Poles In Canada

Research History Poles In Canada

History & Culture

Demographic Profile of the Polish Community in Canada

Rudolf K. Kogler


This paper will be mainly concerned with the growth and distribution of the Polish ethnic group in Canada during the period 1901-1961. It is based solely on information gathered from the Canadian population censuses of 1931, 1941, 1951 and 1961. I do not pretend to have exhausted all analytical possibilities of these documents; on the contrary, a lot more information could be extracted, provided that time and other resources were available.


In this short analysis I have restricted myself to the study of the total population of Polish origin in Canada. It would have been both interesting and rewarding to study the growth of the Polish population in different provinces. Moreover, a more thorough examination of the components of this growth would indeed be of great value. However, such a study would require at least several months of painstaking research work backed by a team of clerks, some office calculators and even the mighty computer!


The term `ethnic group' used in this paper is a derivative of the term `ethnic origin' used in Canadian censuses. A person's ethnic origin is traced through his (her) father by asking him (her) the following question: `To what ethnic or cultural group did you or your ancestor (on the male side) belong on coming to this continent?' Such an arrangement has its obvious deficiencies but it is the best under the circumstances.




Historians of the Polish community in Canada are able to trace the presence of Poles in this country for at least 200 years. Some of them have made a lasting contribution to Canadian life and history. On the whole, however, the size of the early Polish community was small. In 1901 there were less than 6,300 people of Polish descent in Canada or 0.12% of the total Canadian population at that time. By the end of the first decade of this century the Polish community numbered 33,700-a fivefold increase.


This was the decade that witnessed the greatest proportional influx of Polish immigrants to this country. The average annual growth rate amounted to 18.3% per annum, which was a fantastic rate of growth by any standards and which has never been equaled since. The historians of Polish immigration to Canada refer to this phenomenon as `the first wave' of Polish immigration. (It is interesting to note that immigrants themselves used to differentiate the successive waves of immigration by appropriate colloquial expressions which were not always quite flattering).


The second wave of Polish immigration to Canada occurred after the First World War, mainly during the period 1921-1931. The intensity of the inflow was lower than that during the first decade and it produced an average growth rate of 10.5% per annum which still was very impressive.


The third wave of immigrants arrived after the Second World War, during the period 1946-1961. During this period though the size of the Polish community in Canada almost doubled, the migration and natural increase together accounted for a growth rate of only 3.3% per annum. It should be noted that during the 60-year period (1901-1961) the Polish community in Canada grew consistently at a faster rate than the total Canadian population.


At the present moment, however, the rate of growth of the Polish community in Canada equals that of the Canadian population growth rate and, I think, in the future is likely to lag behind the Canadian growth rate because of a diminished immigration rate from Poland. A tabular Graph gives a comparative picture of the pattern and rate of growth of the Polish community and the total Canadian population for the period 1901-1966. The leveling-off effect (between 1961-66) is clearly seen on the graph. It appears that the apex of the curve has been reached, unless there would be a marked improvement in fertility rates among Polish women in Canada, or higher immigration rates, or both. Since there are no immediate prospects of improvement in fertility and since both the Canadian and Polish governments are opposed to increased immigration from Poland (for different reasons), we have to accept this fact however unpleasant it may be.


The first two waves of Polish immigrants to Canada conform very closely to the popular `pull and push' theory of immigration. The `push in our case was provided by the generally depressed conditions in Polish villages due mainly to gross overpopulation and lack of economic opportunities in the cities. This precluded any possibility of the rural-urban type of migration in Poland which would help to alleviate the situation of the surplus rural labor-force. The industrial base was too narrow to accommodate the vast numbers of landless peasants. Immigration abroad provided the only opportunity for improvement to the more industrious and resourceful young men and women of the Polish countryside. The main routes of immigration lead to Western Europe (France), South America (Brazil and Argentina) and the North American Continent (mainly U.S.A.). Canada exercised the `pull' through the easy availability of land and other opportunities in a fast developing economy. It should be noted, however, that Canada obtained only a trickle of this large Polish migration.


The greatest proportion of immigrants settled in the United States, which since the inception of the Union provided a refuge to the `oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions' (G. Washington). This liberal attitude came under severe fire from various sources, notably the Trade Unions which objected to immigration of unskilled workers on the ground that it had a depressing effect on the labour market. The `social scientists' of that time pointed out that the Poles lived in the slums and consequently drew the `obvious' conclusion that Poles had caused slums! Another point often made by the restrictionist faction was that the immigrants, coming from countries with no democratic traditions, could not understand and appreciate American political life. The restrictionist camp won the argument and consequently the United States Congress restricted immigration by enacting two bills in 1921 and 1924. These pieces of legislation reduced the flow of Poles immigration to the United States considerably. Since the 1924 Act of Congress limited immigration from Eastern Europe to 23,225 persons per annum, Canada remained the only outlet for immigrants wishing to settle in North America. This explains the large influx of Polish immigrants to Canada during the decade 1921-1931.


