The Western Division of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society
July 31, 2020
The history of Winnipeg Jewry is inextricably linked to the waves of immigrants that fashioned individual and collective identities, and injected nuanced and distinct mores, values and traditions that contributed to the city’s multicultural mosaic. A vital chapter in this history, one replete with the dilemmas of adaptation and the struggle to assert the community’s sense of being often in the face of condescension and hostility from Canadian government officials, was written by the Western Division of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society (WDJIAS).
According to Arthur Chiel, the predecessor to the WDJIAS, the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society was created in 1912 under the direction of Ben Sheps, Isaac Ludwig and Chaim Saltzman. The Society provided Jewish immigrants loans, assisted in job placements, offered advice on how to adapt to Canadian laws and institutions, and lobbied the Canadian government in loosening Canada’s immigration policy.
Dormant for a few years, the Society was reconstituted in 1920 as the Western Division of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society. Among its founding members were M.J. Finkelstein, Ben Sheps, Marcus Hyman, J. Alter and Fania Cherniack, Morris Triller, Max Mains, William Keller, Isaac Ludwig and Mark Shinbane.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the WDJIAS wagered an incessant campaign to promote Jewish immigration to Canada, often with limited human and financial resources, relying for the most part on funds from the national JIAS and donations from applicants sponsoring families from overseas. Under the auspices of the national JIAS, quota agreements were achieved in 1923 and 1925 with a view to increase the number of permits for entry admissions. However, none of these reached the desired targets, in large part due to the intransigence and antisemitic sentiments of government officials such as F.C. Blair, who epitomized the dominant and prevailing Anglo-Protestant worldview. In 1927, the government refused to grant a quota. In this context, it is worth noting the indefatigable efforts of M.A. Gray, the General Secretary of the WDJIAS. With no quota system in place, Arthur Ross noted that the WDJIAS was reduced to processing no more than 130 permits a year and to offering advice on how to sponsor relatives. It had to rely on “the dedication of its four-member executive and the countless hours of time that M.A. Gray, its general secretary, and a small group of volunteers donated to keep its office running.”
In the early 1930s, the Conservative government of R.B. Bennett introduced regulation PC 1957 which rescinded PC 534 which, according to Arthur Ross, “allowed for Jewish residents to sponsor their relatives, and either MPs or ‘persons of standing’ to recommend the admission of Jewish immigrants and cancelled all permits that had been issued prior to 14 March 1930.” The new regulation did, however, allow for the admission of wives and children of Canadian Jewish residents. These restrictions, coupled with the Great Depression, created a situation where in the words of Arthur Ross, the “arrival of Jewish immigrants became a rare event.” This was to severely curtail the administrative operations and the activities of the WDJIAS, for it could not rely on membership fees and donations that had subsided as a result of harsh economic conditions. Nonetheless, the organization was to persevere thanks to the yeoman efforts of M.A. Gray who was volunteering his time. Gray was especially committed to procuring funding for unemployed Jews who could be deported for being public charges.
Following World War II, the WDJIAS’s principal role was to assist Winnipeg families in sponsoring relatives who were in displaced camps. It partnered with the Canadian Jewish Congress, United Hebrew Social Service Bureau (later known as the Jewish Child and Family Services) International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Canadian Overseas Garment Commission in the implementation of the “Tailor Project”. The initiative was successful in capturing the attention of the Canadian government on the basis that tailors and other workers were needed to meet the demands of an ever expanding garment industry and clothing retail sector. By April 1949, some 2,000 Jewish and non-Jewish families, many of whom were in displaced person’s camps throughout Europe, found their way to Canada. At the same time, efforts were made to attract furriers and milliners.
Winnipeg was to be assigned 7% of the total. This meant 134 tailors, which, together with their family members added up to a total of 267 persons. But, as noted in the minutes of a meeting of the Western Executive Committee (Dominion Council) of the Canadian Jewish Congress on December 16, 1948, Winnipeg actually received 193 tailors a number which, when their families were included, yielded a total of 342 individuals.
With the completion of the “Tailor Project” and with the easing of immigration restrictions by the government of Canada, the services of the WDJIAS were no longer required, resulting in is disbandment. Soon thereafter immigrant settlement services were assumed by Jewish Child and Family Service. At present, Jewish Immigrant Aid Services, a national organization based out of Toronto, provides assistance and lobbies on behalf of immigrants and refugees of all ethnic backgrounds.
Chiel, Arthur. The Jews in Manitoba: A Social History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press,
Ross, Arthur. Communal Solidarity: Immigration, Settlement, and Social Welfare in
Winnipeg’s Jewish Community, 1882 – 1930. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2019.