What They Stole

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I grew up in Gimli, Manitoba. Gimli is regarded as the heart of New Iceland. It is, in many ways, the focal point for the individuals of Icelandic extraction in North America and for the various Icelandic North American communities.

When I was growing up in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, Gimli still retained much of its Icelandic character. Relatives and friends still spoke Icelandic over coffee and in the stores. The Lutheran ministers were often from Iceland. A lot of the food was Icelandic, particularly the desserts. We ate skyr and rullapylsa and kleiner and ponnokokur. Iselendingadagurinn was a local celebration for locals and their extended families. People came from near and far to renew acquaintances.

People were tremendously proud of their Icelandic heritage.

Until around 1971 there wasn’t much travel between Iceland and North America, at least not from New Iceland. With increased ease of air travel and lower costs, visiting back and forth began

One of the outcomes of the separation between the people in Iceland and the immigrants and their descendants for decades was that a romantic notion of Iceland developed. That’s quite normal with all immigrant cultures.

Cherished by the immigrant community was the belief that Icelanders were exceptionally honest. All through my childhood and adolescence, I heard people talking about how honest Icelanders were. There were no police because there was no need for them.  Even though a prison had been built by the Danes there was never anyone in it.

The exceptional honesty of Icelanders sprang from fertile soil. Early explorers commented on this honesty and generosity of spirit in the face of poverty and hardship. Travel writers always read what had been previously written about Iceland and seldom questioned it. They’d come to visit for a few weeks in the summer when the weather permitted. They’d travel about the countryside, staying in farms, study birds, look at saga landscapes, investigate the mineralogy, then return to England or Scotland or America before the weather trapped them in Iceland for the winter. Attitudes in a previous book got incorporated in the next book by the next author.

In New Iceland there was a culture of dignity and honesty. That didn’t mean that everyone of Icelandic descent was honest or dignified but there was an attitude about appropriate behaviour and it was an attitude that transcended poverty. I remember once, as an adolescent, doing something foolish and my mother saying to me, “Why would you do that? You’re a Valgardson.” Within the community there was a certain standard of behaviour expected. Although that standard was broken at times, everyone was aware that it had been broken.

Romantic visions are important. Some would dismiss them for cold, hard facts. That is a mistake. Romantic visions often help hold us together, give us unity in the face of difficulty.

Cold hard logic would have instructed the first settlers to look after themselves first, to follow the saying “What’s in it for me?” Instead, in the face of tremendous hardships, they shared their homes, their food, their resources with friends, neighbours, countrymen. They had a romantic vision of who they were and what their ethnic background required of them in terms of compassion and justice.

When the idea that greed is good, that there was no social responsibility to ones relatives, friends, neighbours, countrymen spread through Iceland and making money in vast amounts seemed to be possible, people in the Icelandic community in North America were initially impressed. It was a bit like the PeeWee hockey team winning the NHL. The cry of look at our people, powerful, strong, like the Vikings, although the people saying it seldom knew anything about the Vikings outside of Hollywood movies or comic books. They had it wrong, of course. They should not have said look at those Vikings.  They should have been saying look at those Turkish pirates who have come to steal and do harm to us.

When the kreppa came and Iceland’s economy crashed and the behaviour of those who created the crash was revealed, we discovered that a lot of Icelanders got hurt by other Icelanders. The people who created the crash cared nothing for their relatives, friends, fellow Icelanders. Community ceased to exist. There was a large cost to the people of Iceland so that a small handful of Icelanders could benefit. This financial disaster wasn’t done to the Icelandic people by foreigners. This was like the Turkish raids. Except this was Icelanders pillaging their own people.

The Turkish raiders sold Icelandic men, women and children into slavery. The reckless, irresponsible behaviour of the bankers who caused the kreppa, if the penalties demanded by England and Holland had been enforced, would have been turned into economic slaves for decades to come.

However, the cost wasn’t just internal. The cost also occurred in the diaspora, not just because some Icelandic North Americans got conned into investing money in this banker’s folly of greed. Few had the kind of money that attracted these pirates who came to North America on their raiding. I was told when Landsbanki had representatives in Gimli that they weren’t interested in anyone unless he had a million dollars to invest. Our unimpressive wealth saved many of us from folly.

No, the cost to Iceland is not the hostility of a few individuals who lost money in the banker’s schemes. The loss was of our belief in the honesty of Icelanders. It was a cherished belief. It was a belief of which the community was proud. It was part of our identity and our heritage.

The community could say, yes, we come from a tiny country. Three hundred and twenty thousand people. That’s the population of a small Canadian city. It has no large role to play in world politics. However, the characteristics of its people are unique and one of those characteristics is an exceptional honesty.

No one I meet says that anymore. The bankers took people’s money, their savings, their investments, their pensions, everything they could. That the Turks would raid Iceland, stealing, enslaving, killing was cruel but understandable. They were foreigners from a different culture. That Icelanders could beggar other Icelanders, deprive them of their incomes, their homes, their savings, was not understandable. Hopefully, the money can be replaced.

Unfortunately, there are things that once lost cannot be replaced. One of those things is people’s belief in the honesty of the people from which they are descended. This cost is far bigger than the money lost. These Turkish raiders should live in shame, should be shunned, disowned, cast out. Yes, they’re our relatives. That makes their crimes much worse. Iceland would be better off without them. Banishment  was used in the sagas. Perhaps it is time to implement it again.