Migration and Arrival

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Poles/Henry Radecki

There have been six district phases of Polish immigration to Canada: 1850s–1880s, late 1890s–1914, the 1920s, 1945–56, 1957–80, and 1981–91. However, venturesome Poles were among the earliest European settlers in North America, and some Polish settlers made quite a mark on their new land. Dominik Barcz from Danzig (Gda ńsk) was in Lower Canada around 1750, served on the Legislative Council, and later published two newspapers. Physicians Auguste Françoise Globenski and Liveright Piuze arrived in 1776 and 1779, respectively.

Globenski’s three sons, born in Lower Canada, became high-ranking officers in the Canadian militia and served with distinction in the War of 1812; Maximilian fought against the rebels in 1837, and grandson Charles August was elected to the House of Commons in 1875. Alexandre Eduard Kierzkowski served on the Legislative Council from 1858, in the legislative assembly from 1861, and in the House of Commons from 1867. Further west, Mr and Mrs E. Brokovski of Winnipeg helped establish the Dramatic and Literary Association in 1876 and sponsored the Philharmonic Society.

Casimir Gzowski arrived in 1841, exiled after an unsuccessful insurrection in 1830–31 against Russia. A professional engineer, he was responsible for seven bridges (including one connecting Fort Erie, Ontario, with Buffalo, New York), ports, canals, railways, Yonge Street between Toronto and Simcoe, the Niagara Park, and numerous other engineering projects. He established the Toronto symphony orchestra. He was president of the Dominion Rifle Association, a colonel in the militia, administrator (deputy lieutenant-governor) of Ontario, and an honourary aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria, knighted for his services.

Early Canadian censuses often included Poles as Russians, Germans, or Austrians. Probably between 2,500 and 3,000 Poles were living in Canada by 1885, with many of them in Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, and Winnipeg. The first, mid-nineteenth-century phase of Polish immigration to Canada included some seventy-eight Kashubes, from the Prussian part of partitioned Poland, who were attracted by offers of free land and settled in the Renfrew area of eastern Ontario in 1858. In 1864 other families increased their numbers to about 500. New arrivals followed in 1865, 1881, 1896, and the early 1900s. This group formed distinct communities (one called Wilno), with parishes and clergy, small businesses, and voluntary organizations. Relatively isolated from other Polish immigrants, later they established closer contact with post-1945 refugees and exiles, who bought summer homes in the area and established camps and training facilities for Polish scouts in Canada.

In 1862 another group from Prussian Poland went to Berlin (Kitchener), Ontario. Others joined them, and by 1871 there were about fifty families. In 1872 they established a mutual aid society. By the turn of the century there were Poles in Sydney (Nova Scotia), Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, Sudbury, and other places in eastern and central Canada. There were over one thousand Poles in Winnipeg before 1895, and smaller groups in all major cities, including Vancouver.

The second phase of Polish immigration to Canada, from the late 1890s to 1914, originated primarily in the Russian and Austrian parts of partitioned Poland, impelled by explosive population growth. Between 1860 and 1900 the population in Russian Poland doubled, while arable land continued to be held by large landowners. Emerging industries absorbed some surplus peasant labour, as did seasonal migration to western Europe and to Latvia, but many people had to venture overseas. Austrian-controlled Galicia had few industries, and continuous subdivision of land among offspring left little land for others. Some people hoped to ease this “Galician Misery” by going abroad, and Canada was one of the bright hopes.

The 1901 census counted 6,285 Poles, that of 1911, 33,652, and that of 1921, 53,403. Many came to settle the newly opened west. Clifford Sifton, minister of the interior in Wilfrid Laurier’s government, turned to central and eastern Europe for his ideal settler: “a stalwart peasant ... born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for generations, with a stout wife and half-a-dozen children.” Sifton believed that “where no Englishman or Scot would settle, a Slav will succeed.” His recruitment campaigns were successful, and immigration grew, fuelled by a chain movement of settlement. Some Polish immigrants came to get free homesteads or to purchase land and then bring wives and families. Others, mostly men, with some single women destined for domestic service, immigrated to seek jobs, save all they could, and return to buy land.

