Questions of ethnic identity persistence in mass-media dominated North America (Part Four)
By Mark Wegierski
In today's world, especially in the now increasingly-multicultural Canada and United States, "monodal" identities have become less and less likely to occur. Indeed, insofar as some kind of Polish affiliation is to persist in Canada, it will perforce have to be an intermediary, emphatically hyphenated identity. It should be Polish-Canadian – in order to attract persons of the generations born in Canada. This is likely to be the main vehicle for the persistence of a fragment culture.
Looking at the life of the Polish-Canadian community today, there does not appear to be any forum or setting or context where a dynamic, intermediary, somewhat enduring, emphatically Polish and Canadian identity can get underway and be consciously worked out. What seems to be happening is rather quick language loss, followed by near-total assimilation into the so-called "mainstream". But the "mainstream" is not a very interesting and dynamic place to be, today.
In his interview in Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm's book, The Roots Are Polish (Toronto: Canadian-Polish Research Institute, 1998), Rudolf Kogler -- himself the long time head of the Institute -- says: "Not much has been written about...the descendants of the Polish immigrants. The reason is that they are hardly visible, even though they amount to two thirds of our community. They do not hold membership in our organizations (except for parishes) and they do not participate in the life of the community...they are not interested in us; they do not contribute financially, intellectually or otherwise. I find it sad, all the more that a lot of them went through the Polish language schools and scouts system... While talking to them, one can easily discern that they are aware of their Polish origins but have no sense of responsibility towards the community they sprung up from. They hardly speak the language, know close to nothing about any Polish or Polish-Canadian matters... [they] are unable to sympathize or appreciate the effort that went into their Polish upbringing and education... According to the statistics of the census, only 150,000 people...of 600,000 speak Polish." (p. 150)
Nevertheless, in contrast to Dr. Kogler's pessimism, one should ask the question if it may be possible that further advances in technology could weaken the trends to assimilation that certain earlier technologies have made possible. Earlier technologies such as television tended to be homogenizing and to intensify assimilative pressures.
I had mentioned the Internet earlier in the presentation. The Internet is especially helpful today in cases where the person has learned – to a greater or lesser extent -- the language of the country of origin of their immigrant parents or grandparents. Today, they can continually refresh their links to their ancestral homeland by reading multifarious material online – including many newspapers, magazines, and journals. Because of the increasingly globalized world, there is also considerable web material available in English from their homeland or from the communities abroad. So a weak knowledge of the ancestral language does not necessarily preclude some kind of affiliations with the ancestral homeland. They can also if they wish download music and video directly from their home country. They can also remain in close touch with relatives and friends in the home country through e-mail or through live, Internet-based conversations. There could also be, for example, Polish-Canadian themed blogs or Facebook groups.
Should one be interested, one can also scout the websites of Polish universities and colleges, for possibly studying in Poland, or taking part in conferences like this one.
Secondly, the cost of international regular telephone rates has decreased greatly – and telephone service has become ubiquitous in Poland -- so it is possible to regularly converse with persons from the home country – whether on matters weighty or trivial.
Thirdly, satellite and cable television technology allows the possibility of Polish television channels in one's Canadian home – notably TV Polonia – a world-wide channel whose main mission is to serve the cultural needs of Poles and persons of Polish descent living abroad.
Fourthly, the possibilities of air travel by modern jet, and the fact that such air travel is now comparatively inexpensive, mean that the home country is far more accessible to visits than some decades ago. Thus contacts with the home country can be renewed through physical trips. It has also become more possible, for example, for families to send younger children to spend the summer with grandparents in Poland, or at summer camp.
Fifthly, the ease of new printing technologies means that books or other publications such as newsletters on topics that could help shape debate in the community, or represent the Polish-Canadian community to Canadians, can be fairly easily produced. Such books (or e-books) or other printed and/or electronic publications can, theoretically at least, be widely marketed through individuals' websites (with payment usually tendered through the current standard Paypal), or through Amazon.com. One of the characteristics of the Internet has been called "the long-tail phenomenon". This means that very niche products and ideas can find some kind of long-term market and audience. It is also possible to offer or sell materials in purely electronic formats, such as PDFs or e-books; or in fact, to distribute newsletters electronically to pre-set lists.
However, the arrival of new technologies, which could perhaps facilitate the persistence of fragment-cultures, may have come too late for the Polish-Canadian community.
To be continued.
Partially based on an English-language draft of a presentation read at the conference, Transatlantic Encounters (Lodz, Poland: University of Lodz), September 28-30, 2008.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher.