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Polish Immigration to the United States and Canada Essay

1. Introduction

1.1. Overview

Poland is a small country, tucked away in the recesses of Eastern Europe. Surrounded by countries like Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, its population of 38.5 million is slightly more than half of the United Kingdom’s and a fraction of that of the United States. Whilst experiencing a welcome improvement in economic development and prosperity in recent years, the country and its citizens, the Polish people, can well be counted as among the more unfortunate of the world.

Centuries of political turmoil, foreign rule and occupancy, decades of partitioning, and extended periods of economic distress, have scarred the psyche of the Polish people, driven them out of their surroundings, and made them into global wanderers, refugees, and migrants, searching for comfort, peace, and economic well being for themselves and their families. The mass genocide of the 1940s, which left more than 6 million Polish dead, was followed by four decades of communist rule and it was not until 1989 that the country joined the ranks of free nations.

Difficult home conditions during the last few centuries have often forced the Polish people to travel out of the environs of their familiar surroundings and make their homes in strange countries, among people with different cultures, languages, religions, and traditions. Polish migrants have moved out in waves not only to other more hospitable regions in Europe but also to the new world, more particularly to the United States and Canada. Through years of hard work, toil and perseverance, the Polish have created a world wide diaspora, better known as Polonia, of people who, despite living in alien conditions for decades, have continued to be true to their culture, traditions, language and religion. Their migration to North America is not of recent origin; the first waves of people of Polish origin came to the United States in the late 1700s and to Canada in the early 1800s.[1] These original adventurers were followed by periodic streams of migrants whose numbers depended both upon the conditions of their home country as well as on the immigration policies of their host nations.

Once settled in their host locations the Polish proved to be model immigrants, industrious, peace loving, cultured, lovers of art, and extremely religious. Their tale of immigration and settlement in Canada and the United States is one of courage, determination and fortitude; visible proof of how adversity brings forth the best in human beings.

1.2. Objective

This dissertation takes up the issue of Polish immigration to the United States and Canada, investigating the causes of migration, the areas of choice, the challenges faced by the settlers, the ways and means adopted to overcome such problems, and the evolution of the Polish presence in their adopted countries. Whilst investigating the phenomenon, specific emphasis will be given to the differences in the adopted processes of migration and settlement between Polish Canadians and Polish Americans. A study of this nature should hopefully be of interest to students of history, international relations, sociology, immigration, demographics, and government policy. The global Polish community, immigrants or otherwise should also find such a study illuminating and interesting.

1.3. Methodology

A dissertation of this nature will be well served by intensive study of the literature available on the subject. Substantial primary and secondary information is available on the topic by way of government websites, books, and journal, magazine, and newspaper articles. Whilst surveys or in-depth interviews with Polish immigrants could yield some very interesting and relevant information, such an exercise would need to cover substantial numbers of respondents in two nations and involve the deployment of resources beyond the capacity of the researcher.

The dissertation as such relies fully on the information available both on line and in hard copy for its findings, analysis and conclusions. The sources of information accessed have been listed in the bibliography at the end of the study. The body of the dissertation is structured into a literature review followed by a section on findings and analysis. The concluding section details the conclusions arrived at in the course of the study along with recommendations and the limitations of the assignment.

2. Literature Review

With the first Polish people travelling to North America more than three centuries ago their connection with the USA and Canada is hardly of recent origin. The phenomenon predates the American War of Independence of 1776 and has been shaped by a range of political, military, economic, social, and cultural factors, not just in their homeland but also in the other countries of Europe as well as in the USA and in Canada. This review of literature approaches the subject from specific angles, namely the historical and modern day circumstances that influenced their migration to North America, the governmental and policy approaches of the two host countries that shaped their entry and settlement, the factors behind their demographic dispersion and build-up, and the evolution of the Polish diaspora in the two countries.

