June 17 Winnipeg, 2012

The skies threatened rain, grey clouds spread from horizon to horizon, but God loves Icelanders and the rain held off until the moment the ceremonies and speeches were finished. Just then, timed precisely, the first few drops could be felt.
Crowds started to gather early. From a block away, it was possible to see the Fjallkona on the Manitoba Legislative steps. Her white headdress and her green robe provided a focal point. By the time I reached the Legislative patio, the Fjallkona (Connie Magnusson Schimnowski) looking regal in her costume) was sitting between her two daughters with Harley Jonasson in attendance. On one side was the Canadian flag, on the other, the Icelandic  flag.
 One of the joys of these events is the gathering of the clan, people that one might otherwise not see from one year’s end to the next come together. Among these was Tim Samson, Dr. Ken Thorlakson, Keith Eliasson (from Riverton), Dilla Narfason (from Gimli), Vi Bjarnason-Hilton (with news of a group of 20 people leaving shortly for Iceland), Jim Anderson with his sister Sylvia (originally from Anderson’s  Corner at Libau), Garry Oddleifsson, Peter Johnson (with the beautiful new brochure advertising Logberg-Heimskringla), Bryan Bjerring (Arnes), Einar and Rosalind Vigfusson (Arborg), Maria Bear (Selkirk), Raymond and Alma Sigurdson with their daughter Sandra (Willow Creek), Helga Malis (Gimli), Beverly and Einar Einarsson (Gimli), Linda Sigurdson-Colette. And lots more.
Under lowering skies, the Kvennakór Garðabæjar choir lined up on the Legislative steps and entertained with songs in Icelandic. One of the joys of Icelandic culture is the numerousl Icelandic choirs. Most of the time the choirs are male or, perhaps, mixed but this choir, all female, had a delightful, different sound. After the choir finished their program, we all gathered at the Jón Sigurdsson statue.
We gathered so efficiently, perhaps from past experience and knowing what we were doing, that we were ahead of schedule. We visited as we waited for His Honour, The Lieutenant Governor Phillip S. Lee and his wife, Her Honour Anita Lee. What a pleasure to have Phillip Lee for Lieutenant Governor I´ve been at many functions with him and he´s relaxed, friendly and, after attending many events that are Icelandic related, greatly improved with pronouncing impossible Icelandic names. Instead of pomp and ceremony built on self-importance, he is genuine and obviously enjoys people for at the end of the ceremonies, instead of having people stand while he retired, he stayed to mingle and talk to people.

There were flags everywhere.

I’ve been to a lot of ceremonies over the years and many are dreadfully boring. This was not the case. The impending rain drove no one away. The speeches were short, often humorous, informative and heart-felt. The greetings from the dignitaries which can be deadly dull weren’t. They were interesting and fun. Maybe Guttormor is right when he says in his poems that we are important and the reason we know we are important is because we say so; however, an Icelandic sense of humour always pours a bit of salt on our egos to keep them from getting too big and what comes through is a genuine sense of how much we like each other and our community.

Arni Thor addressing the assembled multitude

Mr. Arni Thor Sigurdsson gave a good speech. The audience was pleased to hear about how Iceland’s economic situation is improving and how that Arni has visited the various Icelandic Canadian settlement areas and met relatives descended from Icelanders who immigrated to Canada.
I may be accused of bias because Connie Magnusson Schimnowski is a cousin of mine (but then who isn’t a cousin?) but I think she makes a regal Fjallkona and, certainly, since the Maid of the Mountains is supposed to represent the accomplishments of the community, she is a good choice. Her work for the Icelandic Canadian community in Manitoba has been life-long and extensive. She has coupled that with volunteer work in the broader community.

The formal ceremonies were over and rain began to fall. A bus provided by Bardal’s swished the officials away to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, then made repeated trips to pick up members of the audience. At the Art Gallery there was a presentation to Consul General Atli Ásmundsson and his wife, Þruður Helgadóttir. This was followed by a concert with more music from the Kvennakór Garðabæjar choir (conductor, Ingibjörg Guðjónsdóttir), followed by Björn Thoroddsen  & the Björn Thoroddsen Trio.

