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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Research: Quebec Non-Francophone Ancestors by Althea Douglas M.A., CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
“Ethnics” is what Jacques Parizeau called them after his referendum failed. The journalist George Boulanger also betrayed certain bias when he referred to Québec City’s English-speaking Jewish and Irish “ethnic communities”:
- … [who] had followed business up-river to Montréal many decades ago and no new Jewish or Irish immigrants ever came to strengthen the dwindling communities of those who stayed behind.
The Irish, at least the Roman Catholics, sort of fitted in, though they are probably included in Parizeau’s accusations. As has been said, their records are the same as Francophone Catholics, but there is quite a lot of literature on “The Irish in Québec” and their sufferings during the Famine and on Grosse Isle, and their impact on Montréal, some of it quite recent. Sister Marianna O’Gallagher is the expert and you should consult her books and articles . In the Canadian Geographic (July-August 1999) there is an article by Pierre de Billy describing the English-speaking Irish village of Shannon, 25 kilometres northwest of Québec City which so far has resisted francization.
The First Jews in Québec
Jews were barred from New France, so the origins of the Jewish community in Québec can be stated with some precision.
- Hart, Aaron (1724-1800), merchant, was an English Jew who came to Canada in 1759-60 as a commissary in the British army, and who settled as a merchant in Three Rivers. Here he established a prosperous business, and founded a family that has played notable part in commerce and literature. He died at Three Rivers, Lower Canada, on December 28, 1800. (MacMillan Dictionary of Canadian Biography, 3rd ed. 1963).
Aaron Hart was not the only Jew to arrive under British auspices. When some of these soldiers and civilians decided to remain permanently in Québec, the “history of Canadian Jewry commenced”.
- … these men associated freely and on equal terms with their English and Protestant fellows. British by birth as they were, all had close ties with the familiar Anglo Saxon world. They settled down in Montréal and prospered, although without any perceptible increase in numbers; after seventy years of residence, they totalled no more than fifty-two.
These were British-born, and for the most part Sephardic Jews whose ancestors had fled Spain and Portugal centuries earlier. In 1768 they organized Shearith Israel, the first congregation in what is now Canada, in conformity with the Sephardic Rite as practised in London and New York. By 1777 they had erected a synagogue on St. James Street, and the records of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue survive from 1841. The descendants of these British Jews remain the elite, at least in their opinion, among the complex social levels of the Montréal Jewish community. William Weintraub called Jewish Montréal “A Third Solitude” and his City Unique will fill you in on the geography and social mores in Montréal where the largest Jewish population is found.
Montréal—Home of the Notre Dame de Grâce
The Notre Dame de Grâce (NDG) Kosher Meatmarket is not an oxymoron. It was a long-established business in NDG that no one paid much attention to until the New Yorker magazine added it to their “Favorite Business Directory” listings. That made Montréalers stop, think, and laugh at an incongruity they had accepted as a normal part of their multi-cultural city, just like the Christ-Roi Valet Service.
The arrival of Jews from central and eastern Europe, Yiddish-speaking for the most part, began in the 1840s, a trickle at first, but swelling after 1880 to reach a peak just before World War I. Records of the German Polish Synagogue begin in 1858 and those of the Avatah Shalom Hebrew in 1882. In 1881 the Jewish population of Montréal numbered 814, in 1911 it was 27,948. Kathleen Jenkins devotes several pages of her history of Montréal to the political accomplishments of the early Jewish settlers and to the growth of congregations and divisions in the community.
Hers, however, is a polite history by a gentile. For a livelier, and contemporary account by a member of the community, read Chapter 8 in City Unique. It will tell you more first-hand information on the social structure of Jewish Montréal, from east of The Main to above The Boulevard, than you can probably find anywhere outside of Mordecai Richler novels. Indeed, the whole book should be required reading if you are doing research in 20th century Montréal.
You should be aware of the work Glen Eker has done on census records of the Jewish communities: Jewish residents of Montréal and Québec City in the 1871-1901 censuses of Canada (Avotaynu, Inc., c. 1993), 2 microfiche, and Jewish residents of Greater Québec province, excluding Greater Montréal and Québec City, in the 1871-1901 censuses of Canada (Teaneck, New Jersey: Avotaynu, Inc., 1994), 1 microfiche. As to where they lived, Montréal Metropolis tells us (page 65):
- …To some extent, however, Jews segregated themselves. Orthodox Jews needed to live within walking distance of their synagogue…between 1900 and 1914, many traditional Jews from eastern Europe moved into the “immigrant corridor” between St. Lawrence Boulevard and Park Avenue, helping to make St. Louis de Mile End the Island’s first multi-ethnic suburb. That confluence permitted the Jewish community to finance a major project there: The St. Urbain Street Synagogue (1905).
