a shared faith. This cultural disconnection was exacerbated by de Hirsch’s own belief that giving aid as charity was counter-productive. He believed, as did many others involved in the promotion of immigration, that “unproductive charity” would stifle initiative, breed a culture of dependency, and erode self-reliance. The organizations he funded granted aid only as loans repayable with interest at the bank rate of the time. [18]

In February 1892, the Board of the Baron de Hirsch Society resolved to establish a colony in western Canada. It requested notification of lands open for settlement in the Prince Albert, Red Deer, and Edmonton districts. [19] Hopes for the creation of vibrant Jewish settlements ran high. That the earlier attempt at Jewish colonization at Moosomin, Saskatchewan had failed (Fig. 1) was dismissed as the result of “winter idleness.” If colonists were occupied during the winter, thought the YMHBS, they would develop an attachment to place and not leave for opportunities in urban areas. [20] This view, out of touch with the realities of prairie agriculture, failed to consider the difficulties of prairie pioneer settlement, especially when environmental adversity compounded the problems of remote markets and poor communications.

A location for the proposed colony near Regina was rejected because the area was too sparsely settled, and no Jews were in the area. An offer received from the Russo-Jewish Committee to transfer the lands abandoned by Jewish settlers at Moosomin was declined in favour of what was thought to be a better location at Township 3 Range 5 West of the Second Meridian, near Oxbow, Saskatchewan. [21]

Figure 1. Jewish agricultural settlements in western Canada.

The Beginning of Hirsch Colony

The YMHBS applied to the Minister of the Interior for permission to establish a Jewish Colony “at Hirsch Assa. [Assiniboia] under clause 37 of the Dominion Lands Act,” which would permit them to create a hamlet or village, a request the Department saw no reason to deny, provided that the hamlet had more than the required 20 households. Permission to do this was limited to the current year (1892) which made it impossible to accomplish as notice was received in mid-October after settlers were already dispersed on homesteads. [22]

The Government appeared pleased to have Jewish colonists, re-iterating its instruction to its Agent at Cannington to “hold Township 3 Range 5 [West of the 2nd Meridian] for the Baron de Hirsch colony men just starting from Montreal.” The Agent was also instructed to offer “every facility in locating them” on homesteads. [23]

In July 1892, a month after the departure of the first group of settlers for Hirsch, the Baron de Hirsch Institute asked the Government to facilitate the creation of an exclusively Jewish settlement of between thirty and fifty families by arranging the disposition of land to permit settlement on adjoining sections, but was unsuccessful. [24] This quashed any hope of creating a contiguous Jewish bloc settlement. Under the Act’s terms, land was surveyed into Townships comprised of 36 sections each of one square mile. Each section was subdivided into four quarter-sections of 160 acres. To compensate the Hudson’s Bay Company for ceding Rupertsland to the Crown, it was given one and three quarters of a section in every Township; a further two sections were reserved as School Lands. In many areas, every odd-numbered section was granted to the Canadian Pacific Railway Company as payment for building the transcontinental railway. This meant that of the 144 quarters in every Township, only 96 were available as homesteads, precluding any chance of achieving a dense contiguous settlement. [25]

Gelman House at Hirsch, circa 1926.
Source: Canadian Jewish Archives, PC12-JCA-OC4-56

Although the YMHBS Colonization Committee was well intentioned and enthusiastic, its expectations of western settlement had an air of unreality. The location chosen was within Palliser’s Triangle, an area identified years earlier as semi-arid and unsuitable for arable farming, best suited to ranching. The Government and the YMHBS had other views, considering it suitable for cereal cultivation on the basis that it was “not in the dangerous neighborhood of the arid region,” and the soil was “easily worked and free of stones.” [26] The presence of a small group of independent Jews settled at Oxbow some years earlier, and the availability of work in the Estevan coalfields, added to the area’s appeal. [27]

Estimates of the costs of establishing a settlement on the open prairie were sanguine, to say the least. Committee members speculated that a family of ten could be settled and be supported through their first year for as little as $400.00, even $350.00. Establishing a homestead was usually costlier, in the range of $590 to $1193, even before buying seed or contract-breaking land. [28] Only in the wooded bush country of the aspen parkland belt could the costs of settlement be reduced by retrenching into a semi-subsistence economy.

