A vibrant micro-community of Polish, Ukrainian, Slavic, and many other immigrants in Whitney Pier

Drawn to the opportunities at the Sydney Steel Plant in the early 20th century, many immigrants settled in the small neighbourhood of Kolonia. Over several decades, they proudly maintained their cultural traditions and heritage.

On the northern boundary of Sydney, adjacent to the steel plant property, is Whitney Pier, a community that has traditionally been home to plant workers. Whitney Pier is known for being a remarkably diverse community, the product of an early-20th century influx of immigrants from around the world who were attracted to the area by the well-paying jobs of industrial Cape Breton. One of the ethnic enclaves within Whitney Pier is Kolonia, a small but tightly-knit neighbourhood of immigrant families. Polish and Ukrainian immigrants constituted the majority of Kolonia, which also included families of other Slavic and non-Slavic nationalities.

In 1899, wealthy industrialist H.M. Whitney established the Dominion Iron and Steel Company and began construction of the steel plant at Sydney. Workers soon began to flock to the area and the population of Sydney and the surrounding communities exploded. Between 1899 and 1913, according to one estimate, Sydney's population grew from 3,200 to 22,000.

The thousands of people who arrived in the Sydney area to work in the steel plant and coal mines arrived from around the world. Between 1899 and 1930, Whitney Pier became home to the largest concentration of ethnocultural groups in the Maritimes. One observer from 1903 commented of Whitney Pier that "[b]esides the Canadian-born inhabitants, there are numbers of Americans, many English, Scotch, and Irish, quite a number of French, scattered representatives of Germany, Norway, and Sweden, a strong Italian Colony, a number of Hungarians...[and] not a few Jews…." Newfoundlanders, African-Americans, Chinese immigrants, Poles and Ukrainians, and many others also made up this extraordinarily diverse community.

Kolonia traces its roots to four Polish families who settled on Ferris Street. This street came to mark the southern boundary of the original square block of the vibrant neighbourhood, which was bounded by Bryan Street to the north, Roberts Street to the east, and the steel plant property to the west. Some of the original homes were built from dismantled parts of the Breton Hotel. Kolonia soon grew beyond this square block, and developed into a close-knit community in which immigrants proudly protected their language, identity, and cultural traditions. Many of the house designs and decorations, along with the small gardens and pastures, reflected the rural ways of life that the immigrants had known. At its height, Kolonia was home to as many as 300 residents.

The Polish Church, St. Mary's, was nearby to Kolonia and was an especially important community hub, as was the nearby Polish Hall (run by the St. Michael's Polish Benefit Society, established 1909) on Wesley Street. Polish and Ukrainian music, dancing, and food were an important part of the community - indeed, all the residents of Whitney Pier flocked to churches and halls in Kolonia for perogie and cabbage roll dinners. The residents of Kolonia also looked out for each other: working in the steel plant and coal mines was hard and dangerous work, so community members also set up a mutual benefit society to support families in distress.

The old Polish Hall was torn down and, in 1949, a new hall -- called Polish Village -- was erected. It continues to be run by the St. Michael's Benefit Society, and is located on the corner of Jameson Road and Victoria Street.

The closing of the steel plant in 2000 contributed to the decline of the neighbourhood. Many lifelong residents of Kolonia still live there, however, and in recent years there has been revitalization in the form of cultural events and more. At the bottom of Bryan Street, for example, visitors can enjoy the Kolonia Immigrant Heritage Parkette. In 2015 it was designated, along with Whitney Pier as a whole, as having national historical significance.