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The Unwanted – Winnipeg in the 1930s and 1940s

By Allan Levine for the National Post

WINNIPEG, Canada — There is no official record of how many times the sign “NO JEWS OR DOGS ALLOWED” was posted in Canada during the ’30s and ’40s. But historian Irving Abella asserts that it was spotted at “Halifax golf courses, outside hotels in the Laurentians and throughout the cottage areas of Ontario, the lake country of Manitoba and the vacation lands of British Columbia.” A popular alternative, hardly less pointed, read: “FOR CHRISTIANS ONLY.”

The Lake Winnipeg resort at Sandy Hook had been established and promoted in 1912 as a “Jew free” area. In 1925, B’nai Brith purchased a Sandy Hook property for a children’s camp. Some of the locals were appalled; it was bad enough that Jews had made nearby Winnipeg Beach their own.

In 1929, a petition circulated in Sandy Hook, the neighbouring town of Gimli and the surrounding rural municipality to restrict such camps in the district. The petition had been initiated by the owner of a nearby resort who boldly displayed in front of his property a sign that read: “FOR GENTILES ONLY.” The petition was eventually quashed at a rural municipality council meeting, where B’nai Brith received much-appreciated vocal support from J. T. Thorson, a Manitoba member of Parliament and former dean of the University of Manitoba Law School. Thorson, noted the Jewish Post, “was not afraid to face the issue openly as anti-Jewish discrimination and to attack it on that ground.”

The incident at Sandy Hook typified the attitude toward Jews in Manitoba during the interwar years and after. Prejudice was endemic. Few Jewish children who grew up in this era were not at one time or another accosted merely for being Jewish.

Born in 1921 in Winnipeg, Monte Halperin, later to be celebrated as Monty Hall of the television show Let’s Make a Deal, was a small and sickly child. When his family moved to the non-Jewish area of Elmwood, Hall had to attend Lord Selkirk School. “The kids in that area were rougher and tougher than any I had experienced,” he recalled, “and they took turns beating the hell out of me.”

Likewise, lawyer Yude Henteleff, who grew up on his family farm in St. Vital and attended Ecole St. Germain, was regularly chased and beaten, until he fought back with a stick. He also recalls walking down the street with his father: “A francophone kid would approach us and say to my father, ‘Bonjour Juif,’ ‘Hello Jew,’ as if it was nothing.”

In 1934, Jewish veterans of the First World War felt compelled, in the face of rising anti-Semitism, to organize their own Legion branch, General Monash. And in 1948, when an 11-year-old Jewish boy wanted to become a member of the Puffin Ski Club, a Manitoba downhill skiing group that operated from the late-’40s to the early-’60s, his application was turned down. He and his parents were told that Jews could not join. The official responsible for membership explained that “Jews are aggressive and can take over the club.”

Quite simply, nothing had changed in the province in 50 years. In fact, the economic crisis of the ’30s — which increased racism and made “foreigners” convenient scapegoats –and the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe, almost made anti-Semitism respectable in Canada.

Anti-Semitism exacerbated the miserable economic situation. Jews could not win, no matter what they did. They were blamed for being greedy capitalists and scheming bankers who destroyed the economy; and they were blamed for being evil communists intent on taking over the world and destroying Western civilization. The fact that few of Canada’s major banks hired Jews to work as tellers, let alone appointed them as directors, was conveniently ignored. And though many Jews in Winnipeg and elsewhere were indeed communists, so, too, were Englishmen, Germans, Ukrainians, Poles and members of other ethnic groups. In both of these cases, the facts counted for little; merely making these accusations was sufficient for thousands of Canadians to believe that they were God’s honest truth.

From the Fascist party of Adrian Arcand in Quebec, whose organization boasted a membership of 80,000 at the height of its popularity, and William Aberhart’s Social Credit Party in Alberta, with its anti-Semitic financial conspiracy theories, to Nazi-style propaganda circulated in Winnipeg by William Whittaker’s Canadian Nationalist Party, Jews in Manitoba were faced with a daily barrage of prejudice and discriminatory obstacles.

Jobs for Jews were few, not only at Manitoba banks but also at insurance companies and department stores. Jewish doctors found it difficult to find internships at Winnipeg hospitals, and into the 1960s it was almost unheard of for a Jewish lawyer or accountant to apprentice at a non-Jewish firm. Winnipeg neighbourhoods like Tuxedo and Wildwood, beach resorts and sports and social clubs proudly advertised that they were “restricted” — a code word which everyone knew meant that Jews were personae non gratae.

The esteemed Manitoba Club, the social headquarters of the province’s elite since its establishment in 1874, “gained and deserved a reputation for anti-Semitism,” noted author Peter C. Newman. In 1968, grain trade executives James Richardson and Stewart Searle proposed the admittance of judge Samuel Freedman (who was until then the first Manitoba judge not to have received an invitation to join), lawyer Sol Kanee, then a director of the Bank of Canada, and Sony businessman Albert Cohen. But on principle Freedman declined the invitation and Kanee and Cohen, though warmer to the idea, did not pursue it. Architect Gerald Libling was the first Jew finally admitted, in 1972.

Two years later, and a century after it was founded, the club passed an anti-discrimination bylaw. Still, Jewish lawyers and businessmen did not rush to join. The histories of the Winnipeg Canoe Club, Winnipeg Winter Club, St. Charles Country Club and Winnipeg Squash Racquet Club all have similar anti-Jewish traditions.

In 1931, there were no Jewish professors at the University of Manitoba, no Jewish judges and no Jewish school principals — the first one was Charlotte Mass, who was named the principal of Florence Nightingale School in 1944. By 1946, the University of Manitoba had four Jewish professors on its staff.

In 1943, Laila Buchwald (later Kesselman), who was a Grade 11 student at Kelvin High School, wanted to work as a sales clerk at Eaton’s department store during the busy Christmas season. She and two non-Jewish friends applied together. Her two friends were hired immediately. When it came time for Laila’s interview, the lady meeting her was pleasant, yet told her as politely as possible that she could not hire her. “You know my dear,” the woman said, “I’m sorry, but Eaton’s doesn’t hire Jews. Our customers wouldn’t approve.” – Reprinted from Coming of Age: A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba by Allan Levine. Published this month by the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada in association with Heartland Associates. For further information, visit

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