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Theoretical rights, multiculturalism, and marginality -- the Polish-Canadian case (Part One)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted April 4, 2016

Beginning in the late-1960s, Canada has enacted an extensive policy of multiculturalism, which became especially entrenched since the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. Governments in Canada (federal, provincial, and municipal) have been committed to supporting (at least to some extent) the cultural and organizational activities of multifarious "ethno-cultural" groups. It might appear that the Polish-Canadian community (estimated in the 2011 Canada Census at over one million persons of Polish descent) would be playing a large role today. But, that does not seem to be happening. Despite the fact that multiculturalism is juridically recognized and societally encouraged, the Polish-Canadian community does not seem to have much political, social, and cultural influence.

Today, there are simply so many interest groups that are clamouring for public money, for example, "visible minorities" (a term officially used in Canada). Since the 1970s, more than three-quarters of immigrants have been visible minorities, thus creating an ever greater impetus in their favour. Interestingly enough, in the Canadian experience, multiculturalism in earlier years (mostly the 1970s) included a major focus on what were sometimes called "white ethnics" (i.e., Eastern and Southern Europeans) – which in the U.S. has usually not been considered as a definition of multiculturalism.

In the 1970s, multiculturalism in Canada was enthusiastically received by the white ethnic groups in the belief that they were finally going to get some major recognition and financial resources. However, with the ever increasing visible minority immigration, and the increasing prominence given to visible minorities within the definition of multiculturalism, most of the various white ethnic groups were eclipsed.

It should also be noted that when, in the 1980s, so-called employment equity policies (the equivalent of affirmative action policies in the U.S.) were being enacted in Canada, visible minority became one of the employment equity categories (along with women, aboriginals, persons with disabilities). There was never any discussion about including Eastern and Southern Europeans as a category, although they had certainly been "historically disadvantaged" in Canada (the term used in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to justify employment equity-type policies).

The fact is that the Polish-Canadian community in particular has existed on an unfortunate cusp of history. When the post-World War II immigration first arrived in large numbers, they were not especially welcomed. For example, the Polish soldiers who were accepted into Canada in the immediate post-war years, were required to work for two years on remote farms. For the Polish soldiers who had fought against Hitler since 1939, this was quite humiliating. Conditions on the farms were sometimes none too pleasant. One anecdotally remembers such occurrences as when the German P.O.W.s were sent home from a Canadian beet plantation, to be replaced by the incoming Polish soldiers!

So the Poles in Canada set about trying to reconstruct some kind of community life in comparatively difficult circumstances. In such a situation, the children born of Polish immigrant parents were highly likely to thoroughly assimilate. It was seen at the time as a precondition for economic and social advancement. Indeed, at this time, Poles in Canada were seen as "too ethnic".

In the late 1960s, Canada underwent a sea-change, and multiculturalism suddenly came into vogue. But by that time, many young people of Polish descent had been irretrievably assimilated.

Also, with the coming of the 1960s and the so-called "revolt against the elders", anything so seemingly "stodgy" and "old-fashioned" as Polish identity, wasn't going to be attractive to young people.

In the 1980s and later, the focus in multiculturalism definitely shifted in the direction of visible minorities. Thus, by this time, Polish-Canadians could be seen as "not ethnic enough".

As will be noted below, the assimilative pressures exercised, for example, by the mass media, meant that there was no rallying of resistance to assimilation in the 1960s and later. It can be seen that, as the "core audience" of Polish-Canadians melted away, the community was going to be seen as less and less important.

Partially based on a draft of an English-language presentation read at the 6th Congress of Polish Canadianists (Polish Association for Canadian Studies) (Poznan, Poland: Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan), April 5-7, 2013.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher.





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