Theoretical rights, multiculturalism, and marginality – the Polish-Canadian case

Partially based on a draft of an English-language presentation read at the 6th Congress of Polish Canadianists (Polish Association for Canadian Studies — PACS) (Poznan, Poland: Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan), April 5-7, 2013.

Beginning in the late-1960s, Canada has enacted an extensive policy of multiculturalism, which became especially entrenched since the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. Governments in Canada (federal, provincial, and municipal) have been committed to supporting (at least to some extent) the cultural and organizational activities of multifarious “ethno-cultural” groups. It might appear that the Polish-Canadian community (estimated in the 2011 Canada Census at over one million persons of Polish descent) would be playing a large role today. But, that does not seem to be happening. Despite the fact that multiculturalism is juridically recognized and societally encouraged, the Polish-Canadian community does not seem to have much political, social, and cultural influence.

Today, there are simply so many interest groups that are clamouring for public money, for example, “visible minorities” (a term officially used in Canada). Since the 1970s, more than three-quarters of immigrants have been visible minorities, thus creating an ever-greater impetus in their favour. Interestingly enough, in the Canadian experience, multiculturalism in earlier years (mostly the 1970s) included a major focus on what were sometimes called “white ethnics” (i.e., Eastern and Southern Europeans) – which in the U.S. has usually not been considered as a definition of multiculturalism.

In the 1970s, multiculturalism in Canada was enthusiastically received by the white ethnic groups in the belief that they were finally going to get some major recognition and financial resources. However, with the ever-increasing visible minority immigration, and the increasing prominence given to visible minorities within the definition of multiculturalism, most of the various white ethnic groups were eclipsed.

It should also be noted that when, in the 1980s, so-called employment equity policies (the equivalent of affirmative action policies in the U.S.) were being enacted in Canada, visible minority became one of the employment equity categories (along with women, aboriginals, persons with disabilities). There was never any discussion about including Eastern and Southern Europeans as a category, although they had certainly been “historically disadvantaged” in Canada (the term used in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to justify employment equity-type policies).

The fact is that the Polish-Canadian community in particular has existed on an unfortunate cusp of history. When the post-World War II immigration first arrived in large numbers, they were not especially welcomed. For example, the Polish soldiers who were accepted into Canada in the immediate post-war years, were required to work for two years on remote farms. For the Polish soldiers who had fought against Hitler since 1939, this was quite humiliating. Conditions on the farms were sometimes none too pleasant. One anecdotally remembers such occurrences as when the German P.O.W.s were sent home from a Canadian beet plantation, to be replaced by the incoming Polish soldiers!

So, the Poles in Canada set about trying to reconstruct some kind of community life in comparatively difficult circumstances. In such a situation, the children born of Polish immigrant parents were highly likely to thoroughly assimilate. It was seen at the time as a precondition for economic and social advancement. Indeed, at this time, Poles in Canada were seen as “too ethnic”.

In the late 1960s, Canada underwent a sea-change, and multiculturalism suddenly came into vogue. But by that time, many young people of Polish descent had been irretrievably assimilated.

Also, with the coming of the 1960s and the so-called “revolt against the elders”, anything so seemingly “stodgy” and “old-fashioned” as Polish identity, wasn’t going to be attractive to young people.

In the 1980s and later, the focus in multiculturalism definitely shifted in the direction of visible minorities. Thus, by this time, Polish-Canadians could be seen as “not ethnic enough”.

As will be noted below, the assimilative pressures exercised, for example, by the mass media, meant that there was no rallying of resistance to assimilation in the 1960s and later. It can be seen that, as the “core audience” of Polish-Canadians melted away, the community was going to be seen as less and less important.

Cultural facts on the ground are very important for the relative flourishing and salience of a given community. Insofar as a community lacks a core-audience that can attract outside money and possibly generate its own resources for their social, cultural, and political activities, they will lack salience. Cultural facts on the ground are more important than supposedly expansive guarantees of rights which are often theoretical.

It does appear by now that most persons of Polish descent in Canada have been thoroughly assimilated into the relatively bland, so-called mainstream. One way of roughly measuring this is to look in the Canada Census at the comparatively small number of persons who retain knowledge of the Polish language among the total number of persons of Polish descent in Canada. There are too few persons left for whom the “affect” of their identity can be a significant mobilizing factor.

Very few attempts were made to work out a more enduring, emphatically hyphenated, Polish-Canadian identity. The arriving immigrants usually defined themselves as “Poles living in Canada” and did little to help their children creatively acculturate — as opposed to thoroughly assimilate – into Canadian society.

