Origins and Traditions of Polish People in Canada

Polish language

Proudly from Poland to Canada

Defining a present-day Polish-Canadian heritage, which is not a generality but speaks for most people with roots from Poland, presents a major challenge on many fronts. First, Canada, itself, is a large country that is made up of numerous provinces, each that has its own history and culture. Thus, different Polish groups exist in these provinces, such as Manitoba Polish, Saskatchewan Polish and even the Prince Edward Island Polish. In Canada in 1885, there were about 2,500 to 3,000 Poles, with many of them scattered in Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton and Winnipeg. Second, the Poles arrived at different times over the past two centuries, which has influenced their integration into the Canadian society. Third, and perhaps the factor that has had the most impact on defining Polish-Canadian heritage is that the Poles, themselves, came from diverse backgrounds. Just because they all have Polish roots, does not mean that they have similar histories. Early Canadian censuses included Poles as Russians, Germans, or Austrians, for example, because of their political past. Lastly, it is difficult to generalize about present times and the degree of strength of today's Polish-Canadian heritage given the many differences with today's young adults. This report will provide the best conclusion possible given these challenges of disparate groups noted above. Overall, it appears that many of these distinctions that were barriers in the past have disappeared with today's third and fourth-generation children, many who are once again looking for their roots.

The first major Polish immigration to Canada occurred from 1858 to 1913. Most of those who arrived after 1895 and settled on prairie farms in the provinces were from the Eastern European province of Galicia and left when they lost their homes. The next wave of Poles arrived between the two World Wars; they also settled on the prairies. The third wave of Polish immigrants came after the end of the WWII and included a number of men who had been in the Polish armed forces or were displaced persons or refugees. Most of these individuals settled in the cities, about half of them in Ontario. Many Polish people have continued to immigrate to Canada since the 1950s, as they looked for better economic conditions and political freedom. In 1986, there were about 222,000 Canadians who claimed they were of Polish ethnic ancestry. Of these, 117,570 lived in Ontario, 28,500 in Alberta, 19,305 in British Columbia, 18,835 in Quebec, and 13,325 in Saskatchewan. Nearly 90% of Poles lived in urban centers, with Toronto, Winnipeg, Montreal, Edmonton, Hamilton, and Vancouver having the greatest populations. In the 2006 Census, there 984,567 individuals who said they had Polish roots. This was 3.15% of the population. The majority of these now live in Manitoba, or 7.3%.

A large majority of Polish-Canadians are Roman Catholic, or about 80%, with those from the Anglican Church, Baptist, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Lutheran, Ukraine Catholic Church faiths and other religions (9%) making up the rest. Most of the arrivals in the first wave were Catholics from Galicia; the majority settled in Ontario and western Canada to homestead. Soon Polish neighbourhoods were being settled with churches, and Polish clergy served the Polish-speaking Catholics. Religious festivals, feast days and social events gave these new Catholic Canadians a connection to their Polish identity and community cohesiveness. When only English was allowed to be taught in the schools, the parents began instructing the Polish language at home. There were also two Polish newspapers. By the end of the 1920s, there were 33 Polish parishes and 157 missions across Canada, and the Association of Poles in Canada was established to coordinate efforts in Polish Catholic churches and organizations. Much of these connections among Catholic Poles came from their initial treatment in Canada. Catholics arriving before 1914 were negatively stereotyped and not welcomed into the Anglo-Canadian social and personal lives and activities. Prejudice grew especially strong during World War I, when Poles from Austrian Galicia and Prussian Poland were often called "Huns," as well as during the Depression. However, with the conquest of Poland in 1939, most of this discrimination ended and relationships improved considerably.

When the Ukraine declared its independence in 1917, which included many Polish-inhabited towns and the city of L'viv/Lwow, a deep divide developed between the Poles and Ukrainians, which led to considerable disputes in Canada; this situation was aggravated when Ukrainian political activists from Poland immigrated to Canada. However, similar to what occurred between the Anglo-Canadians and the Polish-Canadians, with the incorporation of western Ukraine into the Soviet Union after World War II, much of the conflict between the Ukrainian and Polish Canadians ebbed. When Poland also fell to the Soviets, the groups had a common enemy.

