Wilno -- The past was brought vividly to life here on Saturday night with tales of
high sea voyages, backbreaking labour and even a backwoods murder.
Although the first Kashubs came to Canada in 1858, their language and culture is preserved in the hamlet of Wilno and this priceless heritage was celebrated as part of
Canada Heritage Week.
A large crowd gathered in the basement of St. Mary's Church in Wilno to step back in time and celebrate their heritage as Kashubs. It was an opportunity for those present
to reflect on the hard lives of their ancestors, "Our Heroes" as they were heralded for the evening.
"Although some of you might think we came with little value, these Kashubs valued their ethnicity and their language enough to preserve it," Shirley Mask
Connolly noted. "By keeping their language they gave us a great gift of heritage."
Ms. Mask Connolly was the keynote speaker during the celebration of Heritage Night.
Kashubs present honoured their past and listened to tales of the first Kashubs who came to Canada between 1858 and 1880.
Most of the first Polish immigrants came from the northern part of Poland. "The
Kashubs were Slavic people with their own ethnicity, language and culture," she noted. Most of the early immigrants came from the Gdansk area, some from farther south.
Another group came from the Austrian-occupied part of Poland, and they were known as Galicians.
"The Kashubs were the first to come and the biggest [group] to come," she noted. This distinct people came to
Canada in hopes of a better life. They were escaping poverty and had little hope of a better life for their children.
"They spoke their own language and many of you still speak it," she noted. "We call it low Polish."
In the 141 years since the Kashubs first emigrated, the language has been preserved in the Madawaska Valley.
"It is absolutely amazing our language has been kept so long here," she noted. The first Kashubs were enticed
to come to Canada with the promise of free land and a better life. Desperate, they made the leap. "Most of our
people were farm labourers, without any land," she said. "They lived the simple life and that is all they wanted."
Canada was busy recruiting immigrants during this time period. They sent agents to Germany looking for "hardy
people." This call went out to the Kashubs as well. Already known as hard workers, they proved this as they
tilled the stony ground in Wilno. "Many of you are still living on the farms your ancestors settled over a century ago," Ms. Mask Connolly noted. "You definitely toughed it out."
Polish immigrants quickly earned a reputation as hard workers.
"Poles and Germans worked until the day was done or the work finished," she said. The Kashubs were recruited
to travel by shipping agents who would take immigrants over to the new world and return with goods. The trip was on sailing ships, not the faster steam ships.
"The shipping companies went to places where the people were especially poor and especially desperate," she
said. "The offer of free land was too good to refuse." The beginning of the Canadian Kashubian history was in
1858, when 76 people, comprised of 16 families traveled on the Heinrich, a German vessel and two months later landed in Canada, full of anticipation about their 100 acres of free land.
Their high hopes were soon dashed as the shipping company demanded more money from them than originally
stated and they landed as virtual paupers. They were considered a burden on their arrival, but quickly turned things around through hard work in the Renfrew area.
Many of the first families were from the parish of Lipusz, of which Ms. Mask Connolly brought pictures. Others
came from Lesno, Wiele and Parchowo. She also had slides showing pictures of the various parish churches in Poland and many of the original villages.
She outlined the names of the first families who came to the county. In some cases only one family of each
name came to Canada, but in other instances many unrelated families of the same name traveled here. "In
some cases, even if you have the same family name, like Coulas/Kulas, it does not mean you are related because several families with that name came here," she said.
After a year or two of working in Renfrew, the families had enough supplies to get their long-awaited land.
"In Prussia most of these people lived in villages, so they would be lonely on farms," she said.
Regardless, they settled on the Opeongo Line.
"It was the Opeongo Colonization Road, but road was really an exaggeration," she noted. The land was desolate,
isolated and full of back-breaking stones. It was a shock to the Kashubs who came from small villages in Poland.
Ms. Mask Connolly recalled when she visited Poland with her father he kept commenting on the fact there were no stones anywhere. The situation in the Ottawa Valley was quite different.
The area where the Kashubs settled in the fall of 1859 has since been abandoned and that part of the Opeongo Road re-routed.
"Though the land was past Hopefield, the land was hopeless, there was really nothing they could do with it," she said.
While these first 1858 immigrants learned of the hardships of farming in the Canadian wilderness, more Polish
immigrants came. By 1861, 226 Kashubian people, who were known as Prussians were living in one-room
windowless dirt floor shanties. While the families worked on the farm, several of the teenagers were working in
Brudenell for the Irish settlers there. Although Brudenell was originally Irish, it is now mostly of Kashub descent, due to intermarriage.
Many first received title to the land in 1864, so this date is sometimes used as the date of the first settlement. In
reality the land had to be cleared and a dwelling built on it before title was deeded, so the settlers had lived on
the land for several years before they had the deeds. The first settlement on stony ground was quickly abandoned in favour of better land in the area near what is now Wilno around 1869.
"They are getting better land now, so they write home to Prussia to encourage even more to come," Ms. Mask Connolly said.
By 1875 they had their own parish. Meanwhile in Poland, life was becoming unbearable under Bismarck and his
Prussian war machine. The Kashubs there were even forbidden to speak their own language. Thus in this time period a second wage of immigration occurred.
In 1872 the largest group of Kashubs, 200 on one ship, the Agda, traveled to Canada. It was a rough voyage and 14 children died during the trip.
It was during this summer, on July 6, 1872 the first murder in the community occurred when an old Polish
woman was viciously murdered by a shantyman. He was eventually convicted and was the first person hung in the Pembroke Jail.
"Our community was in shock, a big black cloud hung over the Prussian hills," she noted. When the Agda
landed in Canada, many of the immigrants were quarantined in Grosse Isle, Quebec and many died there. When
the remnant arrived in Renfrew, the Renfrew Mercury reported the event, describing the people as 'just the right kind to go into the backwoods."
"Over the years these Polish people would continue to astound," she said.
This brief taste of life was but a tantalizing bit of the information Ms. Mask Connolly has discovered as she has
searched her roots and the roots of her community. Pictures, articles and various displays encouraged those
present to delve into their history further. The Wilno Heritage Society sponsored the event. President Dave
Shulist said he was very pleased with the number of local people who turned out to support the event. "There
were Kashubs at the event from Combermere, Killaloe, Barry's Bay, Wilno and Round Lake," he noted. "Some folks who have relations here even drove down from Ottawa."
The Wilno Heritage Society sponsored the event as a kick-off for the society in many ways. One of the main
goals was to get people excited about their heritage and to do research into it.
"This night was meant to introduce our Heritage Society to our community and to begin encouraging local
Kashubs to research their family history and document it so we can present this information to each other and our public at the Heritage Park," Mr. Shulist said.
The mission statement of the Wilno Heritage Society is "to commemorate the past, recognize contributions by
our ancestors, to support and augment existing Polish language studies for our students, and to preserve the
Kaszubian customs and traditions." The society has already undertaken a project to build a Heritage Park in the village.