06 March 2008

Canada: BC's first Jewish arrivals

British Columbia owes much to the first Jews who arrived in 1858, as they contributed greatly to the province's development, according to today's story in the Vancouver Sun, which also focuses on diversity.

Among the first arrivals flooding into sleepy Fort Victoria when word of rich strikes on the Fraser River reached San Francisco in 1858 was a large contingent of Jews from the California gold fields.

Some, like Selim Franklin and Henry Nathan, were British-born; many, like the Oppenheimer brothers, originally came from Germany. Whatever their origins, they would contribute richly to the commercial, cultural and political development of what would become the province of British Columbia.

At a time when anti-Semitism still emerges with depressing regularity, it's worth remembering that the best of what we are derives from our diversity.

Of these Jews, three would make political history, four would build a globe-spanning business that thrives a century-and-a-half later, two would help shape Vancouver's emergence as B.C.'s preeminent city.

The first year, the Jewish immigrants had established some 70 businesses.

American stampeders quickly overwhelmed the tiny British outpost. Fort Victoria's population exploded as an estimated 30,000 prospectors and camp followers passed through.

The son of a Liverpool banker, Selim Franklin was was the first government auctioneer, and owned downtown lots. In 1859, the Victoria Philharmonic Society was founded at his home.

Interestingly, he ran for a seat in the new legislative assembly the following year. He was supported by Victoria's black community and defeated a high-profile newspaper editor to become the first Jew in North America elected to public office.

Franklin refused to take the Christian oath of office and Governor James Douglas immediately amended the oath for non-Christian office holders. Franklin's brother Lumley was elected mayor of Victoria in 1865 - the first Jew to be elected mayor of a North American city. London-Born Henry Nathan Jr won the 1871 Victoria seat in Parliament, the first Jew elected to the House of Commons.

Charles, Godfrey, David and Isaac Oppenheimer's wholesale Victoria provisions company supplied miners. Civic-minded, David founded the Union Club, while Isaac organized the Barkerville fire brigade. The family built Vancouver's first brick building after the great fire of 1886. David and Isaac also served on the city's second city council in 1887, and David began serving four terms as mayor in 1888.

The Oppenheimer Group today is a leading North American fresh produce company and celebrating its 150th anniversay, and claims to be the oldest business founded in the province. It began importing Mandarin oranges from Japan some 120 years ago.

As mayor, David invested in the Vancouver Water Works, the Vancouver Electric Railway and Light (to become BC Hydro) and the Westminster and Vancouver Tramway. He established a steamship line plying between Vancouver and Australia, helped found the BC Sugar Refinery, the YMCA, Alexandria Orphanage and more.

According to the story's author:

Jews assisted in giving B.C. its present shape and place in Confederation. Jews led Vancouver to the bridges, sewers, clean water, schools, public transportation and not least, Stanley Park, in short, most of the civic services that make this an enviable place to live. And that's the best answer to anti-Semitism that I can marshal.

Read the complete story here.

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