YMHBS press statements made colonization sound straightforward: colonists would be divided into four groups each led by a “competent farmer”. Before departure, 19 teams of horses would be sent out. At Hirsch the colonists would immediately plant in seed, and then build houses. The colonists would be supplied with “horses, cows, wagons, etc. and farm implements,” and so forth. [29] Charles McDairmid, a former cavalry officer, and an experienced farmer from eastern Ontario, was hired as an overseer. [30]

The Reality of Pioneer Settlement

Problems emerged immediately. The first party of 72 settlers arrived in May 1892 to be met by rain and snow. It was impossible to go out on to the prairie to inspect the land. No accommodation had been prepared, so their first night was spent on the train. They then moved into a small warehouse for ten days, cooped up in very tight quarters, anxiously waiting for the weather to clear. [31]

Once on their homesteads, things went from bad to worse. Charles McDairmid reported they experienced the worst spring in memory. A plethora of irritants eroded morale: no one in Montreal had the foresight to identify the contents of the boxes of supplies. McDairmid wasted valuable time looking for specific items. Not enough horses were sent from Montreal and the colony lacked the most basic supplies. Colonists were expected to share farm equipment and draught animals. McDairmid was frustrated by the colonists’ religious observance, causing him to wonder whether they realized refusing to make a fire on the Sabbath would cause them to freeze. He was equally dismayed at the lack of camaraderie shown by the group and by their lack of trustworthiness. [32] McDairmid thought the settlers to be too individualistic, putting their own family interests before those of the group. [33] He vented his frustration in a memorandum to the Baron de Hirsch Institute in which he complained about the selfishness of his charges and their ignorance of farming. [34]

Threshing at the Harry Fishstrom farm, circa 1926.
Source: Canadian Jewish Archives, PC12-JCA-OC4-69

There is little doubt that the Jewish colonists made foolish decisions. Lumber allocated for building houses was used to build an outhouse before securing shelter; houses were built without leaving enough lumber for a roof. Three colonists had nothing to show for a season in Hirsch, wrote an exasperated McDairmid, “except for a first-class W.C.” [35] Nevertheless, McDairmid remained concerned about the colonist’s welfare and feared they were ill-prepared to survive a prairie winter. He implored the YMHBS in Montreal to send out warm clothing, overcoats, and blankets. He complained that only 12 lanterns arrived to distribute to 48 families and supplies of clothing were inadequate: “What am I to clothe the women with, many of them are nearly barefoot as well as in need of a dress?” [36] Buying items in Montreal, he argued, and shipping west was inefficient and uneconomic. Most settlers at Hirsch were destitute on arrival. To assist them the Baron de Hirsch Institute loaned each $600, taking a lien against their homestead entry. Unfortunately, almost half the settlers, either through ignorance or design, gave a homestead location other than the one on which they were residing as security, leaving the Society without access to any collateral in the event of default. Many of these settlers subsequently defaulted on their loans and abandoned the colony.

The YMHBS gave no indication it was aware that micro-managing a colony from over two thousand kilometres away, at a time when mail could take two weeks or more to reach Hirsch, was not practical. Nor did they appreciate the difficulties faced by prairie farmers, especially by those feeling their way in an endeavour foreign to them in every way. Rather than reassessing their financial strategies or the practicality of long-distance management, they placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the colonists and McDairmid who, it alleged, “has allowed them too much leniency, which they were not slow to take advantage of, and some of them have run up their accounts as high as a thousand dollars or more.” [37] Settlers were portrayed as spendthrifts, using their loans injudiciously, “buying from $75- to $100-worth of fine clothing, totally useless for farming and “more fit for Main Street, Winnipeg.” The honesty of some of the colonists was questioned: “We regret to have to relate that on one occasion missing flour from the store was found by the aid of the police in the house of one of the colonists, one who has always been the loudest in his complaints, and who would never be satisfied.” [38]

The YMHBS was uncompromising when it came to the provision of aid to settlers it suspected were abusing the system. Late in October 1892 it emphasized that aid to penurious settlers was to be “just enough to keep body and soul together, and not even that to those who are lazy and no good.... We cannot and will not pass the cost to Paris [Baron de Hirsch] another time, they therefore must make an effort to support themselves if they wish to remain in the colony,” [39] [Underlining in the original]

In 1893, crop failure was widespread in the Hirsch area. [40] Reports of destitution in the colony continued to reach Ottawa. William Cruchfield, who assumed the position of storekeeper at the Hirsch Colony store in August 1893, concerned about the condition of the settlers, wrote to the Department of the Interior, stressing the settlers’ need for immediate aid, noting he had every reason to believe that if assistance was not forthcoming there would be sickness and death among them. Without money or authority, he claimed, he could do little for the settlers. [41]

Given the conditions they endured and the parsimony of aid received from Montreal, it is not surprising that many arrivals were reluctant to remain at Hirsch. Like their sponsors, many knew little or nothing about prairie agriculture. From the outset, they were pushed into commercial grain farming, dependent on high capital inputs in the form of machinery and seed. Grain farming carries the promise of high returns but is subject to the vagaries of the weather and international grain prices. Furthermore, farmers must support themselves until their first crop is sold. Aid from Montreal was parsimonious, insufficient to ensure a smooth transition into commercial agriculture. The YMHBS was more concerned that seed grain was being “otherwise disposed of”, a euphemism for illegally sold. [42] Nevertheless, some senior officials in the Department of the Interior remained unconvinced that the difficulties experienced by the Hirsch colonists were anything out of the ordinary, nothing “which is not incidental to the early days of settlement, especially by people without experience of agriculture.... I am afraid the Baron de Hirsch Institute [is] merely having the experience which other philanthropical individuals and societies have had before, and that meddlesome interference of outsiders on the ground is having the direct effect of making the colonists dissatisfied and encouraging them to persist in bad resolutions.” [43]

