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Lech Walesa, hero of Solidarity

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Born to humble roots, Lech Walesa channeled his anger over the Polish government's treatment of Gdansk shipyard workers into Solidarnosc (Solidarity), a trade union turned democracy movement. The charismatic, mustachioed electrician stared down the Communist leadership. It blinked and consented to free elections in 1989. In this 1989 CBC Television clip, Walesa is in Ottawa on his first North American trip, trying to drum up business and aid for his impoverished homeland. He aims his characteristically blunt comments at Canada, calling its proposed aid to Poland "similar to giving a corpse a beautiful tie."
• Walesa's 1989 tour featured in this clip was the first of five visits he made to Canada. He also visited in 1994, when he was the Polish president, and as a private citizen in 1997, 1999 and 2001.
• The four-day 1989 trip was sponsored by the Canadian Labour Congress. The congress sparred with the Mulroney government, as well as Polish-Canadian groups, over where and when the immensely popular Solidarity leader would appear.

• On his visits, Walesa paid tribute to Canada but continually reminded Polish-Canadians of their duty to the homeland. "Poland stands with its hands open. It's waiting for you...," he told a packed Hamilton, Ont., arena during the 1989 trip. "Go ahead, live here, build this here, this beautiful country. But if you have it in your hearts, think back, think of that poor homeland, of the river that still flows."

• Lech Walesa was born Sept. 29, 1943, in Popowo, a village in northern Poland, to a carpenter father and homemaker mother. He went to primary and vocational schools. In 1967, at age 24, Walesa began working as an electrician at Lenin Shipyard in the Baltic seaport of Gdansk. Walesa married Danuta Golos in 1969. They eventually had eight children.

• Walesa's plunge into labour activism came in 1970 when he joined thousands of other workers in Gdansk protesting an increase in food prices. At the time, Poland was a communist state in the Warsaw Pact. Riots convulsed Gdansk. Polish security forces killed 45 workers during the ensuing government crackdown. Walesa's subsequent development as a pro-union, anti-government activist cost him his shipyard job in 1976.

• While working with the underground Workers Defense Committee, Walesa was arrested and detained several times as a dissident. In the summer of 1980, after another hike in food prices, more than 100,000 workers in Gdansk went on strike. Walesa climbed over the shipyard wall to rejoin his old colleagues and became leader of the union movement to become known as Solidarity.

• During the 1980 strike, Walesa demanded the government allow trade unions to organize. He met with Poland's deputy premier and negotiated the first-ever union agreement with a Communist government. The Gdansk Agreement of Aug. 31, 1980, gave workers the right to organize unions and to strike. Walesa became an international figure, travelling and meeting world leaders. A devout Roman Catholic, he was welcomed to the Vatican by Pope John Paul II. Walesa was elected chairman of Solidarity in 1981.

• In December 1981, the Polish government headed by General Wojciech Jaruzelski cracked down on Solidarity, imposing martial law. Walesa was detained in a remote house for 11 months before being allowed to return to work. Time Magazine made Walesa its "Man of the Year" for 1981. In 1983, he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

• By 1989 the Jaruzelski regime, fearing rebellion, was forced to negotiate with Solidarity. The government agreed to hold free elections. Solidarity won a massive victory and formed a coalition government with the Communists and two opposition parties. In December 1990, Walesa was elected president of the newly independent Republic of Poland. He began the difficult process of moving Poland's economy toward free enterprise. Walesa visited Canada and many other countries, lobbying for foreign investment in his country.

• Poles who revered Walesa as a Solidarity rabble-rouser were less fond of him as president. He was called an authoritarian and erratic leader. When Walesa attempted to regain the presidency in 2000 he received less than one per cent of the vote.

• Despite his plunge in popularity at home, Walesa remained an international hero for bringing democracy to Poland and helping to hasten the fall of the Soviet Union. Walesa became popular on the international lecture circuit. His Poland-based Lech Walesa Institute does research and other work to promote democracy.
Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Nov. 13, 1989
Guest(s): Brian Mulroney, Lech Walesa
Host: Knowlton Nash
Reporter: David Halton
Duration: 2:19

Last updated: June 5, 2014

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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