The story of Maurice Pollack, a Jewish immigrant of Ukrainian origin, seems like something out of a novel. He arrived in Québec City at age 17, in 1902, without a penny to his name. He started out as a traveling salesman and saved up enough money to open a small store on rue Saint-Joseph. He then expanded his store, expanded again, and became very wealthy. At age 65 he started a career as philanthropist and became one of Canada’s greatest donors.
A modest start
Maurice Pollack was born in 1885 in the Kiev region of Ukraine. Like many other Eastern European immigrants, he chose Canada as his new home at the turn of the 20th century, but he opted for Québec City instead of heading to the Prairies or Montreal, where most Jews were concentrated. He became a traveling salesman because he had no other options. For four years, he went from farm to farm by horse-drawn carriage to sell clothing. Then, in 1906, he opened a men’s haberdashery on rue Saint-Joseph.
Innovation and growth
Five years later, Pollack moved into a larger space. He added women’s and children’s departments and innovated by displaying fixed prices instead of haggling with customers. He also made heavy use of advertising, following the lead of American department stores.
Maurice Pollack spoke almost no French or English but with his business acumen he was soon among the leading merchants on rue Saint-Joseph. He acquired neighbouring lots and his store expanded several times during the Great Depression of the 1930s. When the economy started to pick up, his five-level store, which extended from rue Saint-Joseph to boulevard Charest, had ultramodern amenities such as escalators and elevators that stopped automatically at each floor.
A notable expansion
In 1951 Maurice Pollack opened a brand-new store on boulevard Charest, for which his architects received high praise in trade magazines. The store boasted clean, modern lines and showcased products to great advantage in illuminated windows that ran the entire length of the ground floor, attracting customers’ attention 24 hours a day.
It was at this time that Maurice Pollack turned over management of the company to his sons to devote his time to philanthropy.
A great philanthropist
Regarded as the leader and dean of Québec City’s Jewish community, he was the victim of several anti-Semitic campaigns in the 1930s and 1940s. But after World War II, a more open climate, combined with his generosity, silenced the critics.
The Maurice Pollack Foundation helped fund many works and projects in Québec, the United States, and Israel. He notably supported Université Laval in Québec City and McGill University in Montreal, as well as the Québec City and Montreal symphony orchestras. He also contributed to many hospitals and often sat on their boards of directors.
The end of a success story
The Pollack department store was the first to suffer from changes in consumer habits when people began shopping at suburban shopping malls with large, free parking lots. It closed in 1978.
Maurice Pollack had died ten years earlier, in 1968.