Embrace Our Heritage Part 3


The theme of the Brandon INL annual conference was “Embrace Your Heritage”.
I’d tried to do that some time ago by writing a book of folk tales set in Iceland and New Iceland. What The Bear Said has fourteen stories. Some take place in Iceland. Some take place in New Iceland in Canada. However, I realized that the characters both human and other wise, lived in a third world, a world that only they could experience. I called that the In Between World. That was the world experienced by people who lived in both Iceland and Canada.
Only these people ever could live in this In Between World. Those who stayed in Iceland would remain in their known world. Those born in Canada would remain in their known world. My great great grandparents and my great grandparents, however, would live out their lives in this In Between World.  
Dividing these worlds up made me realize that much of what I once thought of as my Icelandic heritage is actually my Canadian, Manitoba, Gimli heritage. If, when I was young, someone had asked me about my Icelandic background, I’d have talked about pickerel fillets, Lutheran Sunday school, smoked Goldeye, hockey, fishing on Lake Winnipeg, Islindingadagurinn, Tergesen’s general store, Bjarnason’s dry goods and grocery store and, of course, Icelandic food.
When I was young, people still spoke Icelandic over the coffee table. You heard it in the stores. But not in our house. My mother was Irish. Not in my grandfather’s house. After his wife Icelandic wife died, he married a woman who was German and Polish. You also heard Ukrainian in the schools and on the playground. My favorite English dialect was called Bungi, a mixture of Cree, Scots, and Orkney. It was the most mellifluous language I’ve ever heard. My great grandparents, my grandparents, my parents, me—four generations in Canada and the disintegration and integration was well under way.
However, Gimli, the original centre of New Iceland, having a lot of residents of Icelandic background made it feel, when I was a kid, as if hockey had something to do with being Icelandic. The hockey players had names like Sveinson, Bjarnason, Kristjanson, Valgardson, Magnusson. 
The truth is that in small towns all over Canada populated by widely different ethnic groups, hockey was being played. Hockey was a Gimli experience, a Manitoba experience, a Canadian experience. The fact that many of us had Icelandic backgrounds was incidental. Kids of an Icelandic background got to play Canadian hockey but so did Polish, Ukrainian, German, English, Scots, Irish kids.
I knew the world of New Iceland because I grew up in it. Yet, even here, there was a whole background that I didn’t know, partly because most of the material the early settlers recorded was written in Icelandic and by my generation, the fourth generation, the language was lost to most of us. The truth is that the hockey team that won the first Olympic gold medal, the Falcons, made up of Icelandic players, had to fight to be allowed to compete.
To me, the other world, the world of Iceland just before and during the period of emigration was a complete mystery. This was the world in which my great great grandparents and great grandparents were born and lived.
My research has shown that nearly everything I’d been told about Iceland when I was growing up turned out to be wrong. Not because anyone lied but because Iceland was a long distance from Gimli, Manitoba both in miles and time. In many cases people simply misunderstood what they had heard.  Iceland had an early parliament, for example, but it was not a democracy, it was not representation by population, ordinary people didn’t get to vote. Nor were women fierce independent warriors. Most of them were hired help on farms and lived lives of dreadful drudgery and deprivation.
Discovering that my great great grandparents weren’t dashing Vikings but indentured farm laborers living in an agrarian society that had great difficulty feedings itself meant if I were going to embrace my real heritage, I needed to learn as much about Iceland in the 1800s as possible.
Great grandpa, it turned out wasn’t a Viking raider. He was a farm laborer. He didn’t come to Canada to pillage but for the opportunity of having his own farm and dairy business. Kirk Douglas would never have been interested in playing him in a Hollywood movie.

