The history of Canada is one of immigration and multiculturalism, and should come as no surprise to learn that Polish immigrants tend to make up key parts of this history. Today, the Polish ethnic group represents almost 3% of the Canadian population, and represents one of the 15 largest ethnicities.

So, when did the first Polish immigrant arrive, and when did the Polish community grow in Canada? If you’re of Polish origin living in Canada and curious about your history, as well as what it means to be of Polish descent today, let our guide give you an introduction to the story of your cultural heritage.

When did Canada’s Polish community arrive?

While there have been Poles in Canada noted as early as 1752, large scale immigration happened during a number of key peaks and waves of activity. This was mostly driven by situations in Europe, whether its war, political turmoil or economic instability.

Polish Immigrants between 1858 and 1901

The first wave of Polish immigration notably featured immigrants arriving from the Kashub region of Poland. Many of these were seeking refuge from German and Prussian oppression back home. At this time, Poland itself was going through a period known as “The Great Emigration”. This was a period that occurred after the failed November Uprising of 1830-1831, and saw many elite figures leaving the country.

Some traveled as far as North America and, in Canada, they first settled in Ontario, notably in Wilno and Beril. At the turn of the century, the Canadian Polish community consisted of some 6,300 individuals.

Polish Immigrants between 1921 and 1931

The next biggest wave of Polish migration occurred after the first world war. At this point, many Polish citizens left Austrian-occupied territories and the poor farming conditions of central and eastern Europe. Many of these immigrants found ideal employment as a reliable labor force in the larger cities. However, the majority continued to live and work as farmers, settling in regions such as Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

It’s estimated some 130,000 Poles arrived during this period, vastly growing the number of Polish Canadians in the country.

Polish Immigrants between 1945 and 1956

The third wave of Polish people immigrating to Canada arrived after World War II. This time, immigrants represented a mix of refugees fleeing political oppression in their home country, as well as former Polish soldiers and captives of the Nazi regime. Alongside economic opportunities, many were seeking to build a new life in Canada.

While many of these Poles found permanent residency across the country, around half settled in Ontario. This, on top of the first Polish immigrants having previously settled there, as discussed earlier meant that different communities began to emerge, shaping the overall culture of the province.

However, direct passage to North America was not abundant, and the Canadian government also had concerns about the impact of mass refugees. In 1946, the government enabled residents to sponsor first-degree relatives, as well as wider orphaned relatives. As long as they took care of them, these relatives would be granted entry. Around this time, 3,000 Polish soldiers, which had served under the British army, were also allowed permanent residence.

It’s also noted during this period that documentation was not easy, as many lacked proper travel documents or forms of identification. Yet it was noted that Poles represented a major part of this immigration wave.

Polish Immigrants between 1957 and 1979

Polish immigration to Canada after WW2 continued into the 60s and 70s, as the development of communism at home encouraged many Poles to emigrate. While the Second World War was over, many still left to avoid political oppression and a poor economy.

It should be noted that throughout the early 20th century, mostly between 1946 and 1960, that Canada’s Polish community was one of the fastest growing, often growing at a faster rate than the national average.

Polish Immigrants Between 1981 and 1993

In the 1980s, more Poles arrived in Canada looking for work opportunities, due to a declining economic situation in Poland. During this period, estimates suggest that the number of Poles in Canada rose from 254,485 in 1981 to 740,710 in 1991.

This wave was mostly caused by Poles looking to flee communism in their home country. Between the 1980s and 1990s, the Canadian government granted permanent residence to over 115,000 Polis immigrants. This represented a combination of refugees from European camps, immigrants arriving from the neighboring United States, and those able to leave Poland directly.

It was also encouraged by Canada’s immigration policies at the time. Notably, regulations enacted in 1978 gave temporary immigration preferences for self-exiled individuals from eastern Europe: in other words, those escaping the Communist bloc and unable to return home. This Self-Exiled class was still recognized by Canada into the early 1990s.

Similarly, groups such as the Canadian Polish Congress, were able to guarantee immigration for Poles, building on previous rulings for family members in prior decades.

The Polish-Canadian community today

According to a census in 2016, there are around 1.1 million Polish-Canadians, and around 191,775 of these speak the Polish language as their mother tongue. These Polish Canadians, representing both Polish migrants and their descendants, can be found across Canada.

More recent figures from 2021 suggest that the largest Polish population can be found in Ontario, which had some of the first Polish settlements, as well as Alberta and British Columbia.

While immigration to Canada still occurs, and the two countries maintain strong, positive relations, it has been noted that the number of Polish immigrants to Canada has not met the numbers seen in these previous periods. This is due to a number of reasons, not least of all due to the rapid recovery of the Polish state.

Benefits of Polish ancestry

For the 1.1 million or so Polish Canadians, their Polish ancestry can often grant them Polish citizenship. This not only recognizes their Polish heritage and roots, but also indicates them as an official citizen of Poland. Under the Polish government, this is considered a birth right for all eligible individuals.

Consequently, recognizing your Polish citizenship by descent grants the rights to live, work and travel in Poland, in addition to the European Union, as well as the right to apply for a Polish passport.

It’s also important to note that both Poland and Canada support dual citizenship. In fact, dual citizenship is very common in Canadian life, with 1 in 20 having two or more nationalities. For descendents of the Polish diaspora, this is a particular boon, as the Polish passport offers visa-free access to over 155 countries, and is often ranked amongst one of the strongest passports in the world.

How to gain Polish citizenship

Claiming Polish citizenship is a process of proving your ancestry through documentation. You need to prove your blood relations, showing your direct lineage. When applying through this process, you do not need to speak Polish, but you do need to fill out the application in the Polish language. This, as well as the challenges in finding official documentation and complying with Polish procedures, is just one reason why it’s worth getting some expert assistance on this journey.

However, in order to be eligible, you must have an ancestor that was a recognized citizen, lived in Poland at some point after 1918 and did not lose or give up their citizenship. As you can see in this article, not every Polish immigrant arrived after this period, so we recommend doing some research into your family history if you are descended from Polish immigrants.

The best way to determine if you are eligible is to take our free quiz. This will answer some immediate questions and let you know if you meet the initial criteria.

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