A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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Sidebar: The First Polish Settlement of Kaszuby, Northern Ontario


Janusz Zurakowski came to Canada to be a test pilot for the AVRO Arrow. In 1959 the Canadian government cancelled the Arrow project, leaving Zurakowski unemployed. There were many aviation jobs in the United States, but Zurakowskil refused to leave Canada. He and his wife turned to the land -- 120 acres of land near the Polish settlement of Kaszuby in Northern Ontario. There they built a new life from scratch, much like the pioneering Polish immigrants who had come there a century before.

Kaszuby was the first Polish settlement in Canada. It is located in the Ontario country of forests, hills, lakes and rivers, some 200 kilometres west of Ottawa in the region of Barry's Bay, Wilno and round Lake. To the local residents and the Polish community in Canada it is known as Kaszuby, named after the part of northern Poland from which the first settlers arrived in the mid-nineteenth century. By Zurakowski's estimation it is a 99 percent replica of what the Poles left behind in Poland.

Fourteen families of Polish Kaszubs immigrated to the area in the late 1850s. Their Polish homeland had lost its independence near the end of the 18th century, its territories annexed by Austria, Russia, and for the Kaszubs in the north-west, Prussia.(1) The Kaszubs were forbidden to speak their language or practice their religion. They were forced off their farms and into a state of poverty.(2)

At the same time, the British Canadian government needed settlers to populate the upper Ottawa Valley. The land was stony, swampy and heavily forested. But a populated corridor to western Canada was considered a must by British military strategists in case the more vulnerable population centres of the St. Lawrence and Niagara Peninsula should fall to the Americans.(3) In 1855, an Irishman by the name of Thomas P. French was appointed agent for the settlement of Ottawa and its vicinity. He published an advertisement in Prussia, Scandinavia and Ireland, saying:

One hundred acres will be given to any settler eighteen years old...who will put in a state of cultivation at least twelve acres of the land in the course of four years...erect on it a house at least 20x18 feet and reside on the lot until the conditions of settlement are duly performed.(4)

The Poles, as well as some Irish, signed up. This not only marked the beginning of the Kaszub settlement in Ontario, but also the beginning of Polish settlement in Canada(5)

There is no trace of any register listing the name of the ship that brought the Kaszubs to Canada. It sailed from Bremen, Germany and docked in Québec. From there the new arrivals went by rail, and then by the Ottawa River, making their way to Renfrew. The journey was arduous, and their destination a disappointment. The land was utter wilderness and totally uncultivated. This was where they were to make their home and build their new life. At first they had to work as labourers in the village lumber camps in order to earn some money and get ready for the challenge of being settlers. It wasn't until one year after their arrival, late in 1859, that the entry appeared in Thomas French's reports registering the allocation of fourteen lots to Polish settlers. Another 22 Kaszub families appeared on French's list the following year, and another six in 1861.(6)

Conditions were harsh. Using primitive tools, the early Polish settlers cleared the forest and built their first houses of rough-hewn logs. The Bishop of the Pembroke diocese noted what those first weeks were like on the new land:

One can imagine the inconveniences of living under such circumstances, even in the summertime. Swarms of mosquitoes filtered in through the bows and branches interlaced for walls. The pests were smoked out temporarily by a smudge and decoyed by a fire kept burning throughout the night some distance from the camp. Once, in a sudden windstorm, the brush and bark roof of their dwelling was lifted bodily and rolled away a hundred yards. The roof was not much use anyway, as its dwellers were often drenched with passing rain showers.(7)

All the settlers had were axes and a hoes. They carved shovels out of maple, and platters to hold food. The first iron pot that one father was able to obtain in Brudenell, was reason for great rejoicing. The family celebrated by making porridge of pounded oats. After some weeks each had a plate of his own and graded according to the age of the owner.(8)

The Kaszubs persevered, overcoming hardship. They cleared the land of rocks and stones, piling them up in wide fences along the sides of the fields as a lasting testimony to their pioneering toils. The results of their efforts didn't go unnoticed. The reeve of Brudenell township wrote a letter about them in 1864 saying,

They have laboured under great disadvantages...Yet the appearance of their lots reflects great credit upon their persevering industry, for their land is very carefully cleaned and tilled and contrasts very favourably with that of settlers from any other country.(9)
After the land was broken, transportation was the next challenge. The Kaszubs had to walk a distance of many miles to attend mass, given by an Irish priest in Brudenell. It was not until 1875 that they built a chapel and church of their own in Hagarty township, later to be named Wilno after the parish priests home town in Poland.(10)

Over the next years, the Polish settlement grew as conditions in their native Poland worsened. Through the decades, the Kaszub settlers achieved economic stability and even some prosperity. They grew grain, vegetables and hay, and raised livestock. The lakes and forests provided fish and game. The real source of income, however, came from winter employment in the lumber camps.(11)

In the 1880s, the first one room schools were organized in Wilno and in Barry's Bay. Only a small number of children were able to attend regularly, because of the long distances. The absence of proper roads made transportation difficult, sometimes impossible in the winter and spring.(12)

The people of Kaszuby developed close knit family and neighbourly contacts. Community life centred around the Parish church, with festive celebrations and religious feasts. Through to the 20th century the Kaszub community was well-enough established to preserve its own distinctive character, language and customs. The region survived the Depression although afterward, its growth was slow and uncertain. It wasn't until the development of the highways, that the area opened up. It became apparent that the recreational value of the land and the promotion of tourism was the region's greatest asset.(13)

After WWII a new wave of Polish immigrants came to Canada. They discovered Kaszuby, a place with a familiarity that reminded them of their homeland. Soon enough, a new Polish community began to grow in the area -- a "summer vacation" community. The Polish of the old world and newcomers now live side by side in Kaszuby, with common roots, as well as a common role in building and contributing to their new country of Canada.(14)

The Proud Inheritance, Ontario's Kaszuby, ed., Anna Zurakowska
(The Polish Heritage Institute-Kaszuby, Ottawa, 1991).

The Polish Canadians, by William Kurelek
(Tundra Books, Montreal, 1981).

The Poles in Canada, by Ludwik Kos-Rabcewicz-Zubkowski
(Polish Alliance Press, Toronto, 1968).

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