Administrative Problems

The following year, in 1894, another 71 Jewish families arrived in Hirsch, among them 70 destitute Jews from a failed attempt at settlement near Red Deer. [44] Their placement on to homesteads was chaotic. It is impossible to determine how it occurred but of 43 settlers identified as having made entry on to homesteads, 21 were given liens for $600 from the YMHBS on lands for which they had not entered. [45] Confusion reigned when Major Phipps, the Dominion Lands Agent, conflated his own financial affairs with those of the Department. He was a busy man and clearly no bookkeeper, giving personal receipts for monies remitted to the Government and relying on memory to record complex transactions amounting to hundreds of dollars. The result was administrative chaos.

House, stable, and bathhouse (used for ritual purposes) at Hirsch, circa 1926.
Source: Canadian Jewish Archives, PC12-JCA-OC4-60

Things first went awry when William Baker, Secretary of the YMHBS, gave a considerable sum to Phipps to pay for homestead entries by Jewish settlers who were receiving aid from the Baron de Hirsch Institute. Phipps gave a personal receipt for some of the money, but he and Baker later disagreed on the amounts transferred. There was considerable confusion over the number of homestead entries paid for by the YMHBS and, in fact, whether some entries, where payment was in dispute, were legal or not. Uncertainty as to whether their entries had been paid and the consequent question about the legal status of entrants certainly did little to quell dissatisfaction on the part of some colonists who blamed the YMHBS officials for letting them down. Relations between the YMHBS and the Department of the Interior also became strained. [46]

By 1897, only 15 of the original settler families remained at Hirsch. [47] Problems with dissident settlers continued. These issues were not fully resolved but lessened as time progressed. Many disgruntled settlers left, some drifting away soon after arrival, heading for urban centres where they could engage in their former occupations and achieve a far higher standard of living. Later, some of the longer-term settlers left the district to continue farming in Manitoba. [48]

Of the 197 Jewish people who arrived in Montreal in 1897 and remained in Canada, seven families went to Winnipeg and five families were sent to Hirsch.[49] Even though Jewish settlers continued to arrive in Hirsch, as many left the colony, leaving unoccupied land coveted by surrounding Gentile settlers who were unable to claim empty quarter-sections that had become the property of the YMHBS through defaults on loans. [50] This embarrassed the Government politically, leaving it open to charges of ethnic favouritism. Despite having empty land in Hirsch that it was unable to populate, the YMHBS and its funder, the Baron de Hirsch Institute, remained enthusiastic about the possibility of establishing further colonies, sending a Special Commissioner to inspect potential sites.

The status of abandoned lands retarded settlement. The local Dominion Lands Agent complained of trouble with incoming settlers when they refused to go on to the land vacated by the first settlers, unless they could have entry in their own name, and all the old liens to the JCA cancelled. The de Hirsch Institute thought that these lands would be cancelled in the usual way and new entries given without new entry fees being paid. They were informed this was impossible “for if that were done the Jew would be getting an advantage over the Gentile, which would not be right and if granted would leave the government open to a lot of censure.” The Agent complained:

This Jewish business seems to have been rotten from the beginning, and I think the Department should make some definite ruling in the matter and get it going on a proper footing. The Jews seem to be afraid of the [Baron de Hirsch] Society beating them, and they are in here every few days asking me to protect them. I can simply tell them that I don’t know anything about what is going to be done in the matter until I hear from Head Office. [51]

As Jewish settlers at Hirsch continued to default on loans and abandon their holdings, pressure mounted on the Government to open all empty lands for settlement. Since most of the abandoned land had reverted to the YMHBS, the Department of the Interior was unable to achieve a solution, save for aiding the YMHBS in its efforts to bring in replacement settlers. To appease local farmers anxious to have access to lands in and around Hirsch, in 1902 the Department declared that any lands reserved for the Jewish settlement at Hirsch and not encumbered by liens would henceforth be open to general settlement. [52]

The Jewish Colonization Association at Hirsch

After a decade or more of arm’s-length involvement through the YMHBS and the Baron de Hirsch Institute, in 1905 the JCA formally applied to the Department of the Interior to assume responsibility for Jewish settlements in Canada. The Department initially rejected the JCA’s application, fearing it would “mean the revival of the colonization plans that were tried many years ago and which proved an utter failure.” [53] There was little interest in having the JCA merely fund existing Jewish settlers, but the government was prepared to co-operate with the JCA in the hope it would secure more settlers from Europe and induce them to settle in western Canada. When the JCA received permission to operate as a colonization agency in Canada, little changed: Jews—many of them refugees from Russia—were recruited from Europe and were encouraged to go to western Canada as colonists by the promise of aid in the form of loans. Hirsch, which received most of these immigrants, continued to be characterized by high attrition rates and requests for financial aid.