2.1. Migratory Compulsions

Political and Military Turmoil

Whilst Poland developed into a recognisable political entity, a millennium ago, under the Piast dynasty in the tenth century, its period of greatest affluence and development, also referred as the golden age, occurred, during the 16th and 17th centuries, with the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.[2] This short lived era of freedom, parliamentary working, and economic affluence came to an end with the Swedish invasion and the Cossack Uprising towards the middle of the 17th century. These events were followed by numerous wars against Russia, three partitions of the country, in 1772, 1793, and 1795, and the division of its territories between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. The reconstitution of a Polish state in 1807 by Napoleon lasted for only 8 years, the defeat of Napoleon being followed by Austrian and Russian hegemony over the country until the end of the First World War.[3]

“This loss of independence created the situation that for most Poles, “Poland” as their country, became just an idea-a memory from the past, and a hope for the future. In short, in the world of the Polish spirit, it enabled men and women to live their lives in their own way in spite of the established order, and often in defiance of the law” (Davies 1990). These partitions and the disaster of the 1830 Uprising caused the Great Emigration to the Western European countries and to the overseas territories, among which the United States holds the primary position”[4]

Regaining is independence in 1918, the country remained independent for just two decades until the twin invasions of the country by Germany on September 1, 1939 and Soviet Russia on September 17. Divided into 2 zones under the control of Germany and the Soviet Union, Poland suffered greatly during the Second World War; the holocaust took its greatest toll in this country with six million, half of them Jews, perishing in the first four years of the 1940s. The end of the war saw the occupation of the country by the forces of the Soviet Union and nearly 4 more decades of communist rule before the country emerged, on the back of a Solidarity movement, as a democratic nation in 1990. Joining the European Union in 2004, the country is making economic progress and integrating rapidly with the global community. [5]

With the last three centuries being spent in incessant political and military turmoil it is not difficult gauge the extent of mental, physical and economic hardships suffered by the Polish people. Deprived of the security of their country and a national umbrella, the Polish left their homeland in successive waves from the 18th century to the present day.

Economic and Social Conditions

Whilst political and military turmoil was of course causal in driving large numbers of patriotic Polish from their homes and forcing them to seek safe sanctuary in other countries, economic compulsions also played a major role in motivating them to regions with better prospects for earnings, savings and the development of prosperity and affluence. In fact it would appear that the majority of Polish migration took place because of severe disturbances in economic conditions.

Significant increases in population in the late years of the 18th century, along with industrialisation and the consolidation of commercial agriculture led to the elimination of small land holdings, exhaustion of available land, and loss of earning capacity and destitution of peasants dependent upon farming for their livelihood forcing them to migrate to areas of economic opportunity.[6] The decline of industrial production in the Russian controlled regions of Lodz and Piotrkow after the Russo-Japanese War and the 1905 revolution sparked off a significant wave of migration with hundreds of thousands of workers departing for other regions. Apart from such occurrences pressures of population, exhaustion of land and the lack of investment in industry kept the region in a perpetual state of economic deprivation and drove emigration figures upwards.[7]

Whilst economic deprivation drove emigration among the economically weaker sections of society, sporadic bouts of anti-Semitism were to lead to thousands of Jews moving away to escape persecution. A wave of anti-Semitism swept through the region after the revolution of 1905. Fanned by the anti-Semitic wing of the National Democratic Party in the early years of the 20th century the movement increased steadily until the onset of the First World War and led to social ostracism and violence against Jews

“Students would picket Jewish stores, threatening Poles who dared to enter. Shame was also placed upon those citizens who sought the services of Jewish lawyers, dentists and doctors. One technique that was frequently used was to photograph Poles entering Jewish residences and print the pictures. The picture, with a derogatory comment, would be placed on pamphlets that were distributed among the townspeople. Less costly but just as painful and derogatory were such incidents of Poles throwing stones at Jewish men, women and even young children. Killing Jews was contagious in an atmosphere of hate that enveloped Poland. Not only were the Polish radicals placing the blame for their problems on the Jews, but they were also gaining free media.”[8] (Reisner, Davis and Miera)

Post Second World War Emigration

Many of the Iron Curtain nations have experienced the phenomenon of citizens being pushed to emigrate, rather flee, in large numbers to escape political repression and economic scarcity. With most communist governments unwilling to allow their citizens to leave their borders except for official reasons, much of the ensuing emigration was illegal until travel restrictions were eased. In Poland the easing of travel curbs in the late 1950s after the cessation of Stalinist rule, led to a spurt migrants who travelled to European countries, mainly Germany, in search of lost relatives and motivated by the desire to motivate families. The next large migration occurred only in the late 1980s.[9] Whilst some of the people who left belonged to Lech Walesa’s Solidarity party and had to leave after the imposition of martial law to avoid incarceration, most of the others were young and educated and did not foresee the happening of any major political change. Their reasons for leaving were mostly economic and they accordingly left for countries like Australia, Canada or the USA, which though far away offered the opportunity of economic improvement.[10]