It could be argued that, as white ethnics, Polish-Canadians have ended up today as neither part of so-called long-established groups, nor part of so-called accredited minorities in Canada. Thus, they are not prioritized for multicultural-related and other culturally-related funds offered by various levels of government in Canada.

In the 1970s, the comparative dynamism of the community was focused around its two prominent leaders in the Liberal Party of Canada – M.P. and later Senator Stanley Haidasz, who became Canada’s first Minister of State for Multiculturalism, and Jesse Flis, the longtime M.P. from Parkdale-High Park, at that time a riding in Toronto with one of the largest populations of Polish descent.

In 2011-2015, there were again two emphatically Polish-Canadian M.P.s – Wladyslaw Lizon, and Ted Opitz, both members of Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party. Somewhat ironically, as a result of the Conservative Party “ethnic outreach” by such figures as Jason Kenney, the community has advanced on initiatives which had been log-jammed for years under previous Liberal administrations (for example, a pension plans agreement between Canada and Poland; and the end of visa requirements for Polish visitors to Canada). In the 2015 federal election, probably the only emphatically Polish-Canadian M.P. elected was Tom Kmiec (from a Calgary-area riding) – representing the Conservative Party.

However, Polish-Canadians are weakly represented in the general culture of Canada. Today, we are living in a North American (U.S. and Canadian) mass media environment, where social reality and identity is heavily defined by the mass-media – especially in terms of shaping the news and the highly pervasive pop-culture.  Insofar as there is almost no Polish-Canadian and comparatively little Polish-American presence in the mass-media, the community lacks saliency.

Indeed, it is only in the 1970s that there appears to have been some saliency for Poles in North America. There was, for example, the iconic figure of Bobby Vinton, one of whose hit songs had extensive passages in Polish. It was also the time of “ethnic studies” in America and Canada – when for the first and probably last time, groups such as Polish-Americans were somewhat popular. Gierek’s Poland also offered quite extensive outreach and support to Polish-American and Polish-Canadian communities at this time – although there was a “hidden agenda” behind it.

This raises the obvious point that throughout virtually the entire history of Polish immigration to Canada, the home country could not offer significant or in fact any help to its “overseas communities”.

Canada today is clearly in the ambit of a North American mass-media based pop-culture. This pop-culture quite relentlessly obliterates any distinctive fragment-cultures. This happens especially when they lack a presence in the mass-media and pop-culture, or in the heavily state-subsidized official custodians of Canadian culture (typified by CanLit), or are unable to generate a certain cultural resiliency on their own. With the fewness of Polish-Canadian cultural figures such as writers, the community is mostly not represented in so-called CanLit (Canadian Literature).

There is also the extreme infrequency of even a mention of Polish or Polish-Canadian matters in the mass-media. The author of this presentation is unaware of any emphatically Polish-Canadian persons working as opinion-columnists at any major Canadian newspaper. The author is also unaware of any such senior editors at newspapers, magazines, or recognized publishing houses, nor any prominent literary agents, nor owners of more prominent bookstore chains.

One could ask whether the Internet, with its potential for a genuine pluralism of outlooks, is rather different from earlier media, with its so-called gatekeepers. However, the Internet arrived after over four decades of the very heavy conceptual and infrastructural weight of earlier media, most notably, television.

Certainly, no Polish-Canadian writer has reached the prominence of Ukrainian-Canadian author Janice Kulyk-Keefer. She was one of only four core professors at the University of Guelph Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. Along with her Ukrainian-Canadian colleague Marsha Skrypuch, Janice Kulyk-Keefer offers the hope to Ukrainian-Canadians that some important new writers could emerge in the future from that community. The Ukrainian-Canadian community, especially through the Taras Shevchenko Kobzar Literary Foundation, offers a huge annual monetary award for the best book on a Ukrainian theme, as well as, among numerous other initiatives, a scholarship completely funding attendance at the prestigious Humber College Writers’ Workshop for those who are working on a manuscript on a Ukrainian-Canadian theme.

There has almost always been in Polish immigration to Canada, the profound socio-economic problems of substantial poverty and difficulties of adjustment. Whatever the immigrants achieved was through very hard work. Polish-Canadians clearly lack to this day prominent philanthropists that can offer many millions of dollars to the community. While the initial trajectories of Ukrainian and Polish immigration to Canada may have been similar, they have now considerably diverged. Unlike the Ukrainian-Canadians, the community is unable to generate a degree of cultural resilience based mostly on its own philanthropic efforts.

The Polish immigrants to Canada usually came from a background of profound insecurity. Given that the writing profession, and, indeed, most endeavours in the arts and humanities, often fail to offer a steady and substantial income, most parents usually felt more comfortable steering their children into more practically- and technically-oriented professions.

