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Questions of ethnic identity persistence in mass-media dominated North America (Part Three)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted February 8, 2016

The second area of possible resistance to mass-media assimilation that could be looked at, are the cultural and multicultural policies of the Canadian state. Various levels of Canadian government offer considerable support to what could be considered the quote-unquote "Canadian" part of culture, especially the area of Canadian literature or so-called CanLit. They also offer considerable support to the cultural activities of various ethnic groups and organizations.

However, there are very few professionally published Polish-Canadian authors. Certainly no one has reached the prominence of Ukrainian-Canadian author Janice Kulyk-Keefer. She was one of only four core professors at the University of Guelph Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. Along with her Ukrainian-Canadian colleague Marsha Skrypuch, she offers the hope to Ukrainian-Canadians that some important new writers could emerge in the future from that community.

As far as the possibility of obtaining government funding for its cultural initiatives, the Polish-Canadian group clearly lacks saliency. A lot of currently prominent areas such as "anti-racism" obviously focus on so-called visible minorities.  So, the Polish-Canadian appeal for funding appears rather amorphous and unfocussed in terms of the current-day priorities of official multiculturalism.

The third possible area is trying to generate a certain cultural resiliency by one's own efforts and resources. Here, the Ukrainian-Canadian community has especially excelled. One could specifically mention the work of the Taras Shevchenko Kobzar Literary Foundation. This foundation offers a very substantial annual award to the best book on Ukrainian-Canadian themes. It also offers literary scholarships, such as covering the tuition costs of the prestigious Humber College Writers' Workshop in Toronto, for those working on a manuscript on a Ukrainian-Canadian theme. There are also very extensive academic scholarships available in the community (reaching as much as $20,000 per year) for graduate students working on Ukrainian or Ukrainian-Canadian themes.

Any Polish-Canadian efforts along these lines are rather nugatory. The Polish-Canadian student scholarships of which the author is aware are based mostly on need rather than merit, are available mostly to undergraduate university students, and offer (at the absolute maximum) about $1,000 a year. There appear to be no literary scholarships along the lines of writers' grants in the Polish-Canadian community. The literary awards of the W. & N. Turzanski Foundation (which are apparently no more than a few thousand dollars per laureate) have been mostly given out to extremely prominent writers from Poland.

Obviously, the various kinds of ethnic media could be of considerable importance to the community. While there are a number of Polish community newspapers of varying quality in Canada, they have almost always been very reluctant to publish articles in English. This tends to cut off the generations born in Canada from the community debates.

Another focus for the community could be the endeavors of its prominent scholars, especially in the humanities and social sciences. It could be argued that the holding of academic positions in medicine, sciences, engineering and other technical areas, and business, has relatively small social and cultural impacts. By comparison, the number of academics of Ukrainian descent in Canada (especially those focussing on humanities and social sciences) is far, far larger.

While the endeavors of professor Tamara Trojanowska in the Slavics Department at the University of Toronto have been substantial (for example, organizing a major international conference on Polish themes in February 2006), professor Piotr Wrobel, who currently holds the Chair of Polish History at the University of Toronto, is considered by some as not being too helpful to the Polish-Canadian community.

Thanks to the isolated but genuinely idealistic efforts of professor Kazimierz Patalas of the Freshwater Institute in Manitoba, and professor Zbigniew Izydorczyk at the University of Winnipeg, there has appeared the book, Providence Watching: Journeys from Wartorn Poland to the Canadian Prairies (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2003). This was an English translation of a work which professor Patalas put together with considerable effort, "Przez boje, przez znoje, przez trud: Kombatanckie losy" (Through battles, privations, and hardship: The fate of Polish soldiers) (Winnipeg: Polish Combatants' Association – Group 13, 1996). Professors Patalas and Izydorczyk undertook a supreme effort to bring the book forward to appearance in English. In today's climate, the publishing of a book friendly to the Polish cause, by a recognized Canadian publisher, requires a huge personal effort and well-established professional contacts. In this case, professor Daniel Stone, who teaches Polish and East European history at the University of Winnipeg, wrote a lucid introduction to the book.

From the current-day vantage point, it looks like isolated, individual, self-sacrificing efforts will be the main context of whatever helpful initiatives occur in the future of the Polish-Canadian community. Whether these will be enough to create some kind of enduring Polish-Canadian identity, is rather problematic.

To be continued. ESR

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.




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