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Examining the Polish-Canadian community on the 230th anniversary of the Polish Constitution of 1791

By Apolonja (Pola) Kojder and Mark Wegierski
web posted May 3, 2021

May 3, 2021 is the 230th anniversary of the Polish Constitution of the Third of May, 1791. On the threshold of the disappearance of the old Polish state (the First Republic) the Poles enacted a salutary reform of their anarchic political system. Had the Polish state endured after 1795, it would have been well served by this Constitution, which had been effusively praised by (among others) Edmund Burke. We would like to use this occasion to comment on the Polish-Canadian community today.

Although, according to the statistics of 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, especially today.

Canadian Polonia (the Polish-Canadian community) seems to have a perennial misapprehension of what constitutes “objective” cultural influence and power in today's Canada. The Polish community in Canada seems to have a larger number of prominent artists (such as sculptors, painters, and so forth), than writers. Sculpture and painting often seem to offer far less scope for making a strong social impact, than writing. Some types of writing (such as opinion journalism) have almost immediate social and political effects. There are currently no opinion-columnists on staff in any of 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.

It could be argued that “objective” cultural influence and power does not mainly emphasize such phenomena as art exhibits, dramatic shows, symphony concerts, and poetry recitals. Rather, it means – at its most expansive definition -- the extensive participation of community-minded activists in well-funded, well-supported structures across the various institutions of Canadian society, such as the mass-media, the state bureaucracies, the education system (especially at the university level), and so forth. It also means the extensive funneling of government and major corporate philanthropic support to various facets of the community's activities. 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. Among the most prominent is Calgary-area Conservative M.P. Tom Kmiec. Also, in the Ontario Parliament there were two dynamic women elected as Progressive Conservative M.P.P.s in 2018 – Kinga Surma (Etobicoke-Centre) and Natalia Kusendova (Mississauga-Centre). In 2011-2015, there were two emphatically Polish-Canadian M.P.s from the Conservative Party, Wladyslaw Lizon and Ted Opitz. 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. His successor in the riding was the Liberal, Jesse Flis. Because of the prominence of Haidasz and Flis, the 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. Before World War I, Poland had endured Partition (harsh foreign occupation under Tsarist Russia, Prussia/Germany, and the Habsburg Empire) since 1795. Independence was regained only in 1918. 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.

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. ESR

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.

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