Most Poles of this phase were cotters, non-inheriting farmers, rural labourers, landless peasants, and sons of farmers. A few urban workers came to Canada; American cities offered better opportunities for such people. For example, “two groups of Silesian Poles arrived from Canada shortly before 1860 and settled in Wisconsin and Michigan.” Some Polish Americans came to Canada to claim free homesteads or search for better jobs in growing cities. Some, like the Toronto group, returned again to the United States, while others, like those in Sydney, remained culturally distinct. There was continuous movement between the United States and Canada as late as 1924. Between one-quarter and one-third of this phase returned to Poland before 1914 or after 1918.

Though Ottawa discouraged bloc settlement, pre1914 Polish immigrants formed small communities with names such as Kopernik, Krakow, Narol, Prawda, Vilno, and Wisla. Most went to the prairies, and Winnipeg became the centre of Polish life. Some went to existing settlements, eventually forming a majority there, as in Candiac and Hadashville. In Alberta, twenty-one such “clusters,” in a sea of Ukrainian and other groups’ settlements, had about two dozen Polish families each. These pioneers established parishes, mutual aid societies, and other associations to help them and facilitate their transition in Canada. They also suffered the hostility shown to the “strange” aliens in the first two decades of this century.

A third phase of emigration to Canada, from independent Poland, began in 1919 and brought over 40,000 Poles by 1931. Canada continued to need rural settlers and farm workers, and Poles were now considered suitable. Continuing shortage of farmland and a weak industrial base kept unemployment high in Poland, and applicants flocked to Canadian immigration offices, especially after 1924, when the United States imposed quotas. Some immigrants obtained free homesteads in the northern Peace River district, while others purchased land from the Canadian National and the Canadian Pacific railways. Most found work in lumber camps, mines, on railway construction or in urban areas. Many pre-1914 sojourner immigrants who went back to Poland returned to Canada.

During the Depression, orders-in-council severely curtailed all immigration. Poles in Canada numbered 145,503 in 1931, but only 3,500 more were allowed to enter in the 1930s, largely on the basis of family reunification. A few thousand, mostly single men, returned to Poland. By 1941 there were 167,485 Poles in the country, many of them born here.

Post-1918 immigrants were arriving from independent Poland, with their national and ethnic identities more clearly defined through contacts with various Polish institutions and often service in the Polish army. Most were from the urban and rural proletariat or landless peasants. Only a few settled on farms, and they did not remain long in western Canada, where they were sent by immigration authorities. Ontario became the choice for a growing number of newcomers and for interprovincial migrants, and Toronto gradually replaced Winnipeg as the centre of Polish life in Canada.

From September 1939 to mid-1944 Poland was divided and occupied again, and millions left their homes; almost one thousand Polish engineers, technicians, and skilled workers, all war refugees, arrived in 1941 in Canada, where they contributed significantly to the war effort. Nearly all remained in Canada after 1945. In 1946 and 1947 over forty-two hundred soldiers from General Anders’s Second Polish Corps, who had fought beside the Allies in Italy, were recruited on two-year contracts to work on farms in Canada. Nearly all claimed immigrant status on completion of their contracts.

With “liberation” in 1945 and a Moscow-dominated regime, free exit from Poland ended, but 64,000 Polish exiles and refugees settled in Canada between 1945 and 1956, in the fourth phase of Polish immigration to Canada. In 1945 there were millions of Poles in Germany – forced labourers and prisoners of war from the 1939 campaign and the Warsaw uprising of 1944. Canadian recruiting teams signed up Polish refugees for one-year contracts to work on beet farms, in factories, as domestics, on railway building, and for hospitals. Later Canada admitted thousands of refugees through the International Refugee Organization. The British government arranged for passage of many veterans and their dependants as well.

Most of these post-war migrants were political exiles and refugees from a hostile system. Many were well educated and qualified – army officers, physicians and lawyers, teachers and engineers, and other professionals. Though Canada might not recognize their qualifications, their backgrounds helped them to cope with difficult conditions. Some had organizational skills, savings, and knowledge of English or French.

Poles already settled in Canada helped their compatriots and opened parishes, organizations, and clubs to them. The exiles and refugees came to dominate much of the organizational life and shaped the community’s relations with Poland and with Canada. The Canadian census found 219,845 Poles in 1951, 323,517 in 1961, and 316,430 in 1971; definitions of ethnic membership were modified for 1981 and 1991. The 1991 census reported 272,805 single-origin and 467,905 multiple-origin Poles in Canada, for a total of 740,710.