1874:Kneeland, the Constitution

Our good friend Samuel, is most interested in the new “constitution” that Christian IX has brought to Iceland. Being an educated American, he doesn’t think much of it. He goes through it in detail and points out that the king still holds supreme power over the legislature. Anything he doesn’t like, he can reject. Below is his summary. 
“It is no exaggeration to say that the profession of the power of self-government made in this “new constitution” amount to little or nothing; as the royal prerogative opportunely steps in when there is any danger of additional liberty. It was perfectly well understood by the people as illiberal, almost despotic, though some demagogues chose to see in it a Magna Charta; they accept it, however, as the best they can get, and especially as being the beginning of a political education, which, in course of time, will enable them to demand and to obtain political independence.
In the words of Mr. Taylor (Bayard Taylor, the American journalist who is also in the party of five Americans) “The great service which Jon Sigurdsson has rendered to Iceland is not so much in the gift of this constitution as in the fact that he has broken the long apathy of the people, persuaded them to ask, and secured them a result which means courage for the future, if not satisfaction with the present. In this sense, the 1stof August, 1874, is the opening of a new era in Iceland’s history.”
Samuel Kneeland agrees with Bayard Taylor. Jon Sigurdsson has done something important, even heroic, for Iceland. He hasn’t been Joan of Arc. He hasn’t led the Icelanders in armed rebellion. He’s done something much more important. He’s convinced the Icelandic people that their situation is not hopeless. They can ask for better treatment. They can work at getting better treatment. They can even insist on better treatment. Centuries of oppression have made it seem impossible that there can be a better way of being governed. Jon Sigurdsson has convinced people that there is a better way and it is achievable. Iceland has no army. It has no resources to raise an army and equip it. It must depend on persuasion. It must move gradually toward independence.
Samuel is a smart guy. He’s traveled. He’s educated. He looks at this turning point in Iceland’s history and he makes a list of the things that need to be done to make Iceland prosper. Many of them have come to pass.
“What Iceland especially wants are better means of communication than the small uncomfortable steamers which now make about eight trips a year; foreign capital to develop their fisheries and mineral wealth, and improve their breeds of sheep, horses, and cattle; larger and better boats and tackle; the making of roads and deepening of harbors; with better accommodations for the summer tourists who would be glad to visit its magnificent and peculiar scenery; and, at the present time, the sympathy and assistance of other nations to enable the people to recover from the recent volcanic eruption which has devastated the south-eastern portion of the island.”
The stranger, it is said, has a keen eye.

Austurvelli

In diplomacy, momentous decisions are often made not in the heat of battle or even argument but over the dinner table, at celebrations, in nooks and corners, by men (in 1874, it was all men) dressed formally and immaculately. The appearance belies the raging undercurrent, the years of meeting, negotiating, the successes and failures, the vested interests.
King Christian IX arrives in Iceland, not as a conqueror but as an absent and distant king. Iceland has not suffered conquest and war but centuries of neglect and exploitation. It has been seen by the Danes as little more than colony from which some profit might be extracted. However, unlike the natives of South America, they are not enslaved to work in the gold mines. There are no gold mines. There are, for a time, sulphur mines but economics means they are abandoned. There are no diamonds, rubies, no minerals, no vast forests that can be used for buildings ships, no exotic spices. There is fish. There is wool. There is meat pickled and smoked. There are horses. None of the products are in great demand, nor does the size of the population mean that what products there are, mostly woolen goods, can be produced in vast amounts. 
There is no mechanization. Everything is done individually by hand.
Iceland and Icelanders are more than anything, a curiosity. Unknown largely, enough off the beaten track that foreigners who want to visit need to rent or buy a yacht, man it, provision it, sail into unpredictable and often fierce weather.
With no wood suitable for building, no lime for mortar, so little fuel that houses don’t have stoves, Icelanders have taken to building houses from layered rock and turf. There are no great cathedrals, no vast public buildings, no great residences. There are farm houses, some as good as those of a well-to-do Scottish farmer, others no more than hovels where people live as if they are underground.
None of this keeps Icelanders from wanting their independence back. They agitate for the right to their own government. They negotiate, they argue, they wear down the opposition of the few people who make themselves wealthy on the current system.
When, at last, King Christian IX comes to Iceland for the first time to bring them a constitution in 1874, there are festivities. The people put on the best show they can manage.
Bayard Taylor, an American reporter, describes one of the major events that is held in the open after the King has been feted at a banquet in Reykjavik.
“The road which was so broad and smooth that it must have been specially made for the festival, now   crossed a long hollow in the stony soil, and climbed a hill opposite, nearly a mile away, where flags and tents, and a moving multitude announced the location of Austurvelli. The broad, rounded summit of the hill had been laboriously cleared of stones, and furnished a space where four or five thousand people could have been accommodated; but not more than two thousand were present. There were a a rostrum for speeches, a tent for the King, another ten which suggested a possibility of refreshments—and that was all. But the elevation, slight as it was commanded a singularly bleak and sublime panoramic view. On all sides the eye overlooked great spaces of sailless sea or barren shore, until, fifty miles away, ranges of dark volcanic hills inclosed the horizon. The level evening sunshine fell coldly across the vast view, the wind blew sharp and keen from the north, and, with every allowance for the tough constitutions of the Icelandic people, I could not see how much festivity was to be extracted from the place, time and temperature.
“Nothing was done, of course, until the King’s arrival….In Iceland nothing is done without singing, and it is the most attractive feature of the celebration thus far. The song was followed by speeches from the rostrum, chiefly greetings to the people, winding up with sentiments and cheers. Admiral Lagercrantz spoke for Sweden, Rolfsen, the author, for Norway (and his eloquence awoke a real enthusiasm), and then various others followed, the admirable male choir of Rejkiavik (sic) interrupting the speeches with national songs.”
It is one thing to say we celebrate June 17 at the statue of Jon Sigurdsson on the Legislative Grounds. Hip hooray. But have you ever wondered what it must have been like in Iceland on this momentous occasion? 
Did you imagine the cleared hilltop, the flags, the tents, the stage, the dignitaries. These are our ancestors participating, listening, discussing observing. This is what this important event was like for them.
Terrible weather. Cold wind. Rain. As usual. They partied anyway. And why shouldn’t they? There weren’t a lot of reasons to celebrate. These events would give them something to talk about all through the next winter and for many years after that. Who came, what they said, how they behaved would be described and analyzed. After all this time, the King had come, he’d been friendly, outgoing, pleasant, talking to Icelanders of different social classes, shaking hands. He’d brought and left behind a constitution.
After a very long time, there was, at last, hope. That, in itself, was worth celebrating.
This visit was the culmination of many years of discussion, arguments, persuasion, agitation, not violence, no bombs, not bullets, not slaughter, and the agreements that had been come to were now being implemented with banquets, with speeches, song and poetry. Would that song and poetry could celebrate the separation of those geographic entities that do not want to be joined. Would that both sides could join in.  Would that Croat and Serb, Southern and Northern Irish, Chinese and Tibetans, all could follow the Icelandic-Danish solution.

