Keeping Our Dream Alive

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How do you keep a dream alive? A dream that is impossible, that is guaranteed to shatter against hard reality?

When the Iceland emigrants left for North America, they had little knowledge of the continent and what they thought they knew was often wrong. This was no different from any of the other ethnic groups streaming across the Atlantic.

In Michael Ewanchuk’s book,Pioneer Profiles he says that when the first Ukrainian settlers came to the New Iceland region, they went west where there was still land available, waded in swamps up to t heir waists, and when they came back to their wives and families, they cried. The information enticing emigrants exaggerated the benefits, the quality of the land, and living conditions.

The Icelanders came earlier, arriving in New Iceland in 1875, and instead of finding streets paved with gold, or even decent farm land, found bush and swamp. The marginal land in New Iceland defeated the dream of an exclusive Icelandic community. Faced with harsh conditions many left for Winnipeg or land further to the west.

In spite of this turn of events, they survived and for a hundred and forty years the Icelandic North American community has found ways to preserve its identity.

Although religion divided the community, the various churches provided a community where people could hear a service in Icelandic, could speak Icelandic and could receive help in dealing with the problems of being new immigrants. During my childhood and teenage years, the church still had a lot of authority. It taught religion and morals, a bit of history and provided solace in times of tragedy.

Few people today understand how religious the original immigrants were.The Icelandic immigrants who arrived in Manitoba were devout, intolerant, argumentative and wasted energy and resources in arguments which had little actual purpose. As usual, the religion was a vessel for containing differing views on social behaviour. Should the settlers isolate themselves, create a society that was exclusively Icelandic, that would exclude non-Icelanders, or should they attempt to integrate as quickly as possible? That question split the community.

The church services, once in Icelandic, gradually changed to English. Language is the centre of identity and it was being lost. The church, always a conservative institution loyal to the past, held on as long as it could but, finally, had to face the fact that many of its parishioners only understood English. At the same time, urbanization meant rural communities died, leaving behind graveyards and empty church buildings. The conservative forces of rural life and rural religion largely disappeared.

The Icelanders in Winnipeg created the Jon Bjarnason Academy. It was to be a Lutheran and Icelandic school. Icelandic was taught.
At first, it drew students with Icelandic backgrounds. Over time, the school drew non-Icelandic students because it was allowed to teach the equivalent of first year university. When that right was extended to other schools, the need for people to pay for their children’s education disappeared and the school closed.

Not one but two Icelandic papers were created: Logberg and Heimskringla. One Lutheran and liberal and the other Unitarian and conservative. Once again, time, resources, money were wasted in fierce, bitter battles. Looking back at things that were written by Icelanders about other Icelanders, one is tempted to say shame on them.

When the Icelandic immigrants left Iceland, their leaving was often regarded as treason. Iceland was on the cusp of getting its independence from Denmark. Some people felt that people were leaving who were needed in the struggle for independence. Others, the wealthy farmers, for example, were opposed to emigration because they were losing cheap labour. Ordinary farm workers had been exploited, some so badly that they thought that black slaves in America were better off. The leaving created a lot of hard feelings on both sides.

Somehow, even though lack of experience and knowledge meant that the immigrants went to areas where there was little or no opportunity such as Nova Scotia where all the good land was already taken, to Kinmount, where the land was not suitable for farming, to New Iceland in Manitoba where the land was so marginal that it guaranteed poverty for most people, they survived. Not just survived, but over time, prospered and with absolute determination, kept hold of their Icelandic heritage.

It took time for society to become secular and more tolerant. In the interim, the churches did provide cohesion, education, and direction. Bringing people together for services and various celebrations and events, helped to create community, helped to provide assistance to those in need, helped people deal with all too frequent tragedies. They were a stabilizing force in a changing society. First formally, then informally, they helped preserve the Icelandic language.

Although the Jon Bjarnason Academy closed, the department of Icelandic was created at the University of Manitoba. It became one of the pillars of the community, providing instruction in Icelandic and in Icelandic literature and culture. The Icelandic library became a repository for historical documents and literature.

The two papers, Logberg and Heimskringla, faced with the reality of people moving away from New Iceland and Winnipeg, with fewer people reading Icelandic, joined and became a single paper. Survival required that differences had to be set aside. The compromise created the rules that there would be no sex, no politics, and no religion. No sex was so as not to offend the ammas and aunties, no choosing sides in politics to get over the divide between the Liberal and Conservative ranting and raving, and no religion to stop the feuding between the Lutherans and Unitarians.