On Being Canadian

Canada is an immigrant country. Our immigrations have happened at different times in Canada’s history. The flood of refugees from Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, happened around the same time. However, when those surges ended because of population pressure easing, because of economic conditions improving, refugees started to come from other countries.
We all like to think that our group’s immigrant experience was unique. However, the challenges faced by having to adapt to Canada have proven to be much the same. The need to learn English or French. The need to adapt to Canadian law. The need to learn to work in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious community. The need to adapt to new ways of working, of learning new skills. The need to accept change of their most dearly held beliefs.  The need to accept intermarriage. The need to be tolerant of people who look, think, and believe differently. The need to change one’s identity from I’m Icelandic, Ukrainian, German, Polish, English, or X, to I’m Canadian.
We all want to hang onto some aspects of our community’s pre-immigration life.
Religion, for example. It has a structure that helps bind the community. It often provides organized support. The religious leaders, whatever they are called, are usually the best educated. Religious leaders can provide guidance, provide help with documents, make their believers feel less isolated. However, both the Roman Catholic priests and the Lutheran ministers, of my childhood, once powerful decision makers,  have faded away, become mostly irrelevant in a growing secular society. We no longer hold church services in Icelandic. Pews in every church are empty.
Clothes. At first, we hang onto them because that’s what we’ve got to wear. But living conditions are different and soon they are replaced and become something to wear on special holidays. Some end up in museums.When that happens, they have become the past.
Food. Food is the easiest to hold onto. Recipes come in heads of wives and mothers and grandmothers and are shared in a tight knit community. Early cook books testify to this with every recipe having a name attached to it. Runa´s peanut butter cookies. After a time, they are codified in recipe books, made available for those leaving the community and for those outside the community. Food is often part of ritual and even when it is something not eaten regularly, it appears at certain holidays. Hakarl, rotted shark, is one of those. However, some foods adapt well, are easily copied, commercialized. The perogi is probably the best Canadian example. It appears at buffets from Victoria to Newfoundland. What buffet in Gimli, the heart of New Iceland, would be complete without perogis?
Holidays. Immigrant groups keep some of these but often they fade away because the larger society has its own holidays and the larger society accommodates variety by making these holidays secular. Christmas has traded Christ for consumerism. Gifts to the Christ child have become midnight madness at Walmart. The death and resurrection of Christ have become a rabbit hopping about giving away chocolates. In an attempt to regain some sense of ethnicity, older immigrant cultures such as ours, create events around holidays that have been long forgotten, and these are fun,  but they are history lessons.
Publications. We created publications for our people out of necessity. It was the best way to provide new immigrants with information on everything from Canadian law to how to grow and store potatoes. Advice was desperately needed. Information about where and how to get work. Help with learning English. Newspapers like Lögberg and Heimskringla were essential. Now, over a hundred years later, those essential tasks no longer need to be done. We are so integrated, we no longer have immigrant needs.The paper´s current role is to provide connectivity to a widespread population of people whose relationship to their heritage is often tenuous. Intermarriage, the loss of Icelandic as a daily language, migration within and away from Canada, all are forces of ethnic community dispersal and integration into the larger society.LH can provide context, history, connection, a relationship with Iceland.
Language. At first there is no need to try to preserve language. It is the language of the immigrant community. But the demands of survival are that at a minimum, English be learned. If other ethnic groups live in the area, then there is often the need to learn those languages. My grandfather’s solution was to stop the babel of Icelandic, German, Polish, Ukrainian by declaring that English be spoken in his house. There were many like him. Many parents didn’t want their children to learn the original language so as to avoid discrimination because of having an accent. Later, when people were more established, there were classes set up but with the classes there was the acknowledgement that the immigrant language was no longer the working language of the community. For us, at the beginning, church services were in Icelandic. Newspapers were in Icelandic. But, gradually, that had to change as the language was lost. It became irrelevant to daily life and particularly irrelevant to members of the community who migrated to other areas.
What makes me think of these things is that on the weekend, I went to the funeral of a friend. She was Jamaican. The gathering of mourners was the largest I´ve ever seen. Sarah was beloved in the Jamaican community. At the service, a number of the people who spoke said how much they loved Jamaica. They reminisced about going back to Jamaica for holidays. They spoke much like some people in the Icelandic Canadian community speak about Iceland. After the service, we gathered for the reception and shared a meal of curried goat, red beans and rice, spiced chicken, salad. It was a fine reception.
Some of my people came from Iceland in 1875, others in the 1880s. We´ve been here a long time. Our connection with Iceland is not so passionate, so filled with recent loss, so closely attached as the Jamaican mourners. The large majority of the people at the funeral and reception were Jamaican but, already, there were us others, these descendents of Icelanders, sharing  friendship, grief and a meal.
Afterwards, on the trip home, I thought about me and my generation, about how my Irish half has faded, simply become Canadian, how my Icelandic half has retained something of an ethnic identity because of living in an Icelandic Canadian community when I was a child, becoming and staying involved with other Icelandic Canadian communities, and I wouldn´t want to give that up, but as I sat at Swartz Bay, waiting to drive off the ferry onto Vancouver Island, I thought about the funeral, the reception, my friends, that I would not want to give up any of this, and said to myself, this is what it means to be Canadian.

