First Polish Settlers in Manitoba
Manitoba Pageant, April 1957
The people of Manitoba have come from many different lands in Europe. Today they are proud to call this rich, picturesque province their home. We hear much about some of these people, about others we hear little.
One group which is little known are the Canadians of Polish origin. There are about 40,000 of them in Manitoba. Only occasionally do they get into the news, as for instance, when the question of naming the Andrew Mynarski, V.C. School came up in April of 1955.
Today everyone knows the story of this young Canadian who, in June 1944, gave his life to save his comrades from a burning aircraft. His parents, like so many others, came from Poland only 40 or 50 years ago.
Going back in history, it is interesting to learn when and how the first Poles came to Manitoba. It is now 140 years since the first representatives of this group arrived in the land which is now Manitoba. They were about a dozen soldiers, who arrived at Red River with Lord Selkirk in 1817. How did they happen to come from Poland to the Red River?
These men left Poland because at the time is was occupied by Russia, Austria and Prussia. They joined the great armies of Napoleon, who were then sweeping victorious across Europe. In time these Poles, through no fault of their own, found themselves fighting against the British army. Many were taken prisoners and were imprisoned in old warships, under very difficult conditions.
In order to be released, they offered to serve in the British forces in the colonies, and so found themselves in Montreal. When Lord Selkirk was organizing a military escort for his expedition to the Red River, he chose a large number of Swiss soldiers, among whom were about a dozen Poles. In this way the first Poles came to the Red River with the De Meuron regiment.
They remained in the Red River Colony until after the terrible flood of 1826, when most of the Swiss soldier-settlers moved to the United States. Most of the Poles also left.
In the 1870s a few Poles from Eastern Canada came to Manitoba. At the turn of the century, many began to emigrate directly from Poland. Most of these were farmers—they were poor, and their first years in Manitoba were hard indeed.
One family arrived in Sifton in 1898. They had a little money, so the father bought a yoke of oxen and a wagon in the village of Sifton before proceeding to his homestead. He found that his land was ten miles in the bush. To reach it he had to chop his way through the forest. It took him several days and much hard work merely to reach his new home.
Another family—father, mother and two children—arrived at Selkirk in 1904. The Immigration Hall was then on the east bank of the Red River. As this family was destined for Winnipeg Beach, they had to cross the river by ferry. They had only ten cents, and this they paid to be ferried to the west bank of the river. There they took to the railroad track and walked to Winnipeg Beach, carrying their bundles and their children. On arriving at the railway station at Winnipeg Beach, they sat down on their bundles and wept. They knew no one—they could not speak English, and could not find a relative of theirs who had already settled in the district.
In time these immigrants became well established, made farms out of the wilderness and raised families. Today their children are true Canadians, who are proud of the part their parents played in building this wonderful country of ours.
Page revised: 30 June 2009