Polish Women in Canada before World War II

Polish Women in Canada before World War II

By Joanna Matejko


The present day situation, when there are among the Polish immigrant women many doctors, engineers, research workers and generally speaking women with higher education engaged in various learned professions, is historically a new phenomenon. Memories of the old situation, which endured through the years and which are still alive in the consciousness of a fair number of Canadians, often startle us or our children till today. For example; a friend of mine, during a social gathering of the so-called higher classes in Calgary, was asked why she has a foreign accent. When my friend replied that she was Polish, the lady exclaimed “My mother always employed Polish women as housemaids, because they were the best workers”.  To quote another example, another friend of mine, a professor at one of Ontario’s universities heard a similar compliment at a social gathering of intellectuals. One of the ladies present expressed her joy about meeting an intellectual women of Polish origin, since the only other Polish women she met so far were housemaids or cleaning women.

Such incidents prove that is worthwhile, even today, to examine our heritage in Canada in order to be able to understand how such stereo-types can still exist. Another reason why we should devote some attention to the history of Polish women in Canada is that this subject has been hitherto totally neglected.

Although the beginning of Polish immigration to Canada goes back some 100 years, the history of the Polish women in this country is much younger. The first Polish immigrants came as a rule as bachelors and married here. Towards the end of the 18-th century and during the first half of the 19-th century individual Polish men found their way to Canada. They were soldiers, men who took part in national uprising who wanted to escape from prosecution by the occupying powers and political emigres. They were quite well educated, knew foreign languages and came from upper social class. These men married French or Anglo-Saxon women and lost their Polish identity extremely quickly.

The second large influx of immigrants from Poland to Canada took place in two waves. The first at the end of 19-th century and the beginning of the 20-th century until the outbreak of the First World War, and the second during the inter-war period. Both waves had an important common characteristic, namely that immigrants came from the lower social classes and their education was rarely higher than that of elementary schools. The first wave of immigrants considered mainly of peasants from under the Austrian occupation. The second wave brought people from various parts of Poland and besides peasants and farm labourers there were among them small craftsmen, industrial workers, non-commissioned officers who took part in the war or served in the Polish army and after the war decided to look for a better life on the other side of the ocean. The second wave immigrants had a slightly better education than their pre-war predecessors partly due to the fact that schools were compulsory in independent Poland and also because in 1919 a new immigration regulation was introduces which prevented from entering the country. The national identity of the Galician peasants was much weaker than that of their compatriots who came to Canada from the independent Poland and who either fought for independence or took part in building their country.

Members of both immigrant waves either settled on the land or looked for work in the construction of railroads and highways, in land clearing operations, in mines, sawmills, as farm workers and as industrial workers in towns. Immigrants of the second wave drifted into big towns to a much greater extent than their pre-war predecessors.

The Polish women who came to Canada before the First as well as the Second World War, belonged to the families of socio-professional categories mentioned above.  There were some young girls who were brought in as future brides. Some women came alone, “imported” by rail and steamship agents as domestic help. The immigration policy in Canada since the times of Minister Clifford Sifton (1896-1905) put the preference on agricultural workers and farmers. In the case of women, domestic help was desired, by authorities profession. Until 1923, however, there were no restrictions of immigration by other professions. Such regulations were implemented as late of January 1923 and according to them only the following categories were allowed to immigrate: British citizens, USA citizens, farmers having adequate capital to start farming on their own, farm labourers, and domestic help who were assured of place of work before immigrating and closest relatives of people already settled in Canada. (1)  These regulations remained in force until 1952 and some Polish women who came to Canada soon after the end of the war had to suffer their consequences. The socio-professional category of people from East and Central European countries who could immigrate was predetermined; it was limited to farmers, farm labourers, and domestic help. This law, however, sometimes bypassed by Polish immigrants to Canada.

