A Short History of Polish-Canadians in Alberta
By: Pawel Romanowski
Phase I: 1895-1918
The first recorded Polish settlers in Alberta arrived in 1895. There were two different groups of Poles arriving at this time, and they settled in different regions of the province. The first was a small group of miners who chose to work and settle in the coal mining areas of south-western Alberta. Though no official record exists, it is probable that the first Polish miners arrived in Alberta before the first agricultural settlers did so in 1895. The miners came mostly from southern Poland (a region with a long-standing mining tradition) and the northern United States. Polish miners settled near Banff, in Canmore, Bankhead and Exshaw, with the largest Polish community residing in Coleman. It was there that Poles established the region’s first ‘Polish Society’ in 1916 and built the first Polish Hall in 1927.
The second group was that of agricultural settlers. They came as part of Minister Clifford Sifton’s plan to populate and cultivate the vast regions of western Canada. These Poles came mainly from the Austrian-controlled province of Galicia, as it had the most relaxed policies on emigration, and were almost invariably of the peasant class. This made them suitable candidates for farming the land surrounding Edmonton, which is where the majority settled. Some of the earliest Polish settlements include Wostok/St. Michael, Rabbit Hill/Nisku, Skaro and Mundare. All are situated within a hundred kilometer radius of Edmonton and all were settled by the turn of the century. A replica of the Grotto of Mary in Lourdes was built by this first generation of Polish settlers in Skaro in 1917, and it continues to be an important site of devotion and pilgrimage for Poles and other Catholics alike. Other Polish communities established in this region in the early 1900s include Chipman, Round Hill, Waugh, Kopernik, Flat Lake and Naples.
Shrine at Skaro (Courtesy Holy Rosary Archives)
The lives of these early settlers were difficult to say the least. Although they had received that most cherished of all possessions – land – they lacked tools, supplies and co-operative networks. Homesteaders often had to clear great swathes of forest and parkland in order to establish farms. Once land was cleared (an arduous task in itself), many settlers began mixed farming and lived at a subsistence level off their various crops and livestock. To supplement the food supply, women and children would pick berries and mushrooms in the summer. The harsh Canadian winters and lack of outside support would test these early settlers, but the vast majority managed to survive and progressively improve their lot.
The family of Stanislaw Banach, the first recorded settler in Alberta, taken c. 1913. (Courtesy Joanna Matejko)
Due to the spread-out nature of homesteads, however, many settlers remained isolated and lonely. To combat their isolation and satisfy their social and spiritual needs, Polish settlers began to build churches as soon as any resources became available. The church became not only a religious, but a social and cultural centre for the settlers. In this respect, Joanna Matejko writes that “the importance of the Church and its missionaries to the Polish settlers in the Canadian West cannot be over-emphasized, especially before the First World War” (Polonia in Alberta, 4). Let us now look at the work of one particularly active missionary, Fr. Pawel Kulawy, in greater detail.
The earliest missionaries in Alberta were the three Kulawy brothers. They were Oblate Fathers from Winnipeg who had been assigned to tend to the Polish settlers scattered across central Alberta in 1898. Matejko writes that in addition to their religious roles, these missionaries acted as “spokesmen, interpreters, advisors, educators, organizers of schools, and in some case, physicians” (Polonia 5). The youngest brother, Paweł Kulawy, spent eighteen years from 1903-21 serving Polish Catholics across Alberta, concentrating mainly on the Polish settlements surrounding Edmonton. Fr. Kulawy would make long journeys between these villages at all times of the year, to offer Catholic mass and to preside over communions, weddings, funerals and the like. He was the only connection most farmers had with other Polish settlements and the outside world. Fr. Kulawy also provided early settlers with their first real religious and educational institutions, by organizing the building of churches, chapels, parishes, schools and missions (Polonia 5).
Fr. Paweł Kulawy (Courtesy Holy Rosary Archives)
Poles continued immigrating to Alberta, many to join existing family members, until the outbreak of the First World War. Immigration ceased during the War. During this time, Polish immigrants in Canada were often unfairly regarded as “enemy aliens,” as many had come from territories belonging to the Austro-Hungarian and Prussian empires. To combat this, Polish miners in Coleman formed the Polish Society of Brotherly Aid in December of 1916. The Society issued its members identity cards stating that the bearer was Polish, not Austrian or German, thus sparing them from unfair discrimination. This is but one example of how Poles worked together in the earliest stage of their settlement in Alberta.
Phase II: 1918-1939
The end of the War allowed for a second major wave of Polish immigration, as many settled Poles were able to bring their families and extended families to Alberta. In addition, a new class of more educated and politically conscious Poles immigrated to Alberta in search of economic opportunity. The majority of these latter immigrants chose urban areas, such as Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge, over agricultural settlements. Thus, from 1921 to 1931, the number of Poles grew from 7,172 to 21,157, with the largest number arriving between 1927 and 1929. There was considerably less immigration during the 1930s, as only 4,078 were admitted (Matejko, “The Polish Experience” 285).
