Canada’s Polish community is in deep mourning after Poland’s president and several high ranking officials were killed in a plane crash Saturday morning.
President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and several senior Polish political and military leaders were among 97 others who died when their aging aircraft plummeted into a forested region in western Russia.
In Toronto, home to one of Canada’s oldest and largest Polish communities, many were left reeling from the news.
“It’s just a shock,” said Leszek Diadyk as he stood in the centre of Toronto’s Roncesvalles village, a tight-knit Polish community which set up an impromptu memorial.
The village’s St. Stanislaus-St. Casimir’s Polish Parish quickly filled with flowers and candles as mourners gathered to express their grief.
“Most people here have a connection with Poland, so I’m assuming they’re going to be hit in quite a way, especially since it was so sudden,” said Father Pawel Ratajczak, as he stood outside the church.
“This president, I believe will make his mark in history as a positive force for politics . . . He was a force for good.”
The presidential plane came down in heavy fog as it was travelling to events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre, where thousands of Polish officers died at the hands of Soviet secret police.
Ratajczak said the anniversary was weighing heavily upon many Polish-Canadians, making news of the crash even harder to bear.
“It’s almost like a double whammy,” he said.
Regina Kos, lit a candle and spoke softly about the tragedy.
“Poland is really good now, very happy. The government was very good, so I don’t know what’s going to happen now,” said Kos, who immigrated to Canada in 1949.
“He was a good man, a good president. It’s very shocking to our community.”
As Polish Canadians mourned, politicians across the country voiced their shock and offered their condolences.
“It is with shock and profound sadness that I learned this morning of the terrible tragedy,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a statement.
“President Lech Kaczynski was a man who stood proudly and defiantly for democracy and human rights through even the most difficult times.”
Governor General Michaelle Jean also expressed her sympathies.
“Our thoughts are with Canada’s Polish community, which is in shock and which we know had great affection and admiration for President Kaczynski,” she said, calling 60-year-old Kaczynski a “brave champion of freedom and patriotic pride.”
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Toronto mayor David Miller were among other politicians to offer their condolences.
News of the crash prompted Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to cancel a scheduled visit to the Ottawa Valley region next week.
The incident has devastated the upper echelons of Poland’s political and military establishments. On board were the army chief of staff, the navy chief commander, and heads of the air and land forces.
Also killed were the national bank president, deputy foreign minister, army chaplain, head of the National Security Office, deputy parliament speaker, Olympic Committee head, civil rights commissioner and at least two presidential aides and three legislators, the Polish Foreign Ministry said.
Poland has long discussed replacing the planes that carry the country’s leaders but said they lacked the funds. The presidential plane, a 26-year-old Russian-built Tupolev, was fully overhauled in December and was certainly flightworthy, the general director of the Aviakor aviation maintenance plant in Samara, Russia told television channel Rossiya-24.
An eyewitness said the plane tilted to the left before crashing. Two loud explosions were heard as the aircraft plummeted to the ground.