Economic Life

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Jews/Morton Weinfeld

The Jewish community that existed in Canada prior to the mass migration of the 1880s was relatively affluent. Arguably, its members made a disproportionate contribution to the economic development of the country. The immigrants of the 1700s had tended to be traders and merchants. Late in the century, Jewish entrepreneurs such as Ezekiel Solomon and Jacob Franks helped to develop commercial trade along the St Lawrence and Great Lakes routes. By the mid-nineteenth century the small Jewish community was overwhelmingly upper middle class and included bankers, merchants, lawyers, and doctors. The Joseph family of Montreal is a case in point: Jacob Henry was a founding partner of the Union Bank of Lower Canada and the Bank of British North America, Abraham helped to found the Banque Nationale, and Jesse served as the head of the Montreal Gas Company. To the extent that there was a definable economic or corporate elite in Canada at the time, Jews were certainly well represented in it. They seem to have faced little or none of the discrimination that was to characterize later periods.

The situation began to change with the influx of the eastern European Jews in the last decades of the century. These immigrants were either workers or small traders and pedlars. Many were involved in the early union movements as members or organizers. Certainly, their experience in eastern Europe had made some of them open to notions of socialism and working-class solidarity. The conditions that they faced in the sweatshops of the garment industry or doing piecework at home were exploitative. Future prime minister Mackenzie King, in a series of newspaper articles in 1898, described the hellish conditions. Often workers were involved in fierce labour disputes with Jewish employers, who needed to keep costs low to maintain a reasonable profit margin in a fledgling industry. By 1900 some of the largest firms were Jewish-owned, and they were subject to bitter strikes. The conflict was exacerbated by the cultural gap between the Anglicized owners and their Yiddish-speaking workers. In Montreal in 1912, Jewish workers struck against the entire clothing industry, and although they did not achieve union recognition, they managed to wring concessions from the employers. A fierce strike across the garment trade in 1916–17 focused on attempts by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America to organize workers.

Another conflict occurred when Jewish bakers in Toronto decided to raise the price of bread. Militant Jewish women organized boycotts and protests against the bakeries that sometimes turned violent. As economic conditions improved, prices were lowered and the dispute disappeared, but it left much bitterness in the community. Conflict between Jewish workers and employers persisted into the 1930s, even as the Depression made most workers wary of striking and the garment industry, like other economic sectors, was hard hit. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union, a product of socialist and Labour Zionist efforts, faced a challenge from the Communist-inspired Industrial Union of Needle Trades Workers. To pre-empt the Communist threat, the mainstream unions entered a militant phase, successfully raising wages. Jewish working women played a pivotal role in many of these disputes in the garment industry. Other sectors were organized as well; the Toronto Jewish Bakers’ Union succeeded in signing up workers in most of the Jewish bakeries in Toronto.

There were a number of reasons for the predominance of Jews in the garment industry. For many, it was the only enterprise for which they had any training. In addition, there were cultural factors that made the industry attractive. Jews could be certain that they would not have to work on the Sabbath or on major holidays if they had Jewish employers. They were also unlikely to encounter anti-Semitism from co-workers. Then, as now, economic activity could be seen as a kind of Jewish subeconomy linking employers, employees, suppliers, and consumers in a single network. It is also important to recognize that commonalities of origin may have limited friction. Some of the smaller employers led lives not very different from their employees; they might reside near one another and frequent the same kosher butcher, synagogue, or cultural or fraternal association. Moreover, anti-Semitism served to unite members of the community. It was during the wave of migration at the turn of the century that economic anti-Semitism began to appear in Canada. In 1898 the Montreal Chamber of Commerce for the first time denied an application for membership because the applicant was a Jew.

Like many ethnic groups, Jews in Canada have from the earliest days had a distinctive occupational profile. They were statistically under-represented in agriculture, for example. In North America they generally did not demonstrate loyalty to the working class through successive generations. Indeed, throughout the period from 1880 to 1920, as new immigrants replenished the labouring class, the first steps were taken in the upward movement that became a hallmark of the Jewish immigrant experience on the continent. Within the working class, Jews tended to be concentrated in the ranks of skilled, as opposed to unskilled, labour. But ties to the working class and union solidarity were not part of an eternal ideology; Jewish parents wanted more for their children.