The urban newcomers maintained a strong emotional attachment to the newly freed Poland. Many of them had taken part in Poland’s struggle for independence during and immediately after the War. They were able to manifest this attachment, and unite fellow immigrants and older settlers alike, through the establishment of a number of organizations in the interwar period. Principal among these were the Polish Canadian Society in Edmonton in 1927, the “Polonia” society (later renamed the Polish Alliance) in Calgary in 1931, and the Polish Veterans’ Association in Edmonton in 1938. Also, in 1932, Poles built the first Polish Hall in Edmonton. This was the not the first in Alberta however, as the Coleman Polish Hall had been built a few years earlier in 1927.
Coleman Polish Hall, c.1927 (Courtesy Joanna Matejko)
In both Edmonton and Coleman, the Polish Hall became an important centre of social life. It allowed Poles to hold society meetings, teach children, host suppers and dances, and showcase Polish culture and talent in general. In her short memoir “Good Times in the Coleman Polish Hall,” Monica Primrose vividly describes the “smokers,” or large parties, that were held every two weeks in the small mining community (Polonia 83). Polish musicians would perform songs from the old country as well as modern numbers, children would perform the “krakowiak” and “mazurka” dances they had been taught, and everybody enjoyed themselves greatly. These parties became so popular that even non-Polish townspeople began attending. The Polish Hall in Edmonton hosted similar events, and was an important meeting place for Polish immigrants who sought camaraderie and companionship in the interwar years, especially during the winters when most labourers would return to the city.
Phase III: 1939-1956
Immigration to Canada ceased during the Second World War, but Polish-Canadian involvement did not. Many young Polish men volunteered to serve in the Canadian Forces. Those who stayed in Alberta established a Relief Committee to help Polish orphans, refugees and prisoners of war, and a group of Polish women organized an “Aunties Club” which collaborated with the Canadian Red Cross in providing war-time relief. Though nobody was rich at the time, Poles in Alberta gave generously of their time, money and material goods to help their brothers and sisters in the home country.
Though the end of the Second World War brought much hope, it did not return freedom to Poland. Many veterans decided to immigrate to Canada rather than returning to a Poland dominated by the Soviet Union. And so, the first group of about 300 veterans arrived in Alberta in November 1946; the next group of about 500 arrived in June of 1947. They were admitted to Canada only as farmers and farm labourers, and were sent upon arrival to farms across Alberta to work two-year contracts. Though the terms of their immigration were disheartening, especially after having experienced the horrors of war, these brave men persevered and gradually settled in the cities once their contracts were up. Starting in 1947, Polish displaced persons and veterans’ family members were allowed to immigrate to Canada as well. Between 1947 and 1951, over 48,000 Poles came to Canada, with 3,200 settling in Alberta (Matejko, “The Polish Experience” 290). The refugees that came after the War were a diverse group, representing all levels of Polish society. Some of the more prominent refugees settling in Alberta included General R. Wolikowski, a military attaché of General Sikorski’s government; Piotr Czartoryski, a member of the aristocratic Czartoryski family; and Julian Suski, a high-ranking civil servant and writer in pre-war Poland (Matejko, “The Polish Experience” 290).
To ease the pain of resettling in a foreign land, many of the refugees joined Polish parishes and organizations. They found comfort and new purpose within the Polish communities of Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge. Matejko writes that the refugees “exerted a very strong influence on the older Polish community,” as they rejuvenated existing organizations and created new ones (Matejko, “The Polish Experience” 290).
For example, for over thirty years the presidents of the Canadian Polish Congress - Alberta Branch were former refugees and servicemen who had arrived shortly after the War. In terms of new organizations, refugees established the Polish Combatants’ Association in Edmonton in 1947, followed by branches in Calgary, Lethbridge and Coleman later that year. The Association initially helped Polish refugees find work and accommodation. As the wave of refugees settled over the years, the Association turned its interest towards more political and cultural matters (Matejko, “The Polish Experience” 292).
After 1956, the Communist government in Poland relaxed its regulations on leaving the country. This allowed relatives of Canadian residents to leave Poland on trips and eventually immigrate to Canada. People left in search of greater economic opportunity and political freedom, and many found it. In Alberta, as in the rest of Canada, Poles were free to organize and develop their culture without government resistance. They took full advantage of this freedom, by creating a large number of socio-cultural, religious and educational institutions and organizations. The greatest development of this kind occurred in Edmonton, home to Alberta’s largest Polish population. The organizations created in Edmonton after 1956 include the Ladies’ Auxiliary to the Polish Veterans’ Society (est. 1978), the Ladies’ Auxiliary to the Polish Combatants’ Association, Branch no.6 (est. 1958), the Friends of Canadian Polish Youth (est. 1962), the Canadian Polish Women’s Federation, Branch no.3 (est. 1958), the Canadian Polish Academic Club (est. 1965), and the Polish Culture Society (est. 1974) to name but a few. Two years prior, in 1954, both the Polish Scouting Association and Henryk Sienkiewicz School were established, allowing new generations of children to be brought up in the Polish way. All of the above organizations and institutions exist to the present day. Detailed accounts of Polish community organization during this time in Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and Grande Prairie can be found in Polonia in Alberta: 1895-1995 (see notes).