The paper, in spite of complaints about it not being just what any individual wants, is essential to the continuing survival of the Icelandic North American community. It is the second pillar of the community. Just saying North American is controversial. When I was editor, I had people threaten to cancel their subscription because I used North American instead of Canadian. As if all those people of Icelandic descent in Minnesota, North Dakota, Washington State, etc. don’t exist or don’t matter. We are a small group. Gathered together, we would hardly be noticed in the population in most major cities. We need every one of us. LH needs every subscription it can get.

LH is critical to the community because it tells us, or should tell us, about each other. It should entertain us but it should also inform and educate us. Without it, I wouldn’t have known about the descendants of the Icelanders in Nova Scotia. I wouldn’t have known about the descendants in Washington State. Our greatest danger is that we will lose touch with each other. We will stop knowing who we are. Outposts that are forgotten die.

In support and recognition of our ethnic identity, an Islendingadagurinn was created in Winnipeg in 1890. It was moved to Gimli in 1932. This celebration is the third pillar of our identity.

This Icelandic Celebration has helped to give the community cohesiveness. Once a year on the first weekend in August, people travel from all over North America and from Iceland to join together. VIPs from Iceland, including the Prime Minister, the President, have come to join the party. Women put on traditional dresses from the time of emigration. Plastic Viking helmets are ubiquitous. There are speeches extolling our virtues and the virtues of our visitors. There is Icelandic Canadian food. There are displays of Icelandic goods and Icelandic Canadian memorabilia. What is important, though, is that the community congregates, renews friendships, re-enforces its ethnic identity.

Sometimes in the not too distant past, some say 1971, others say, 1975, there was a rapprochement between the Icelanders in Iceland and the descendants of the settlers. My great grandfather had so little use for the Iceland he left behind at the age of eighteen that he wouldn’t even walk half a block to the site of the annual celebration. He wasn’t alone. The emigration left a lot of bitterness on both sides of the Atlantic. The schools in Iceland taught that the people who emigrated were traitors, running away when they were needed. The people who left often harboured dark memories. A lot of people on both sides of the Atlantic have worked hard at changing that and turning old enmity into friendship.

Air travel has meant that people could go to Iceland and Icelanders could come to North America. As usual, when people get to know each other, they find their prejudices against others don’t have much foundation. Now, with a tremendous effort by people like Pam Furstenau with her Icelandic Roots project, families are re-uniting. The Icelandic government has also made tremendous efforts to help the community rediscover its Icelandic identity.

We, as a community, need to provide support for Logberg-Heimskringla, the Icelandic Department at the  U. of Manitoba and Islendingadagurinn. We have a history in North America and in Iceland that is worth preserving and celebrating.

The Dying of Old Dreams

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My Irish grandfather came to Canada from Northern Ireland so he would “no longer have to carry a pistol in his pocket.”

He had joined the Orange Order in Ireland. He told me that he was the youngest member who had been inducted into the order. In Ireland, the Order was a political and military power. When I was a young boy living in Gimli, Manitoba people knew about the Orangemen but, nowadays,in North America, the name doesn’t mean anything to most people.

The Orange Order was founded in 1795. Its purpose was to protect and support the Protestant faith and, also, to protect Protestant privilege.

When I was growing up, once a year on Orangeman’s day, my mother and brother, my grandmother and I, would stand on Main Street in Winnipeg to watch my grandfather march by. Parades are always exciting for children. To me, it wasn’t any different from watching the Santa Clause parade at Christmas. There were the fifes and drums, the kilts, the colorful banners and, for a moment, my grandfather marching past wearing his sash.

At the head of the parade there was a man in a red coat, wearing a white wig and riding a white horse. Everyone applauded as King Billy rode past. After the parade was over, we went to a local park for a family picnic. There always was a stage from which some men made speeches but none of us ever sat close enough to hear what was said. We were more interested in potato salad, chicken, green salad, apple pie, and lemonade. The men’s drinks often had a bit of whiskey added to the lemonade.

I never thought to ask who King Billy was or why he led the parade. Or why, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, we were applauding a man on a white horse. Once the day was over, my grandfather put away his sash until it was used the following year.

In Northern Ireland and Scotland, King Billy was revered by the protestant population because in 1688, he invaded England, got rid of the Catholic king James II and became the king of England, Scotland and Ireland.

My grandfather often praised the Battle of the Boyne but, again, no one explained what it was or its historical importance. Or why two armies were fighting.

The Catholics were fighting for Irish sovereignty, toleration for their faith and the right to own land. When Cromwell (two of my ancestors were officers in his invading army) conquered Ireland, he took the land away from the Catholic upper classes and redistributed among his followers, including those two ancestors. He also took away a Catholic’s right to hold public office, practice Catholicism or be elected to Parliament.

