A Jewish Tour of Northern Ontario

Nov. 10, 2020


Since I started learning about geography in elementary school, I’ve been mystified by Canada’s vastness and enormity. A country of nearly 10 million square kilometers – almost 500 times the size of Israel – Canada is almost incomprehensibly large.

And it wasn’t just Canada’s size that intrigued me. It was the fact that, growing up in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), the rest of the country was so dissimilar from the megacity where I was raised.

So, this year, after the Jewish holidays ended in October, still very much in the midst of the COVID pandemic, I decided to start – modestly – to explore a small corner of Canada that I had always wanted to see: northern Ontario.

First, it’s worth pointing out that Ontario is nearly 1.1 million square kilometers, or still about 50 times the size of Israel, but it far from entirely accessible. A large swath of the province has no year-round roads leading to it, and locals – mostly small native villages and reservations – rely on trains, winter roads (either packed snow or frozen lakes) and float planes to access their remote communities.

My goal was to see a part of Ontario – wild, natural and rugged – and I began my road trip heading north, towards North Bay. I had one Jewish spot marked on a map that I had read about, but I didn’t realize how Jewish life would become a much bigger part of my visit.

Sunny and warm on the day I visited, North Bay, Lake Nipissing and environs were beautiful, and the town itself has an established but small Jewish community, as well as a semi-functioning synagogue, Sons of Jacob, in the downtown area. According to its website, it remains the oldest Ontario synagogue north of Toronto still in use, established 107 years ago.

Heading north further is a blink-and-you-miss-it town of Temagami, home to a 100-foot fire tower on top of a 400-foot small mountain, affording views of lakes and hills over a wide area.

Further north still is the town of Cobalt, a once-bustling centre of silver mining, but now tragically crumbling, though Tesla is reported to be searching for lithium, a necessary battery component, in the region. There are still vestiges of the old mining history throughout the town, including a self-guided driving (or walking) tour, in which closed silver mines can be seen up close.

Ten minutes east is the town of Haileybury, a larger but otherwise nondescript place, except for its location abutting the crystal clear and large body of water, Lake Temaskeming. On the other side of the lake is Quebec, and the views, in my opinion, were better than anything Muskoka could offer.

The cemetery in Krugersdorf served Jews in North Bay, Kirkland Lake and Sudbury

One hour past Haileybury, I had read online about a small Jewish cemetery of about 60 graves established more than 100 years ago. When there was a tiny Jewish community in Kirkland Lake and surrounding areas, a cemetery had been set up in the hamlet of Krugersdorf to serve local Jews. And although I had directions, it was still surprisingly hard to find. Turning off highway 11 (a modest two lanes by then) onto a dirt road, I passed logging trucks and machines, and drove past utter nothingness for about 10 minutes until I caught in the corner of my eye a sign reading “Hebrew cemetery.”

Continuing another few hundred meters, I didn’t see a cemetery, so I stopped on the side of the road and approached a local farmer. I asked him where the cemetery was. “Across the street,” he replied. I looked and saw nothing, but he told me it was there, so I crossed the dirt road, opened a small gate, and walked 200 feet into an open field, where I finally saw 60 graves, some dating back around 100 years, and a small white building with a sign announcing, “Northern Chevra Kadisha: Krugersdorf. Est. 1905.”

A sign for the chevra kadisha (burial society) in Krugersdorf

I stopped to say the Kel Maleh Rachamim, the Jewish prayer for the deceased, and a psalm, knowing that probably no Jewish visitors ever found their way to this remote graveyard.

Continuing north-west about two hours is Timmins, the commercial centre of the region. Although it has a population of only 45,000, it feels much larger because of temporary workers in lumber and mining, in addition to truckers and transporters passing through.

A wooden menorah, now in the Timmins Museum, from the town’s B’nai Israel Congregation, which closed in the early 1970s.

The Timmins Museum chronicles the town’s history, and while perusing the items on display, I noticed a wooden menorah from B’nai Israel, the now-defunct local synagogue. Seeing Jewish items in a museum was definitely a sobering experience.

‘Synagogue Avenue’ in Iroquois Falls

About one hour northeast of Timmins is Iroquois Falls, a small village which was once home to a modest Jewish population, but now “Synagogue Avenue” is its only vestige.

Next, I headed west, through the hinterland towards Chapleau, site of the world’s largest crown game preserve, and a large population of bears. There was about a one-hour drive on which there was no store, no house, no radio coverage, no evidence of human existence. After a night in Chapleau, I continued west to Wawa.

Scenic Wawa, population 3,700, felt like British Columbia. Nestled on Lake Wawa and surrounded by hills and canyons, I found it resembled Vancouver Island.

Congregation Beth Jacob in Sault Ste. Marie

My next stop was Sault Ste. Marie, home to Congregation Beth Jacob, established in 1945 and still functioning. Although the Jewish population once numbered 250, it is now under 100, but it is still widely involved in local Jewish life. 

The interior of Congregation Beth Jacob in Sault Ste. Marie

My guide in Sault Ste. Marie told me about a small cemetery, about 1.5 kilometers east, in a hamlet called Massey, where, off to the side of a non-Jewish cemetery, were eight Jewish graves, the oldest dating to the late 1800s. The final resting place for Jews who lived in Sudbury, about an hour still east of Massey, a number of the graves were of infants, and given the year on a couple epitaphs – 1918 – possibly victims of the Spanish Flu. I once again stopped by to recite the Jewish prayer for the dead and to pay my respects to Jews who likely receive virtually no visitors.

A grave in Massey, Ontario

The final stops on my way back to Toronto were in Sudbury and environs, home to another shul, Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue, but time did not permit more exploration of the city’s Jewish life. 

While I did not intend to do a Jewish tour of northern Ontario, one vestige led to the next, and allowed me to peer into a nearly-forgotten corner of Canadian Jewish life. Although at its peak, in all of northern Ontario – Timmins, Kirkland Lake, Iroquois Falls, North Bay, Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay and other smaller towns – probably didn’t ever total even 2,000 Jews – the impact of Jewish life there far outweighed numbers.

And while these Jews didn’t disappear – their descendants live largely in Toronto and southern Ontario – visiting northern Ontario was a stark reminder that Jewish life anywhere is not a guarantee, but rather requires constant infusion of energy, dedication and commitment.

Robert Walker is a Jewish community consultant in Toronto.

All photos by Robert Walker