Men at Hirsch stacking feed, circa 1925.
Source: Canadian Jewish Archives, PC12-OC4-68

When the JCA assumed responsibility for the management of Hirsch its population was not much affected. The change was principally a matter of accounting as the JCA had been the de facto, though not the de jurefinancial supporter of the colony for several years. [54] When it assumed direct responsibility for Hirsch, it was not legally entitled to own land, so liens and loans continued to be passed through the YMHBS in Montreal. The JCA attempted to bolster Hirsch’s stability, sending four graduates from its agricultural training school in Slobodka Lesna, Galicia, to be employed by Jewish farmers at $10.00 per month. [55] The JCA hoped they would form a cadre of idealistic settlers who would enhance stability and unify the colony. Unfortunately, some did not want to farm and made it clear they preferred to work for wages on the railway.

Retention of settlers was a continual problem. Far from Hirsch being “on its way to stability,” as Arthur Chiel claimed, it was on a slow irreversible path of decline. [56] Settlers abandoned their lands for a variety of reasons: to move to Winnipeg or the United States, to resume farming in a better location or, most often, to move to an urban centre—most likely Winnipeg—where they could practise their trade or business and, generally, improve their standard of living. [57] As they left, the JCA acquired the lands it held liens against. New arrivals preferred to homestead on vacant land adjacent to the colony rather than to purchase JCA land in Hirsch, thwarting its hope of creating a contiguous block of Jewish settlers where cultural and religious life could flourish. Attempting to create a Jewish milieu that would enable its settlers to remain farmers but be religiously observant, the JCA funded the building of two synagogues and supported the services of a shochet (ritual slaughterer) so the colony could have a supply of kosher meat. It also subsidized the construction of two public schools, presumably to help reduce the tax burden on settlers in the vicinity. Secular institutions did not thrive, reflecting the colony’s difficulty in retaining people. A Credit Union was established in Hirsch in 1910, after some difficulty in attracting support, even getting someone to sign a promissory note to the JCA for an initial $500. It closed in 1922, owing the JCA nearly four thousand dollars. [58]

Unfortunately, there was little the JCA could do to address the issue of young people finding it difficult to find a Jewish marriage partner in Hirsch or to secure a proper Jewish education. For families determined to bring up their children in a Jewish environment, Hirsch presented real problems. These issues could be addressed by sending children to live with relatives in Winnipeg or, for those without Winnipeg contacts, to live in the Jewish Orphanage there. Many did; doubtless some simply chose to relocate to Winnipeg. [59]

During the First World War grain and stock prices were high, and across North America farmers generally did well financially. In the spring of 1920, in anticipation of high prices, prairie farmers planted large acreages. Seeds, fertilizer, and raw materials were at peak prices and machinery was expensive; labour was both scarce and expensive. The U. S. Secretary of Agriculture reported the 1920 crop was raised at the greatest cost ever known. Before crops were harvested, prices dropped, markets were upset, bank credits dropped, and exports declined. [60] From the outset, settlers had struggled financially. Loans from the Baron de Hirsch Institute and, later, the JCA, barely met their needs, and the repayment terms, payment in full within 12 years with annual interest at six per cent, imposed an unnecessarily heavy burden.

Like other grain-dependent communities, Hirsch was affected by the post-war agricultural downturn. [61] For settlers on the financial edge, the post-war slump was the last straw. Across the prairies, there was a drift to the cities by settlers of all origins, fuelled by farm consolidation, a search for better opportunities and financial exigency. Hirsch lost 15 families from 1920 to 1926. [62] It was not alone among grain-farming prairie communities in its population loss. In the 1930s, depopulation continued when the southern Prairies were hit hard by drought, grasshopper infestations and crop failures. Only a dozen Jewish farmers remained in Hirsch by 1940.

The patchwork of landholding types at Hirsch revealed the JCA’s problem with settler retention (Fig. 2). Some 14,000 acres were owned by the JCA or Jewish farmers, but barely half (51.5 per cent) was owned outright by Jews; eleven percent was mortgaged to the JCA, 21 per cent was leased to Jewish colonists on a trial basis and 16 percent was held as a land reserve by the JCA. [63] The Canadian Government’s anti-Semitic immigration policies in the inter-war years precluded the repopulation of Hirsch with immigrant Jewish families. [64]

In the 1940s, the colony still struggled on, but farmers continued to leave. Crop failures in the late 1930s had led to a reduction in the area seeded and most farmers needed financial assistance. The colony received a subsidy from the JCA only for shochet services. Four farmers, in arrears with their taxes, had chattels seized by the local Municipality. At the end of 1939, colony members still owed $750.00 to the Municipality. [65] The colony’s acreage shrank from 9,760 in 1944 to 8960 in 1945 and another farming family left, leaving only nine Jewish farming families.

