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Polish Canadians

The record of the Polish experience in North America has its origins at the beginning of the European exploration of the New World. Names suggesting Polish origins are found in several American colonial documents. In the United States, there are also substantial records of individual Poles who have played a prominent role throughout American history. In Canada, among the earliest references are the names of some soldiers that served in the de Meuron and de Watteville regiments during the War of 1812 which suggest Polish origins. Some of these soldiers later participated in Lord Selkirk's colonization projects in what is now Manitoba but unfortunately they did not leave behind any records of their activities.

During the nineteenth century, Poland experienced a turbulent historical evolution punctuated by wars and uprisings in attempts to free Poland from foreign occupation and reunite the partitioned lands. Each uprising and insurrection produced a wave of Polish political exiles that sought refuge in western Europe and the United States. A few of these individuals eventually found refuge in Canada.

One of the more prominent exiles was Sir Casimir Gzowski who fled Poland after the collapse of the 1830-1831 insurrection. In a few cases such as that of Sir Casimir Gzowski, archival documents have provided some information of their careers and activities; however, records regarding many of the first Poles in Canada have not survived.

In 1858, families from the Kashub region of northern Poland settled in the Madawaska River Valley region of Ontario. More settlers followed and by the 1880s there was a large Polish community that has continued to the present day. A Roman Catholic parish was founded in 1872, and records of this and other parishes form a treasured part of the Polish Canadian archival heritage. By 1872, 52 Polish families had settled in Berlin (now Kitchener) and during the 1870s some Polish immigrants settled in the Toronto area. Polish workers from Europe and the United States were attracted to Canada by the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s. However, census records do not show the Poles as a separate group. In 1901, the Poles were listed separately for the first time and there were 6,285 recorded then. With the opening of the Canadian West the largest wave of Polish immigration began. By the outbreak of World War I in 1914, over 100,000 Poles entered Canada. Some of these immigrants continued their journey to the United States to join the large Polish communities in northern industrial centres.

This wave consisted mainly of peasants from Galicia and most of them settled on the prairies where they claimed homesteads. Among these immigrants were some agricultural and industrial workers who hoped to make their fortune in Canada and then return to Poland. These workers settled in the industrial cities of eastern Canada where the small developing Polish communities assisted the new immigrants in adjusting to Canadian life. Gradually Polish stores, boarding houses, mutual aid societies and other formal and informal associations developed and became the first building blocks of the organized Polish community in Canada.

The Roman Catholic Church has played a historic role in the defense and maintenance of Polish culture in Poland and this strong union between religion and culture has continued to dominate Polish community life in Canada. The large majority of Polish immigrants supported the various social and cultural institutions sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church. .The Catholic Weekly was one of the two most important Polish newspapers during this period. The other newspaper, Czas (Time), dealt with secular issues and assisted Poles in Canada to adjust to Canadian life.

World War I had a profound effect on the Polish community in Canada. The large wave of immigration ceased. The Polish community organized to assist the Canadian war effort and Polish volunteers served in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. Also, Polish soldiers were trained in Canada for the new Polish Army being formed on the Western Front in France.

After the collapse of the Imperial Russian, Imperial German and Austro- Hungarian Empires, Polish Canadians supported the establishment of the independent Polish Republic on November 11, 1918. Some Polish Canadians served in the Polish Armed Forces, defeating the attempts of hostile neighours to invade the territory of the new state.

The new Polish government was faced with numerous problems of organization and consolidation. These problems were compounded by the need for constant vigilance against hostile neighbours. It was in this climate of insecurity and international tension that the second large wave of immigrants came from Poland to Canada. Immigrants came from overpopulated areas of Poland and contained a large percentage of minority groups.

Between 1919 and 1931, approximately 52,000 Poles entered Canada. Many of these immigrants settled in industrial centres throughout Canada. Some of these immigrants continued their journey to the United States. This second wave of immigrants tended to have a higher level of national awareness since many had actively served in the Polish struggle for independence. The Polish government, through its consulates in Canada, attempted to aid the new immigrants in their adjustment to Canadian life. The organized Polish community assisted the new immigrants and established a multitude of benevolent, fraternal, cultural, dramatic and political societies. Branches of Polish organizations headquartered in the United States were also established in Canada. Local organizations affiliated to form national organizations. Each organization attempted to purchase or build a com- munity hall. These halls became the local cultural centres where the most important events in the community took place. In some communities, these halls were used for religious services if there were no local Polish churches. Each hall had a small library where books in English and Polish were kept and with time local records and archives were established. Most of these records are still with the local organizations although some are now found in archival institutions. Other collections of records and archives are in private possession or have been lost or destroyed through neglect.

