In search of a voice for the Polish-Canadian community
By Mark Wegierski
It can be seen today that there are no opinion journalists in any major Canadian newspapers, and very few comparatively well-known authors of books of English-language literary fiction, genre fiction, or works of social, political, or cultural commentary in Canada, who could be identified as belonging to the Polish-Canadian community. Until a few years ago, a person comparatively well-acquainted with the community could probably think only of Eva Stachniak and Irene Tomaszewski, and perhaps K. G. E. (Chuck) Konkel (author of two, police-procedural-type novels, set in non-Polish locales – Hong Kong and Mexico). There was also, Marynia, Don’t Cry, two memoirs by Apolonja Kojder and Barbara Glogowska, published by the University of Toronto Press in 1995.
However, in the last few years, a number of new authors have emerged – Andrew J. Borkowski, author of the short story collection, Copernicus Avenue, which won the 2012 Toronto Book Award; Aga Maksimowska, whose book Giant was nominated for the 2013 Toronto Book Award; Jowita Bydlowska, author of Drunk Mom and Guy; and Ania Szado, author of Beginning of Was, and Studio St-Ex (about Antoine St. Exupery). Of these new authors, the books of Borkowski and Maksimowska and, to a lesser extent, Szado’s first novel, are the only ones that appear to have major Polish and Polish-Canadian content. However, Maksimowska’s novel has elements of some current-day “politically-correct” stereotypes about Poles, something that Borkowski, also, does not entirely avoid. In 2017, there has appeared an anthology of Polish-Canadian short fiction from Guernica Editions, as well as a gritty, linked-short story-collection, Lemons, by Kasia Jaronczyk, from Mansfield Press.
The leading Polish-Canadian author (actually an émigré from Poland) is Eva Stachniak, known for her historical novels, especially those about Catherine the Great of Russia.
The endeavours of Professor Tamara Trojanowska in the Polish Language and Literature program at the University of Toronto have usually been felicitous (such as organizing a major international conference on Polish themes at the University of Toronto in February 2006). On the other hand, Professor Piotr Wrobel, who currently holds the Chair of Polish History at the University of Toronto, is considered by some to be rather cool to the Polish-Canadian community and its core concerns.
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 doubtless undertook a supreme effort to bring the book forward to appearance in English. It’s quite clear that 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.
Another isolated but genuinely idealistic endeavour, was High Park Magazine, edited by Piotr Manycz, of which twenty-five magnificent issues appeared between 1992 and 1998. The quality of the publication was amazing – and it had articles in both Polish and English. Had it continued, it could have perhaps become a nucleus for far more-lively Polish impressions on the Canadian literary landscape.
A third example of an isolated but genuinely idealistic initiative is “Poland in the Rockies.” This is a summer seminar in a natural setting, with lectures and informal talks by such luminaries as Professor Norman Davies, that offers a sense of community and networking, mainly to young Polish-Canadian and Polish-American university and college students. Such a sense of community is considerably reassuring to young people, who not infrequently have to sharply defend Polishness, in today’s North American social and cultural climate. After a hiatus of some years, the seminar was revived in 2014, and there was a winter meeting in early 2016 (according to the website), but apparently no summer meeting in 2016 (as far as I could tell).
Another helpful initiative is the Quo Vadis conferences.
In the main English-language Canadian press and publishers, the presence of articles and books that treat Polish and Polish-Canadian themes and issues in a comparatively sympathetic light, appears to be extremely infrequent. In fact, such themes and issues are rather rarely discussed at all. It might be concluded from this that, insofar as the Polish-Canadian community might wish to have articles in English that represent it effectively to Canadian society, they can probably only appear in Canadian Polonia (Polish-Canadian community) publications.
However, most newspapers and magazines of Canadian Polonia have usually been closed to publishing articles in English. It is also highly unfortunate that the annual scholarly journal of the Polish Library in Montreal and the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in Canada (PIASC) has suspended publication as of the two-year, 2007-2008 issue. That scholarly journal published a broad variety of articles and reviews, in English, French, and Polish.
Such articles in English can also speak to persons of Polish descent who have a middling or weaker command of the Polish language, but would appreciate their heritage effectively represented in English. This writer has waited for years (if not decades) for a Canadian Polonia newspaper that would frequently publish articles in English.
Indeed, it is probably only through the medium of the English language that a more effective, intermediary, Polish and Canadian identity, which might be able to persist a considerable number of generations, can somehow be worked out, at this very late date.
Most newspapers of Canadian Polonia have usually been oriented towards “Poles living in Canada” (that is, immigrants from Poland) – as opposed to persons of Polish descent born in Canada. Given the ever-diminishing numbers of new immigrants from Poland, it could be argued that increasing attention must come to be paid to the generations born in Canada.
There has recently arisen a promising new Polish-Canadian organization, Konekt (konekt.ca). It is aimed mostly at younger people, and also operates mostly in English.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher. He was born in Toronto of Polish immigrant parents.