A majority within this fourth phase chose urban life in Ontario and in Montreal. Metropolitan Toronto had a lot of work available, and its extensive Polish network included churches, economic and professional associations, youth and educational bodies, Polish-language publications, cultural activities, and a range of services. The area around Roncesvalles Avenue became a Polish immigrant community, not too different from its counterparts in the U.S. northeast.

Between 1957 and 1980, 40,315 people of Polish background, many with children born outside Poland, settled in Canada. The make-up of this, the fifth and longest phase of Polish arrivals in Canada, was extremely diverse. Reunification of divided families resumed in 1957, and single Polish Canadians sought mates in Poland and sponsored their immigration. There were men who “jumped ship” of Polish registry and claimed refugee status here. Many others came as visitors, performers, or athletes – and applied to stay. Some of the post-World War II refugees finally gained entry into Canada or went to South America and applied from there. Some had stayed in Britain for years but eventually chose Canada. Most of the post-war arrivals were young, had higher education, were skilled or professional workers, spoke one or both official Canadian languages, and were determined to better their lives. The 1981 decennial census found only 254,480 people whose parents were Polish, and another 149,990 with only one Polish ancestor.

From mid-1980 to December 1981 the Polish trade union Solidarność (Solidarity) grew to over ten million members and wrested many gains and freedoms from the Communist regime. On 31 December 1981, however, the government declared a state of martial law. It declared Solidarity illegal and detained most of its leaders and activists for months, even years. An exodus had begun in 1981, and it continued till 1989. By that year European refugee centres were full of Poles, increasingly searching for economic betterment rather than for political freedom.

In 1982 Canada changed its regulations, allowing more refugees to come directly from camps or centres and an unlimited number of sponsored refugees to enter the country. Though such sponsorship was no longer permitted from August 1990, earlier applicants could still be considered.

Between 1981 and 1991, 95,202 Poles – a sixth phase of immigration – arrived in Canada. They came from various parts of Poland, primarily from cities and towns; just two percent (1,173 individuals) intended to farm. They had types of resources not possessed by their predecessors. Highly qualified, younger people were arriving as part of complete families with children and teenagers; 21,863 were under the age of fifteen, and 4,327 were fifteen to nineteen years of age, while only 1,645 were over sixty. Division by sex showed 52 percent males and 48 percent females. Their education and qualifications alarmed some institutions in Poland; between 1982 and 1992, 10 percent of all university teachers left Poland, and 845 came to Canada.

Of the newcomers, 7,163 worked in the natural sciences, engineering, and mathematics. There were 32,353 females aged twenty to fifty-nine, and only 7,917 of them did not intend to enter the labour force. (In 1992 and the first half of 1993, 14,940 Poles registered as landed immigrants.) Over 70 percent named Ontario as their province of preference. The majority of the better-educated and-trained individuals were fluent in English and/or French. The new arrivals rejuvenated organized life and introduced new forms and types of voluntary action.

In the 1991 census 184,695, or nearly 68 percent, of the single-response Polish category were immigrants, and 109,480, or 59 percent, resided in Ontario. The proportion of foreign-boin in the three prairie provinces was 55 percent in 1941, 36 percent in 1971, and 21 percent in 1991. The shift to towns and cities began after 1931, when 54 percent of the Poles were rural dwellers. By 1971 just over 80 percent lived in urban communities, and in 1991, 92 percent of those whose mother tongue was Polish were urban residents, compared to nearly 77 percent for Canadians as a whole. Interprovincial mobility and urbanization saw Ontario emerging as the most populous province for Poles, and Metropolitan Toronto as their major concentration. Of the arrivals in 1991 over one thousand each selected Calgary, London, Mississauga, and Toronto as their destinations.

In 1991 the largest segment of both single- and multiple-response Poles lived in Ontario (154,155 and 174,980, respectively). Multiple responses are more numerous than single responses everywhere except in Quebec (23,695 and 19,635, respectively). The differing ratios are related to intermarriage and numbers of arrivals. While the prairies represent fewer than one-quarter (66,210) of single responses, the 41 percent (190,265) of the multiple-response category indicates Poles’ previous strength there. More recent trends suggest that Ontario will continue to receive the bulk of any further Polish immigration to Canada.