The painstaking work of the pioneering demographer Louis Rosenberg provides an occupational profile of Canadian Jewry in 1931, at the end of the period of mass migration. It reveals the working-class character of the community on the eve of the Depression, but it shows as well the foothold in the middle class that Canadian Jews had already achieved. In that year 33 percent of all Canadians were employed in primary industries, as compared to just 1 percent for Jews. On the other hand, members of the group were over-represented in merchandising (36 percent compared to 8 percent), manufacturing (30 percent to 11 percent), and clerical occupations (10 percent to 6 percent). Broken down another way, the data reveal 18 percent of Jewish men as wholesale and retail merchants, compared to the Canadian average of 3 percent; 30 percent in such occupations as clerks and salesmen, in contrast to 13 percent generally; and 34 percent as skilled and semi-skilled workers, compared to 24 percent of the population as a whole. Only 6 percent of Jewish men were unskilled workers; the comparable figure nationally was 33. The occupational profile of Jewish women was fairly similar, the major difference being a higher representation – because of their urban residence – of clerks and saleswomen: 50 percent compared to the overall Canadian figure of 28 percent.

The data demonstrate clearly the central role of the textile industry. Over one-fifth of all Canadian Jews of ten years of age or over who were gainfully employed worked in that sector; for Jewish immigrant women the figure was 42 percent. Jews were also significantly overrepresented in the fur and leather industries. Even at this early date, their presence in the professions, in part a result of urban concentration, is noteworthy. Though they comprised less than 1 percent of the employed, Jews were more than twice as likely as non-Jews to work as lawyers, notaries, physicians, and surgeons. They also accounted for proportionately higher numbers in recreational services, notably as the owners and managers of theatres and theatrical agencies, by a ratio of seven to one; they were equally likely as all Canadians to be actors or actresses and sportsmen or sportswomen. By contrast, Jews were under-represented in the public service and in finance. Indeed, for every Jew employed in financial activities, six were engaged in agriculture.

By the 1930s, systematic anti-Semitism, both overt and covert, had begun to restrict opportunities for Jews in top positions in leading Canadian corporations. This type of exclusion was analysed by Louis Rosenberg in his pamphlet Who Owns Canada?, published in 1935 under the nom de plume Watt Hugh McCollum. There were no Jews to be found among the fifty corporate “big shots” that he identified. Subsequent analyses of Canada’s economic elite in the 1950s and 1960s found that members of the community accounted for only a tiny fraction. They were concentrated primarily in family-owned firms and were still excluded from the “old money” in banking, insurance, and manufacturing. In addition, Jews faced restrictions in the senior public service.

After World War II, Jews in Canada began to leave the working class in large numbers and attain success in a variety of middle-class occupations, the professions, and small business. Incomes in the community were clearly above the national average, but were not directly related to their leaving the Jewish economic enclave. A survey of Montreal Jewish heads of households taken in 1979 found that 70 percent either were self-employed or worked for Jewish-owned firms, and the business associates of 35 percent were all or mostly Jewish, without any negative impact on their incomes. Historically, there have been a number of explanations for the degree of Jewish economic concentration. One was the fear of anti-Semitism, which propelled Jews to the professions or ownership of businesses in order to avoid dependence on potentially hostile employers. Another was the convenience of a common religion and culture. Whatever the reasons, the Jewish subeconomy seems to have persisted past the immigrant generation. A study of Jews and other ethnic minorities in Toronto concluded that the relation between leaving the ethnic enclave and upward mobility has no relevance for Jews. Moving up has meant, not abandoning ethnic occupations, but finding new ones.

By any criterion, Jews have been successful. The 1986 census data for ethnic groups in the age range 25–54 reveals both males and females doing well indeed. The overall unemployment rate is lower than for individuals of British origin, for example: the figures are 6 percent to 8. About 56 percent of Jewish males, compared to 43 percent among those of British origin, are in select white-collar occupations, such as managerial and administrative positions, the natural sciences, engineering, mathematics, the social sciences, teaching, medicine and health, and artistic, literary, and recreational occupations. Some 43 percent have a university degree or higher; the comparable figure for persons of British origin is 19 percent. Immigrant Jewish males earn $7,000 a year above the Canadian average, higher than any other group. Among females, 47 percent are in select white-collar occupations, in contrast to 32 percent of women of British origin, and 31 percent, compared to 10 percent, have a university degree. Immigrant Jewish women earn $3,200 above the national average for women, also the highest for any ethnic group.