By the dawn of the 1950s, Hirsch’s decline accelerated. Illness and age took their toll on the Jewish farmers. Of its 9,600 acres, 5760 were owned by the JCA. The area cultivated had shrunk to 4,617 acres, worked by only seven Jewish farmers, only four of whom lived in the colony. Half of the JCA’s land was rented to Gentile farmers. There was, thought the JCA, no chance of increasing the population or reviving Hirsch as a Jewish colony. [66]


Few settlers of any nationality were able to achieve long-term prosperity in the sub-humid parts of the prairies. [67] The vagaries of the climate and bureaucratic ineptitude were central to the decline of Hirsch. The ideology behind the creation and management of Hirsch was at odds with the wishes and economic backgrounds of most of those dispatched to Hirsch by the institutions bent on assisting them.

Much has been made of the difficulties of religious observance complicating farming life on prairie Jewish colonies. [68] Certainly, observance of the rules of kashrut was difficult, but to attribute the failure to achieve community permanence to the difficulties of practising Judaism is overly simplistic, though the need to have a Jewish education or marriage partner was a powerful draw for Winnipeg. Hirsch’s failure to achieve stability was more complex.

Baron de Hirsch’s conviction that aid should be given only as loans with interest, administered by an agency located half a world away, complicated colony administration with predictable consequences. There is no doubt the JCA and its forerunners were out of touch with the reality of prairie settlement and, it is safe to say, with the needs and aspirations of those they were trying to assist. The loans given to settlers were insufficient to ensure success in settlement; the repayment terms were too onerous, taking no account of the vagaries of the climate or economic conditions. To the colonists, struggling to eke out a living on a quarter-section, it must have seemed that those giving assistance were more concerned with recouping their investments than securing the success of those they were aiding. Those who made the settlement—and financial—decisions affecting incoming Russian-Jewish refugees were westernized, assimilated middle-class Montreal Jews, members of the city’s business and professional community. Their values, circumstances, and experiences could scarcely have been more different from those of their charges, yet they expected them to have the same views and expectations.

Lack of camaraderie among the Jewish settlers should not have come as the shock it did to those who planned Hirsch. Many of the initial settlers were destitute. Survival and self-interest were paramount. Furthermore, although mostly from eastern Europe, they were of geographically diverse origins; unlike many other ethno-religious groups there were no large parties of more-or-less-related families from one small locality. With other religious groups on the prairies, such as the Mormons and Mennonites, there was often a measure of theocratic social control, but Rabbinical authority among the Jews is strictly limited to religious matters, and therefore was not effective as a unifying force. The sponsoring agencies also failed to nurture the secular institutions that are so vital to building communities. Without attachment to community, remigration became easier.

In Russia, Jews were not permitted to own land. Unlike the surrounding Christian peasantry Jews’ capital was liquid, not tied to land. They were thus more mobile, and it is possible that this traditional mobility contributed to their willingness to venture away from Hirsch when better economic opportunities beckoned. Many Jewish settlers had a background in commerce as merchants or peddlers, so making a living from agriculture was not their only recourse. Relocation to a larger community and reversion to their former occupation was an economically feasible and attractive option.

Two further factors contributing to the attrition of settler families from Hirsch were its location in the sub-humid area of the prairies and the under-capitalized settlers’ over-reliance on cereal cultivation. The latter was dependent on considerable infusions of capital, which the evidence shows, few settlers at Hirsch possessed.

Jewish Colonization Association land holdings near Hirsch, circa 1934.
Source: Canadian Jewish Archives

Judged on its record of settler retention the Hirsch colony was a failure. An 1897 assessment concluded that the policies and philosophies of the Baron de Hirsch Institute doomed Hirsch to fail. Nevertheless, although it did not achieve Baron de Hirsch’s objective of creating a class of Jewish yeoman farmers, the Hirsch colony provided a vital starting point for hundreds of Jewish refugee families who, after leaving agriculture, went on to fill the commercial vacuum in settlements across the prairies.


The research upon which this article is based was generously funded by the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba.

1. Abraham J. Arnold, “The contribution of the Jews to the opening and development of the West,” Transactions of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba, Series 3 No. 25 (1968), pp. 23–37; Idem., “The life and times of Jewish pioneers in western Canada,” A selection of papers, The Jewish Historical Association of Western Canada, Second Annual publication, April 1972, pp. 51–57; Idem., “The Jews of Western Canada.” Two Nations, Many Cultures: Ethnic Groups in Canada (1983), p. 319; Cyril Edel Leonoff, Pioneers, Ploughs and Prayers: The Jewish Farmers of Western Canada, Vancouver: Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia and the Jewish Western Bulletin, 1982; Idem., The Jewish Farmers of Western Canada. Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia, 1984; Idem., “Wapella farm settlement: The first successful Jewish farm settlement in Canada,” Transactions of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba, Series 3, No. 27, 1970–71, pp. 25–59; Simon Isaiah Belkin, “Through narrow gates: A review of Jewish immigration, colonization and immigrant aid work in Canada (1840–1940).” Canadian Jewish Congress and the Jewish Colonization Association, 1966; James Richtik and Danny Hutch, “When Jewish settlers farmed in Manitoba’s Interlake area, Canadian Geographical Journal, 95(1), 1977, pp. 32–35.