The first two waves of Polish immigrants to Canada reflected the economic conditions then prevailing in Poland, although political oppression by the German government before the First World War did also play a role in the migration. The third wave of immigrants that came to Canada after World War II was more of a political nature. They consisted overwhelmingly of persons who during the war either served in the Polish Armed Forces abroad or who after their liberation from various camps in Germany decided not to return to the communist controlled country. Immediately after the war economic conditions in Europe were rather depressed and a great number of these people decided to move to greener pastures in North America and elsewhere. Since immigration to the United States was still difficult to arrange, despite the slight relaxation of the immigration laws by a special Displaced Persons Act of 1948 which provided for the admission of a total of 400,000 persons who have been displaced by the war. At this time the Canadian immigration policy was more liberal. During the period 1946-56 a total of 186,300 of former citizens of countries which fell under communist domination were admitted to Canada. Of this number 33.0% were Poles (61,578). During the same period of time Canada admitted a total of 1,222,300 immigrants, in other words 87 immigrants per 1,000 residents.




Spatial distribution of population is a continuous process and this dictum applies also to the Polish ethnic group in Canada. A tabular study shows that the point of gravity of the Polish community in Canada moved from the Prairie Provinces to Ontario. In 1931, 60.0% of the total Polish population in Canada was living on the Prairies and only 29.1% in Ontario, whereas in 1961 the proportion of Poles living in Ontario was 46.2% as compared to 35.2% on the Prairies. This shift of the centre of gravity of Polish concentration from Winnipeg to Toronto took place after the World War II as a result of two factors:


(a) Some of the earlier generations of Polish immigrants moved away from the Prairie provinces-mainly to Ontario. This can easily be show to be the case of Manitoba which suffered not only a proportional decline but also a numerical one. If we take all the Prairie provinces as a whole into account we find that in 1941 they had 91,300 people of Polish origin, and in 1961 this number grew only to 113,900 a growth of 24.8% over twenty years. By comparison the Polish population of Ontario increased from 54,900 to 149,500-a growth of 172.3%


(b) Fifty one percent of new Polish immigrants tend to settle in Ontario and only 19.0% on the Prairies. This calculation is based on the postwar study of the intended destination of immigrants as found in the Department of Immigration reports.


By way of a very rough calculation we are able to estimate the magnitude of this migration:




Polish population in 1941 _____________91,300


Immigration _______________________15,400


Natural increase 1941-1951 ____________12,300


Natural increase 1951-1961 ____________17,400


Expected population in 1961 __________136,400


Actual population 1961 ______________113,900


Gain or loss ______________________ -22,500


The average annual growth rate for the Prairie provinces amounts to 1.1% as compared to Ontario's 5.1%.


It should be noted, however, that these migratory movements among Poles in Canada did not occur in isolation. This phenomenon was general in Canada. During the same period of time the three Prairie provinces lost 318,800 people, whereas Ontario gained 261,200 as a result of internal migration (K. Buckley: `Historical Estimates of Internal Migration in Canada'). The intensity of these movements was greater among the Polish community. It appears that Poles were more mobile than the rest of the Canadian population.




A shift of population from rural to urban centres has been going on in Canada, as in many other countries during the 20th century. This trend was more accented among the Polish community in Canada than in the rest of the Canadian population. Tables show that whereas the percentage of urban population for the Polish community and the Canadian population in 1941 was 49.3% and 54.3% respectively, the same ratio in 1961 was 76.0% and 69.6%. In other words, the proportion of urban dwellers among Poles in Canada increased faster than among the Canadian population as a whole. Tables show the number of persons of Polish origin living in 26 larger urban centres in Canada. There is no need of commenting expansively on the contents of this table as it is self-explanatory. I would like to point out, however, that the proportion of the total Polish ethnic group living in the three largest Canadian cities (Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver) increased from 11.5% in 1931 to 30.3% in 1961. Toronto whose Polish population increased during this period by 50,000 people leads in this concentration of Poles.




Age and sex are the most fundamental biological factors affecting the demographic structure of any population. The sex ratio, defined as the number of males per 1,000 females, indicates the sex composition of the population.