There are also the problems with Polish community newspapers. They are typically published almost exclusively in Polish and have virtually no “affect” on Canadians of Polish descent – although this may have begun to change at some of the most forward-looking newspapers.

The 1970s publication, Echo, edited by Les Wawrow, in which many articles appeared in English, was probably the only major attempt among young Canadians of Polish descent to try to “ride the wave” of Sixties’ change, endeavouring to create a unique amalgam of Old Country rootedness and progressive idealism. However, the publication failed rather quickly.

There has been a chronic failure to develop literary institutions in the community, around which some kind of discussion or literary circles could form. The Polish-Canadian Publishing Fund (Polski Fundusz Wydawniczy w Kanadzie) publishing books almost exclusively in Polish, is definitely a purely émigré phenomenon. In 1988, the Turzanski Foundation was established with great fanfare. However, its usual practice has been to invite well-known, well-established authors from Poland to receive its awards.

A very courageous experiment in literary culture and life was the literary magazine, High Park, edited by Piotr Manycz. Twenty-five magnificent issues were published from November 1992 to December 1998.  The physical and intellectual quality of the magazine was very high, and the magazine carried a fair number of articles in English. The magazine could have begun to create an artistic and literary circle around itself.

The concept of a Polish-Canadian literature is rather problematic. There is a greater presence in terms of all of the varieties of writing carried out by émigrés and Canadians of Polish descent, but they still do not amount to much on the Canadian literary, journalistic, and academic scene. While writings in the Polish language may have been more common among various types of émigré authors, these could be called “Polish literature in Canada” – which had virtually no impact on Canadian society as a whole.

In earlier years, the most prominent Polish-Canadian writer in English was probably Eva Stachniak (an émigré author). Canadian-born authors have included Chuck Konkel; Apolonja (Pola) Kojder; and Helen Bajorek-Macdonald. Among the most notable authors of wartime memoirs in English are Aleksander Topolski; Lilka Trzcinska-Croydon; and Kon Piekarski.

Andrew J. Borkowski is the child of a Polish immigrant father, whose collection of short stories, Copernicus Avenue (Cormorant Books, 2011), is a slightly fictionalized version of Roncesvalles Avenue (in the Parkdale-High Park area of Toronto). It won the prestigious Toronto Book Award in 2012. Aga Maksimowska’s book Giant (Pedlar Press, 2012), is a story of a Polish girl who comes to Canada at the age of 11 in 1989 (much like the author herself did). It was nominated for the 2013 Toronto Book Award. In 2013, Jowita Bydlowska has published a memoir, Drunk Mom (Doubleday, 2013), but its Polish or Polish-Canadian content is minimal. Her latest novel, Guy, has no Polish or Polish-Canadian content. Jowita is the longtime partner of Russell Smith, a well-known Toronto writer and raconteur. While Ania Szado’s gloomy first novel, Beginning of Was (Penguin Canada, 2004), had some Polish elements, there is no Polish content in her second novel, Studio St-Ex (about Antoine Saint Exupery in New York) (Viking, 2013). In 2017, an important anthology of Polish-Canadian fiction has appeared from Guernica Editions, as well as a gritty, linked-short story-collection, Lemons, by Kasia Jaronczyk, from Mansfield Press.

Further advances in technology could perhaps weaken the trends to total assimilation that certain earlier technologies have made possible. However, the arrival of new technologies that could perhaps assist fragment-cultures, has probably come too late for the Polish-Canadian community. Also, immigration from Poland has now slowed to small trickle. A combination of circumstances, such as the “demographic low” in Poland, and ready access to Western European countries for Poles, suggests that there will never again be major Polish immigration to Canada.

There are also some new initiatives underway – the Poland in the Rockies Conference, the Quo Vadis Conference, a Polish-Canadian students’ coordinating body (Polska Inicjatywa Studencka w Kanadzie — PISK), and a Young Polish-Canadian Professionals Association.

So, one can perhaps see some stirrings of renewal.

The community has shied away from publishing discussions in English, and from trying to construct an “intermediary” Polish-Canadian identity. The result of this is that the community — beyond those persons who arrive as immigrants (and may relate through the Polish-language community newspapers) — is largely deprived of a public voice and setting for intellectual reflection in regard to its place in contemporary Canadian society, as well as its possible future in Canada. Considering that Canada is today officially a multicultural society, this attenuation comes at a rather unfortunate time.

Despite the expansive but theoretical guarantees of various rights, the community has become attenuated because of various socio-cultural factors, and cannot be seen as flourishing. It is suggested that paying greater attention to social and cultural factors of a given community is more important for gauging its place in a given society, than looking primarily at juridical rights that are often theoretical.

Mark Wegierski

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