At this time, however, the relations between the Polish Jews and the Ukrainians were strained due to both historical and political historic events. When the Jewish Holocaust and Ukrainian displaced persons started arriving in Canada, this friction grew because of the Nazi connections among some of the Ukrainian refugees. This tension continued, in fact, until the 1980s with the government hearings into Canadian Nazi war criminals. At the end, no Ukrainians were included in the final 20 war criminals charged. Relationships between the Ukrainians and Anglo-Canadians in English-speaking Canada were also strained, as the Ukrainians became targeted by the nativists. These feelings declined after World War II. As new generations were born, much of this discrimination of the older immigrants disappeared. With time, as well, many of the Ukrainians broke ties with their homeland, and by the early 1990s, only a few Ukrainians still spoke their native language. However, the folklore and heritage continues with many Ukrainian-Canadians to this day.

When the Polish Jews came to Canada before 1941 to escape persecution, they were not classified as Poles, as they settled and opened shops primarily in Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg. Nor, did they apparently want to identify themselves as Poles given the political circumstances. However, based on the 1951 and 1961 Census data, the Jewish immigrants who arrived in Canada after World War II did begin to characterize themselves as Polish. Unlike the pre-1939 Jewish immigrants from Poland, many of these post-war Jews seem to have identified themselves as Poles. Although some Jews did join Polish associations, they remained distanced from the Roman Catholic Poles. Jewish-Polish organizations did not arise until later. Controversy continued with the Canadian Polish Congress as the media depicted the Polish country during the war as neutral at best and anti-Semitic and as Nazi sympathizers at worst. In addition, the Jews and Catholics continually debated about the Catholic complicity in the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. The Catholics firmly denied this, emphasizing their major losses in the death camps, as well, and the support of many Christians who saved many Polish Jews during the Germany occupation. Time does begin to heal wounds, as noted above with other groups, and recently the Canadian Polish Congress, the Jewish Canadian Congress and the Ukrainian Polish Congress have worked together to combat anti-Semitism. There are also have been two Polish-Jewish organizations formed since the 1990s.

Although it took several pages to review the history of the separate Polish-Canadian groups, it was relevant because it explains, in part, why there has not been a strong unity among all the Poles who immigrated to Canada. Political, social, cultural and religious problems that existed in Europe did not just disappear when these fellow Polish citizens moved to Canada. They may have been in a new home, but they brought with them many of the beliefs and troubles that led them originally to move out of Poland. However, it is also the case that with the passing of the years and the arrival of the second and, even more so, the third generations, many of these earlier memories began to lose their edge, become much less important or even be forgotten. The quarrels and controversies of their parents and grandparents were in the past and frequently not understood, especially with much stronger identification with Canada than with the past and friendships being formed with no thought to earlier roots and intermarriage occurring across nationalities. Of course, with these groups, there always seems to be new areas of controversy, such as the most recent argument about who should be included in the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

Pawel Boski, professor in the Department of Psychology William Paterson College of New Jersey, has conducted several studies to determine what happens from one generation to another in terms of heritage and ties earlier homelands. He explains that national self-identity can be conceived of with three interrelated factors:

1) Criterial, or the knowledge and personal relevance of cultural/national symbols;

2) Correlative, consisting of similarity between one's self description and construction of a nation's prototypical person; and

3) Affective, or feelings cathected to the country as an entity.