The Great Feast at Thingvalla 1874

At Geyser, the famous water fountain has refused to perform even though a king waits expectantly. Finally, reluctantly, the king leaves because he has to return for the formal ceremonies that will take place at Thingvalla, that place where the early Icelandic parliaments were held. Here, there will be great celebrating. Many speeches will be made, many toasts drunk, many songs sung. Icelanders, famous for their choirs, will serenade the king. But the Icelanders, not quite knowing what to do with a king since none has come to Iceland before, and because they are intent on breaking free of Denmark after centuries of oppression, greet the king politely but not enthusiastically. They have little in the way of resources with which to entertain but they do their best. In Reykjavik, the banquets were made from food brought from Denmark. Here, on the great plain, most of the food is simple, Icelandic food. 
Bayard Taylor, with his party, leaves the geysers and rides to Thingvalla. The landscape is greatly decorated. A village of tents has sprung up. People have gathered from all over Iceland. Here the festivities with the King will be held.
Iceland lost its independence centuries before. Now, there was the possibility that they would regain that independence. In 1845, the Danish government had made some small concessions but, compared to the Faroes and other Danish colonies, Iceland was still treated badly.
Although the liberalization had not been much, it had been enough to create both hope and action for self-rule.
Taylor says, “The leader of the movement is Jon Sigurdsson, a name dear to the people of Iceland, although its bearer could not be present at this memorable anniversary. The Constitution which, as the King declared, he “brought with him,” is mainly due to the persistent claims and representations of Jon Sigurdsson at Copenhagen.”
Taylor summarizes the major clauses. There are seven parts.
The first part sets out the relationship; of the King and Danish Government with the Althing. Legislative power belongs to the King and the Althing. The King has the executive power. The judges have judicial power. The Governor is the most powerful person in the country and he is appointed by the King. The Althing only sits for six weeks and that once every two years.
The King has to approve any laws passed by the Althing.
In part two, the structure of the Althing is set out. There will be thirty deputies elected and six chosen by the King. If the government is dissolved, the King’s appointees continue to hold their positions. There’ll be an upper and lower house.
The third section lays out the legislative roles of the two houses. The regular Althing will meet on the “first work-day in July in Reykjavik. Each house can introduce and pass bills. The Althing has entire control of the finances of Iceland but any Danish appointees have to be paid first.
Section four describes the judiciaries’ powers.
Section five makes the Lutheran Church the state church but people have “liberty of conscience.”
Section six contains the details governing daily life. It describes the right to private property, poor-laws, elementary education, the freedom of the press, freedom of association, taxation,
The seventh section describes how the constitution shall be amended.
Royal power and Danish supremacy is guaranteed by the constitution. Still, it is a beginning. Icelanders have waited hundreds of years. They can wait a bit more.
Taylor say, “Yet, with all its illiberal and even despotic restrictions, the people accept the Constitution, for it is something. If nothing else, it is the beginning of that political education
which they have utterly lost for so many centuries, and which alone can finally qualify them to obtain their just demands.
“The great service which Jon Sigurdsson has rendered to Iceland is not so much in the gift of this Constitution as in the fact that he has broken the long apathy of the people, persuaded them to ask, and secured them a result which means courage for the future, if not satisfaction with the present. In this sense the list of August, 1874, is the opening of a new era in Iceland’s history.
 “I have rarely, if ever, been so profoundly interested in a race. Not Thingvalla, or Hekla, or the Geysers—not the desolate, fire-blackened mountains, the awful gloom of the dead lava plains, the bright lakes and majestic fiords—have repaid me for this journey, but the brief glimpse of a grand and true-hearted people, innocent children in their trust and their affections, almost more than men in their brave, unmurmmering endurance.”
(With notes and quotes from Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874, Bayard Taylor)

