Polish-Canadians: Searching for a Voice (part 3)
Mark Wegierski resumes his analysis
Although the Polish-Canadian community (called “Canadian Polonia” by Polish-Canadians) is sometimes spoken of as a unity, it is in fact divided into numerous groups and subgroupings, depending mostly on the time of arrival in Canada. Obviously, waves of immigrants have come from much different Polish societies, and have arrived in much different Canadian societies. There have also been minorities among the immigrants whose relations to the Polish-Canadian community have greatly varied, notably Polish Jews. While one of the most stalwart Polish-Canadians was the sociological scholar Benedykt Heydenkorn, author of numerous worthwhile books about the Polish-Canadian community, others had highly negative feelings towards Poland.
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). It is today relatively little known outside of Poland that a combined total of about five million Christian Poles perished under the genocidal occupation policies carried out by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (the latter occurring especially during 1939-1941, when Stalin was Hitler’s ally).
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. Stalin and his henchmen imposed hard-line Communism on Poland, rejecting the possibility of permitting considerable internal autonomy, which happened (for example) in the case in Finland.
In consequence of the death of Stalin in 1953, the coming to power of Wladyslaw Gomulka in October 1956 essentially “Polonized” the regime and moved it away from the harsh, grinding totalitarianism of the Stalin era. 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 opposition to the Communist regime, 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 main socio-cultural and political eras in the far more placid Canadian history occurring in roughly the same time-frame could be identified (for example) as pre-1867; Confederation to 1965; 1965-1982; 1982-1993; 1993-2006; and post-2006. These correspond to the adoption of the new flag, and the beginning of the waning of traditional Canada (1965); the arrival of the new Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982); the Mulroney era (to 1993); the Chretien (and Martin) era (to 2006); and the Harper era (from 2006 onward). (As of the 2015 Canadian federal election campaign, now underway, the Harper era may be drawing to a close.)
Although everyone among the various groupings and subgroupings of the Polish-Canadian community may be “of Polish descent”, they in fact have distinctly different self-definitions and cultural preoccupations. Coming from much different Polish societies, and arriving in much different Canadian societies, fundamentally changes the self-definitions and cultural preoccupations of persons, even if they are said to belong to the same ethnic group.
Poles in Canada have mostly failed to establish a line of generational continuity. Thus, while young people continue to arrive from Poland, the young people of the generations born in Canada are almost invariably lost to Polishness. There does not seem to be a strongly-active and more intellectual forum or setting or context where a dynamic, intermediary, somewhat enduring, emphatically Polish as well as Canadian identity can get underway and be worked out.
For those young persons who have maintained extensive ties to Polishness, there has frequently occurred a high degree of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, they had mostly accepted the enculturation by their Polish parents, viewing Polishness as a very large element of their lives, yet at the same time they had very great difficulties with ever finding a recognition of the importance of Polishness in the society at large. Thus, their inner map or picture or understanding of the world was set on a path of fundamental tension with the prevailing societal environment.
Those few young people who clung to extensive elements of Polishness were likely to have found the dissonance rather difficult to bear. And they had virtually no groups of peers within the Polish-Canadian community to interact with, or find a degree of comfort or reassurance with.
What seems to be the invariable destiny for virtually all persons of Polish descent in Canada is to melt and meld into the rather bland category of the so-called mainstream. And it could be argued that the so-called mainstream is not a particularly exciting place to be today.
In Canada, unlike in the U.S., multiculturalism policies – especially in the 1970s – did give considerable attention to so-called “white ethnics”. The prevalent, current-day mood of postmodernism and multiculturalism in Canada should in theory encourage the construction of various, strongly-felt intermediary identities – one among which could be the Polish-Canadian. However, this does not appear to be happening, as far as the creation of a more collectively-felt and lasting identity for those persons.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher. He was born in Toronto of Polish immigrant parents