Simon Petersky was among the first of the Russian-Jewish immigrants to arrive in Winnipeg as part of the Canadian government’s efforts to increase settlement in the Canadian West. Fearing the abandonment of the western provinces and the subsequent risk of losing the land to the Americans, the Canadian government was eager to find farmers to fill the empty Prairies. At the same time, many Jews were streaming out of Russia, fleeing the pogroms and otherwise unliveable conditions. They were congregating in the large cities and overflowing the absorption capacities. As a solution to both problems at once, land plots in the Prairies of 160 acres were offered for $10, with the only stipulation being that at least 50 acres be cleared within 3 years of claiming a homestead. Many Jews jumped at this opportunity, as it allowed safety from the terrible conditions and pogroms of Europe, as well as a chance at full land ownership.
As a result, small Jewish farming communities began to spring up in the fertile lands of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
In 1884 Simon Petersky and 27 other Russian- Jewish immigrants created the first Jewish farm colony in the Prairies, which they named “New Jerusalem”. Moving out of the comfort of Winnipeg and into the wilderness of Southern Saskatchewan, Petersky and his family tried their hands at agricultural production. Their colony was largely successful, until a series of devastatingly cold winters eventually forced them out of their homes. By the spring of 1890, through a period of sub-zero temperatures, blizzards, drought and destruction of crops, the homestead was largely abandoned. Like many of those from New Jerusalem, the Petersky family resettled in Vancouver, hoping for a new start and a better lease on life.
The Petersky family settled in Vancouver’s East End in late 1890. Simon became the president of Vancouver’s Reform Congregation Temple Emanu-El. By 1892, Petersky was a confectioner, tobacconist and fruit seller at 37-39 Cordova Street establishing a general store called Simon Petersky & Co. In 1899 Petersky was among the first Jewish businessmen to take advantage of the profitable summer trade in Steveston. After a series of poor salmon runs and disastrous fires leading up to WWI, Petersky’s General Store closed.
Simon’s son Sam was the first Jewish Vancouverite to study medicine. He was practicing as a physician at his office on West Hastings Street until his sudden death in 1932 while delivering a speech.Today, members of the Petersky family reside in Seattle.