Harry Trager and the Jewish Mayors of Manitoba’s North

February 18, 2022

 Harry Trager and the Jewish Mayors of Manitoba’s North

By Chana Thau

Many people are not aware that there was any Jewish presence in northern Manitoba, let alone a few Jewish mayors. The first was Ben Dembinsky (1885-1960). Born in Cornwall, Ontario, he came to the Pas in 1914 and worked as a teamster and in the trading business. His company, the Western Trading Company, thrived and opened stores at several northern locations. Eventually, the stores in Flin Flon and The Pas operated as Ben Dembinsky Ltd. According to his granddaughter, Marsha Phomin z”l, he and his family became known as “Dembinskys of the North” – as she put it, “we outfitted the North”. Ben served as mayor of The Pas from 1938 to 1947. His second son, Frank Dembinsky, later served as mayor of Flin Flon from 1957-1960.

Flin Flon had another Jewish mayor, Jack Freedman, who served for several terms totaling ten years. Ben’s wife, Anna, who came from Montreal, tried to keep a Kosher home but, like many Jews in isolated rural communities, soon gave up, as the meat would arrive by train from the east, rotten and smelly.

The Pas had another Jewish mayor, Harry Leon Trager, who was born on May 10,1913 in Saskatoon, to Bella and Jacob Trager, and grew up in a traditional Polish-Jewish immigrant family. He came to The Pas in 1940 to work at Ben Dembinsky’s general store as a window dresser and floor manager. In 1942, he married Ben’s daughter, Vera, and had two daughters with her, Marsha and Esther. Both Harry and Vera continued to work in the family business for 25 years.

Marsha related that her paternal grandmother spoke only Yiddish, so that they could not communicate directly. During their annual visits by train to The Pas, these grandparents would bring their own pots and dishes, as well as kosher meat. Her grandmother also brought Shabbat candlesticks and would chant the blessings. Marsha’s maternal grandmother was modern and spoke German, so she could communicate with her “machataynisteh” [daughter’s mother-in-law].

Interestingly, Marsha grew up in a home and business that welcomed Jewish travellers, received the Jewish newspapers and occasionally stocked Jewish foods like matzo at Passover time but her parents never spoke about being Jewish or provided any Jewish education. Marsha went to university at United College in Winnipeg, where she met Jerome Phomin. Her parents were thrilled that she had a Jewish boyfriend. In fact, her father drove to Winnipeg to meet him, took him out to Rae and Jerry’s, then sent him a suit and reversible belt when he returned to The Pas – all this before there was a serious relationship between her and Jerome! After their marriage, the young couple lived in The Pas for a couple of years before returning to Winnipeg. Jerome, who was quite connected to his Judaism, found it a difficult place to live.There were only a few Jewish households in town. Also, everywhere he went, he was recognized him as the Mayor’s son-in-law.

Harry, always community-minded, was elected to The Pas Town Council in 1949 and served on it for ten years. He was elected mayor of The Pas in 1959, a position he cherished and held until 1971. Always active in the town’s various community organizations, he belonged to the Rotary Club for 25 years and to the Elks for 30 years. He was regional president of the Boy Scouts and the Red Cross, and was active in the Canadian Diabetic Association. In 1965, he received the Golden Boy Award for his public service. He also had a street in The Pas named after him, in recognition of his many contributions to the town.

Renowned throughout the North, Harry Trager was called “the man who put the town of The Pas on the map”. He promoted The Pas to the world, and pushed for sidewalks, sewer systems, a library, a new jail, street lights, a sawmill and a technical school. In Canada’s Centennial Year, 1967, he manufactured the Shaganapee Fur Tie and promoted The Pas throughout Canada and the US by presenting fur ties to mayors and dignitaries wherever he travelled, including New York, Seattle, Las Vegas and Hawaii. His ties were also presented to Sir Winston Churchill, Prince Phillip of England and Ed Sullivan, thus promoting the North he loved. He was made an honorary citizen of New York, Los Angeles, and Winnipeg. He had been a diabetic for twenty years, and used to speak and encourage people lead a full, active life living with this illness.

Two years before his death at age 62, Harry went to live in Winnipeg with Marsha and Jerome. He passed away in January 1977 while on vacation in Palm Springs and was buried in Shaarey Zedek Cemetery, Winnipeg. He was predeceased by his beloved wife, Vera, shortly after their 25th wedding anniversary in 1967.


Manitoba Archival Information Network, citing The Pas: Gateway to the North, 1983

Manitoba Historical Society, Obituary from Winnipeg Free Press, 22 January 1977

Western Jewish News, Vol 52, No 4, Obituary – January 27, 1977

Oral History Interview (JHCWC) with Marsha Phomin, 2010