From this distant perspective, Cromwell’s behaviour seems excessive and just about guaranteed rebellion. If someone came along and said I’m taking your house, you can’t be Lutheran anymore, and you can’t hold any political office, I expect that I’d be rebellious. However, much more was afoot. There were Catholic ambitions in France. There were previous conflicts in which people had been slaughtered. Everything comes with a history.

Nobody told me any of this. All I ever heard from my grandmother was that there was a book in Ireland with a hand written account of our family, that said that one of the two brothers who came with Cromwell thought so little of the land he was given that he traded it for a fighting cock (rooster) and went back to Scotland. The brother who stayed is the Irish-Scot who founded my mother’s family.

But no one ever mentioned Cromwell and, I, for my part, living in Gimli, Manitoba in the 1940s and 50’s despised history because all we seemed to do was memorize the dates and names of England’s kings and queens. The town was predominately Icelandic surrounded by Ukrainians with a few Germans and Poles. We lived a hardscrabble life. The area was the poorest in Canada except for Newfoundland. When we heard any history at home or on the street, it was Icelandic and Ukrainian and those stories were nearly always about the tragedies and triumphs of our fairly recent immigration. Nobody cared about or knew about the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Nobody cared about the Orangemen. It wasn’t our circus and they weren’t our monkeys. Well, it was our family’s circus a bit and we were monkeys in this circus, but we were barely on stage.

The only Irish elements in my life were my grandparents’ thick accents, the occasional Irish lottery tickets (which were illegal), the annual parade and my grandfather, if he’d had a few drinks, declaring “Down with the Pope.” But there, too, no one bothered to explain who the pope was. There was no TV in those days. Radio news didn’t provide any clues as to who he might be. In any case, I was much more interested in rushing home from school at noon hour to hear the beginning of The Happy Gang and to have soup and a sandwich before I rushed back to school to kick around a soccer ball.

As well, I had good friends in Gimli who were Catholic. We went to school together, we played together, we shared holiday meals like Christmas and New Year’s and we went to each other’s birthdays. If someone had said that Catholics should have houses taken away from them or that they had no right to go to church or be on the town council, I would have thought that person was a monster.

Over the years, the Orange parades, once long, became short, the young men became old men and, gradually, there were fewer and fewer of them. King Billy’s soldiers were conquered by age and by the fact that Ireland’s conflicts weren’t Manitoba’s conflicts. The present gradually pushed aside the past. Public schooling can take a lot of the credit for that. Play on a hockey team, curling team, soccer team, baseball team, sit beside someone all day in the classroom, get crushes on the opposite sex, go to dances together, it all helped make the present matter and the past largely irrelevant for my generation.

There have been attempts to hang onto vestiges of the past. Romantic nostalgia. In Gimli, we’ve had decades and decades of the Islendingadagurinn that became the Icelandic Celebration that became the Icelandic Festival and which will probably morf into the Gimli cultural festival or the pickerel festival and be more concerned about bringing business into town than preserving an Icelandic heritage. It’s harder and harder to get volunteers. A lot of people are like me, a mongrel: half Irish, three eighths Icelandic, one eighth English.

The same is  happening to the descendents of the Ukrainians, Poles and Germans.

The Northern Irish were assimilated quickly, became part of the mainstream. When my grandfather came to Winnipeg, his accent got him a job at Eaton’s. Those days are long gone. Eaton’s, once a powerhouse, is long gone. Companies are often multi-national with employees posted around the world.

Time betrayed my grandfather as it betrays us all. Gout kept him from marching and then there were no marches, no fifes and drums, no King Billy on a white horse.

It’s not just the Irish, of course. The people of Icelandic descent in what is called New Iceland who are FBis (full blooded Icelanders) grow fewer and fewer. Our children marry people from every tribe and race. The world has grown smaller with immigration and travel. We live in a society divided by classes determined by money but not so much by ethnicity or history. The conflict in the Middle East with people murdering each other over differing views of how the world was created or what clothes women should wear seems like something from Medieval Times but it wasn’t so long ago that my ancestors were murdering and being murdered by their neighbours.

It’s interesting and amusing to know that somewhere in the distant past, one of my Irish relatives is supposed to have led King Billy across the Boyne River, that relatives fought with Cromwell but it is irrelevant to my daily life. I’m more concerned nowadays with global warming, with conflict in the Ukraine, with conflict in the Middle East, with the price of oil, with drug dealling, with the stock market, with the degradation of the environment, with poverty in our society.

This is the circus in which I perform every day.