I recently returned to Toronto from a long visit to Poland, a trip on a Polish LOT Airlines jet that took only nine-and-a-half hours but would have taken months in an earlier age.  In general, Toronto represents one extreme of modern development, to which Poland is a happy opposite.  Nevertheless, there is a considerable Polish presence here—the neighborhood centered around Roncesvalles Avenue, which lies to the east of High Park in western Toronto.

Roncesvalles Avenue was named after the gorge where Charlemagne’s warriors had, according to legend, stood bravely against the Muslims of Spain (the basis of the epic Song of Roland).  Although the center of the Polish community in the greater Toronto area has gradually shifted westward to Mississauga, where the Blessed Maximilian Kolbe Roman Catholic parish and the John Paul II Cultural Center are located, many Poles remain in the Roncesvalles area.

Standing at the foot of Roncesvalles Avenue, you can look southward to Lake Ontario and the huge Gardiner Expressway.  From above the lake, you can barely make out the monument to Sir Casimir Gzowski—probably Canada’s most illustrious Pole—by the shores of Lake Ontario.  At the foot of Roncesvalles, there is a comparatively small monument commemorating the Katyn Massacre.  From April to May 1940, over 26,000 Polish military officers and state officials who were being held in Soviet custody were executed on Stalin’s orders at various sites, most prominently the Katyn Forest.  For decades, the Soviets tried to pin the blame for the massacre on Hitler, and, even today, the Russians are not forthright in conceding that this was an act of genocide.  The British Foreign Office only officially recognized Soviet culpability in 1990.

The Katyn Massacre was part of a broader campaign of extirpating Poles carried out by Stalin in the part of Poland that he had obtained under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.  Beginning in late 1939, mass deportations of Poles to Siberia and other remote regions of the Soviet Union were conducted with brutal alacrity.  Polish families were given under an hour to get ready, shoved into cattle cars, and transported into an arctic wilderness.  Many died during the two- or three-week rail passage.  In the camps, the old and the very young quickly died.  It is said that no person over 50 survived.

After Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin allowed some of the surviving Poles to make their way southward to Iran and the Middle East, where the Polish army was forming under the leadership of Wladyslaw Anders.  Some of the Polish exiles went as far afield as India and Africa.  Many of the immigrants who eventually came to Canada—including the soldiers who had fought under Anders in the Polish Second Corps in Italy—had been Siberian deportees.

Further up Roncesvalles is St. Casimir’s Roman Catholic Church, one of the main Polish parishes since World War II.  Opposite the side street where the church sits is a public school that had, for many years, a Polish-Canadian principal, Jesse Flis.  I fondly remember a Polish-language dramatic poetry and prose recital contest in that building, in which I won first prize.  This so-called recytacja is a virtually uniquely Polish subgenre.  The selections are almost always from the patriotic poetry of the grand masters of Polish literature—Mickiewicz, Slowacki, Norwid—or from more modern works of poets such as Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski, the tragic hero of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

Walking further north, you come to the elegant new building of the St. Casimir’s-St. Stanislaus Parish Credit Union—one of the largest parochial credit unions in the world, with hundreds of millions of dollars in capital and branches across Ontario.  In front of the credit union stands a larger-than-life statue of Pope John Paul II, portraying him as he was many years ago, a much-younger man.

Opposite the credit union are the offices of Gazeta, one of the largest Polish-language Canadian newspapers.  Others include Zwiazkowiec (the Alliancer), Glos Polski (Polish Voice), Nowy Kurier (New Courier), and Goniec (the Messenger).

There are many Polish delicatessens, meat shops, and bakeries and a few Polish restaurants, travel agencies, bookstores, drugstores, and gift shops along the street.

Walking still further north, you come across the modest building of the Canadian-Polish Congress, a large refurbished house.  The 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Canadian-Polish Congress, the community’s main umbrella organization, was celebrated in September of this year.

Further up, Roncesvalles Avenue becomes Dundas Street, which then reaches Bloor Street (an east-west thoroughfare).  At the southeast corner of Bloor and Dundas, there is a large high school.