By 1929, the Catholic Church had 33 Polish parishes and 157 Polish missions across Canada. In 1933, Catholic groups formed the Association of Poles in Canada. By 1939, the Polish Friendly Alliance of Canada had 17 branches in Ontario and published its own weekly newspaper, the Zwiazkowiec.

The invasion by Nazi Germany of Poland in September 1939 started World War II. Immediately the entire Polish community devoted its activities to the Canadian war effort. Many Polish Canadians joined the Canadian Armed Forces and others contributed their time and efforts on the home front. By the end of 1939, Poland was occupied by the armed forces of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The Polish Armed Forces were dispersed in underground units in Poland, in prisoner-of-war camps in Germany and the Soviet Union, or in exile in England and France. A Polish Government-in- Exile was established in London, England.

In 1941-1942, over 400 Polish technicians and 265 scientists came to Canada to work in the war industries. Here they formed the Association of Polish Engineers in Canada to maintain contact and facilitate their adaptation to Canadian industry. These engineers with their families represented the beginning of the post-World War II wave of Polish immigration to Canada.

Polish intellectuals in exile in Canada concerned with the destruction of Polish culture in Europe established, in 1943, the Polish Library and Polish Institute of Learning in Montreal. The Library continues to be a focus of Polish intellectual life in Canada and has also acquired a number of Polish archival collections.

In 1944, the Canadian Polish Congress (CPC) was formed as an umbrella organization to coordinate the activities of Polish organizations during the war. At the end of the war the CPC became involved in assisting Polish refugees and displaced persons. The CPC continues to represent Polish Canadian interests and assist Polish immigrants and refugees.

In 1944-1945, Poland was occupied by the advancing Soviet forces and a new Polish government was established at the end of World War II that subsequently became a member of the Warsaw Pact. In May 1946, over 2,800 demobilized Polish soldiers immigrated to Canada. In 1947, another 2,500 Polish Army veterans arrived from Europe. Many of these soldiers had already experienced Soviet prisons and chose not to return to a post-war Poland dominated by its eastern neighbour. Compared to previous waves of immigration, these veterans had a higher level of education and political and national consciousness. Some veterans, refugees and displaced persons who held prominent positions in pre-war Poland brought with them family and archival documents. The World War II veterans association, the Polish Combatants Association, formed the dynamic core of the post-war immigration and provided several decades of community leadership.

During the period 1946-1952, Canada also admitted over 50,000 Polish Displaced Persons from Europe. A great majority of these immigrants still owed their allegiance to the Polish Government-in-Exile in London, England. These immigrants settled largely in eastern Canada in the various industrial centres. This wave of immigrants was composed of various segments of the Polish population, with those of peasant origin forming the majority. The arrival of many refugee Polish intellectuals greatly stimulated Slavic studies and in particular Polish studies at various Canadian universities.

New organizations were founded, mostly in eastern Canada, to meet the needs of the new immigrants. Many of these organizations have maintained a profound interest in events in Poland and have sought to influence Canadian public opinion and official policy regarding relations with the new Polish government. In addition to the Polish Combatants Association, there were Polish Branches of the Royal Canadian Legion across Canada. The Association of Polish Engineers in Canada, which was established in Canada; in 1941, continued its activities after the war, including in its membership Canadian technicians and engineers of Polish descent. In 1956, the Polish Research Institute was established in Toronto under the sponsorship of the Polish Canadian Congress to study the Polish past in Canada and the development of the Polish Canadian community. The Polish Research Institute coordinates research activities and the acquisition of archival material in the Polish community. There is also a Canadian branch of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences.

After the war, the new Polish government restricted immigration to preserve manpower for the reconstruction of Poland. In 1956, these restrictions were eased and a small number of immigrants began arriving in Canada. From 1956, the annual number of immigrants to Canada from Poland has fluctuated but since 1980 the number has increased dramatically. Political and economic conditions in Poland had obliged many Poles to leave for exile, repeating a historic trend in Polish and also Polish Canadian history that originated over 150 years ago. These recent immigrants are very concerned with political and economic conditions in Poland and continue their efforts to provide information on these conditions to Canadians of Polish descent and to Canadians in general.. The University of Toronto Library has established a special collection of documentation regarding recent Polish political and economic events.