City Unique chronicles the importance, and then the decline in the use of Yiddish in Montréal, indeed there was a lively and important Yiddish theatrical tradition well into the 1950s. For educational purposes Jewish Montréalers fell under the Protestant School Board, though there were some parochial schools. For many years McGill University accepted a limited number of Jewish students, which, of course meant the brightest and best. This quota came to an end after World War II. For almost a century, starting in the 1880s the Jewish community developed its own social and cultural institutions, the Jewish Public Library, the Jewish General Hospital, a wide range of social welfare organizations, many of which remain though now most are government funded and so government controlled. Several organizations are making a concerted effort to record and preserve the oral history and traditional culture of the men and women who arrived in Canada early in the 20th century. The Jewish Public Library (see Addresses, under Archives) would be the place to start asking about such material. Also check the Jewish Genealogical Society website or e-mail Info@jgs-montreal.org
The arrival of railroads saw the growth of the black community in Montréal. In 1804 there were 142 slaves in the Montréal district, but by the time the British Parliament abolished slavery in British colonies in 1833, slavery was virtually non-existent in Canada. The flight north of escaped slaves from the United States meant a steadily increasing population, and there was also some immigration from the Caribbean, but the 1861 census shows “that only 190 Negroes lived in the lower section of the province.”
The original Bonaventure Station was built in 1847 and was owned by the Grand Trunk Railway which, in 1888-89 replaced it with an impressive brick structure that dominated the corner of Windsor (now Peel Street) and St. James Streets. The CPR, not to be outdone, built a Romanesque, stone fortress, Windsor Station, also on Windsor (now Peel) Street, across from Dominion Square. Both provided work, and in particular, jobs for sleeping car porters; not great jobs, but regular, steady, respectable work. They established their families in the downtown area, between, and west of the two train stations within an easy walk of their work. “Little Burgundy” was a “salt and pepper” district on the eastern fringes of St. Henri as Mairuth (Hodge) Sarsfield, who grew up in this Montréal milieu, explains in her novel, No Crystal Stair. Set in the mid-forties, the novel will bring the community to life and explain some of the social structure. The one place known to white Montréal was Rockhead’s Paradise, which brought the top black entertainers from New York’s Harlem to Montréal.
The Chinese community in Montréal was not large enough to attract the notice of either Montréal historian Stephen Leacock or Kathleen Jenkins. By the 1940s when my family moved to Montréal, “Chinatown” was downtown, around Lagauchetière street, west of the Main (Boulevard St-Laurent), where a cluster of restaurants, small shops with exotic wares, and even banks with signs in Chinese characters, set the area apart. Most of the Chinese-run social institutions were centred there as well.
Our Chinese friends had left that enclave a generation earlier, and while families or friends might move to the same part of the Town of Mount Royal or Côte St. Luc, I was never aware of any other specifically Chinese part of town. Look for professionals in University Alumni Directories, and those still in the service industries—yes, there were small family-run Chinese Laundries scattered across the city—in Telephone Books and City Directories.
Last, but not least, the First Nations in Québec are another “Ethnic” group that have frustrated Jacques Parizeau and his friends. The population shares the province’s religious and language divisions; it relates to who they fought for in the seventeenth century.
When the Province of Québec was given control of Ungava - their portions of Rupert’s Land (the territories the Hudson’s Bay Company had controlled from London for two centuries) - the southern part in 1898, the northern in 1912, the residents, who were for the most part Cree or Inuit, greatly increased the proportion of First Nation Québecers who were English-speaking, and often Protestant, since the Anglican church had had considerable influence in Rupert’s Land.
Research into Aboriginal ancestry is becoming popular, so more is in print, but for this genealogy you need a lot of special knowledge about records and history or you can waste hours and even days. I do not consider myself expert and rarely undertake such work. You could start with Chapters 5 and 6, “Migrant Adventurers” and “Indian Ancestry” in my Here be Dragons, too! (OGS, 2000), and note the suggested books, especially those relating to women in the fur trade. Remember, many of our early aboriginal ancestors were women.
Then go to the website for Denis Beauregard’s words of wisdom on Québec’s Native People and a list of Répertoire des mariages for various reserves. The records of the Federal Department of Indian Affairs, RG 10, are not something to plunge into unprepared. One archivist described it as a quagmire, and it is vast. If you must, start with Bill Russell, Indian Affairs Records at the National Archives of Canada: A source for genealogical research (Toronto: OGS, 1998), and try to find a copy of James Morrison’s Aboriginal People in the Archives: A Guide to Sources in the Archives of Ontario (Toronto: Archives of Ontario, 1992). While this relates to Ontario, it will show the sorts of records that may hold information and you can then search for similar material in Québec Archives.
While Québec’s First Nations are demanding more power over their own societies, language laws and other restrictions are driving the anglophone non-English out of the Province. They are being replaced by other “ethnics” from former French colonies in the Caribbean, North Africa and the Far East, who in another generation or two will make Québec genealogy an even greater challenge.
- Burns, Patricia, The Shamrock and the Shield: An Oral History of the Irish in Montréal (Montréal, Vehicule Press, 1998). Hustake, Alan, Saint Patrick's of Montréal: The Biography of a Basilic (Montréal, Vehicule Press, 1998).
- O'Gallagher, Marianna, Grosse Ile: Gateway to Canada 1832-1937 (Ste. Foy: Carraig Books, 1984).
- Jenkins, Kathleen, Montréal, Island City of the St. Lawrence (New York: Doubleday and Co. Inc, 1966) page 512.
- Weintraub, William, City Unique: Montréal Days and Nights in the 1940s and '50s (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Inc., 1996) gave that title to Chapter 8.
- Jenkins, Montréal, page 372.
- Weintraub, City Unique, page 123.
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