Ethnic values

When I was in high school, I was sullen. I’m not sure what I was sullen about. I was the guy in the back of the class in the motorcycle jacket and cap, slouched in his seat, daring anyone to teach him anything.
Maybe it had something to do with my watching too many Marlon Brando and James Dean movies.Maybe it was because I didn’t know who I was and I was trying to create an identity.When my grandfather banned the speaking of Icelandic, German, Polish and Ukrainian in his house and said nothing but English would be spoken, he also banned the cultural roots that formed the basis of who we were.
When I was in downtown Victoria, the other day, I thought I recognized myself. Not because anyone was wearing a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back but because a lot of kids were wearing costumes, just like I’d worn a costume. There were Goths, guys with Iroquois cuts dyed bright red, babes in black leather with so many studs that if they fell into the harbour, they would drown head down.
This is who I am, the costumes said. This is me. This is me wearing surplus army fatigues and every inch of my exposed skin covered in tattoos pushing a baby carriage. This is me, her boyfriend/husband/partner, with my purple, green, orange spiked hair, my torn jeans and chains and black boots. It’s easy to condemn appearance, make all sorts of assumptions, but it wasn’t these people who bundled mortgages that proved to be fraudulent, who invented liar loans, who set up a system of irresponsibility so great that the United States of America still hasn’t recovered. No, the people who did that wore dark suits, silk ties and sported seventy-five dollar haircuts.
As I waited for the transit bus in front of McDonald’s, I thought that if Ronald appeared, he’d fit right in. Everything has a cause and I wondered what our generation’s role was in creating this daily parade.What did it mean, I wondered that there were no Stepford wives on the sidewalk.
In the 1940s and 50s, teenagers were still struggling to speak English without an accent. Parents were changing their foreign-sounding names to English-sounding names. Many of them deliberately didn’t teach their children the language of the country from which they came. No Icelandic, no German, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian. No saying “qvail” for whale. No saying “dis” and “dat”.
The problem is that our generation wasn’t just deprived of a second or third language. With the language went ethnic customs and history and with customs and history went social values. In some cases it was no loss. There were beliefs and prejudices that we were all better off without. However, the good went out with the bad.It left me and many like me wondering who we were, without a history, without a set of ethical rules founded on generations of culture.
If society had remained as it was in the 40s and 50s, rural, stable, small town, then once everyone got settled, there might have been a chance to re-introduce what had been disowned but Canada was changing in ways that few people could have imagined. Canada went from being rural to urban and then suburban. Farms and small towns with their ethnic life were abandoned. Television appeared. It was like a tsunami. We all went from listening to Superman on radio to watching real, live famous people. Ed Sullivan entered our lives and brought both the famous and notorious into our living rooms. People quit visiting. TV dinners, a completely preposterous idea only a short time before, became the norm. 
The lost languages comprised not merely words but also a way of thinking, a way of seeing reality and reacting to it. With the loss of language also went a loss of customs and with them guidelines for behaviour. We grew up in a vacuum and when it was our turn to be parents, our values were taken from a society overwhelmed by advertising that promoted materialism. It’s unlikely that many of us read the sagas. We were too busy watching Gunsmoke or I Love Lucy. Even if you knew the sayings in Havamal, it would have been hard to get your kids to listen when they could be watching Captain Kangaroo or Mr. Dressup.
English has largely replaced the languages that immigrants brought with them. But it isn’t English manners and customs that have replaced immigrant culture. Instead, a vacuum was created, a loss of self and what replaced it was the culture of the media—and the major purpose of the media is to sell a product. It’s the advertising that matters. Immigrant culture spoke of proper behaviour, of morals, of religious beliefs. It said this is what it means to be Ukrainian or Russian or Polish or Icelandic. The media sells material, not spiritual or moral values. It doesn’t care about you. It cares about selling that TV, car, BBQ, or sofa. It doesn’t ask where or  how you got the money.
 Remember how exciting Sunday evenings were? How we couldn’t wait for The Rifleman, for Paladin, for Disney, or Perry Como. Remember how easily we accepted the advertising, never thought those ads were replacing our grandparents and parents values, were turning us into a consumer society. How could those old fashioned values compete with ads that told us that if we just bought the product they were selling, we’d be happy?
For a time, it was as if ethnic values, in our case, Icelandic traditions and customs, history, and beliefs would not survive in North America. That which survived did so because of a few stalwarts who held firm, who kept in operation the Icelandic clubs; that special holiday in August, Islindingadagurinn; the newspaper, Logberg-Heimskringla; the Icelandic National League; the Icelandic library and Icelandic department.
I know that my teenage years would have been easier, if I’d been taught about my ethnic background and its values. If my teachers had told us about Halldor Laxness, about the sagas, about Havamal, about the importance of reading and writing to the community, I wouldn’t have needed the black leather jacket with the eagle on the back. I’d have had an identity. I wouldn’t have had to try to make one up from the movies. I might not have bought into the consumer society in which things are more important than people. I think that’s true for a lot of other people.

