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Roncesvalles Polish Festival organizers reconsider name change after community outcry

Ela Mazur and Joseph Cybulski do an impromptu dance as the John Gora band performs at the Roncesvalles Polish Festival in September 2017.

  • Ela Mazur and Joseph Cybulski do an impromptu dance as the John Gora band performs at the Roncesvalles Polish Festival in September 2017.
  • Crowds jam the street for the Roncesvalles Polish Festival — North America’s largest — in September 2017.
  • Horn blower Vic Dudalski gets a helping hand from Beverley Miedzybrodzki at the Roncesvalles Polish Festival in September 2013.
When Mike Ostrowski saw on Facebook that the Roncesvalles Polish Festival was returning this year after a two-year pandemic hiatus, he was excited. Then, he saw that the name was missing one key word: “Polish.” 

“For Polish Canadians, this festival was their opportunity to showcase the Polish culture to the rest of Toronto,” Ostrowski, who has lived in Roncesvalles for the last 12 years, told the Star. “For a lot of the non-Polish Canadians, this festival offered a unique cultural experience. With the name change, we’re on the way to losing that.”

Ostrowski felt so strongly, he started an online petition, “Save the Roncesvalles Polish Festival,” which has led to a grassroots push to preserve the festival’s Polish identity.

The petition has garnered almost 5,000 signatures. Residents, the Consulate General of Poland in Toronto, MPP Natalia Kusendova (Mississauga Centre), the Canadian Polish Congress and Ontario’s Minister of Infrastructure Kinga Surma have all weighed in on the issue, asking the festival to preserve its original name.

The festival’s organizers have heard the public outcry, and told the Star they are considering changing the name back. The Roncesvalles Village BIA, which puts on the annual festival, will meet Thursday to decide whether to keep the festival’s new name or revert to the original.

David Neinstein, Roncesvalles Village BIA Board Chair and owner of the neighbourhood’s Barque Smokehouse, said that when the board voted on the name change last August, the members all thought it was a “great idea,” he said.

“We honestly didn’t think we were doing anything that controversial. We thought this was a logical evolution of two concepts coming together.”

According to Neinstein, the festival’s name was changed for two reasons. One: to accommodate for the merge of the Polish Festival with Roncy Rocks, an annual live music event put on by the BIA. And two: to better reflect Roncesvalles and the businesses within the BIA, some of which are Polish and some which are not.

“I understand that there are people that feel like it doesn’t reflect the festival. But the festival is a reflection of the modern area,” he said.

For some Polish Canadians, however, the name change is a slap in the face to a cultural community that has historic ties to Roncesvalles and to the festival’s 15-year history.

“It’s very unpolite,” said Krzysztos Burylo, owner of Chopin Restaurant, a Polish restaurant on Roncesvalles Avenue. “People know Canadian cuisine, they know what it looks like. The festival is where they go to eat Polish food, so why take ‘Polish’ out of the name?”

“Many Polish Canadians and elders in Mississauga or Brampton still come to this neighbourhood for this annual festival, so it’s not even so much just for the people that live here,” said Ostrowski. “The Polish part of the festival is the main reason that it draws thousands every year.”

For Bea Mozdzanowski, a High Park resident who started a committee to help circulate Ostrowski’s petition, told the Star that what the BIA has done is “grossly unfair.”

“The issue at hand they admit to organizing a predominantly Polish festival yet they removed the word Polish from the name of the festival,” said Mozdzanowski. “It’s grossly unfair to expect Polish Canadian organizations to participate in the festival, in many instances for free, without the specific ethnic designation.”

The Consulate General of Poland in Toronto has also weighed in on the name change. Consul General Magdalena Pszczółkowska, who wrote an open letter to Neinstein, said that she has signed the petition and hopes the BIA takes into consideration the community’s input.

“It’s all about having a discussion, being open to other perspectives, to other points of view,” she told the Star. “It’s the community which creates the festival. Without people, there’d be no festival at all.”

The Canadian Polish Congress, a non-profit organization that advocates for Polish-Canadian interests, has also called for the name to be preserved. Dominik Roszak, the organization’s Vice-President for Canadian Affairs, said that it’s just as much about cultural preservation as it is about taking into account the community’s perspective.

Neinstein emphasized that the BIA board is taking the community’s concerns seriously and will reach a definitive decision at Thursday’s meeting about how to move forward.

“We want everyone to be able to celebrate the street with us and we want them to know that they’re being respected and being celebrated,” he said.

The festival is set to take place on Sept. 17 and 18.

Angela Liu is a staff reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: aliu@thestar.ca 

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Credit belongs to : www.thestar.com

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