Polish Canadians, Searching for a Voice
Sociologist Mark Wegierski continues his analysis
Can an authentic, Polish-Canadian identity endure given the decline of the Polish language in Canada? In the statistics of the Canada Census over the last few decades, the percentage of persons of Polish descent familiar with the Polish language is around a third. In other words, knowledge of the Polish language is declining among the generations of Polish descent born in Canada. This places the Polish-Canadian newspapers, most of which appear almost exclusively in the Polish language, in a quandary. They appeal mostly to Polish-speaking immigrants, thus leaving out, from the outset, most of the persons of Polish descent born in Canada. In a situation where Polish immigration to Canada has slowed to a trickle and is unlikely to increase, this suggests that the Polish-Canadian community will become increasingly attenuated.
We live today in a globalized world, in which there exist numerous diasporic communities, especially within countries like Canada. Because of the ubiquity of the Internet, some of these communities can maintain close links to their ancestral homelands, and some of their members can function almost entirely in their ancestral languages. While Polish-Canadians could in theory surround themselves with Polish culture (such as Polish television, through boutique cable services), they tend to participate in the “mainstream”.
The era of émigré literature, written mostly in Polish, is evidently coming to an end. But can there be “intermediary” literatures and journalistic endeavours – such as Polish-Canadian written mainly in English, but with a “Polish spirit”? As a result of Polish immigration to Canada and the processes of assimilation, the majority of persons in the generations born in Canada do not speak Polish at a high level. Yet the few persons of these generations with a somewhat better knowledge of the language, could undertake serious, concerted efforts to write in English, but imbued with Polish or Polish-Canadian themes.
Especially significant as far as English-language, Polish-Canadian literature written by authors of a generation born in Canada, is Apolonja M. Kojder’s memoir, published in Marynia, Don’t Cry (1995) (the second memoir in that book is by Barbara Glogowska); and Andrew J. Borkowski’s short story collection Copernicus Avenue (2011) – which won the 2012 Toronto Book Award. Such writing is arguably more important for the construction of a Polish-Canadian identity than that of émigré authors who write in English, most notably Eva Stachniak. Aga Maksimowska, the author of the novel Giant (2012) (who arrived in Canada at the age of 11 in 1988), is someone who can be seen as neither typically émigré, nor typically Canadian-born. Such writing should at the very least deal with Polish themes. Jowita Bydlowska’s Drunk Mom is disappointing in that respect. And Ania Szado’s second novel also does not engage in Polish themes.
A possible breakthrough work as far as Polish impressions on the Canadian literary landscape is concerned is the forthcoming Polish-Canadian short fiction anthology from Guernica Editions, expected to appear late in 2016, or in 2017.
Insofar as there are so few Polish-Canadian authors and journalists in Canada, Polish-Canadian identity lacks an effective rallying point for the future. There is also the societal context to consider – the overwhelming of fragment cultures by mass-mediatized pop-culture; the lack of valorization of white ethnics in Canada today; and the shortage of cultural capital in the community itself.
It is remains possible that a Polish-Canadian identity could endure in Canada in the face of the decline of the Polish language. But only if alternative avenues for the mobilization and expression of that identity are created.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher. He was born in Toronto of Polish immigrant parents