ALBERTA, province in Western Canada. Alberta boasts Canada's fourth largest provincial population, with over 3.2 million people (July 2004). Its two major cities are Edmonton, the provincial capital, with approximately 5,500 Jews, and Calgary, home of the Canadian oil industry, with 8,200 Jews.
Although the province's nearly 15,400 Jews live primarily in the main cities of Edmonton and Calgary, the Jewish presence in Alberta was not always so overwhelmingly urban. Prior to the creation of Alberta in 1905, Jews were found in villages, towns, and on farms around the region. The earliest record of a Jew in Alberta was that of a gold prospector in Fort Edmund. The Hudson Bay factor's journal reads: "September 15, 1869 – Mr. Silverman (a Jew) and a party of four Americans and a Negro started for Fort Benton today." Other Jewish traders and merchants also visited the region from Montana Territory.
Permanent settlement in the region did not take place until the 1880s when two significant historical developments coincided: the extension of the Canadian Pacific Railway into Western Canada (it reached Calgary in 1883) and the terrible pogroms against East European Jews following
III's ascension to the throne in 1881. In 1882, around 150 Russian Jews worked on the CPR's railway gang, laying 100 miles of track to Medicine Hat. It was reported that they kept the Sabbath, ate kosher food, had a Torah scroll for services, and were directed by a Yiddish-speaking foreman.
The first permanent Jewish residents, in what became Alberta, were brothers, Jacob Lyon Diamond and William Diamond. In 1888, Jacob Diamond moved to Calgary and worked as a pawnbroker and traded liquor and hides. Although historical sources differ slightly over the timetable of William's arrival in Calgary and Edmonton, it seems that he opened a tailor shop in Calgary in 1892. The brothers initiated the first formal Jewish service for the High Holidays in 1894 and founded many of the Calgary community's institutions, such as its cemetery in 1904. Jacob Diamond established Calgary's first synagogue, Beth Jacob, in 1911. In Edmonton, Abe Cristall opened a liquor store soon after his arrival to the city in 1893. William Diamond was instrumental in establishing the first Jewish religious council in Alberta in 1906, a year after his move to Edmonton. Hyman Goldstick, the province's first full-time Jewish religious leader, moved to Edmonton from Toronto in 1906 and served Calgary, Edmonton, and smaller surrounding Jewish communities.
Recognizing the need to populate the West, Canada's high commissioner in London, Sir Alexander Galt, convinced the prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, that the Russian Jewish refugees could serve a useful purpose, colonizing the West as farmers. Alberta's first Jewish farming settlements developed in 1893 at Pine Lake and near Fort Macleod. The Jewish community at Pine Lake, numbering 70, was the largest in the region at the time. By 1895, the difficult conditions, inexperience, and lack of Jewish communal institutions contributed to the decline of this settlement and a smaller settlement near Fort Macleod. In 1901, there were 242 Jews in the region.
A decade passed before there was another serious attempt made at Jewish agricultural settlement. Settlements were established at Trochu, Rumsey, and Sibbald in 1905, 1906, and 1911, respectively. Living conditions improved after the arrival of the Canadian Northern Railway in 1910 and families joined the male settlers and opened businesses in the railway villages. In Rumsey, Jews occupied important positions within the wider community as justices of the peace and school trustees. The
*Jewish Colonization Association
, an international organization supported by Jewish philanthropists like
, provided settlers with loans for reuniting farm families and financial support for communal essentials like kosher food, religious services, and education. The Canadian government provided little, if any, support to the Jewish settlers. During the heyday of Jewish farming in Alberta, up to 70 Jewish families were operating farms around Rumsey and Sibbald. In 1914, the 100-person Jewish community of the Montefiore colony near Sibbald built a synagogue and hired a rabbi. As was the case everywhere, the Depression in the 1930s had a devastating effect on the Jewish colonists and by World War II few Jewish farmers remained at Rumsey or Sibbald. By the war's end, the Jewish presence in rural Alberta was virtually non-existent.