The type of people emigrating from Poland decided about the great shortage of women among the immigrants. Young men often came alone with the intention of either going back with some savings or bringing their families over after they have established themselves here. Only part of the immigrants came with the whole family. The shortage of women was greater before the First World War than during the inter-war period when the second generation produced by the first wave of the immigrants was maturing. In 1911, the Polish ethnic group in Canada consisted of 33,365 persons of which 62% were males and only 38% were females, taking all age groups together. At the same time among people who came from Great Britain there were 53% males and 47% females. With years the proportion of women in the Polish group begun to rise and in 1931 there were 56% males and 44% females in the Polish group and 52% in British group at the same time. Ten years later, in 1941 the percentage of men was 54, and eventually in 1971 it reached 51% in the Polish ethnic group. (2)

The great shortage of Polish women before the First World War was a socially great phenomenon since the distribution of the few women was very uneven. The agricultural settlements had a better ratio of women to men than the groups in towns and in the mines. For example, Father A. Sylla describes in his memoires that in his Canmore mission, in the Alberta Rocky Mountains, in 1910 he had only five Polish families and thirty eight single Polish men. Similar proportion existed among Slovaks and Ukrainians in Canmore, but also in other mining centres visited by Father A. Sylla. (3)

The proportion of women in the Polish ethnic group was also uneven between different provinces. In 1911, in the provinces where there were more than 100 people of Polish origin, the smallest percentage of women was in British Columbia, only 25%. It can be explained by the fact that not many Polish miners worked in that province and there were few people permanently settled on the land. In Ontario we find only 30% of women due to the urban population in Toronto. In the provinces where the number of people of Polish origin was small (less than 100) the percentage of men reached 88, as it happened in Yukon.

The shortage of women produced rather great social consequences for Polish immigrant group. A certain proportion of men married girls from other ethnic groups, mainly Ukrainian. As a result it was not all too infrequent for a Pole to become “Ukrainianized” before he lost his national identity in Canada. This phenomenon was often observed on the prairies, among the farming settlements, where there were many more Ukrainians than Poles. Religion was not an obstacle in Polish-Ukrainian marriages, since Roman-Catholic church does not object if one partner is Greek-Catholic. The children of those marriages seldom spoke Polish and were not brought up according to the Polish traditions.

The Polish ethnic group in Canada in 1931 consisted of 78% of endogenic marriages and 22% of exogamic ones. Among those 22%, i.e. marriages with members of other ethnic groups as much as 52% were marriages contracted with Ukrainians. (4)  With the passage of years this process become even more pronounces and by 1941 only 51% of marriages were endogenic in the Polish ethnic group.  In 1961, 49% of men of Polish origin were married to members of their ethnic group (5). The Polish people in Canada belong to a category that most readily marries outside their own ethnic group. Only Russians and Scandinavians contract exogamic marriages more often than Poles. The smallest number of exogamic marriages is recorded among Jews, Britishers and people of Asiatic origin. In the urban centres, shortage of women had a sad effect on lonely Polish men. Having no regular family life, they were more prone to spend their free time in bars, drinking, which gave Poles in Canada an opinion of drunkards causing fights and brawls.

The situation of Polish women in Canada was not an easy one, both on farms scattered through the enormous areas on the prairies and in towns. As a farmer’s wife she had to do much more than just be a housewife and bring children. Women of Polish, Ukrainian, Slovakian and other Slavic origin worked in the fields together with the men and quite often instead of men. The lack of capital to establish a farm was often so acute that man had to look for work outside their farms. They were leaving their wives and children on the farm and going to work in mines, sawmills, on road and rail construction etc. They would also find work on a more prosperous farm than their own. The women had to burden then of doing all the work on the farm, often with a baby of their backs.

Women helped in clearing new land to increase the acreage under cultivation. Vegetable gardens and poultry were traditionally the responsibilities of women. Dairy products had to be processed not only for consumption at home, but also for sale. In the summer women and children would gather berries in the woods for sale and preserves, mushrooms to dry and prepare supplies for the long hard winters. Bread was as a rule baked since bakeries were too far and each penny precious. Quite frequently, especially in outlying areas wheat had to be ground in a hand mill. During the winter wool from their own sheep was spun and dyed at home and socks, mittens, caps and sweaters knitted for the whole family. In some homesteads the ability to weave on handlooms, brought from the old country, was preserved and passed on to younger generation.