The Royal Commission of Bilingualism and Biculturalism greatly stimulated ethnocultural studies, in particular research on Polish Canadians. The Canadian government declared its multicultural policy in 1971 and Polish Canadians have been among the most active supporters of this policy and its implementation. Polish archival materials are now recognized as an integral part of Canada's archival heritage. In recognition of this fact, the Public Archives of Canada instituted the National Ethnic Archives Program in 1972. The Public Archives began an active program of acquiring Polish archival collections and this role is now shared with several provincial archival institutions, in particular the Archives of Ontario in association with the Multicultural History Society of Ontario.

The presence of the large Polish community in the United States, numbering over six million persons with a well-developed community institutional structure, has attracted Polish Canadian interest and attention and in some cases archival collections. Also some Polish community leaders in Canada have donated their archival collections to the Polish Government-in-Exile in London, England.

The Polish Canadian community now numbering over 400,000 is faced with many obstacles in its struggle to maintain and develop the Polish culture in Canada. Assimilation trends and the gradual loss of its most active members have obliged some Polish organizations to develop new strategies and methods to meet the needs and interests of the changing community. Some of the older organizations founded during the early years of Polish settlement in Canada have disappeared or were reconstituted to reflect the interest of the modern Polish urban communities.

All Polish organizations continue their efforts to maintain Polish culture and traditions in Canada and an important part of these efforts includes the preservation of the Polish archival heritage in Canada. Although work in this area has been in progress for over ten years, much work still is required at the local and national levels.

The preservation of the Polish archival heritage continues to be one of the main objectives of the Public Archives of Canada. This guide will hopefully encourage further preservation of archival records and a wider study of the Polish experience in Canada.

See for further information.
See also the Polish Canadian Congress web site

Contribution of Poles to the Canadian Society

The impressive contribution of Polish Canadians to Canadian society has been made by hundreds of thousands of Polish immigrants and their descendants who, according to 1996 census, number almost half a million.

Many of the early Polish immigrants were members of the Watt and De Meuron military regiments from Saxony and Switzerland sent to Canada to help the British Army in North America, and several were émigrés who took part in the 1830 and 1863 insurrections against the Russian occupation of Poland. The first Polish immigrant, Dominik Barcz, is known to have come to Canada in 1752. He was a fur merchant from Gdansk who settled in Montreal. He was followed in 1757 by Charles Blaskowicz, who worked as deputy surveyor-general of lands. In 1776 arrived army surgeon Auguste Francois Globenski, whose descendants played a prominent role in the St. Eustache community north of Montreal. A descendant, Charles Auguste Globenski was elected to the House of Commons in Ottawa in 1875.

There were Poles in Selkirk’s expedition that attempted a settlement on the Red River Valley, but apparently did not stay long.

In 1841, Casimir Stanislaus Gzowski from Poland arrived in Canada via the U.S.A. and for 50 years made numerous contributions in the engineering business, military and community life of Toronto and Southern Ontario, for which he was knighted by Queen Victoria.

Charles Horecki contributed in 1872 to the exploration and railway construction possibilities of the land from Edmonton to the Pacific Ocean, through the Peace River Valley. Today, a mountain and a body of water in British Columbia are named after him.

The first group-settlers were the Kaszubs of Northern Poland who escaped from Prussian oppression. They arrived in Renfrew County of Ontario in 1858, where they founded the settlements of Wilno, Barry’s Bay, and Round Lake. By 1890 there were about 270 Kaszub families working in the beautiful Madawaska Valley of Renfrew County, and contributing to the lumber industry of the Ottawa Valley.

The other waves of Polish immigrants in the periods from 1890-1914, 1920-1939, and 1941 to this day, settled across Canada from Cape Breton to Vancouver, and made numerous and significant contributions to the agricultural, manufacturing, engineering, teaching, publishing, religious, mining, cultural, professional, sports, military, research, business, governmental and political life of our country.

Some Polish-Canadians have been recognized by awards and appointments by the Queen, our governments, universities and prominent organizations. First, pilot-gunner Andrew Mynarski of Winnipeg should be mentioned. He was awarded posthumously the Victoria Cross for extreme valour in World War II. Recipients of the Order of Canada were: citizenship judge Irena Ungar, Group Captain Stefan Sznuk, missionary Oblate priests Rev. Anthony Hylla and Rev. Michael Smith, Rt. Rev. Monsignor Anthony Gocki of Regina, lawyer B. Dubienski of Winnipeg, former alderman and citizenship judge, Knight of St. Gregory, Peter Taraska of Winnipeg, multilingual radio station founder and broadcaster Casimir Stanczykowski of Montreal, Captain Andrew Garlicki of Ottawa, and W.W.II staff-sergeant of the Polish Army Jan Drygala of Oshawa.

