Attracted by the offer of free lands during the colonial period, Polish-Canadians were one of the earliest settlers in North America. Indeed, by 1885, there were close to 3,000 Poles living in Canada – and over the next century, they continued to immigrate to various parts of the country.
Between 1981 and 1991, the latest major Polish migration after the one in 1885 and in the 1930s, the political situation in Poland gave rise to yet another large Polish migration. This group of new Polish-Canadians consisted of over 95,000 men, women and children.
Today, the Canadian Polish Congress represents roughly one million Polish-Canadians living in Canada. These individuals have contributed significantly to the shaping of Vancouver in various areas such as: agriculture, manufacturing, politics and business.
“Polish-Canadians in Vancouver have performed outstandingly in a variety of careers.” says Kazimierz Brusilo, President of the British Columbian branch the Canadian-Polish Congress. “Some became engineers and architects, some became local artists and yet others became influential writers.”
One fascinating story about Polish-Canadians in Vancouver is the story of Joe Zebrowski, also known as Walter. He was the founder of Whistler. Zebrowski came to Canada shortly after the Second World War. As a farmer, he made his fortune by establishing chicken farms and delivering eggs from home to home. He soon purchased lands around Whistler Creekside and started his venture as the founder of Whistler.
“That was almost 50 years ago when we used to go up to the mountains of Whistler all the time,” says Richard Podgurski, a close friend of Zebrowski and the former branch president of the Canadian Polish Congress. “The roads back then were hardly usable. It was a very different place.”
“Joe would often look around the place and say, ‘One day, this will become the most famous tourist sight in Canada. People all over the world will know about it.’”
Half a century later, we know that Zebrowski’s vision was realized when the 2010 Winter Olympics were held in Whistler.
Another notable Polish-Canadian is the innovative architect, Bogue Babicki, who designed the “mushroom building,” also known as The Qube, located at the intersection of Jervis and West Georgia.
The building was built from the top downward, which means the roof was constructed first. The bottom of the building is mostly vacant with a large post at the center to support the structure. This gives the building its resemblance to a standing mushroom.
“The idea was conceived when Babicki noticed that buildings were blocking people from enjoying the beautiful scenery of Vancouver,” says Podgurski “So he thought: if we made our buildings into mushroom shapes, we would be able to see the views better.”
Zebrowski and Babicki are only two individuals among many other notable Polish Vancouverites, such as the artist Richard Wojciechowski, and the musician Bozena Lukomska.
Brusilo says that many Polish people have come to think of Canada as their “second motherland.” It is a place that nurtures them, protects them, gives them hope, but most importantly, the place they helped shape as early pioneers.
He emphasizes that the Canadian Polish Congress is a Canadian organization that represents Canadians of Polish descent.
“The congress promotes Polish culture in the context of Canada,” says Brusilo. “In other words, we do not only support the voice of the Polish people, but also cultural harmony in Vancouver and the rest of Canada.”