If there had been no cultural vacuum, I doubt if the young people on Douglas Street would be in the position where they have to reject the business suits and the silk ties, the five hundred dollar shoes by making a statement with their skin, their hair and their worn and torn clothes. We wouldn’t have created a society where people could teach that greed is good, that you just look out for number one no matter what the cost to anyone else. 


As I stood at the bus stop, I realized that all the young people around me had cell phones,I  heard from their conversation that they all used twitter, overheard the girl in the pink tutu over a pair of jeans, the boy in the bright red silk shorts and sweat shirt that said something rude, talking about the need to use the internet to stop banks from the arrogant raising of user fees to cover up mistakes made by their high paid executives. 


It has taken us generations–my grandparents, my parents, me–before big business and its advertisements to be been seen for what they are, and the creation of the new media to make it possible for people to fight back.

It’s always this way. The history of Iceland shows us that people had no way to stop being exploited by both the Danish traders and the rich farmers until English ships started to arrive to take sheep and horses back to Britain. Just because people are exploited doesn’t mean they’re stupid. The Icelanders soon realized that they, too, could leave for England and Scotland even if it meant traveling in the ships’ holds with the animals. From there they could take passage on ships to North America. 


The new media has filled the same role as those ships. Except it isn’t necessary for anyone to travel to a distant continent. The social media can be used to create social justice here. Corporate advertising may have created a set of values, society may have floundered and gone down destructive paths following those values but now the ships of freedom are in the hands of young people who know how to use it. Your life may just become better because of someone with studs, a bunch of tattoos and a wardrobe of which Martha Stewart  would never approve.