In most populations there is always some imbalance of sexes-either males or females are more numerous and this is caused by either:


(a) a preponderance of males or females-usually the former-at birth. The sex ratio at birth in Canada averages 1,057 males to 1,000 females. 
(b) a sex-selective death rate; although everyone must die eventually - women in Canada live on the average longer then men. In 1961 the average age of decedents was 59.7 years for males and 63.1 years for females. Life expectancy at birth in 1956 was 67.6 years for boys and 72.9 years for girls.
(c) sex-selective migration.


All these three factors have shaped the sex composition of the Polish ethnic group in Canada but the last of them played the most important part. The large scale Polish immigration to Canada before World War 11 was characterized by a predominance of males, since it was usually the young male who went abroad first in order to establish a foothold in the new country. Once this was achieved, he brought his wife or girlfriend. Alas, the unexpected severe depression of the `thirties made it impossible for many of these immigrants to carry out their intentions, since unemployment among them was especially severe. The ensuing war years cut off all immigration from Poland. The post-war immigration also had a large preponderance of males, since it consisted to a great extent of ex-servicemen.


The sex-ratio of males per 1000 females during the period 1911-1961 was as follows:


1911 1,583 1,029
1921 1,250 1,016
1931 1,294 1,021
1941 1,159 1,022
1951 1,170 1,008
1961 1,121 1,012

This ratio is likely to improve in future. Statistical information on Polish immigration to Canada shows that during the period 1957-1966 the sex ratio of immigrants was definitely in favour of women: for every 1,000 females only 727 males came to Canada (10,209 males and 14,048 females).


The sex ratio of the Polish immigrant population by period of immigration shows this trend:


Period of immigration Males per 1,000 females
Before 1921 1,204
1921-1930 1,369
1931-1945 930
1946-1950 1,500
1951-1955 1,340
1956-1961 879
1962-1966 652

The scrutiny of the 1961 census shows that the real imbalance of sexes begins at the 35-39 age group for which the sex ratio was 1,125 males per 1,000 females and reaches its apex at the 60-64 age group with a sex ratio of 1,514 males for every 1,000 females.


A comparison with the Canadian population is even more startling. The ratio of Canadian males to females is falling off steeply beginning with the 50-54 age group. The 65 and over age group shows an ever increasing surplus of female population. Among the Polish ethnic group a converse relationship is observed, namely, starting with the 35-39 age group the proportion of males is steadily growing. Tables illustrate this situation very clearly.


Sex imbalance is not unique to the Polish ethnic group in Canada. All other ethnic groups experience the same problem although at varying degrees. Tables and Graphs illustrate this point.




No characteristic of any population has wider interest than age, since age affects so many areas of economic and social importance, as for example: the composition of the labour force, size of the school population, birth, death and marriage rates and so on.


The age structure of the Polish ethnic group in Canada is graphically illustrated in Graphs where a comparison with the Canadian population is given.


Tables give the number and percentage of the total Canadian population as well as that of the Polish ethnic group in three broad age groups, 0-14, 15-64, and 65 and over for each decennial census from 1931 to 1961. These age periods correspond approximately to the wholly dependent childhood, working ages and the ages of retirement.


In 1931 there were 49,500 children under 15 years of age and they constituted 34.0% of the total Polish ethnic group. The same age group in 1961 comprised 104,000 children but accounted for only 32.2% of the total Polish population in Canada. Although the number of children doubled during the intervening 30 years, the ratio fell by almost 2.0%. Nevertheless this age group accounted for almost one-third of the total Polish community. It should be noted, however, that in relation to the Canadian situation the proportion of children in our community is also lower by about 2.0% than in the total Canadian population.


In the past the ratio of children was higher in the Polish community as compared to the total Canadian population by 2.4% in 1931, 1.5% in 1941. It was lower by 45% in 1951 as a result of extremely high fertility rates prevalent at that time to which the Polish ethnic group could not contribute proportionally because of the unfavourable sex ratio already discussed earlier.


The percentage of adults 15-64 years of age fell by 2.0% during the past decades from 64.2% in 1931 to 62.4 in 1961. In comparison to the Canadian population the proportion of the working age population in the Polish community has always been higher: in 1931 by 1.4%, in 1941 by 2.4%, in 1951 by 8.1% and in 1961 by 4.0%.


The size of the age group 65 years and over increased from 2,566 in 1931 to 17,486 in 1961, or from 1.8% to 5.4% of the Polish ethnic group respectively. In comparison to the Canadian population, the proportion of this age group in our community has been consistently lower.


