News and stories about Poland as reported around the world
Get Adobe Flash player

Social and political reactions to Solidarity in Canada

Dr Małgorzata Bonikowska (Canada)

Canada’s response to Solidarity and especially martial law – the attention, help and support given to Poland in those days – was a result of a unique interplay of factors – a concerted and unified effort by Polish community organizations, politicians of Polish descent, and a few remarkable private individuals to lobby Canadian politicians at all three levels of government.  They were aided in this by common political interests with other Canadians of Eastern European origin.  Presenting a united front with partner organizations from these ethnic communities made Poles’ appeals for support much more powerful.  Ultimately, Poles’ success in persuading the Canadian government to act was a result of hard work, but also the fact that Canada’s multicultural society is particularly sensitive to the concerns of individual ethnic groups and has a long tradition of respect for human rights both at home and abroad.  It must be stressed that through public protests and personal connections, Polish Canadians succeeded in generating a tremendous amount of media attention for Poland’s and Solidarity’s struggles, which further heightened politicians’ interest in the issue and made political inaction impossible.

In 15 minutes it is impossible to give justice to the multitude of people, organizations, and events that led to this outcome, but I will try to briefly touch upon at least the most important ones.

Canada has had a history of close ties to the Polish people.  Even before martial law Canada was helping Poland by striking a delicate balance between sending aid to Poles suffering from food and other shortages, while at the same time trying not to strengthen the communist regime. Canada sold large amounts of grain to Poland, which was buying it on credit – after martial law Canada extended that credit. In fact, the 1.5 million tonnes of grain sent to Poland every year constituted approximately 20% of Poland’s total annual grain imports needs. Polish fishing ships were allowed to fish off the shores of Newfoundland. Also, on a per capita basis, Canada accepted more Polish refugees from refugee camps in Austria than any other country in the world.

Despite this long-standing relationship with Poland, the Canadian Prime Minister’s first reaction to martial law was surprising and disappointing, to say the least. Liberal PM Pierre Trudeau issued a statement in which he said that „if martial law is a way to avoid civil war and Soviet intervention, then I cannot say it is all bad.“ And added „Hopefully the military regime will be able to keep Solidarity from excessive demands“. Trudeau’s statement infuriated the Polish community in Canada and was strongly criticized by the opposition. His remarks were used by Jaruzelski’s government as propaganda used to justify its conduct.

Trudeau‘s comments prompted immediate reaction from Canada’s Polish community. Despite various tensions within The Canadian Polish Congress (CPC), which had represented the interests of Polish Canadians to the Canadian government, martial law in Poland united Polish Canadians and their political representation (e.g. Polish Alliance of Canada rejoined the Congress after 7 years of division). With the help of other Polish-Canadian organizations, the Congress organized massive demonstrations, first in front of the Polish Consulate in Toronto, then in front of the Toronto City Hall. CPC also became much more demanding in its lobbying of the Canadian government for shifting its position toward Poland.

The Congress initiated a number of meetings of all the major Polish Canadian leaders with the external affairs minister M.R. MacGuigan, minister of multicuralism J. Fleming, opposition leader Joe Clark and then with PM Trudeau himself, as well as a trilateral meeting with Mr. Mazewski, the president of the US Polish congress and Polish representatives from England. As a result, 500,000 dollars were designated to help Poland in response to an international appeal launched by the Red Cross to provide medical supplies, food and clothing to Polish people. 100,000 dollars were granted to the Congress to support their relief efforts. The government‘s help continued and by Feb. 1983 the Canadian government provided one million dollars in aid for Poland.

Trudeau did later soften his original position and finally, pressure from all sides made him declare in the House of Commons on January 25 that the Canadian government agrees with the Canadian Polish Congress as to the need for lifting martial law, freeing the detained and reestablishing dialogue with Solidarity. On 23 Febraury 1982 McGuigan announced Canadian sanctions, which were rather symbolic so as not to impose further burden on Poles, but parallel to those of other Western countries:

- suspension of academic exchanges,

- restrictions on the movement of Polish diplomats,

- extending no new commercial credits for goods other than food

-debt rescheduling.

