Decades ago, explicit racism in public places was a common and acceptable phenomenon in the Canadian province of Ontario. Jews, in particular, were impacted by this odious practice, which affected employment, housing and recreational facilities. Impacted by this variant of antisemitism, Jews created their own ecosystem of neighborhoods, jobs and resorts.
The Monteith Inn, situated in Muskoka’s cottage country north of Toronto, was a hotel where Jews were not welcomed until the advent of new ownership.
Built in the 1880s by George Monteith, a fur trapper and adventurer, the 150-room hotelry was bought by Harry and Jennie Shopsowitz, a Jewish immigrant couple from Toronto, for the grand sum of $25,000. They sold their deli to purchase it, and ran it successfully from 1935 until 1949.
Their granddaughter, Karen Shopsowitz, made a nostalgic short documentary about it in the late 1980s. My Grandparents Had A Hotel is currently being presented online by the Toronto Jewish Film Foundation.
Like Jewish-owned hotels in the Catskills, the Monteith Inn catered to a Jewish clientele during an openly racist era when most resorts barred Jewish guests.
Its rates were reasonable, even by the standards of that day: initially $14 per week for room and board. By the late 1940s, the rate had climbed to $42. The resort lay along the shore of scenic Lake Rosseau and attracted guests from both Canada and the United States.
Much of Shopsowitz’s film is composed of 16 mm home movies, which were shot by her father Israel, who worked there in management. Israel’s clips focus on guests enjoying themselves on land and water.
A typical day started with a wholesome breakfast, after which guests could take their pick of a wide range of activities ranging from volleyball to boating. As one guest recalls, there was always “something happening.”
At meals, guests were served by a cohort of young waiters who had been handpicked by the owners. More often than not, they were university students whose income was derived from tips. In the film, they reminisce about those days. Now much older and wider around the hips, they went on to careers in the professions.
For some of the guests, the inn was a turning point in their lives. One woman met her husband there, while another had her first date there.
In the autumn of 1949, a fire consumed the inn, which the Shopsowitz family already had sold. Harry and Jennie Shopsowitz had passed on by then.
The inn was never rebuilt, having outlived its purpose. By that point, the Ontario government had passed legislation outlawing the kind of discrimination that had made resorts like the Monteith Inn necessary.