When our Icelandic ancestors were faced with starving to death or risking their lives immigrating to North America, they had little idea of what they were getting into. An entire continent covered in endless forest. Just the size of North America was beyond comprehension. In place of valleys and mountains, there were days of traveling through dense forest. Winter, in Iceland, could be bitter, but not with the temperatures of the prairies.

The immigration agents came. There were brochures. There even may have been some letters from people who left early. But nothing prepared them for what was to come. The Canadian government was not soliciting immigrants for the benefit of the immigrants. They wanted immigrants to produce goods and order goods that would be transported on the railways. Politicians and businessmen wanted immigrants because they could make money on them.

There were no preparatory classes. No one said “We want immigrants to come to Canada. How can we help assure that they are successful?” No one bothered to look at the country of origin, learn about the immigrants and create a program to prepare them for what they would face. It would have taken very little to provide classes. Those could have been held in the harbours as the emigrants waited for their ships or they could have been held on the ships that went from Iceland to Scotland and from Scotland to Montreal.

How intelligent did someone have to be to look at Iceland and say, “No trees. They live in rock and sod huts. We’d better have a class on cutting down trees, preparing the logs for building, chinking the logs. Using an axe. There are no large wild animals in Iceland. We’d better teach them to use rifles and shotguns and how to hunt and trap. How to fish. The kinds of nets to use. The best way to clear land. The preparation of Canadian food. All of this, and more, could have been done on board the ships.

Local natives could have been hired for next to nothing to instruct the settlers how to best prepare for a winter in Canada.

The result was that the situation of the Icelanders became so desperate that they had to have help for internal relocation. They were the only group to receive such help. That help came from the sheer good luck of having Lord Dufferin as a powerful friend in Ottawa. Even with that help, there were desperate times.
What help and advice there was had to come from the Icelandic agents who helped recruit them. However, they did not have the resources to arrange for teachers on the ships who would over a period of two weeks or more teach the immigrants the basic skills they would need. The government and the railways had all the resources necessary.

The callous treatment of the immigrants wasn’t because the government didn’t have any money. They were spending millions on building railways. Graft was rife. To make matters worse the government, unless they were completely incompetent, knew that the immigrants were highly vulnerable. Many Icelanders didn’t speak English. They didn’t understand the Canadian legal system. They were dealing with corporations that cheated them on prices while providing poor equipment and food. All this could have been remedied by providing someone to represent them in business matters.

We often talk about the hardship of our pioneer ancestors but hardship can often be alleviated and alleviated at minimal cost. The hardship of the immigrants was, in large part, caused by dishonesty, corruption and callousness. Immigrants were seen as an opportunity for exploitation.

I’d add racism for many times I’ve heard about how Icelanders were not treated as equals by the British population in Winnipeg. Most people know the story of the Falcons and their struggle to be treated as equals in hockey. Or Icelanders killed at work sites simply being dismissed as Icelanders rather than as individuals.

Except, if you read Barry Broadfoot, you discover that even though the government preferred English, Irish and Scots settlers, they didn’t treat them any better. The immigration brochure at the top of this article makes no bones about how British subjects were preferred. Yet, the clerks and bakers and bookbinders from London, England who believed the propaganda about the glories of Canada and found themselves in sod huts on the prairies, miles from help and support, faced with trying to clear and break land, received less help than the Icelanders. The casualties were high. Suicide was common. Disease widespread. Despair everywhere.

And the agents that hung around the train terminals were no more honest with the English settlers than the Icelandic. Many cheated and stole at every opportunity.

Some decisions made by the government were just acts of gross stupidity. When people emigrated, they needed mutual support, they needed neighbours nearby. They couldn’t get that on 160 acres. The breaking of the land into quarter sections and, to make matters worse, often making intervening sections unavailable, isolated the settlers, deprived them of family, friends and community. How smart do you have to be to say this is not in the best interest of the settlers? We should organize the land in ways that made it easier for people to support each other. Instead, the land was divided up in a way that would maximize profit for the railways and the government.