 

Bayard Taylor, with his party, leaves the geysers and rides to Thingvalla. The landscape is greatly decorated. A village of tents has sprung up. People have gathered from all over Iceland. Here the festivities with the King will be held.
Iceland lost its independence centuries before. Now, there was the possibility that they would regain that independence. In 1845, the Danish government had made some small concessions but, compared to the Faroes and other Danish colonies, Iceland was still treated badly.
Although the liberalization had not been much, it had been enough to create both hope and action for self-rule.
Taylor says, “The leader of the movement is Jon Sigurdsson, a name dear to the people of Iceland, although its bearer could not be present at this memorable anniversary. The Constitution which, as the King declared, he “brought with him,” is mainly due to the persistent claims and representations of Jon Sigurdsson at Copenhagen.”
Taylor summarizes the major clauses. There are seven parts.
The first part sets out the relationship; of the King and Danish Government with the Althing. Legislative power belongs to the King and the Althing. The King has the executive power. The judges have judicial power. The Governor is the most powerful person in the country and he is appointed by the King. The Althing only sits for six weeks and that once every two years.
The King has to approve any laws passed by the Althing.
In part two, the structure of the Althing is set out. There will be thirty deputies elected and six chosen by the King. If the government is dissolved, the King’s appointees continue to hold their positions. There’ll be an upper and lower house.
The third section lays out the legislative roles of the two houses. The regular Althing will meet on the “first work-day in July in Reykjavik. Each house can introduce and pass bills. The Althing has entire control of the finances of Iceland but any Danish appointees have to be paid first.
Section four describes the judiciaries’ powers.
Section five makes the Lutheran Church the state church but people have “liberty of conscience.”
Section six contains the details governing daily life. It describes the right to private property, poor-laws, elementary education, the freedom of the press, freedom of association, taxation,
The seventh section describes how the constitution shall be amended.
Royal power and Danish supremacy is guaranteed by the constitution. Still, it is a beginning. Icelanders have waited hundreds of years. They can wait a bit more.
Taylor say, “Yet, with all its illiberal and even despotic restrictions, the people accept the Constitution, for it is something. If nothing else, it is the beginning of that political education
which they have utterly lost for so many centuries, and which alone can finally qualify them to obtain their just demands.
“The great service which Jon Sigurdsson has rendered to Iceland is not so much in the gift of this Constitution as in the fact that he has broken the long apathy of the people, persuaded them to ask, and secured them a result which means courage for the future, if not satisfaction with the present. In this sense the list of August, 1874, is the opening of a new era in Iceland’s history.
 “I have rarely, if ever, been so profoundly interested in a race. Not Thingvalla, or Hekla, or the Geysers—not the desolate, fire-blackened mountains, the awful gloom of the dead lava plains, the bright lakes and majestic fiords—have repaid me for this journey, but the brief glimpse of a grand and true-hearted people, innocent children in their trust and their affections, almost more than men in their brave, unmurmmering endurance.”
(With notes and quotes from Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874, Bayard Taylor)