But for all the efforts at agricultural settlement, Jews tended to concentrate in urban areas where there were economic opportunities as merchants, traders, and peddlers. By 1911, there were 1,207 Jews in the province, with more than half of them in the two major cities (604 in Calgary and 171 in Edmonton). Aside from Edmonton and Calgary, larger Jewish communities were also established in Lethbridge (home to the third largest Jewish community in Alberta) and Medicine Hat. As it took many years for these communities to acquire a synagogue building, services were conducted for years in people's homes. In the small town of Vegreville, Jews lived harmoniously with the town's Ukrainian and French Canadian residents and were active in municipal life. The Jewish presence in small towns and cities in Alberta, however, gradually disappeared due to the richer Jewish communal life and better economic opportunities available in Edmonton and Calgary.
After World War I, Canada briefly opened its doors to immigration. In 1921, the Canadian census found 3,186 Jews in Alberta. By 1930, however, the number of Jews admitted to the country was in decline as a result of growing immigration restriction. Nevertheless, the number of Jews in the province grew by almost 15 percent between 1921 and 1931, largely due to migration of Jews from Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In 1931, 92 percent of Alberta's 3,700 Jews lived in urban settings.
Alberta's Jewish population grew slowly through the war years and into the postwar era but prosperity in the 1970s led to a significant increase in the number of Jews in the province, primarily in Edmonton and Calgary. With that growth came the development of large Jewish community centers and Reform temples in both cities. Serving Calgary and Edmonton, the Jewish Star was published between 1980 and 1990. Since then, the Jewish Free Press serves the Calgary Jewish community and Edmonton Jewish Life and Edmonton Jewish News serve Edmonton. Jews in both cities also established community day schools.
Although the early Jewish community in Alberta faced antisemitism, and antisemitism was a fact of life in the Canadian government's immigration policy until after World War II, it has not been very pronounced in the major cities of Alberta. Jews in Alberta did not face enrollment quotas in professional schools as did Jews in Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. Discrimination was not blatant and organized in Alberta but existed at an informal level, for instance with social clubs. There was the exception of the Social Credit Party which took power in 1935. The victory gave antisemitic politicians a platform from which to spout their views and appeal to their largely rural support base. Major Douglas, the party's founder, blamed the Jews for Alberta's hard times during the 1930s and while Premier William Aberhardt publicly spoke against antisemitism, his personal writings and social circle, including Henry Ford, belied an ambivalent, if not, negative attitude.
A case that received wide attention was that of James Keegstra, a high school teacher in the town of Eckville, Alberta. In 1984, Keegstra was charged with unlawfully promoting hatred against an identifiable group, in violation of the Canadian Criminal Code, through his anti-Jewish statements, e.g., calling Jews "barbaric," "manipulative," and "sadistic," and claiming that Jews "created the Holocaust to gain sympathy." His defense lawyer, known for defending neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers like Ernst Zundel, argued that the Criminal Code violated Keegstra's Charter right to freedom of expression. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which in a 4–3 decision ruled against Keegstra and maintained that Criminal Code Section 319(2) constituted a reasonable limit on freedom of expression, noting "there is obviously a rational connection between restricting hate propaganda and fostering harmonious social relations between Canadians."
Despite the infamy of the Keegstra case in Alberta, Alberta's Jewish population has found the province to be a secure and prosperous home. Jews in Alberta have risen to prominence in important and prestigious leadership roles in the larger community. Sheldon Chumir, a well-known Calgary lawyer, Rhodes scholar, and Liberal politician, was twice elected to the Alberta Legislature. Calgary was also home to Canada's first female chief of police, Christine Silverberg.
In September 2001 a Jew was appointed president and vice chancellor of the University of Calgary, and, in October 2004 Edmonton elected a Jewish mayor, Stephen Mandel. The Edmonton Symphony was founded by Abe Fratkin and the Canadian Football League's Edmonton Eskimos was also founded by Jews. Jews have played a vital role in the arts in Alberta – Shoctor founding the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton and contributing significantly to Calgary's Centre for the Performing Arts.
As with many other North American communities, in the final decades of the 20th century, two newer Jewish groups have joined the primarily Ashkenazi established Jewish community in Alberta, Israelis and Russians. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Ḥabad denominations of Judaism all have a presence in Alberta, although the majority of Alberta's Jews are non-Orthodox.