In the legal profession, many lawyers are Queen’s Counsels, and some have been appointed judges, such as Their Honours Judge Allan H. J. Wachowicz of the Court of Queen’s Bench in Edmonton, and Judge P. Swiecicki, of the Superior Court of BC in Vancouver; Paul Staniszewski of Toronto and Montreal, now of the County Court of Windsor, and E.F. Wrzeszczinski-Wren of the County Court of Toronto.

The first Polish priest visited Polish immigrants in 1862 in Kitchener. The first church serving Polish immigrants was in Wilno, Ontario, built in 1875. In Winnipeg, Re. Father Wojciech Kulawy, the first Oblate missionary who served the Polish immigrants in Western Canada, built the Holy Ghost Church in 1899, and founded in 1904 the first newspaper, a weekly called “Glos Kanadyjski”, followed by the “Gazeta Katolicka” in 1908.

The first Polish-Canadian Roman Catholic bishop is the Most Reverend Mathew Ustrzycki, who was consecrated in June 1985, auxiliary bishop of the Hamilton Diocese. In addition to 80 priests serving in 120 parishes, there are Polish-Canadian priests in many congregations and orders, such as the Franciscans, Jesuits, Redemptorists, Saletinians, Resurrectionists, Oblates, Michaelites, and Society of Christ.

These priests and sisters are performing a tremendous service to our society and have enriched the Polish-Canadian community with many churches, missions, homes, schools, and day-care centers.

Some missionary Oblate Brothers served among Canadian native peoples. One of them, Reverend Antoni Kowalczyk, led a very devoted life and after his death his beatification process had been initiated.

In the professions, Polish engineers and architects have a tremendous record of accomplishments dating from Sir Casimir Stanislaus Gzowski in 1841. During the early years of W.W.II, a group of Polish engineers were brought to Canada by the Federal Minister, C.D. Howe, to help in the war effort. This group made a very significant contribution then and in their professional life in many industries, for example: Jan Zurakowski of the Avro Aircraft Company in Malton, testing the Avro airplane. He was awarded in 1959 Canada’s top Aviation Award, the McKee Trophy; P. Wyszkowski, who was Chief Structural Engineer of Toronto’s Bloor Street subway; Dr. Tadeusz Blachut, of Ottawa, who worked with the National Research Council, and is a photogrammetric expert of world-renown; Z. Krupski who rose to the position of Executive Vice-Chairman of the Bell Telephone company of Canada; Mr. J. Norton-Spychalski who was a co-founder in 1949 of the Computing Devices of Canada.

In the medical and pharmaceutical sciences, hundreds of Polish physicians, surgeons, dentists, pharmacists, medical technicians, and nurse staff of our hospitals and teaching institutions. Among them, Dr. S. Dubiski, Professor of Clinical Immunology at the University of Toronto, and Dr. Antoni Fidler, a professor of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa; Dr. Stanley Skoryna, a surgeon, who was a researcher at McGill University and chief of the U.N. medical expedition to Easter Island (off Chile) in 1964.

Canadians of Polish descent have a long tradition of involvement in political life in Canada. Back in 1809, the first Pole of great significance, Dominik De Barcz was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, that is, Quebec. In 1814, he took a seat in the Legislative Council and in 1837 in the Executive Council. The first Polish immigrant to become a Federal Member of Parliament was Alexandre Eduarde Kierzkowski. He was born in the province of Poznan, Poland and took part in the November Uprising. He was elected in 1858 to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada. In 1861 he was re-elected to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, and after the creation of Confederation in 1867, he became a member of the House of Commons.

Charles August Maximilian Globenski followed suit by being elected to the House of Commons in 1875. There followed a 75-year hiatus before Dr. Stanley Haidasz became the first contemporary politician of Polish origin to be elected as federal Member of Parliament in 1957. He later took a seat in the Senate. From 1972 to 1974 held the position of minister of State for Multiculturalism. The 1960’s turned out to be the most fruitful; in 1962 Raymond Rock and Stanley Korchinski were elected to take House of Commons; in 1968 Steve Paproski and Don Mazankowski. Later on, Don Mazankowski held the position of the Minister of Transport and Vice Premier. In 1979, Jesse Flis became a federal politician. The most recent Canadians of Polish descent elected to the House of Commons were Pat Sobeski and Stan Keyes (Kazmierczak).

The list of politician of Polish descent at the provincial level is much longer. The most appreciated and admired even today is Elaine Ziemba, Ontario’s MPP and a minister in NDP’s government of Bob Rae. Her commitments to the causes of Canadian Polish community was extraordinary. Here is a partial list of politicians of Polish descent involved in politics at the provincial level: B. Poniatowski, Rev. D. Malinowski (Manitoba), Carl Paproski (Alberta), Ken Kowalski (Alberta), Walter Szwender (Alberta), Geo Topolinsky (Alberta).