2.2. Migration to the USA and Canada

Polish emigration, as per extant records, appears to have been focussed on western countries, with very few Poles evincing interest of emigrating to Latin America, Africa or Asia. The only exceptions to this rule were Australia, which became a preferred destination choice for many of the Polish in the post Second World War period, and Israel, which attracted thousands of Polish Jews, from the 1960s, after the government eased travel curbs and relaxed issuance of passports. [11]The community seems to have concentrated mostly on neighbouring European nations like Germany, France, and Belgium, as well as on North American countries like the USA and Canada. Whilst there are clear motives for emigration with the range of causes being large and varied and stemming from political unrest, partition and annexation, economic deprivation, lack of agricultural land and job opportunities, political suppression (during the communist regime), and religious persecution and discomfort (for the Polish Jews), researchers are less clear on the reasons behind the choice of destination of Polish migrants. Very possibly the community felt more comfortable with settling down in countries with a majority of whites, where Christianity was the dominant religion.

Migration to the USA

Whilst migration of Poles, individually and in small groups, to the USA started soon after the voyages of Columbus, significant community immigration did not occur until the onset of the three partitions in the closing years of the 1700s. Records however suggest that many Polish craftsmen were hired by the London Company in 1608 to bring their skills to Jamestown, where a sizeable community grew over the next two decades.

“The Poles created glass house shops, and pitch and potash burners. These products became the first exports of Jamestown. As a result of their success more Poles were invited to Jamestown. They were always cooperative and willing workers. In 1619 more Poles landed at Jamestown with the intent to manufacture pitch, tar and resin for ships. They also helped start the timber industry that was necessary for ship building. The first Legislative Assembly denied the Jamestown Poles the right to vote. As a result the Poles went to strike, refusing to work unless they had the right to vote. On July 21, 1619 the Legislative Assembly granted Poles the right to vote. Thus, the Poles were the first group that fought successfully for civil rights.”[12]

Polish immigration subsequently increased from the last quarter of the 18th century when Poles participated in the American Revolution.

The 1800s saw two major waves of Polish immigration, the first of which occurred between 1830 and 1863 and the second between 1870 and 1913. Whilst the first wave of migrants moved mainly into neighbouring European countries a few thousands did travel to the USA. The second wave however saw the majority of emigrants leaving for the USA, whilst the others went to Germany, France and Belgium. Approximately 2.5 million Poles, practically 95 % of the migrants landed at Ellis Island during this period whereas the balance 5 % came in through Castle Garden. This huge flow of migrants dropped sharply only after the adoption of quotas and the imposition of strict limits for immigrants by the USA in 1921.[13]

 The next major flow of migrants was to occur only after the end of the Second World War when 200,000 Polish refugees were settled in the United States. Recent decades have also seen a steady flow of the Polish coming into the country. Whilst some came into the country illegally in the 1970s and the 1980s, smaller waves have come in after the overthrowing of the communist government in 1989. [14]

Migration to Canada

Polish migration to Canada started later than in the United States and commenced in substantial numbers only in the first decade of the 1900s. Polish migrant inflow was highest during 1901-1910, 1921 -1931, and 1946 – 1961.[15] Inflow of migrants into Canada, whilst being far lesser than into the United States, has however been considerable in absolute numbers considering the far lesser population of the country.

Reasons for Polish immigration to Canada remained the same as for other accommodative and affluent destinations, namely gross overpopulation, scarcity of land, falling industrialisation, and generally depressed economic conditions in the homeland. Canada, whilst offering the opportunities of easy availability of land and an affluent and fast developing economy was however able to attract only a trickle of the vast numbers of Polish who exited their country in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Governmental Policies and Demographic Distribution

The United States, along with the affluent countries of Western Europe, namely Germany, France and Belgium, have always been the major destinations of Polish migrants. Whilst West European countries offered the comfort of proximity, similar cultures, and the possibility of more frequent home visits, the United States offered vast economic and other opportunities and proved to be an irresistible magnet for the bulk of Polish migrants, especially in the first two decades of the 1900s. To an economically deprived people, the country appeared to be the best option for achieving economic sufficiency and prosperity.