2. Anthony Rasporich, “Early twentieth century Jewish farm settlements in Saskatchewan: A utopian perspective, Saskatchewan History 42 (1) 1989, pp. 28–40

3. Yossi Katz, and John C. Lehr, “Jewish and Mormon agricultural settlement in Western Canada: a comparative analysis,” Canadian Geographer 35 (2), 1991, pp. 128–142; idem., “Jewish pioneer agricultural settlements in western Canada.” Journal of Cultural Geography 14 (1), 1993, pp. 49–67.

4. Anna Feldman, “Sonnenfeld - Elements of survival and success of a Jewish farming community on the prairies 1905-1939,” Canadian Jewish Historical Society Journal, 6 (Winter, 1982), pp. 33–53; Idem., Were Jewish farmers failures? The case of township 2-14 W2nd, Saskatchewan History, 55 (1), 2003, pp. 21–30.

5. Theodore H. Friedgut, “Jewish pioneers on Canada’s prairies: The Lipton Jewish agricultural colony.” Jewish History 21. (3–4), 2007, pp. 385–341; Idem., The Lipton Jewish agricultural colony 1901–1951: Pioneering on Canada’s prairies, The Inaugural Lecture of the Switzer-Cooperstock Lecture Series, Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, Winnipeg, 2010.

6. Kennee Switzer Rakos, “Baron de Hirsch, the Jewish Colonization Association and Canada,” The Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 32 (1),1987, pp. 285–406; John C. Lehr, “Jewish farm settlements and the JCA,” in Roy Jones and Alexandre M. A. Diniz (eds.), Twentieth Century Land Settlement Schemes, London, New York: Routledge, 2019, pp. 48–66; see also, B. G.Sack, History of the Jews in Canada, transl. Ralph Novek, Montreal: Harvest House, 1965, pp. 191–196.

7. Leonoff, “Wapella farm settlement.”

8. Sarah Carter, Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy, Montreal, Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990, pp. 237–258; Idem., Imperial Plots: Women, Land and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016, pp. 29–38.

9. The YMHBS in Montreal was incorporated on 16 November 1870 in virtue of Chapter 71 of the Consolidated Statutes of Canada. Library and Archives of Canada (hereafter LAC), RG 15 Vol. 651 File 269180 Part 3, Maxwell Goldstein, Barrister, Montreal, to Lyndwode Pereira, Ottawa, 7 September 1899.

10. Canadian Jewish Archives (hereafter CJA), Minutes of the Committee of the Baron de Hirsch Institute, Canadian Jewish Archives, (Montreal) CJA, MB1-A-4-13.1. Although many of the subsequent colonization projects fell under the nominal sponsorship of the YMHBS, the Baron de Hirsch Institute became the de facto sponsor and administrator. Since the Baron de Hirsch Institute was endowed with $20,000 dollars, it was far better placed than the YMHBS which depended entirely on funds donated by the Jewish population of Montreal. In 1905 the YMHBS amalgamated with the Baron de Hirsch Institute. See, Switzer-Rakos, “Baron de Hirsch,” pp. 397–398.

11. For an appraisal of the JCA’s role in colonization elsewhere, see Haim Avni, Argentina and the Jews: A History of Jewish Immigration, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991.

12. The Canadian West was frequently portrayed as a kind of social crucible that would create a generation of moral stalwart farmers. Immigration advertisements and posters supported this view of western agriculture as the heroic conquest of nature. Similar sentiments underpinned other colonization schemes. See, for example, Timothy S. Forest, “Redeemers, debasers or destroyers of empire? The Irish, state-directed colonization and the fight for a British Canadian West, 1880–1883,” Canadian Journal of History, 53 (1), 2018, pp. 29–57.

13. Leonard G. Robinson, Agricultural activities of the Jews in America, American Jewish Yearbook, 1912. Vol. 14, pp. 21–115.

14. The Department of the Interior first learned of the JCA in April 1905 when the JCA’s legal representatives in Ottawa wrote to the Minister of the Interior, explaining the JCA’s mandate and legal status in Canada. In July 1906 the Canadian government received a petition from two prospective Russian Jewish emigrants sent to the High Commissioner in London via the JCA in Paris that caused consternation and revealed that not all of its officials were sure of the distinction between the JCA, the YMHBS of Montreal, and the Baron de Hirsch Institute. LAC, RG 25 A2 Vol. 198, File I8/26, Lewis Smellie, Barrister, Ottawa, to The Minister of the Interior, Ottawa, 26 April 1905, RG 15 Vol. 651 file 269180 (3); The Canadian High Commissioner, London, to Emanuelovich Vangeroff, and Aaron Solomonovich Abramovitch, Ekaterinoslav, Bazamya Ulitsa, Dom Vengherova, Russia, 20 July 1906.

15. CJA, MB1-A-4-27, Alliance Israelite, Paris, to The Baron de Hirsch Institute, Montreal, 22 November 1891.

16. CJA, MB1-A-4-53, Minutes of meeting of the Young Men’s Hebrew Benevolent Society Colonization Committee, Montreal, 26 November 1891.

