First Jewish Settlers and Founding Families
The first Jews to trek the shores of Lake Superior were undoubtedly the Montreal-based fur traders Ezekiel Solomons, Lucius Levy Solomons, Chapman Abraham, Benjamin Lyon and Gershom Levy, who partnered during the Seven Years War to supply the British Army and later established considerable interests along the trade routes previously used by French traders in Michilimackinac (near present day Mackinaw city, Michigan) and further north in Kaministiquia (near present day Thunder Bay). After four of the partners were ransomed by their native captors in 1763, the original partnership was dissolved due to heavy financial losses. However, individually these pioneering Jewish traders were instrumental in expanding the fur trade along the western extremities of the Great Lakes until the small pox epidemics of the 1780s shut them down completely. These fur-traders were called “peddlers” because - unlike their competitors in the Hudson Bay Company - they ventured into native controlled territories to trade directly with native trappers, rather than using established forts.
There are conflicting accounts as to the first Jewish families and individuals to settle in the Thunder Bay region. The earliest settlers were drawn there by silver mining, forestry and the railway boom. Fort William and Port Arthur were new cities that attracted primarily young men, who came there to work and work hard, often as unskilled labourers. An article in the Daily Sentinel on 27 March 1884 states that the first Jewish child born in Port Arthur was Ezechial Grengard (1884-1963), whose name was later anglicized to Charles Victor Greengard. His father, Max Greengard, was married to Dora Michelson and was employed as a labourer with the Canadian Pacific Railway. Rabbi J.D. Fridman, the attending mohel, was brought in to perform the ceremony from Winnipeg according to the article. The Greengards moved to the United States less than a year after their son was born. Provincial death records also indicate that a young Jewish labourer, Salem Kritzersky (1862-1887), died in Port Arthur from shock following an accident. Aaron Helper (1859-1927), A Russian Jew, arrived in Port Arthur in 1890 and was shortly followed by Joseph Enzer in Fort William. At the time, the Port Arthur Jewish Community held religious services at Aaron Helper’s home at the corner of Pearl and Algoma streets, prior to the formation of formal congregations in Fort William and Port Arthur. Helper and his wife Fannie Leah (née Strajefsky) had a daughter Rose in Port Arthur in 1905, before moving to Toronto. There he set up a fur manufacturing business with his son Louis, called Helper Son & Roher, and passed away in 1927.
Only 13 Jews were listed in the 1901 Canadian Census for Fort William and Port Arthur in the Algoma district. Martin Lyon and his wife Rebecca were from Armenia and Austria respectively. Martin worked with his brother Albert Lyon as a merchant and the family lived together with the couple’s seven children. M.S. Lyons was a grocer from the United States who lived in Port Arthur with his wife Bertha and their child William. The Census entry for the Lyons family states that his home also served as a synagogue. It is quite likely that members of the community congregated at the family home for Shabbat services. It is doubtful, however, that these two families were the only Jews in the area. Certainly the Helper and Enzer families are reported to have arrived earlier and the transient nature of the work done by the first Jewish settlers may have caused them to be missed by the Census takers. Within a very short time, however, the establishment of a more permanent community was accomplished by these early pioneers into the rugged Canadian north.