He also theorizes how these three factors are interrelated: greater knowledge or cognitive centrality of country representation (i.e., historical, cultural, political) should lead to stronger influences and also result in higher rates of similarity with positively evaluated national prototypes. Depending on particular historical situations, the cognitive aspects of national self-identity may be strongly polarized in their affective components. Immigration, as well as living in a pluralistic, multinational society, provides a special opportunity national self-identity. Boski thus hypothesises that with the first generation of immigrants, retention of the original criterial identity overcomes gaining of a new one for the host country (e.g., language): Acquisition of correlated identity occurs more quickly and learned practically to adapt, although not without conflicts. That is, self-identity of the first generation immigrants should be more attached to the country of origin or Poland. In the second generation, criterial identity with the new country, in this case Canada, develops as the result of formal school education and cumulative personal experience, while that with the old country, Poland, barely results. For this reason, retention should be seen more in terms of correlative identity, as a component of "different" lifestyle modelled after immigrant parents. For example, a first-generation immigrant will stand out by the local community because of his/her language or style of dress or lack of knowledge about the new country's celebrations. After several years, this same person will be seen as "Americanized," by his/her earlier homeland friends, because of the change in behaviour. A second-generation person with these parents will fit in culturally to the new country but retain some of the characteristics from the country of origin.

This correlates with what has taken place in Canada in the use of the Polish language. Between 1921 and 1971 the use of speaking Polish dropped from 95% to 43% in the proportion of Poles whose mother tongue was Polish, demonstrating the impact of intermarriage, public schools, peer groups, and mass media. However, of interest for this report especially, the 1981 and 1991 censuses showed a reversal of this trend with 50% and 70%, respectively, perhaps due to a revival in language interest and the arrival of new immigrants. By the age of ten, nearly 25% of children whose first language was Polish no longer use it at home, and over 50% of this category no longer uses it at the age of 40. The only exceptions being those born between 1955 and 1965 and their parents - the post-war exiles and refugees - who wanted to preserve language and culture. Yet, in 1991, there were still 239,580 people who knew Polish.

As noted previously, the Polish-Canadian youth today run the gambit between those who either continue to be or are starting to be more interested in their roots to those who are aware that they are Polish, but have no interest in their heritage. In between there are thousands of Poles who enjoy some aspects of their heritage, either through their religious affiliation, language use, Polish traditions, customs, symbols or even dress. Many are visiting Poland to see firsthand where their ancestors were from and others are tracing their family trees.

Many of the third and fourth generation Polish youth are either forming or participating in Polish groups. One University of Alberta student who attended the Quo Vadis Polish Canadian Youth Conference last year says that the speaker, Lieutenant Colonel and Special Advisor to the Chief of Land Staff Walter Perchal, called for the participants to get involved and was rewarded with a standing ovation. A panel led by Prof. Sokoloski of the University of Ottawa asked tough questions as, Why, compared to other, smaller ethnic groups, the Polish community does not succeed on the wider Canadian stage proportionally to its size? How can this situation be improved? How can the myriad Polish-Canadian organizations cooperate more closely and get youth involved? Why are second generation Canadians of Polish origin often invisible in the Polish community? What does their heritage mean to young Canadians with Polish roots? Launched in 2009 by several students, the Young Polish-Canadian Professionals Association connects Polish-Canadian professionals in a full range of fields.

Many of these young people are also traveling out from the cities to the prairies to see where their relatives lived when first arriving in Canada. These earlier Poles were tied to their land and kept to themselves through language and religion. In contrast, these youth have a pride in their heritage and want to continue their traditions and not have them become lost. Yet, at the same time, they are closely involved with the political, social and economic activities in their own country of Canada. The earlier Polish settlers had to keep close to their roots because of survival or because they were not yet accepted by others in their new country. Over the years, however, they adapted to their new homes. Many now retain their "Polishness" and also feel strongly Canadian and, it is hoped, have lost the cultural animosities of their grandparents, as well. Of course, one cannot generalize and say that all Polish youth are interested in finding their roots and maintaining their culture. On the other hand, the Polish heritage has not been forgotten by thousands of youths. Perhaps, they will continue this connection with their past with their own children as well.

"I am Canadian," a fourth-generation, young man of Polish origin said, "but I am proud of my origin because it gives me extra security that I am a descendant of brave people who, by their hard work and sacrifice, together with others, were co-builders of this country."