I attended the akademie there, where we celebrated Polish national days such as the Third of May, commemorating the Polish Constitution of 1791, which gave hope to Poles before the dark period of the Partitions (1795-1918), when Poland fell under the occupation of three foreign empires—czarist Russia, Prussia/Germany, and the Habsburg Empire.  The Constitution of 1791 was greatly admired by Edmund Burke for its good sense and moderation.  Another national day is November 11, the date when Poland regained her independence in 1918, which coincides with the Canadian Remembrance Day, the last day of World War I.  It is little known in the West that Poland had to fight a series of wars in the aftermath of World War I, especially against Bolshevik Russia, to secure her borders.

As the Canadian-born offspring of postwar Polish immigrants, I am a rare bird in my community, having retained most of my heritage, including language.  There have been several waves of Polish immigrants to Canada, from at least four distinctly different Polish societies.  The Golgotha of World War II—in which over five million Christian Poles perished—has been no less central to Polish identity than the holocaust has been for Jews.  Poles heroically participated in the war against Nazi Germany in virtually every theater of conflict.  The Poles’ reward was their betrayal by the Western Allies—incorporation into Stalin’s Soviet Empire and the displacement of their frontiers westward, with a 20 percent net loss of territory.

The postwar wave of Polish immigration to Canada consisted mostly of Polish soldiers who had fought beside the Allies and who were both unable and unwilling to return to a Sovietized Poland.  Some came to Canada directly; others moved to Canada after settling in Britain.  Those Polish soldiers who came directly were, as the price of their admission, required to work for two full years on remote farms.

As things improved, many ex-soldiers went to Poland to marry, especially after the 1956 post-Stalinist thaw.  Their children make up one of the largest demographic sectors of the community.  Sadly, few of them have maintained their Polish heritage.

The situation of Polish-Canadians—and other white ethnic groups such as Ukrainian-, Italian-, Portuguese-, and Croatian-Canadians—points to a larger dilemma: How are people who are often “Old World” in their social and cultural outlooks to be assimilated into the prevailing liberal order when, despite an official policy of “ethnic cultural preservation,” such assimilation means the annihilation of their cultural identity?

This situation splinters the community into a small number of activist diehards, who carry the torch of identity, and the largely assimilated, mostly apathetic masses.  These masses still identify with Roman Catholicism, however.  For the majority of Polish-Canadians, their religion is their one main institutional link to their community, via their ethnic parishes.  As Poland today becomes increasingly North Americanized, a culture that is over a thousand years old yields to the realm of “McWorld,” “Coca-colonization,” MTV, CNN, and stupefying reality TV shows.

Indeed, the North American future for Polish-Canadians appears increasingly problematic, and, considering the substantial (though underappreciated by most Canadians) contributions they have made to Canadian society, this should be an issue of broader public concern.  The achievements of Polish professionals—especially architects, engineers, technicians, and research scientists—in postwar Canada, have been remarkable and far out of proportion to their numbers.  Not infrequently, the highly developed Polish sense of honor has actually put the Polish-Canadian community at a disadvantage.  Their abiding loyalty to the Liberal Party has certainly not been rewarded or even especially noticed.  Stanley Haidasz and Jesse Flis, the two prominent Polish-Canadian Liberal MP’s, retired years ago.  After Flis’s retirement, a non-Pole parachuted into Toronto’s Parkdale-High Park area, as part of Chrétien’s tendentious promotion of female candidates.

These white ethnics have reached a virtual vanishing point as a matter of positive interest and concern for Canadian governments, media, and large corporations today.  When was the last time Polish-Canadian and Polish issues were significantly discussed in the Canadian media?  To what extent do the federal, provincial, and municipal governments’ disbursements of multiculturalism funds reflect the actual proportion of white ethnics in the Canadian population?  Are not such white ethnics—who can count on neither the established networks of English- and French-Canadian elites nor “designated group” or “accredited minority” status—operating at a significant disadvantage in Canada today?