17. See, John C. Lehr, “Propaganda and belief: Ukrainian emigrant views of the Canadian West,” in J. Rozumnyj (ed.), New Soil—Old Roots: The Ukrainian Experience in Canada, Winnipeg: Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences in Canada, 1983, pp. 1–32; see also Ronald Rees, New and Naked Land: Making the Prairies Home, Saskatoon, SK: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1992, pp. 4–27.

18. Edgardo Zablotsky, Philanthropy vs. unproductive charity: The case of Baron Maurice de Hirsch, Serie Documentos de Trabajo, Universidad de CEMA, No. 264, 2004, pp. 2–7.

19. L AC, RG 15 Vol. 651 File 269180 (1), W. H. Baker, Clerk to the Board, Baron de Hirsch Institute, Montreal, to H. B. Small, Secretary, Department of Agriculture, Ottawa, 17 February 1892.

20. CJA, MB1-A4-53, Minutes of the YMHBS Colonization Committee, Montreal, 26 November 1891.

21. Louis Rosenberg, Canada’s Jews, p. 219.

22. LAC, RG 15 Vol. 651 File 269180 (2), A. M. Burgess, Deputy Minister, to the Hon. E. Dewdney, Minister of the Interior, Ottawa, 12 October 1892.

23. LAC, RG 15 B (a) Vol. 651 File 269180 (1), C. McDairmid, Oxbow, telegram to Dominion Lands Commissioner, Winnipeg, 25 April 1892; Dominion Lands Commissioner, Winnipeg, telegram to Agent, Cannington, 26 May 1892.

24. LAC, RG 15 Vol. 651 File 269180 (2), W. H. Baker, Baron de Hirsch Institute, Montreal, to John Lowe, Minister of Agriculture, Ottawa, 16 July 1892.

25. Chester Martin, “Dominion Lands” Policy, The Carleton Library No. 69, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1973, p. 18; Kurt N. Lambrecht, The Administration of Dominion Lands 1870–1930, Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1991, pp. 25–124.

26. Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada (hereafter JHCWC), Box 154 File 6, H. L. Sabsovich, Woodbine, “Hirsch Colony,” report to Dr. Julius Goldman, New York City, 12 August 1897. Average annual rainfall for Estevan is 41.8 cm (16.5 in.). Hirsch, some 30 kilometres east, has a similar precipitation regime.

27. Switzer-Rakos, “Baron de Hirsch,” p. 400.

28. JHCWC, Box 154 File 6, Sabsovich, op cit.; also Lyle Dick, Farmers “making good”: The development of Abernathy district, Saskatchewan 1880-1920, Ottawa: The Canadian Parks Service, Environment Canada, 1989, p. 67.

29. Montreal Gazette, 29 April 1892; Manitoba Free Press, 2 May 1892.

30. CJA, MB1-A-4-13-3, Charles McDairmid, Hirsch, to H. Vineberg, Montreal, 20 May 1892. McDairmid served as colony overseer for two years. His difficulties were compounded by his having to work through an interpreter.

31. CJA, MBI-A-4-13-2, Chas. McDairmid, Oxbow, to H. Vineberg, Baron de Hirsch Institute, Montreal, 6 May 1892.

32. CJA, MB1-A-4-13-4, Charles McDairmid, Hirsch, to H. Vineberg, Montreal, 2 September 1892.

33. CJA, MB1-A-4-13-4, Charles McDairmid, Hirsch, to H. Vineberg, Montreal, 26 August 1892.

34. CJA, MB1-A-4-13-4 Charles McDairmid, Hirsch, to H. Vineberg, Montreal, 10 October 1892.

35. Ibid. A similar situation existed at the Jewish colony of Bender Hamlet in Manitoba, where many colonists expended all their money building large houses and were left without capital to purchase stock and plows. JHCWC, Box F8, Jacob Bender, Winnipeg, to Baron de Hirsch Institute and Hebrew Benevolent Society, Montreal, 10 July 1907.

36. LAC, RG 15 Vol. 651 File 269180 (2), Charles McDairmid, Hirsch, to D. S. Friedman, Montreal, 25 October 1892.

37. LAC, RG 30 Vol. 5631 File 5151-2, J. Scherman, Vice-President YMHBS, Montreal, to the Honourable Minister of the Interior, Ottawa, 13 July 1893.

38. Ibid.

39. LAC, RG 15 Vol. 651 File 269180 (2), Baron de Hirsch Institute, Montreal, to Mr. Pierce, [Hirsch?], 20 October 1892.

40. LAC, RG 15 Vol. 651 File 269180 (2), telegram from W. H. Allison, Carnduff, to the Commissioner of Dominion Lands, Winnipeg, 13 September 1893.

41. LAC, RG 15 Vol. 651 File 269180 (2), William Crutchfield, Hirsch, to the Department of the Interior, Ottawa, 30 October 1893.

42. LAC, RG 15 B(a) Vol. 651 File 269180 (1), W. H. Baker Secretary, Hirsch Colony, to H. Smith, Dominion Lands Commissioner, Winnipeg. 20 June 1894.