The position of Polish women in towns was somewhat less hard in so far that they had other women of the same background living closer and felt less lonely and isolated. They often took in lodgers, unmarried workers, for whom they cooked and washed, in order to augment the family income. They would also find job cleaning women in private homes, restaurants and public buildings. Girls often went to work, mostly as domestic help but sometimes in saloon bars of dubious reputation since it was easiest to find work there.

The education of Polish women in Canada before the Second World War was on a very low level, lower than that of men. It was even worse before the First World War. Very few women had secondary education, not to mention the higher education.

The low level of education among mothers had a negative influence on the preservation of Polish cultural values among the younger generation who was impressed by the Canadian youth and associated being and feeling Canadian with social and material advancement. Women who lived on the prairies in many cases never learned to speak English. Having no Anglo-Saxon neighbours the Polish language was often sufficient in contacts with Ukrainians and Germans many of whom came also from Poland. If necessary, the children served as translators or taught their mothers a few words of English.  A Polish missionary came to the settlement from time to time and all weddings, christenings and confessions waited for that visit. The priests, who had among them ardent Polish patriots, organized Saturday schools and Sunday schools where not only catechism was taught, but also reading and writing in Polish. They encouraged people to subscribe to the Polish press, started small libraries, organized Christmas plays, etc.  The cultural life in the pioneer settlements centered on the Catholic Parish. There were some drama groups, church choirs, singing and dancing groups. Traditional customs connected with church holidays were observed for a long time. Traditional dishes like “bigos”, cabbage rolls, cheese and other dumplings, various kinds of “kasha” with mushrooms and other sauces as well pastry and cakes baked traditionally for special holidays of the year also survived a long time among the early immigrants to Canada from Poland.

The preservation of the language and traditions was not always associated with high degree of national consciousness and identity. The rather acute Polish-Ukrainian conflict after the First World War contributed to the strengthening of national differences among the immigrants and helped to define ethnic solidarity. The younger generation, however, drown towards the Canadian way of life and Canada generally as their place of birth, was less prone to sustain the old grudges and all the more quickly assimilated into the Canadian culture.

The usually present generation gap among the Polish immigrants in Canada was wider and more severe due to the cultural differences between the old generation which was attached to the traditional values of their fathers from the old country – and the new generation which was impressed by the new, Canadian values and associated them with social advancement. On the top of this, on the continent of North America youth is regarded as something very valuable in its own rights. Social groups which consist of immigrants are as a rule young groups since only young people decide to change their lives on change the condition of their lives. In the case of Polish immigrants, as well as other Slavic groups, who had to pay themselves for the journey across the ocean, there was a definite shortage of older people. At least one generation, excluding some isolated cases, was brought up without grandmothers who are the usual and natural links on liaisons between generations. This fact had some bearing on the acceleration of the process of losing the Polish traditions.

On the other hand we should underline the warmer and stronger emotional family ties among Slavs in comparison with Anglo-Saxon families. This characteristic counterbalanced the decentralizing forces within the Polish ethnic group, mentioned above.

The opinions and pre-conceived ideas held by Anglo-Saxons with regard to Polish or generally Slavic women represent a very interesting problem. The further back in history, the more difficult it is to differentiate between various Slavic groups. Before the First World War a “Galician” meant Slav, or even anybody that came from Eastern Europe.

The mass immigration from Eastern Europe at the turn of this century allowed Canadian public opinion to take into account the new problem and to create certain stereotypes which persist till today with an amazing force. What was written about “Galician” women at the turn of 20th century? Particular behaviour or customs of the Slavic people were made the object of articles in the Canadian press. There were descriptions of their curious dress ….“consisting of an undergarment of cotton, an upper garment of fancy-coloured material and waist-coat of sheepskin, practically alike for man and women” (6). The Galician women were noticeable, according to frequently repeated press statements, for the army of small children clinging about their knees, as well as their……”ignorance of the elementary usage of civilization” (7).

