FROM PEDDLERS TO BUSINESS LEADERS
City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1244, Item 616
Jewish rag picker on Bloor Street West, Toronto, 1911
Courtesy of the Koffler Family Archives, Toronto
Murray Koffler, ca. 1950, preparing prescriptions at the second Koffler’s Drug Store, situated
on Bathurst Street, Toronto. Koffler’s Drug Store was renamed Shoppers Drug Mart in 1962.
Jewish Public Library Archives, Montreal Fonds # 1255 and Image # 005594
Samuel Bronfman with Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker, 1957
Source: Jewish Museum and Archives of BC
Wosk’s ‘The House of Quality’ display, Pacific National Exhibition, Vancouver, 1950
Courtesy of the Koffler Family Archives, Toronto
Murray Koffler (far left) with his partners and co-founders of the Four Seasons Hotels.
L to R: Max Sharp, Edmund Creed, Isadore Sharp, Fred Eisen, 1960.
Building a Strong and Prosperous Country
Many early Jewish immigrants worked as peddlers, farmers, fur traders, and small store owners. Others were involved in the garment industry of Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg, some as manufacturers and others as factory workers or skilled tradespeople. As early as the 1860s, two Montreal brothers, Jacob Henry and Jesse Joseph, helped develop Canada’s first telegraph system as well as the St. Lawrence Railroad.
Networks of Jewish ‘credit merchants’ were important in bringing modern dry goods to consumers in small villages located outside the main towns. The Jewish customer peddlers were a transitional type of business, enabling men with minimum financial resources to begin a retail business that had no ‘store front’ and depended on personal relations, service and credit to operate. It was a pre-credit card forerunner to today’s online shopping!
Store-based merchants began larger businesses once immigrants were better settled. In 1919, Sam Cohen opened the Army & Navy surplus and liquidation store in Vancouver. He expanded throughout western Canada, becoming Canada’s first discount department store chain. Still a family-operated business, it is now managed by his granddaughter, Jacqui Cohen. In 1923, Ben and Morris Wosk founded their appliance store that later grew into a major publicly traded chain of furniture and appliance stores in western Canada.
In Montreal, Sam Steinberg opened the first self-service grocery store in 1934, and by the 1970s, it was the largest supermarket chain in Quebec. Likewise, the Reitman family operated a small women’s clothing store in Montreal in 1926, and today, after 90 years in business, it is the primary women’s clothing specialty chain in Canada, boasting over 800 stores across the country. The Greenberg family operated two chains of mid-range department stores across Quebec in the 1950s to the 1970s, and the Le Grand-Magasin Pollack, founded by Maurice Pollack, was a fixture in the Quebec City region for close to half a century, before closing.
Calgary’s Smithbilt Hats was founded in 1918 by Morris Shumiatcher (“Smith”) and is to this day the producer of the famous white cowboy hats ubiquitous to the Calgary Stampede. All important dignitaries who visit Calgary, including Her Majesty, the Queen, are lucky recipients of a Smithbilt Stetson.
Irving Schwartz, of Sydney, Nova Scotia, expanded his family’s business holdings beyond furniture and clothing, building nursing homes across Canada. He contributed to the diversification of Cape Breton’s economy by developing regional companies for cable television, Internet, biomedical and software holdings, and a land mine removal organization.
By the mid-20th century, several Jewish entrepreneurs transformed their small family businesses into major industries. Among the most prominent were Montreal’s Bronfmans who vastly expanded Seagram’s Distillery, Murray Koffler of Toronto who founded Shoppers Drug Mart, Winnipeg’s Cohen family of SAAN and Sony Stores, and the Belzbergs of Vancouver, founders of First City Financial Corporation.
Isadore (Issy) Sharp, together with his partners Max Sharp, Edmund Creed, Murray Koffler and Fred Eisen, co-founded the Four Seasons Hotel, Toronto’s first downtown motor hotel. It was followed by the development of the Inn on the Park in 1963, and has since expanded around the world as a premium quality hotel chain.
In recent years, Heather Reisman has achieved distinction with Indigo Books and Music, as has Jeff Skoll, former President of eBay and movie producer. Similarly, Gerry Schwartz and his partners have developed ONEX Corporation into a highly successful investment company, with worldwide holdings. Albert “Aldo” Bensadoun is a Montreal businessman, investor and philanthropist of Moroccan origin, who founded the highly successful international retail shoe company, Aldo Group.
Many Jewish business leaders are well-known for encouraging future generations of entrepreneurs and business people as well as for their public contributions to philanthropy and humanitarian work. Families such as the Aspers, the Bronfmans, the Vereds, the Tanenbaums, the Belzbergs, the Medjucks, the Schwartzes and the Kofflers are justly seen as leaders in private and corporate support to many public causes across Canada and abroad.