43. LAC, RG 15 Vol. 651 File 269180 (2), A. M. Burgess, Dominion Lands Agent, to Hon. Mayne Daly, Minister of the Interior, [Ottawa,?], September 1893.

44. LAC, RG 25 Vol. 96 A-1, George Jessup, Agent, Red Deer, letter to The Commissioner, Dominion Lands, Winnipeg, 23 April 1894.

45. LAC, RG 15 B (a) Vol.651 File 269180 (1), A. E. Hetherington, Agent for Dominion Lands, to Dominion Lands Office, Estevan, 31 October 1895; also, A. M. Burgess, Deputy Minister of the Interior, Ottawa, 30 October 1895.

46. LAC, RG 15 B(a) Vol. 651 File 269180 (3), W. A. McEwan, Dominion Lands Agent, Alameda, to W. H. Baker, Secretary, Baron de Hirsch Institute, Montreal, 12 October 1899; Lyndwode Periera, Secretary, Department of the Interior, Ottawa, to W. A. McEwan, Dominion Lands Agent, Alameda, 28 November 1899.

47. LAC, RG 15 B(a) Vol. 651 File 269180 (3), E. H. Taylor, Department of the Interior, Winnipeg, “Memorandum,” 17 February 1897.

48. CJA, JCA fonds, KC MA 1-KC-89 Yearly individual colonist reports, Lorette, Manitoba, June 1918.

49. “Report of the Baron de Hirsch Institute, written by W. H. Baker, Secretary, for the Department of the Interior, 1899,” Sessional Papers Vol. 2, 1899. Vol XXXII No.11, 13-13A, p. 209.

50. LAC, RG 15 B (a) Vol 651 File 269180 (3), George Moore, Alameda, to William Douglas, MP., Ottawa, 8 April 1900.

51. LAC, RG 15 Vol. 651 File 269180 (3), R. A. McEwen, Dominion Lands Agent, Alameda, Assa., to J. A. Smart, Deputy Minister, Department of the Interior, Ottawa, 18 July 1899.

52. LAC, RG 15 Vol. 651 File 269180 (3), P. Keyes, Department of the Interior, Ottawa, to J. Obed Smith, Commissioner of Immigration, Winnipeg, 17 February 1902.

53. LAC, RG 15 Vol. 651 File 269180 (3), D. W. Cory, Department of the Interior, Ottawa, Memorandum, to Frank Oliver, Minister of the Interior, Ottawa, 16 June 1905.

54. The administrative structures of the agencies supporting the Hirsch colonists changed frequently. Oversight of the colony alternated between Montreal, Paris and New York, without any real effect on the amount of funds committed. See Rasporich, “Early Twentieth-century Jewish farm settlements,” p. 29.

55. JHCWC. Jewish Colonization Association, Regina, Assa., 8 June 1905: Re: Galician Farm School Graduates. JCA Canada Collection, E75 277 Box 24.

56. Arthur A. Chiel, The Jews in Manitoba: A Social History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1961, p. 54.

57. Chana Thau, “Growing up Jewish on the prairies: Rural Manitoba and Saskatchewan,” Unpublished ms. 2010. JHC; see also Lisa Singer, “? God could not be everywhere—so he made Jewish mothers’: The unrecognized contributions of early Jewish women pioneers, 1880-1920,” in Fred Stambrook (ed.), A Sharing of Diversities: Proceedings of the Jewish Mennonite Ukrainian Conference “Building Bridges,” Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1999, p. 105.

58. Rasporich, “Early Twentieth-Century Jewish settlements,” p. 35.

59. Thau, “Growing up Jewish,” p. 19; Sharon Graham,“The Jewish orphanage of western Canada and the economics of religious communal identity,” Manitoba History 81 (Summer: 2016),pp. 24–27.

60. Annual Report: The Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, New York, New York, 1921, p. 5.

61. CJA, Canada Collection, Box 24, 49-75, report attached to letter No. 5781, 15 June 1922.

62. L AC, RG 76 Vol. 54 File 2240, Assistant Deputy Minister, Department of the Interior, Ottawa to Mr. Egan, [Montreal?], 20 August 1926.

63. Percentages were rounded. CJA. Property ownership map of Hirsch Colony compiled by the JCA, dated 1934. ICA (JCA) Canada Collection, S Collection, Box 61 Series OC 11.

64. Irving Abella and Harold Troper, None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933–1948, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.

65. CJA , KB 1 Individual Colony Inspection Reports, Report #14 “Hirsch Colony,” from Belkin, to JCA, Montreal, 9 December 1940.

66. CJA, KB 1 Individual Colony Inspection Reports, Administrative Report #98, JCA Manager, to JCA Montreal, 1 May 1950.

67. David C. Jones, Empire of dust: Settling and abandoning the prairie dry belt, Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2002.

68. Katz and Lehr, “Jewish pioneer agricultural settlements,” pp. 49-67.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 8 September 2022