Sometimes the press would print such unfavourably interpreted observations like, for example the following one, given by Hugh John Macdonald in 1899: that one of his friends saw “sixteen Galician women hitched to a plough doing the work of horses, while the manly Galicians loitered about…” (8).

A new item, which was printed in the whole Canadian press, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, about an immigrant women in Calgary having romance with a Chinamen, was supposed to prove that Slavic women were immoral. The case was described as follow: “There are very few white women who sink so low as to become the mistresses of Chinamen. Yet the Galician women have no scruples against so doing. When a case of Chine-Galician immorality was brought before the Court, the Crown Prosecutor refused to go with the case….”(9).

It was also repeated, as an example of extraordinary custom among the Galician, that a certain immigrant took his compatriot to court for the following reasons: he bought a wife for him with cash, but she refused to change husbands and the accuser demanded in count that the money he paid for “live goods” be returned to him by the defendant. (10)  It is difficult to imagine where such stories originated and how they become distorted, since the described case was undoubtedly equally astonishing for the Slavic immigrants as for the local Canadian inhabitants.

As an argument in favour of Slavic girls an opinion was voiced that since they perform the task of domestic workers in Anglo-Saxon homes, Canadian youth is able to pursue higher aspirations. (11)

The Galician girls who went to work in order to augment the family budget were regarded in a positive light. After buying the bare necessities in the way of clothing for themselves, they would give all the balance on money earned to their parents in order to help then in building a house or in establishing a homestead.  The authors of such comments in the press voiced an opinion that a similar relationship in a Canadian family would be an extraordinary phenomenon. (12)

Based on such and similar opinion, a strong belief developed that the position of the polish or Slavic women was very low and that she was almost a slave working force. Her moral standards were also questionable. A Polish women was known for many years to be a house-maid, a cleaning women or a physical worker, and having an opinion of a good, strong worker.

Before the First World War the aspiration of the pioneer women were not very high, let us admit it. The mere fact of possessing in enormous area, for the polish contributions, of land was a great success. The most ambitious girls from the second generation aimed at becoming and office clerk, sales-women, at most a teacher or nurse.

In spite of the fact that the social makeup of the Polish ethnic group changed, the stereotypes formed at the turn of 20th century did not die completely. One could draw a conclusion that one of the aims of Polish women in Canada today should be to try to wipe out the unfavourable stereotypes of Polish women that are still in existence to some extent. Increasing prestige enjoyed by the Polish ethnic group can be an important factor in the preservation and propagation of Polish cultural values among the younger generation. Family settlement is not always to induce the young to cultivate their polish ties. A sense of pride in the national traditions of the ancestors is often much more effective.




  1. Canada Gazette, (P.C. 183) January 31, 1923 p. 4106-7
  2. Based on Censuses of Canada
  3. Sylla, Anthony: Reminiscences Volume I, Chapter, Canmore
  4. Turek, V.: Poles in Manitoba. Toronto: The Polish Alliance press, 1967, p.250
  5. Report of RCBB, book IV, Ottawa; Queen’s Printers 1969, p. 300
  6. The Montreal Daily Star, June 13, 1899
  7. The Perth Courier, May 13, 1899
  8. Brantford Expositor, June 26, 1899
  9. The Guelph Daily Herald, March 13, 1899; the same information was repeated several times in many Canadian newspapers e.g. The Kingston News, March 18, 1899
  10. The Kingston news, April 6, 1899; The Free press, London, Ontario April 5, 1899
  11. Manitoba Morning Free Press, June 22, 1899
  12. The Globe, Toronto, May 15, 1899



Source: History of the Polish-Canadian Women’s Federation in Edmonton 1958-1978