The Kashub's Catholic Heritage




The Kashubs formed the largest and most distinct element of Polish emigration to Renfrew County and are recognized as the first large group of Polish immigrants to arrive in Canada with their Canadian history starting in 1858. Today, the Kashubs constitute one of the most distinct regional and ethnocultural groups in Poland.

Canada's Kashubian cultural heritage has enjoyed a revival and become more readily recognized with the creation of a Polish Kashub Heritage Park/Museum/Skansen in Wilno in 1998 and the very popular annual Kashub Day festivities held there on the first Saturday in May.  In Canada, there is now also not only interest in learning about heritage and celebrating it, but in preserving and commemorating it for future generations. Our country prides itself on its multicultural base and our diversified roots, and the roots of the Kashubs take us to Poland where we learn that they are actually the last remnant of an ancient Slavic Pomeranian tribe. For centuries, the homeland of the Kashubs- called Kashubia [in English], Kaszëbë [Kashub], Kaszuby [Polish] and Cashubia [Latin], was vied for by Poland and Germany.  Since after WWI, Kashubia has been part of Poland, however when the Kashubs emigrated to Canada starting in 1858, they came from German-occupied West Prussia, south of Danzig (today's Gdansk, Poland). Still, the Kashubs insisted that they were Polish.

The offer of free land in Canada was extremely inviting to the Kashubs, most of whom were landless farm labourers, and so they packed up and left their small farm villages where they faced a bleak future of poverty and oppression. They travelled to the port of Bremen where they boarded a sailing ship called the Heinrich on June 6, 1858. By the time they arrived in Quebec on July 26, 1858, after over seven weeks at sea, they were weakened by the ordeal and disillusioned.  An account of their arrival in a Canadian Government Report of the Select Committee on Emigration of 1860, tells the sad tale of their plight:

"In 1858, 76 Poles, (16 families) landed here by the Heinrich from Bremen. They had been told by a passage agent for the Bremen shipping interest, that they would receive 100 acres of land on going to Canada, free of any expense or pay. They sold their little cottages and few acres, and landed here paupers. They had not as much as the value of a loaf of bread in money amongst them. They said the agent at home had deceived them, in telling them the cost of removal from Prussian Poland to Quebec was a great deal less than they afterwards found out.  These people were much more to be pitied, on account of their not speaking anything else but Polish.  I shall never forget their bitter, despairing cries, when they found here on the other side of the ocean how awfully they had been misled.  I procured free passages for them from the Chief Agent to Renfrew, and although late in the season I saw them all, except one family, for whom I could not get employment, provided for, with the farmers in that neighbourhood.  They were considered a burthen on their arrival, but in one year they have already elicited honorable mention from the Ottawa Agency".

These courageous Kashubian pioneers chose Canada and because of them, many others followed. By 1861, there were 232 Kashubs listed on the census of Renfrew County; in 1871- 370; by 1881- almost 1000. The 2001 Census indicated that there were 9,380 people of Polish descent living in Renfrew County. Most of these are descendants of the first Kashub families, with many thousand more living throughout Ontario as well as scattered across the country. In Canada today there are more than 800,000 Canadians who claim Polish descent-we share a proud inheritance.

The story of the hardship and suffering of the first Kashubian immigrants as they struggled to survive in the Canadian wilderness is extremely moving and inspiring. It is a timeless story that touches all people and a story that is told at the Polish Kashub Heritage Museum/Skansen [ethnographic open air Museum] at Wilno []. Wilno is recognized as Canada's First Polish Settlement. The Wilno Heritage Society and its Polish Kashub Heritage Park /Museum/ Skansen, pays tribute to this unique immigrant group who made a life for themselves in a strange land, despite the many difficulties they faced, and handicapped by their inability to communicate in English, their poverty and their powerlessness. Today, their descendants live a good life in Canada and the fact that many of them hold positions of power in many levels of business, commerce and government is a testimony of their success.

Canada's Polish Kashub Community and descendants remember their cultural heritage as they celebrate this special 150th Anniversary year with many special events held throughout the year in the Wilno and Barry's Bay area, Renfrew, Ottawa, Toronto, and beyond. They also share pride in coming together to build a museum and park to ensure that the story of the Polish Kashub cultural heritage of Canada will endure.

For the special 150th Anniversary ceremony on August 2nd, the Wilno Heritage Society officially opens its Heritage Farmhouse as an integral part of the museum at Wilno. The original farmhouse, built by a pioneer Polish Kashub family, the Burchats, was brought to the Park in Wilno in 2006 and restored as a "true labour of love" by the Wilno Heritage Society and descendants of the Polish Kashub pioneers along with members of the extended community. The house provides not only a glimpse into the life of the pioneer Kashub farm family, but is symbolic of the " good home" the Polish Kashubs made for themselves and their descendants in Canada  from 1858. This heritage home is a way to say we [the descendants of Canada's Polish Kashubs] have not forgotten our roots - our cultural heritage - and we celebrate it with great pride this year [2008],  the 150th Anniversary year,  and we will work to preserve and commemorate it for future generations.

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