The Congress was not alone in its lobbying efforts. Politicians of Polish descent played an important mediating role between the Polish community and Canada’s political establishment. One such politician at the federal level was Jesse Flis, a Liberal MP from Toronto, who was born in Canada to Polish parents and spent a year in Poland in 1970-1971, a key Polish contact in the House of Commons and in the Canadian government. Flis holds a record among Canadian parlamentarians as to the number of interventions in the House of Commons on Eastern Europe and Soviet human rights violations. Those were of great importance as the diplomatic corps in Ottawa closely observed the daily question period and had to report back to their governments. Flis supported family reunification and was instrumental in exerting pressure on the then minister of immigration Lloyd Axworthy to change Canada’s immigration law and to establish a unique refugee self-exile program for Poles, which allowed Poles to apply for permanent status without leaving Canada. He later fought to prevent the program from being terminated by the conservative government and succeeded in keeping it alive until 1990. Flis was also instrumental in negotiating a successful end to two hunger strikes in front of the Polish consulate in Toronto staged by Poles whose families had been repeatedly denied visas to join them in Canada. The first strike took place in 1983 when 10 men protested for 19 days. The second, more dramatic, in 1984 by three Poles – two men and a woman, lasted for a record 39 days. Several Torontonians joined the striking trio on 24-hour solidarity hunger strikes, including refugees from other communist countries – Estonians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians. These two protests became front-page news in all the Canadian media, and gave rise to many rallies, letters to the government, petitions, and letters to the Pope. The Canadian government made 16 presentations – 8 in Warsaw and 8 to the Polish Embassy in Ottawa – on behalf of the three hunger strikers. External Affairs Department Spokesman John Noble said the federal government had done everything „short of declaring war on Poland“.

While Flis was active at the federal level, the municipal government of Toronto also proved very supportive of the Polish cause, in large part thanks to Chris Korwin-Kuczynski, a Toronto city councillor, deputy mayor for some time, who had been actively involved in fighting communism in Poland even before the Solidarity era. Together with his father who owned a shoe store on Roncesvalles Avenue, Korwin-Kuczynski organized the first protests in front of the Polish Consulate, by staging a picket line that blocked the entry of guests invited by the communist diplomatic corps to a May 1st reception given by the communist Polish diplomacy.

Thanks to the lobbying of the municipal government, the Metropolitan Toronto Police turned a blind eye to demonstrations even if they disrupted city traffic, the city crews cleaned the streets after demonstrations, the City Council passed motions to the federal government supporting Poland’s struggle for freedom. Councillors politely ignored some Torontonians‘ complaints of too many demonstrations on city streets. The City Hall gave permission for a huge 225 car cavalcade in downtown Toronto and allowed the CSSO’s (Conference of Solidarity Support Organizations) convention in Toronto in May 1987 to be held at the City Hall at no charge.

The Toronto government also made an unprecedented unanimous decision to donate a piece of municipal land for the Katyn Monument, located in the largely Eastern European neighbourhood of High Park Parkdale. Unveiled on Sept. 14 1980, it was the first Katyn monument erected on government property anywhere in the world.

Until 1980, Canadian politicians considered the CPC as the main representative of the Polish community and the only formal partner in discussions with the government. But after Solidarity was born politicians were approached by other organizations and people who actively and effectively sought their support and action.

One organization that became particularly influential and effective in its lobbying efforts was the Polish Canadian Action Group (PCAG) (Solidarnosc i Niepodleglosc – Solidarity and Independence, the name rarely used), which was formed immediately after Solidarity came to existence – in August 1980. The PCAG had its headquarters in Toronto, but was active in other Canadian cities as well. It earned high respect among Canadian politicians and mainstream media.

The PCAG’s two major goals were to support and help Poland’s efforts to regain freedom and to educate and lobby Canadians. It aimed to target mostly Canadian society and employ political channels.

Although its founders were rather disappointed with existing Polish community organizations, the PCAG became a member organization of the Polish Canadian Congress and some of its members even held positions of power in the Congress’s administrative structure.

Its founders were highly educated and well-connected Polish-Canadians with good command of English (and in some cases French as well) and a thorough understanding of Canadian society and the country’s political system.

The PCAG‘s first demonstration was held on September 17, 1980 in front of the Polish Consulate in Toronto, to commemorate the attack of the Soviets on Poland in 1939. The PCAG made sure all the mainstream media were informed and the demonstration was quite spectacular – the demonstrators stood there gagged with their hands chained.

In its first nine years of existence, the PCAG organized 58 demonstrations and rallies (mostly in front of the Polish Consulate), meetings with opposition activists from Poland, monthly church services for Poland (starting in January 1985), cultural and patriotic events, fundraising efforts to help Poland (it raised 50,000 dollars), sent numerous memoranda, petitions and protests to the Canadian government, and established and maintained personal contacts with mainstream media and with politicians at all the three levels of government in an effort to influence their opinions about Poland.

The PCAG understood that the Polish community needed to be educated about Poland’s political situation as well, so it authored articles for Polish community newspapers in Canada and sponsored its own publications.

The Polish community in Toronto never ceased to keep the Polish cause alive – the 13th day of each month was remembered and commemorated, not just 13th December once a year, as elsewhere. Until the lifting of martial law, these monthly commemorations consisted of demonstrations in front of the Polish Consulate and thereafter of church services for Poland (Msze za Ojczyzne). This tradition continued until Poland’s free elections.