Students at Edmonton’s Henryk Sienkiewicz School, late 1950s. (Courtesy Holy Rosary Archives)
Though immigration after 1961 was relatively slow, the Polish community in Alberta grew steadily. As they became settled and proficient in the English language, more and more Poles were able to raise their social status, operate businesses and professional practices, and contribute to the larger society than ever before. Perhaps it was this vision that encouraged many Poles to immigrate to Canada, and more specifically Alberta, during the last major wave of immigration from 1981-1993.
Life was difficult in Poland in 1981. The deficiencies of Poland’s communist economy resulted in food shortages, inflation and massive unemployment. The Solidarity movement, though inspiring many, had met with armed suppression from the Communist government. Young men and women had little hope for the future and began leaving Poland en masse. My own family was part of this emigration, fleeing first to West Germany before arriving in Edmonton in May of 1987.
From 1981-1993, a total of 113,886 Poles immigrated to Canada. Throughout this period, Alberta consistently attracted a significant portion of Polish immigrants, with 11,773 (10.3%) choosing Alberta as their destination (Citizenship and Immigration Canada). Many refugees were sponsored by Polish-Canadian organizations and families in Alberta. For example, my family was sponsored by the Canadian Polish Congress - Alberta Branch. Matejko writes that although immigrants of this period were provided with some government assistance and subsidized language courses, they arrived during a recession and found it difficult to gain employment and material security (“The Polish Experience” 294). I can say that my parents experienced the same, although I was too young to appreciate their hardship.
This is a recurrent theme in the history of Polish immigration to Alberta. Immigrants arrived with little or nothing, and spent the first few years just surviving and building themselves up before participating in any kind of social life. Some would remain in closed social circles, but many found joy and purpose in building up the Polish community, starting with the first churches built over a hundred years ago, through to the development of schools and the various social, cultural and political organizations listed in this narrative. Although Poles sometimes have a reputation for pettiness and disagreement among themselves, it is truly remarkable that Poles of different generations and social backgrounds cooperated in this respect. For instance, one of the more significant achievements of the Polish community in the 1980s was gaining support from the Alberta government for the establishment of the only completely publicly funded Polish bilingual school in North America: Jan Paweł II at St. Basil Catholic School in Edmonton.
Jan Paweł II/ St. Basil’s Roman Catholic School (http://www.stbasil.ecsd.net)
Phase V: 1995-Present
In 1995 Poles celebrated a century of settlement in Alberta. The Polish Centennial Society in Alberta published a book, Polonia in Alberta: 1895-1995, containing historical articles on immigration and settlement, as well as profiles of important Polish-Canadians. A statue was also commissioned by the Polish Centennial Society, and it presently stands in front of the Polish Hall in Edmonton. This was an important moment in our history, as we looked back upon a century of struggle, perseverance, and community-building. As a young Pole, I appreciate the efforts of older generations in building up a social and cultural community that I may take part in. Having lived much of my life in small towns in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, I appreciate the more visible and active Polish presence in Alberta.
Polish immigration to Canada and Alberta has slowed down since 1995, and especially since 2004, the year of Poland’s accession to the European Union. Increased labour mobility within the European Union has offered Poles more choice in search of employment and better wages. Poles today do not need to cross the Atlantic in search of a better life, as so many did before them. This is good for Polish society as a whole, and it has not led to stagnation in the Alberta Polish community. On the contrary, the Polish community in Alberta continues to grow. Individuals who arrived during the last major wave of immigration have developed families, and their children and grand-children have been able to maintain their Polish language, culture and identity through the availability of Polish education programs in Edmonton and Calgary, and through involvement in Alberta’s many Polish organizations and cultural events. Polish student youth also have the opportunity to participate in Polish clubs at the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary, and to learn about Polish history, culture, and identity at the biannual Poland in the Rockies Conference in Canmore, Alberta.
At present, Albertans of Polish origin comprise the seventh largest ethnic group in Alberta, based primarily in Edmonton and Calgary. As of 2006, there are 170,935 residents of Alberta claiming Polish origin, with 21,405 first generation immigrants, and 22,705 listing Polish as their mother tongue (Census 2006). It is interesting to see the different generations of Poles interact at meetings and social events, for it is apparent that not everybody speaks Polish at the same level and not everybody arrived in Canada at the same time. However, it is encouraging to see that despite these differences, there is a common thread among us. Let us hope that the Polish community in Alberta, and indeed throughout Canada, continues to build upon this common identity and love of Polish culture.\
Kobos, Andrzej M. and Jolanta T. Pekacz, eds. Polonia in Alberta, 1895-1995. Edmonton: Polish Centennial Society, 1995.
Matejko, Joanna, ed. Polish Settlers in Alberta: Reminiscences and Biographies. Toronto: Polish Alliance Press, 1979.
Statistics Canada. Census 2006. www12.statcan.gc.ca. Accessed online July 13, 2009.