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May is filled with events and celebrations to increase awareness about the Polish Culture and Heritage.

The month of May is traditionally independence and constitutional month for Polish people and emotions and national fervour runs high. Numerous cultural celebrations and activities take place in Poland and so it is fitting that Polish Culture and Heritage day in Canada should also be in May.

The Tri-Cities Polish Association has about 800 members, and this area has one of the largest Polish populations in British Columbia. There is a rich history of Polish culture and people in Canada. According to the 1996 census, Polish immigrants and their descendants number almost half a million in Canada.

The first large group of settlers were the Kaszubs of northern Poland, who had escaped from Prussian oppression. They arrived in Renfrew County in Ontario in 1858, where they founded the settlements of Wilno, Barry's Bay and Round Lake. In British Columbia, the first significant wave of Poles arrived in the early 1900s-- though they came directly from Japan, not Poland. They had been serving with the Russian forces and taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. Most of them were economic immigrants who didn't want to return to Russian-occupied Poland, and instead settled on farms in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island, or got jobs as railway workers. According to the Canadian Polish Congress, 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 WWI and later on, many Poles came to British Columbia during the days of the Iron Curtain. Combined with a small number of immigrants who arrived in the late 1800s, there were about 1,300 Poles scattered about the province by 1921.

In 1926, seven friends started the Polish Friendship Society in Vancouver to maintain the Polish identity, preserve the polish language and help new arrivals. In 1959, the association opened the Polish Community Centre on Fraser Street.
World War II brought about the second significant wave of Polish immigration. Under Canadian government regulations at the time, Polish war veterans were required to work on a farm for two years-- despite the fact that many of them were highly skilled and would later go on to teach in universities or practice other professions. In the 1970s, many Polish seamen abandoned their fishing and grain ships docked in Burrard Inlet and sought asylum. Then, in December 1981, Poland's Communist government began its crackdown on the Solidarity trade union and more seamen jumped ship. About 1,000 demonstrators, chanting "Solidarity Forever" marched from Robson Square to Pier B.C.

But Canada's huge refugee backlog in the late 1980s had serious consequences for several hundred polish refugees in the Lower Mainland. While waiting for a decision on their claims, which were based on being a member or supporter of Solidarity, the Polish government fell and Canada rejected most of the applicants. Even so, today there are at least 20,000 Poles living in the Lower Mainland.

Did You Know?

The first known Polish immigrant, Dominik Barcz, is said to have come to Canada in 1752. He was a fur merchant from Gdansk who settled in Montreal.

Indirectly, Polish immigrant Charles Horecki had one of the most significant impacts on the province of B.C. He was part of an 1872 expedition into exploration and railway construction possibilities for the land from Edmonton to the Pacific Ocean, through the Peace River Valley. Today, a mountain and a body of water in B.C. are named after him.

The engineer and Polish exile Sir Casimir Gzowski (1813-1898), who headed the Public Works Department in Ontario, was responsible for building Yonge Street in Toronto. His firm also engineered the Peace Bridge between Fort Erie and Buffalo. Gzowski was a founder of the Toronto Stock Exchange and Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Fast Facts

  • Official name: Republic of Poland
  • Capital: Warsaw
  • Type of Government: Democratic Republic
  • Population: 38 million
  • Area: 312, 683 sq km
  • Major Ethnic Groups: Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Germans
  • Language: Polish
  • Religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam
  • Unit of currenty: zloty  (pronounced zwoty)
  • Date of Independence: November 11, 1918

For more information about the upcoming Polish Culture and Heritage Day or other events, contact the Tri-City Polish Association at 604-941-2167.

 

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