However, the politicians and powerful businessmen, particularly those on the railways, weren’t interested in the welfare of the settlers, the Icelandic ones, the English ones, the German ones, none of them. Fortunes were being made by people closely connected with the power brokers in Ottawa. Your people and mine were cannon fodder. That they survived and, finally, prospered, is a miracle that needs to be recorded, honored, remembered.

When I look at old newspapers and magazines from Winnipeg and see advertisements for Icelandic businesses, I am amazed. The fishermen and farmers carved a living out of forest and lake and the Icelandic businessmen elbowed their way onto the streets of Winnipeg and made a living in a hostile environment.

To deny the callousness, the corruption, the exploitation, the dishonesty that existed is to take away credit from our people.

Putting food on the table, establishing a business, getting an education, making a place in society wasn’t made easy. It wasn’t just the land and the weather that our people had to overcome.

But people like my great grandfather, coming to Canada with nothing, created a dairy, bought a farm, partnered in a general store. I don’t think the establishment reached out a helping hand. For that, he needed the Icelandic community.

I think as we celebrate Islendingadagurinn, we need to pause and look around at what we have accomplished, as a community, in Canada, in the USA, and say, “The lives we lead, our place in society, was built on sacrifice and hardship, bravery and determination. We need to stop at the pioneer graveyards and say, “Bless you. Bless you.”

On Education

I stumbled into university because I had a summer job with a group of guys from a higher social class than me. Their fathers were doctors and lawyers or had good permanent jobs and the families lived in areas like River Heights. When the grades came out, they said to me, “Your grades are as good as ours. Why don’t you come to university?”

University? What was that? My father was a fisherman and, in the off season, he had a barber shop.

One of the guys helped me register. I entered a world of professors, lectures, time tables, libraries, research. Entered is probably too strong a word. I tumbled, stumbled, fell, into a world run by the clock, not the seasons.

It never occurred to me that I was taking philosophy, political science, English, economics, French, so that I could get a job. There already were jobs. I could go commercial fishing. Or I could go to Red River College and take a trade. Be a carpenter like my grandfather. Or I could get a job on the railway like my other grandfather.

Working class to the core, that was us. Graduating from high school was an accomplishment. Many working class kids left after grade ten. Got jobs driving trucks, on construction, on the highway, in maintenance. The ones with parents already in the trades or who understood the importance of a ticket that would allow entrance into a union—plumbers, carpenters, electricians—got an apprenticeship.

I went to university because I wanted an education. I wanted to know, to understand, to think. I wanted to take courses in logic, the theory of the small business, the way Locke and Rousseau and Hobbes thought. I wanted to be able to speak and write and organize.

My education was a family thing. My parents were only able to help a little. My grandparents provided room and board. I had my summer job. It was enough.

I was lucky. Tuition was 300.00 a year. Books probably came to about 100.00. Bus fare was, if I remember correctly, 10 tickets for a dollar. My grandmother sent me off each day with a sandwich and a piece of fruit or a cut up vegetable.

Professors were poorly paid. So poorly paid that it was better financially to be a public school teacher. Then the government got involved. Someone once said there is nothing  more terrifying than a politician turning up at your door and saying, “I’ve come to help you.” It looked good, at first. Professors got paid better.

The government wasn’t interested in educating the public. They were interested in being able to demonstrate that they were doing something to help people get a job. Billboards appeared saying things like “Go to college and get a job.” To the government, university wasn’t about education, it was about being a trade school. It was about helping them get re-elected. Their logic, of course, was absurd.

When I graduated, if I got hired, it wasn’t going to be because I had skills like bookkeeping or driving a semi-trailer. I got hired because I’d shown that I could think, that I had an education that allowed me to read and understand, to paraphrase, to condense, to report, to explain, to organize and had an area of specialized knowledge. Yes, graduates did get jobs but it was, certainly in those days, partly because they were educated but also because the educated usually came from families in the middle class, upper middle class, even the upper class (and, yes, Canada has all those classes), families who had connections, who knew the right people, who had already trained their children in social niceties and behaviors. A degree was a ticket but to cash it in, daddy often picked up the telephone and called a friend.

