Edmonton is the capital city of Alberta. It lies upon the North Saskatchewan River and has 1,034,945 residents within its CMA, as of the 2006 Census. It is also home to the second-largest concentration of Poles outside of Toronto, with 67,520 residents of Polish origin living in the Edmonton CMA.
The first Polish settlers arrived in the Edmonton region around 1895. Many had been granted land within a 100km radius of the city for farming. Some, naturally, were drawn to city and the jobs available there. The Polish population in Edmonton remained small before the First World War, but grew considerably after the war ended. Many Polish men found work in Edmonton’s meat-packing plants in the 1920s. By 1927, there were about 61,000 residents in Edmonton, including several thousand Poles. Building upon this strong base, the first Polish organization in Edmonton was established on November 11, 1927, formally titled “The Association of Poles in Canada.” It would later be renamed the “Polish Canadian Society.” This would mark the beginning of a long tradition of Polish organization in the City of Edmonton.
The first Polish Hall was built in Edmonton in 1932 as a result of great effort, co-operation and financial contribution from the Polish community. It quickly became a source of pride and a centre for social and cultural activity. The Polish Hall hosted meetings, national holiday celebrations and dances to which everybody was welcome. It also housed an amateur theatre group that would travel to nearby Polish settlements and provide farmers with rare evenings of entertainment – a true blessing during the Great Depression. Other developments during the 1930s included the establishment of the short-lived “Adam Mickiewicz” week-end school and the formation of the Polish Veterans’ Society in 1938.
Polish organizations were very active during the Second World War, donating funds, clothing, and countless hours to provide relief to Poles fighting in the home country. After the war ended, Edmonton received a major influx of ex-servicemen and refugees, many from educated and urban backgrounds. This trend continued, albeit in smaller numbers, during the decades of communism in Poland. Many educated Poles sought political freedom and economic opportunity by immigrating to Canada, and specifically Edmonton. The post-WWII and communist era immigrants rejuvenated existing Polish organizations and began forming new ones, such as the Polish Combatants’ Association, Branch no.6 (1947); The Canadian Polish Congress, Alberta Branch (1952); the Polish Scouting Association (1954); the Friends of Canadian Polish Youth (1962); The Canadian Polish Women’s Federation, Branch no.3 (1958); the Canadian Polish Academic Club (1965); the Polish Culture Society (1971); and the Polish Teachers’ Association, Edmonton Branch (1993). To house many of these activities, a new Polish Hall was built from 1959-1961. It serves to this day as a centre of Polish social and cultural life.
Poles traditionally value religion and education, and this is apparent in the establishment of both religious and educational institutions in Edmonton over the 20th century. In 1912-13, Poles built the first Polish Holy Rosary Church in Edmonton (Carlton, Polonia in Alberta 118). From 1953-1954, the Polish community co-operated in the construction of the new Polish Holy Rosary Church. This impressive building serves Poles on the north side of Edmonton, and in 2008 it gathered the necessary funds for a beautiful bronze statue of the late Pope John Paul II, marking the 30th anniversary of his election to the papacy. Serving the south side of Edmonton is Our Lady Queen of Poland church, purchased in 1989 and consecrated in 1990.
In terms of education, the first informal Polish schools were operating out of people’s homes and churches in the early 1900s. The first attempt at a formalized school was the “Adam Mickiewicz” week-end school in 1938, but this only lasted a year. The Polish community would have more success with The Henryk Sienkiewicz School, founded in 1954 by Rev. Dr. Tadeusz Nagengast, with the help of Wanda Buska and Janina Jankowska-Zygiel (Carlton, Polonia in Alberta 126). The school’s most prominent teacher, principal and visionary leader was Maria Chrzanowska. She began teaching at the school in 1954 and became principal in 1964, a post she retained until retirement in 1987. She co-operated with the parents, clergy, and government in providing students with a rich education in Polish language, history and culture. Her legacy was honored in 1991, when the Edmonton’s second Polish Saturday school was named “The Maria Chrzanowska Polish School.” The two schools mentioned above are both Saturday schools. While they served an important function, it was generally agreed that there was a need for a Polish bilingual school that would operate like other schools from Monday to Friday. With much diligence, this dream became a reality in 1985 with the opening of Jan Paweł II/ St. Basil Catholic School, the first and only fully-funded Polish bilingual school in North America.
Today, the Polish community in Edmonton is active and growing. In addition to the social and cultural organizations mentioned, there exist a number of folk dance groups, soccer clubs and a Polish Students’ club at the University of Alberta. There is also an established business and professional community, radio station, and office of the Consulate of the Republic of Poland in Edmonton. Edmonton is also home to the only Polish-born member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, Tomasz Łukaszuk.