The PCAG organized some spectacular actions. In March 1983 in response to Adam Michnik’s „Open Letter to the International Committee“ appealing for support in the face of the planned trials of 13 leading Solidarity activists, a letter was sent to Polish authorities to drop charges, release the detained, stop further harassment or at the very least, grant open trials monitored by international observers. The PCAG got a number of prominent Canadians to sign the letter, e.g. Mayor of Toronto Art Eggleton, Mayor of Vancouver Michael Harcourt, MPs, intellectuals such as Margaret Atwood, Josef Skvorecky, Northrop Frye, highly respected lawyers such as Clayton Ruby, union chiefs and many others.

The PCAG existed until 1998, when it decided that all its statutory goals had been achieved and it was dissolved. Another reason for this was its unwillingness to be involved in conflicts that arose in Poland over the transformation and the country’s future.

Apart from the work of organizations such as the CPC and the PCAG, a number of individuals made a particularly important contribution to furthering the Polish cause in Canada. Of those, perhaps the most remarkable was Zygmunt Przetakiewicz, a journalist from Poland, who came to Toronto in November 1981 from New York, where he had been operating a Solidarity office.

In Toronto, he set up the first Solidarity Information Office, which he ran until January 1983 under the sponsorship of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). In one year of its existence it raised about 70,000 dollars for the Polish undergound movement sent to Poland via Kultura Paryska. His office provided up to date news about Poland to politicians, the labour movement, churches, and universities.

Przetakiewicz managed to organize in all Canadian provinces a network of 27 Solidarity support committees.

Forced to step down due to differences of opinions between himself and the CLC, Przetakiewicz continued to help the Polish cause through his remarkable work in the Canadian media.

Canadian mainstream media played a very important role in shaping the public perceptions and political reactions to the Polish crisis. The extent of the coverage of the founding and development of Solidarity in the press, TV, and radio was impressive. One important way in which Polish Canadians, including the PCAG, attempted to generate media by writing letters to the editor in the country’s leading newspapers, such as the “Globe and Mail” and the “Toronto Star”. Moreover, in September 1982 12 Canadian journalists organized the Polish Journalists‘ Aid Committee in Toronto to help Polish journalists oppressed by Poland’s regime. It included in its ranks Canada’s renowned journalists such as June Callwood, John Fraser, Richard Gwyn, Peter Gzowski, Norman Webster and many others. 250 Canadian journalists and other Canadians sent thousands of dollars’ worth of help to almost 300 of their colleagues in Poland.

In 1983, after Lech Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Zygmunt Przetakiewicz was offered a unique opportunity to write a weekly column „Solidarnosc“ in one of the three major national daily papers „The Toronto Sun“, which he continued until 1985. His articles were an invaluable source of information about Poland, Eastern Europe, the inner workings of communist regimes, and the history of countries that were under communist rule.  His column also provided information to the Canadian public about demonstrations, protests, rallies, and other similar events organized in Canada by ethnic groups from communist-controlled countries.

Przetakiewicz stressed the common fate of Poland and other oppressed countries, which was a very effective strategy, considering that in the multicultural Canada in those days there were over 4 million Canadians of East European descent, among them 600,000 Ukrainians and 400,000 Poles. Those involved in promoting the Polish cause in Canada understood the importance of putting it in the wider context of other countries fighting against the oppression of the communist system.

On August 23, 1986, an important new tradition began, which continues to this day — the International Black Ribbon Day that commemorates all the victims of Soviet aggression. The day was chosen to be the anniversary of the Ribbentrop Molotov Pact. The idea was again to speak with one voice now that the West was no longer as interested in that part of the world as in the years 1980-1982. This initiative spread to 56 cities on three continents. Black Ribbon Day has been officially recognized by the Canadian Parliament (as well as by the US Congress).  This ongoing tradition continues to mark the importance attached by Canada and the rest of the Western world to the developments that took place behind the Iron Curtain.

The fact that Solidarity occupies a crucial and well recognized place in the story of the fall of the Soviet Empire and the conclusion of the Cold War was recognized with the supportive actions of the Canadian government, which were a direct result of the hard work of Polish community organizations, the advocacy of politicians with Polish roots at all three levels of government, and the dedication and passion of individual activists.  Their success was a consequence of their ability to set aside their past differences and unite behind their country’s cause.  They were fortunate to live in Canada, a country that was receptive to their struggle because it valued above all else its multicultural principles and its commitment to human rights and democracy.  Together with their supporters in all levels of government, these Polish-Canadians were able to send a loud and clear message to the rest of the world, the Polish people, and the Polish communist authorities: Canada was unambiguously on the side of Solidarity.