History of the Polish National Union in Canada
The PNU’s history is tied closely to that of the Polish community in Canada.
The partitions and prolonged occupation of Poland spurred some of the early immigration. In the second half of the 19th century, Poles began to settle in groups large enough to enable the formation of the first parishes.
Our ancestors often wanted to settle in clusters or communities. The first large group of Polish Kashubians settled in the area of Barry’s Bay, Ontario.
Around 1860 there was a community of nearly 44 families in that area.
The first officially registered Polish organization was founded in 1886 in the vicinity of Kitchener. At that time, Polish parishes were already in several places in Canada.
After the First World War, many more Poles with a strong sense of identity arrived in Canada. This led to a proliferation of Polish communities and organizations.
The communities were often gathered around parishes, which often continues to this day. Many of the newcomers of that generation were veterans who had fought for Polish independence. The inter-war period saw a high level of energy and enthusiasm in organizing the Polish communities – and a high level of pride in Polish freedom.
In 1929, the Association of Mutual Assistance of Polish Veterans was established – with legal registration the following year. This period also saw some concerns about Communist activity, though the community remained overwhelmingly anti-Communist.
As a result of internal political tensions, some groups saw strain or dissolution. In 1937, branch 9 of the Union of Poles in Canada collapsed. Some members of the 9th group joined forces with the Association for Mutual Aid of Polish Veterans, branches of the Polish Army Veterans Association in America, the Polish Patriotic Bloc, and the Polish Youth Club. The merged organizations formed a significant new Polish organization.
In 1938, the Ontario authorities approved the “Charter,” giving the legal basis for a new central Polish organization – the Polish National Union of Canada — whose roots date back to 1930. The combined organizations created a strong patriotic core for the Polish community, one determined to resist Communist and authoritarian pressure.
It was a time of intensive activity as the Polish diaspora strengthened. New groups, schools, song and dance circles, theatre circles, scout troops, and a 30-person brass band, “Polonia,” sprang up; organizations of Polish women were created and affiliated with the PNU.
There were many organized celebrations, educational meetings, and observances of holidays and national anniversaries – with musical groups, scouts, and colorful national and regional attire displays.
The Second World War brought together two strong currents—the energetic activity of the PNU and a strong determination to help the Polish people under brutal occupation. On the initiative of the PNU, the Committee for Aid to Poland was established. As a result, there were countless fruitful aid actions for the Polish and Canadian armies, as well as for refugees in many locations, as well as for Poles in the Soviet Union and the West.
Since the first branch in Toronto began, the PNU has been growing by opening new branches, bringing Poles together in many Canadian cities. Thanks to much leadership and organizing, 23 branches were formed, bringing together Polish Canadians of goodwill who wanted to act for the common good.
The PNU has confronted many challenges, including demographic challenges (such as language decline), economic struggles, and help integrating into Canadian society. Unfortunately, some of these factors resulted in a decrease in numbers.
Although part of the Cold War years saw some stagnation, wise investments were made, and many local activities were organized. The “Solidarity wave” of immigration in the 1980s – one of the last significant waves of Polish immigration – saw a new burst of energy and new members for Polish diaspora organizations, including the PNU. Many of the newcomers of this wave came with a high level of formal education and were sometimes in high demand in under-staffed professions. They quickly mastered the English or French languages. These professional demands put some negative pressure on many volunteer organizations in the Polish community.
The period after the year 2000 brought new challenges – a new world.
In 2014, the Polish National Union was federally registered in Canada under the Canada Not-for-Profit Corporations Act.
But this is also a period of difficulties. This includes recruitment. The Polish community is not always united or mobilized in our time against a unifying threat (such as occupation or Communism in our ancestral country of origin).
There is greater prosperity in society and opportunities for attractive leisure time, sometimes dampening community involvement. As a result of this trend, more branches in smaller towns are closing. In 2023, only three branches own and maintain buildings for their meetings and celebrations. Branch 10 in Woodstock has a building that still rents a banquet hall, albeit with a small core of members. The other four branches do not have structures and must rent space for their meetings,
There are currently two large branches with adequate facilities for activities – Branch 1 in Toronto and Branch 17 in Burlington. These Polish centers are well-known in their respective cities because of their extensive actions for the good of the Polish community and the broader community.
The PNU encourages everyone who wants to work for the good of the Polish Canadian community to join us. It is a beautiful opportunity for constructive leadership and new connections. We work closely with the Canadian Polish Congress and with civic authorities. Our buildings also serve our neighbors of all origins. Our Burlington branch runs a successful Polish school, and we help scouting groups and other organizations.
We are grateful to our founders. We strive to continue their positive work, respecting the longstanding motto “God-Honour-Homeland.” work, acting in concert, and drawing on the experience of our predecessors. Our motto is “God-Honor-Homeland.”