“These Poles were called ‘za chlebem’ or “for bread” immigrants. They came to America for the sole purpose of making money. Once this was accomplished, they would return to Poland and prosper. Other Poles risked everything to travel to America. They sold all their property in hope of starting a new life. When these Poles entered America they wrote letters back to their relatives about their life here. Soon their relatives came to America to join their relatives. Some Polish people came because America was portrayed to be the land of opportunity; others came because they were encouraged by exaggerated stories of abundant job opportunity.”[16]

With economic opportunities appearing so lucrative in the USA it was possibly but natural for the country to receive far more migrants, Polish and otherwise than Canada. Whilst Canada also did receive migrants their numbers invariably went up with the imposition of entry restrictions in the United States. The first such ballooning in Canadian migrants occurred in 1921 with the imposition of entry curbs in the USA in 1921 following three decades of heavy Polish migrant inflow from the closing years of the 1890s.

The US introduced quotas as preliminary policy in 2 phases in the early 1920s before implementing them in their final form towards the end of the decade.[17] Annual quotas were set for each country on the basis of 2 % of the foreign born of particular countries as per the census of 1890, a decision that skewed immigration against East Europeans in favour of those from West Europe, thus shifting the source of immigrants into countries more likely to contribute skilled labour. Canada also followed the US in this regard by adopting formal restrictions in 1923. Whilst Canadian policy had restrictions similar to those of the United States, ranking immigrants by country of origin it did not impose an explicit numerical limit. Whilst the more stringent entry norms adopted by the USA had a significant diversionary impact upon canalising Polish immigration into Canada, the Canadian government opened the border still wider by authorising 2 Canadian railway companies to act as its agents for admission of immigrants.[18]

“From 1925-1930, under what is termed the railway agreement, the Canadian government authorized the two Canadian railway companies to act as its agents for the admission of immigrants. The railway companies were given authority to screen immigrants subject to the restrictions in place. Essentially, they were allowed to recruit agricultural labor in Eastern Europe for the Canadian West. The result was a large increase in immigration from the countries in which agents of the railways were active, primarily central and Eastern Europe.”[19]

The significant increase in Polish immigration to Canada was as such substantially influenced by restrictive US entry policies compared to a more liberal Canadian approach that favoured a tilt towards canalising farm workers from Eastern Europe for work in the Canadian prairies. History in a way repeated itself with the passage of the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, (INA) which continued with the quota system and further allowed the US government to prohibit the entry of perceived undesirables. With the emergence and consolidation of a sharp anti-communist bias in the United States it is very possible that the INA was used selectively against people from East European communists who were very firmly identified with the Soviet Union. Whilst such biases are difficult to establish, this period coincided with a rapid escalation of migrants to Canada, where entry curbs were far lesser than in the US for all people of European origin.

3.0 Findings and Analysis

Polish migration to the North American continent began tentatively soon after its settlement by British and European settlers and picked up momentum only after the ending of the Polish golden age in the mid 1700s, followed by the partitioning and dismemberment of the country. The events of the late 1700s led to the unleashing of several waves of Polish migration, which were to continue in fits and starts for the next 150 years and appear to continue even today, four years after the entry of the country into the European Union. Whilst most of the causes that led to this significant migratory shift are connected with economic reasons dealing with overpopulation, scarcity of farming land, and lack of industrialisation, they are in a sense deeply connected with the constant political and military turmoil involving Russia, Austria and Germany, which denied peace and economic development to the country and drove the residents to venture into strange countries in search of economic stability and peaceful existence.

The Second World War and the accompanying holocaust brought in another intense period of tragedy, displacement and deprivation, forcing hundreds of thousands of Polish refugees to seek shelter in foreign countries. Whilst the exodus has abated somewhat in recent years, the recent entry of the country into the European Union and ease of travel and employment in other EU countries appear to have motivated thousands of young Poles to move to other countries in Europe for economic improvement.

The migration of the Polish to North America was in the main directed towards the United States, and though migration to Canada started within decades of the Polish beginning to go to the USA, the number of Polish in the USA today outnumber those in Canada by ten times. Furthermore such migration to Canada has been substantially influenced by governmental entry restrictions imposed by the USA first in the mid 1920s and later in the early 1950s. Whilst the incidence of migration to Canada has, apart from more flexible immigration policies, also been helped by specific proactive Canadian policies aiming to attract farm hands from Poland and other East European countries, it is debatable whether the migration to Canada would have been what it is if the USA had not tightened its entry requirements for people with Polish and other East European backgrounds.

Once settled Polish immigrants in both countries remained bound together by a common culture and the Catholic religion building church centric Polish communities. Whilst cities like Chicago and Detroit in the USA saw the growth of extensive Polish populations, the Polish community in Canada developed numerous settlements in the prairie region before moving towards Ontario and building up a substantial Polish population in Toronto.


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