Preliminary data for 1991 suggest that Jews have retained their strong representation in desirable occupations. The highest level of educational attainment for Jews by religion in the age group 25–44 is instructive. For Jewish men the proportion who have completed a university degree is 57 percent; for Jewish women it is 54 percent. The relevant figures for the Canadian population as a whole are 22 percent for men and 20 for women. In terms of occupational profile, Jews have continued to be statistically over-represented in law, medicine, and business, as well as in newer fields such as university teaching. There has been a slow movement out of small business, both wholesale and retail, and into professional and service occupations.

Today, Jews can be numbered among the wealthiest Canadians. They have begun slowly to penetrate those economic sectors that have hitherto been closed to them, at the same time as they are building up wealth in family-owned firms. In these days of global economic networks, the old Anglo-Canadian establishment may no longer be crucial to economic power. Families such as the Bronfmans, the Belzbergs, and the Reichmanns represent just the tip of an extremely affluent segment of Jewish society in Canada. Even as these wealthy Jews and their money begin to be accepted in Gentile high society, they often retain strong loyalties to and status within the Jewish community. Their commitments, typified by gala fund-raising dinners, are routinely chronicled in Jewish-Canadian publications.

Yet these high socio-economic averages mask extensive variation. In part because of the advanced age profile of the community, significant numbers of Canadian Jews have a low income or live below the poverty line. Indeed, because of the high average incomes and the widespread perception among Jews and Gentiles alike that all Jews are well off, these members of the community form an “invisible” poor. Using data from 1981, one analyst has concluded that almost one out of six Jews was poor or near-poor, compared to one out of four for Canada as a whole. The poor are the elderly and those who live alone, as well as some recent immigrants. Yet because of general perceptions about communal affluence, there may be a greater stigma attached to their poverty. It may translate into a reluctance to admit need or to use the resources that are available in the community.

A large part of Jewish economic success can be traced directly to high educational attainment, as well as to such factors such as age, region of residence, and occupation. One study found about 40 percent of the income advantage of Jewish males could be accounted for by these other socio-demographic factors. Earlier analyses using census and survey data have found similar or greater reduction in the Jewish income advantage as these other factors are considered. Yet these explanations beg the question regarding the quite dramatic educational attainment of Canadian Jews and their persistent income advantages.

One argument is that traditional Jewish culture, with its emphasis on learning, somehow facilitates a transition to secular educational attainment. Commentators have also suggested that elements of Jewish theology and religious organization (for example, the non-hierarchical nature of organized Judaism or the rational-legal basis of Talmudic argumentation) are conducive to such important middle-class values as rational thought, planning, and independence. Another argument is rooted in social structure. Jews in Europe were for a variety of reasons urbanites or involved in trade and commerce, characteristics that made them well suited for success in urban North America. Perhaps also, the insecurity of minority status forced them to work harder. There is no definitive reason for Jewish economic success, and certainly no conclusive Canadian research on the issue.

Another interesting facet of Jewish economic life in Canada today is the role played by the communal sector of the Jewish subeconomy, which includes the extensive network of organizations, national, regional, and local. Synagogues, Jewish schools, and social and cultural agencies – institutions usually supported by philanthropy, though with substantial fees for services – hire large numbers of predominantly Jewish employees. The so-called public sector of the Jewish subeconomy is a form of income redistribution within the community, through which wealthy donors generate employment for a variety of communal workers.

Ironically, the relative Jewish affluence has posed problems. Some critics have debated whether there is too much conspicuous consumption, as a materialist ethos supplants spiritual values. Another emerging issue is the high cost of living a full Jewish life. For those who seek a comprehensive Jewish life, the expense can be exorbitant. A middle-class family may have to pay for schooling, potentially lavish bar or bat mitzvahs for the children, occasional trips to Israel, summer camps, membership in a synagogue and other Jewish organizations, and a premium for the cost of kosher food. These expenses are often beyond the means of hard-pressed families with modest incomes, especially single-parent households, struggling to “keep up with the Cohens.” Thus Jewish communities have to direct their policies, not only to the most needy, but also to segments of the middle class.