Examining the Polish-Canadian community on the 160th anniversary of the outbreak of the tragic January 1863 Uprising in Russian-occupied Poland
By Apolonja (Pola) Kojder and Mark Wegierski
After a period of high glory in the late medieval and early modern periods, Poland had endured Partition (often harsh foreign occupation under Tsarist Russia, Prussia/Germany, and the Habsburg Empire) since 1795. Independence was regained only in 1918. The Partition period was punctuated by numerous desperate uprisings – one of the most desperate being the January 1863 Uprising against Tsarist Russia. The Uprising had very little hope of success – it could be characterized as an existential assertion of Polishness against the then especially harsh Tsarist Russian occupation.
We would like to memorialize this tragic Uprising by commenting on the Polish-Canadian community today.
Although, according to the 2016 Canada Census, there are over a million persons of Polish descent in Canada, that group has a comparatively minor impact on Canadian society, politics, and culture.
Canadian Polonia (the Polish-Canadian community) seems to have a perennial misapprehension of what constitutes “objective” cultural influence and power today. They have very few active writers. The community is organizationally weak and faces a chronic lack of funding, whether from private individuals or government cultural and multicultural support. Some types of writing have almost immediate social and political effects. There are currently no opinion-columnists on staff in the major Toronto newspapers, who could be identified as belonging to the Polish-Canadian community, nor do any such opinion-columnists in any major newspaper in the country come to mind. There are also very few authors of books by recognized publishers. What can one say when even the post of the President of the Canadian Polish Congress is a volunteer position.
There are, currently, only a few M.P.s who could be identified as emphatically belonging to the Polish-Canadian community, in the Canadian Federal Parliament. One of them is Calgary-area Conservative M.P. Tom Kmiec. Also, in the Ontario Parliament, two dynamic women were elected as Progressive Conservative M.P.P.s in 2018 – Kinga Surma (Etobicoke-Centre) and Natalia Kusendova (Mississauga-Centre). They were both re-elected in 2022. In 2011-2015, there were two Polish-Canadian M.P.s from the Conservative Party, Wladyslaw Lizon (Mississauga East -- Cooksville) and Ted Opitz (Etobicoke-Centre). During the 1970s, Stanley Haidasz represented the Parkdale-High Park riding (then the Toronto-area riding with the highest proportion of persons of Polish descent) as a Liberal, being named as Minister of State for Multiculturalism (and later, Senator). His successor in the riding was the Liberal, Jesse Flis. Because of the prominence of Haidasz and Flis, Polish-Canadians tended to support the federal Liberal Party in earlier decades.
The main waves of Polish immigration to Canada could be identified as pre-World War I; interwar; post-World War II; 1956-1979; Solidarity era; and post-1989. The Polish Second Republic fell before the savage onslaught of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (then Hitler’s ally) in September 1939 (when World War II began).
Betrayed by America and Britain at the Yalta Conference, Poland was assigned to the Soviet sphere of influence (to be officially called the People’s Republic of Poland) -- along with the wrenching displacement of her frontiers in a westward direction.
The largest group of Polish immigrants to Canada in the post-World War II period were the Polish ex-soldiers who had served in the Polish armed forces under Western Allied command. Among their greatest military achievements were the contribution of the Polish pilots to the aerial Battle of Britain in 1940; the storming by the Polish Second Corps of Monte Cassino in Italy, the “impregnable” German positions blocking the road to Rome, in 1944; and the attempt to close the Falaise Gap in Normandy by the Polish First Armoured Division, also in 1944. The Polish ex-soldiers who came directly to Canada in the late 1940s were required to work for two years on remote farms. Conditions there were sometimes none too pleasant.
In consequence of the death of Stalin in 1953, the coming to power of Wladyslaw Gomulka in October 1956 essentially “polonized” the regime. The disturbances of 1968-1970 brought Edward Gierek to power, whose economic policies initiated a short period of considerable prosperity. Nevertheless, the election of the Polish Pope in 1978 galvanized the opposition, culminating in the flowering of the independent trade-union movement, Solidarity. On December 13, 1981, Communist General Jaruzelski declared martial law and attempted to crush the Solidarity movement, which went underground. Finally, the impetus of Solidarity was one of the factors that helped to initiate the massive transformations that resulted in the collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989. The Polish Third Republic was proclaimed.
The arrival of Polish-Canadians increased the intra-European diversity of Canada. It could be argued that the initial definition of “multiculturalism” in Canada was mostly meant to refer to other European groups, apart from the English and French, especially Eastern and Southern Europeans. That definition has been mostly eclipsed since the 1980s, with the arrival of huge “visible minority” immigration.
Apolonja (Pola) Kojder is the main author of Marynia, Don’t Cry: Memoirs of Two Polish-Canadian Families (University of Toronto Press, 1995). She lives in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher, published in Calgary Herald, Ottawa Citizen, and The Hill Times (Ottawa), among others. They were both born in Canada of Polish immigrant parents.