No wonder that today there are articles about people being angry because the promise of go to university and get a job has been shown to be a fraud. Today, I read an article on a site called Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis that 37.5% of Graduates Work in Jobs Requiring No Degree. Graduates and their families are also angry about the cost of that education. I paid 300 dollars tuition for the year. Today, that doesn’t even pay for one half course. There are some colleges and universities where tuition is close to 50,000 dollars a year in the United States. I’d be angry, too, if I’d paid that much money a year in tuition plus other costs for three years and had been told that I was investing that money in a job that was going to pay mega bucks. Especially if when I graduated, I had mega debt and was working as a barista.

In Canada, we don’t have all the private universities that exist in the United States. That may be why that on average, undergraduate students in Ontario who paid the highest fees in Canada paid, on average, $7,180.00. However undergrads in dentistry paid $16,910.00. That’s a lot of moola. How long does it take to save $7,180.00, never mind $16,910.00. At least the dentists assume that they are going to make good money, after, of course, they pay off their debts, buy a practice or set up a practice with all its attendant expenses.

Of course, there are other fees the university collects. Then there’s room and board, travel, books, and who knows what else. A student can end up owing as much money as I paid for my first house.

Part of the problem is that education has always been about prestige. The social ranking of universities worldwide is brutal. Everybody knows where everybody else got their degree and there is a class structure that is unforgiving. Go ahead, just tell someone you graduated from some local college and that your degree is as good as one from Yale, Harvard, Oxford. You may be right. You may be as well educated. It won’t do any good. You’re living at the wrong address in the wrong neighbourhood. People will pay huge amounts of money for a prestigious address.

University administrators are smart people. They know on which side of their bread is buttered. The government has said go to university and get a job. The universities have put money into programs with saleable skills and then reinforced that with Co-operative Education programs. Even our Creative Writing program at the University of Victoria had a Co-op option. You want to be a poet, fine, but go out on work terms, become an editor, learn to write government reports, business reports, brochures, PR, whatever, so when you graduate, you won’t be working as a barista or selling bread in a bakery. Some went the Co-op route. Others chose not to. The ones who went the Co-op route were a help at budget time. We were able to say to the government overseers, see, we’re a trade school, too.

If people think that a university degree is like papers for an electrician or, if they think it should be, god help them. They should be getting an apprenticeship. Or they should be taking dentistry, medical, or pharmacy. There has been a shortage in those areas. Good thing. Those are degrees that are worthless unless there is a job on graduation. That’s the problem with highly focused training.

I often recommended to my students that they get both a university degree and their papers in a trade. As a democracy, we desperately need an educated populace and educated shouldn’t only apply to the middle and upper classes. We need to vote. We need to understand complex issues. We need to be able to see through lies and manipulation. We need to be educated. Being trained won’t help us manage our democracy.

If 37.5% of graduates are working in jobs that don’t require a degree so what? Most degree requirements for jobs are artificial. Over a lifetime, people nowadays change jobs many times. A while ago, I read about a surgeon who quit medicine to become a high school teacher.  High school teachers quit to become real estate agents. So what? I’m not sorry that people in jobs that don’t require a degree are educated.

If you or your kids are thinking of going to university because you think it is going to guarantee you or them a job that pays so much money that the cost, no matter how high it is, doesn’t matter, then give your head a shake. I know an engineer, top notch, has worked for the most prestigious government and private organizations. He’s been unemployed for over three years. India is churning out engineers. Tens of thousands of engineers. They work cheap. So much for the value of all those practical courses.

Personally, I think universities shouldn’t try to be trade schools. They should educate people. Most jobs require a very narrow set of skills that are endlessly repeated. Let employers do the training.