These changes in the three broad age groups over the period 1931-1961 can also be examined within the framework of the `dependency ratio' which is the ratio of the population in the `working' age groups to 'non working' age groups and also in relation to the `index of ageing' which is the ratio of the `over the 65 age group to the 0-14 age group.


  Poles Canada Poles Canada
1931 55.7 59.2 5.2 17.5
1941 47.3 52.6 9.4 24.0
1951 42.8 61.5 16.1 25.6
1961 60.1 71.2 16.8 22.5

As seen in the table above the `Dependency Ratio' in the Polish community has been much lower than in the Canadian population but the gap was narrowing due to the fact that the present middle age groups, the most numerous, was moving into the `retiring age' group.


The gap in the `Ageing Index' between the two communities was even larger but was also narrowing. In 1931 the difference amounted to 70.3% but in 1961 it narrowed down to 25.3%. The `65 and over' age group for the Polish community was increasing faster than the same age group for Canada. At the same time the proportion of the younger age group, 0-14, was slightly declining in our community, but increasing in the overall Canadian population.


All these observations can be easily verified by looking at a Graph of the `Population Pyramid'. A comparison of the shape of respective population structures-the Canadian and the Polish-brings out a very distinctive and fundamental difference. The Canadian population pyramid is of the `expansive' pattern, with a broad base, indicating a high proportion of children and a rapid rate of population growth. The `Polish pyramid' is of a `stationery' type, with a narrower base to the population pyramid, indicating a moderate proportion of children and also a slow rate of growth.


The outlook for the future growth of the Polish community in Canada is rather pessimistic. Unless fertility rates do not improve, our community will move in the near future into the `constrictive' stage. At this stage the base of the pyramid is narrower than the middle and this smaller proportion of children might not be able to keep the population at the replacement level.




Marriage marks the socially approved beginning of the reproductive cycle in our western society. Since reproduction mostly takes place within marriage, the marriage rate is a highly significant factor in the growth potential of the population.


The scrutiny of Tables and Graphs show that the Polish community on the whole has been characterized by a smaller proportion of single people than the overall Canadian population.


There are, however, some significant departures from this central tendency. Marriage rates for Polish males are consistently lower than for the Canadian males, except for age group 65 and over. Among women marriage rates are lower for the 15-19 age group, equal in the 20-34 age group and much higher for the 35 and over age groups. These departures are the result of the sex imbalance discussed earlier in this paper.


There were little differences in the `Widowed and Divorced' category between the Canadian and Polish ethnic group.




In the absence of detailed vital statistics by ethnic groups in Canada, which precludes any possibility of assessing fertility trends by ethnic groups, I have resorted in this study to a convenient substitute, namely the 'child-women' ratio. This ratio is sometimes used to measure the incidence of childbearing in the population in the absence of a better yardstick. Specifically, it is the number of children under 5 years per 1,000 women of `childbearing age', 15-49. Though this ratio is a useful tool some caution is needed in its use. It should be remembered, that instead of actual births the ratio is based on the survivors of previous births; it includes the survivors of births during the five years preceding the census, and invariably includes the effects of infant and childhood mortality-which is quite high-during this period.


However, this ratio serves best as a relative measure, to compare the fertility performance of different sections of the same population, in our case that of the Polish ethnic group to that of the Canadian population.


On the evidence of Tables we are able to establish that the fertility of Polish women in Canada was consistently lower than that of the Canadian women in general. The following table based on the 1961 census illustrates this very clearly and provides a comparison with other selected ethnic groups:


Ethnic Group Child/women ratio
British 498.2
French 571.9
German 545.2
Italian 598.8
Netherlands 670.0
Polish 485.4
Russian 438.1
Ukrainian 474.6
Canada 534.5

A further indication of lower fertility rates among Polish women is provided in Tables which show the number of children born per 1,000 Canadian-born and Polish-born women. Please note that the term 'Polish-born' applies only to women born in Poland and therefore excludes women born in Canada (or elsewhere) who are usually enumerated as belonging to the Polish ethnic group. Nevertheless the Tables confirm previous findings.




In conclusion of this paper I would like to discuss a subject which is not of any great significance in demographic analysis but which is of vital importance to our community, namely language.


The Canadian censuses include also a question on whether a person understands his (her) `mother tongue'. In practice this refers to the language commonly spoken at home. Mother tongue statistics, when related to ethnic origin, provide a measure of the extent to which various ethnic groups have retained or lost their acquaintance with the language usually identified with their particular ethnic group. Mother tongue statistics also provide an index of the extent of assimilation.


