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

By Mark Wegierski
web posted April 11, 2016

Cultural facts on the ground are very important for the relative flourishing and salience of a given community. Insofar as a community lacks a core-audience that can attract outside money and possibly generate its own resources for their social, cultural, and political activities, they will lack salience. Cultural facts on the ground are more important than supposedly expansive guarantees of rights which are often theoretical.

It does appear by now that most persons of Polish descent in Canada have been thoroughly assimilated into the relatively bland, so-called mainstream. One way of roughly measuring this is to look in the Canada Census at the comparatively small number of persons who retain knowledge of the Polish language among the total number of persons of Polish descent in Canada. There are too few persons left for whom the "affect" of their identity can be a significant mobilizing factor.

Very few attempts were made to work out a more enduring, emphatically hyphenated, Polish-Canadian identity. The arriving immigrants usually defined themselves as "Poles living in Canada" and did little to help their children creatively acculturate -- as opposed to thoroughly assimilate – into Canadian society.

It could be argued that, as white ethnics, Polish-Canadians have ended up today as neither part of so-called long-established groups, nor part of so-called accredited minorities in Canada. Thus they are not prioritized for multicultural-related and other culturally-related funds offered by various levels of government in Canada.

In the 1970s, the comparative dynamism of the community was focused around its two prominent leaders in the Liberal Party of Canada – M.P. and later Senator Stanley Haidasz, who became Canada's first Minister of State for Multiculturalism, and Jesse Flis, the longtime M.P. from Parkdale-High Park, at that time a riding in Toronto with one of the largest populations of Polish descent.

In 2011-2015, there were again two emphatically Polish-Canadian M.P.s  – Wladyslaw Lizon, and Ted Opitz, both members of  Stephen Harper's Conservative Party. Somewhat ironically, as a result of the Conservative Party "ethnic outreach" by such figures as Jason Kenney, the community has advanced on initiatives which had been log-jammed for years under previous Liberal administrations (for example, a pension plans agreement between Canada and Poland; and the end of visa requirements for Polish visitors to Canada). In the 2015 federal election, the only emphatically Polish-Canadian M.P. elected was Tom Kmiec (from a Calgary-area riding) – representing the Conservative Party.

However, Polish-Canadians are weakly represented in the general culture of Canada. Today, we are living in a North American (U.S. and Canadian) mass media environment, where social reality and identity is heavily defined by the mass-media – especially in terms of shaping the news and the highly pervasive pop-culture.  Insofar as there is almost no Polish-Canadian and comparatively little Polish-American presence in the mass-media, the community lacks saliency.

Indeed, it is only in the 1970s that there appears to have been some saliency for Poles in North America. There was, for example, the iconic figure of Bobby Vinton, one of whose hit songs had extensive passages in Polish. It was also the time of "ethnic studies" in America and Canada – when for the first and probably last time, groups such as Polish-Americans were somewhat popular. Gierek's Poland also offered quite extensive outreach and support to Polish-American and Polish-Canadian communities at this time – although there was a "hidden agenda" behind it.

This raises the obvious point that throughout virtually the entire history of Polish immigration to Canada, the home country could not offer significant or in fact any help to its "overseas communities".

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.

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

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