Here is the partial list of aldermen of Polish descent: Chris Korwin-Kuczynski, Ben Grys, Tony Jakobek, Mrs. Boerma, Ms. Moszynski, and Councillor Peter Milczyn, Ward 5, Etobicoke-Lakeshore.

There were some Polish-Canadians in the Federal Public Service and Provincial Civil Service whose nominations were awarded by the longstanding service for Canadian Polish community. The highest ranking in the Federal Service was Frank Glogowski, Vice-Chairman of the Immigration Appeal Board. Mr. Stan Zybala became a Deputy-Director of the Multicultural Directorate. Irene Ungar of Toronto and Peter Taraska of Winnipeg became Citizenship Court Judges.

Every day brings new achievements of members of Canadian Polish communities. It is not possible to enumerate all of them. As an example we present just a couple of names of outstanding Poles contributing to Canadian society: George Radwanski was Editor-in-Chief of the Toronto Star for a few years and wrote the most important biography of the Rt. Hon. P.E. Trudeau; Mr. Poznanski (father of Mrs. J. Parizeau) was a prominent economist; Mr. Starowicz is one of the best journalists of CBC; Anne Mroczkowski is one of the best known TV journalists.

Sir Casimir Stanislaus Gzowski
One of the Greatest Poles in Canada

Casimir S. Gzowski was born in 1813 and died in 1898. He came of an ancient gentry family, not of high aristocracy, which was settled in the lands that were annexed by Tsarist Russia as a consequence of the Partitions of Poland. Educated with care, chiefly in the technical field, he was drafted into the Russian army at the age of seventeen. When the Rising of November 1830 broke out, he joined the insurgents and took and active part at the side of his compatriots. When the Rising was crushed a year later, along with the company to which he belonged, Gzowski crossed the frontier into Austrian Poland, seeking protection from Tsarist vengeance. Interned by the police, he was quartered along with his fellow insurgents in Trieste, and thence in 1834 deported to the U.S.A.

Undaunted by the initial difficulties to be faced on American soil, he began at once to work hard at English (unknown to him hitherto); and in a short time, by studying law, he succeeded in being admitted to the practice of law in the State of Massachusetts (1837). He dreamed, however, of reverting to the field of engineering, and therefore seized the first opportunity offered to become a civil engineer in railway and canal construction in Pennsylvania. In 1841 he moved to Canada to live, and was made Superintendent of Public Works for what is now Western Ontario by the Ottawa government. He lived first in London, but later in Toronto.

Gzowski remained in public service until 1848, gaining valuable experience and a thorough knowledge of the country. He soon made for himself a name among the leading engineers of the time. Succeeding years were to witness his work as Chief Engineer of one of the first railways linking up Montreal with the U.S.A., and again in the Harbour Works of the great St. Lawrence sea-port. In 1853, in partnership with A.T. Galt, D.L. Macpherson and L.H. Holton, he created a firm for railway construction, to be known as “Gzowski and Co.”, and began the building of the Grand Trunk line from Toronto to Sarnia. This firm was to play a significant role in Canadian railway history. When in 1873 the construction of the International Bridge across the Niagara was finished, his reputation as a front-rank engineer in the New World was assured.

Nevertheless, he did not confine his energies solely to professional duties. As a personal friend and admirer of Sir John A. MacDonald, he was closely connected with the Conservative Party, though never actively engaged in politics. An ardent supporter of imperial unity, he rendered yeoman service in the field of Canadian defence, and in the expansion of the national militia. For this he was named Lt. Colonel of the Forces, and in 1879 he was made an Hon. Adjutant to the Queen (A.D.C.). Eleven years later he was knighted.

During a number of years he sat in the Senate of the University of Toronto. One of the founders of Wycliffe College, he served for fifteen years as Chairman of the Board. He took an active part in the creation of Niagara Falls Park, and was made First Chairman of the Park Commission. Shortly before his death, he was asked by Ottawa to serve as administrator for the Province of Ontario during the illness of its Lt. Governor, Sir George Kirkpatrick.

Gzowski’s personal qualities, his professional skills and his devotion to public affairs in the land of his adoption made him one of the foremost citizens of the Dominion in the second half of the 19th century.

A Polish Canadian Story

Canadian Polish Congress - 150th Anniversary of Wilno, Canada

Polish community in Canada

Barbara Boles-Davis
The hardest working Templar in the Grand Priory of Canada

Polish Culture Day in the Tri Cities
A video

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