Out of the total enumerated population of Polish origin in Canada in 1961 only 50.0% stated that they still understand or speak Polish (161,720 out of 323,517). A comparison with 1951 data shows a decline in this percentage, since at that time 58.8% of the total Polish ethnic group reported that Polish is still the language they speak or understand (129,238 out of 219,845).


A close scrutiny of Tables reveal certain interesting points. Most ethnic groups showed smaller proportions of their populations using corresponding mother tongues, the exception being the British, Finnish, German and Italian. The British proportion under the heading `All Ages' shows a remarkable increase from 123.4% in 1951 to 133.3% in 1961. This gain represents a corresponding loss sustained by other ethnic groups, including our own.


Furthermore it is interesting to note that among the sixteen major ethnic groups listed in Table 11 only five in 1961 showed a proportion of 50.0% or less of their people reporting as using their corresponding mother tongue and they were: the Polish, Jewish, Dutch, Russian and Scandinavian. In 1951 there were only three such groups: Russian, Scandinavian and Dutch.


On the other end of the spectrum we find that there were five ethnic groups (excluding the two founding races: British and French) who had very high ratios (of 75.0% and over), namely: Chinese 84.4%, Ukrainians 76.4%, Indian and Eskimo 75.7%, Italians 75.4% and the Finns 75.3%. In 1951 there were only four such ethnic groups: Ukrainians 89.2%, Indian and Eskimo 87.4%, Chinese 87.0% and Japanese 81.2%.


It is also interesting to note that the Ukrainian language was the only one among the numerous languages spoken in Canada (apart, of course, the English language which is generally spoken in most Canadian provinces) which exercised a considerable `pull' by attracting considerable numbers of people not of Ukrainian origin but who claimed at the census that their mother tongue is Ukrainian. This situation is particularly true for the age groups 45 and over for both census years 1961 and 1951. This attraction for the age group 65 and over was even stronger than that exercised by the English language, since in 1961 the ratio of respondents using Ukrainian as mother tongue was shown as 120.8% as compared to 111.2% for the English language. In this respect the French language fared very poorly.


The usage of the mother tongue among the younger age groups - 0-14, and, 15-24 is of great importance. Tables show that the attraction of English is strongest for both of these age groups, since its use was 50.0% and 39.0% larger, respectively, than the size of the British ethnic group in the same age groups. This of course is understandable. The French language also was widely used among the young generation of French origin, but the ratio fluctuated around 90.0%. The growing importance of English as mother tongue among younger members of different communities is evident from the scrutiny of Tables. Almost all ethnic groups reported a reduced usage of corresponding mother tongues among the younger are groups with the exception of Italians, Chinese and Finns. For Italians this has been primarily the result of their recent large scale immigration along with the cohesiveness of their group to which religion and other cultural factors greatly contribute.


In our community only 23.3% in the age group `under 15 years of age' and 31.2% in the age group 15-24 still use Polish as their mother tongue. On the other hand, the ratio for the 25-44 age group is 61.6%. for the 45-64 it is 75.1% and for people over 65 years of age it is 84.8%. When the 0-14 age group is considered we find that the situation with respect to the use of the corresponding mother tongue is worse than in our community only among Czechs and Slovaks (19.1%), Russians (14.3%), and Scandinavians (6.5%). All other ethnic groups report a higher ratio of the 0-14 age group population as using their corresponding mother tongues.


Studying the next age group, 15-24, it is found that there were only two other ethnic groups whose younger generation was using their mother tongue less widely than ours. They were: the Jews (22.6%) and the Scandinavians (12.5%). All other ethnic groups reported that the younger generation was using their respective mother tongue more widely. The proportion of this usage is 50.0% or more for five of the European ethnic groups, namely: Italians 73.3%, Ukrainians 67.9%, Hungarians 63.9%, Finns 63.3%, and the Czech and Slovaks 50.9%.


This analysis confirm our casual observations of the state of the Polish language in Canada. These developments do not augur well for the future of the Polish ethnic group in Canada. Unless strong remedial action is taken at once, we may witness the demise of the Polish language in the near future. It will be relegated at best as the language spoken by the `old generation'. Since our ethnic group is living mostly in urban areas and over 60.0% of our people have their residence in the 22 major urban centres of Canada it would not be impossible to establish a proper system of instruction a (Polish school system?) which could reverse this disastrous trend.


This article is reprinted from Polish American Studies, Vol. XXV. No. 1, January-June 1968, with permission from the Polish-American Historical Association.