Go West Young Man

egillsicelanders

Egill’s Icelandic tour group, guests of the Icelanders of Victoria.

I have the greatest admiration for the settlers who came from Iceland during the 1870s into the early 1900s. These people risked everything. Many paid with their lives. They came because they wanted better lives, more opportunity and, above all, land. The Icelanders were not the only ones leaving behind an old life to risk a new one. People were coming from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, England, Scotland. Later, in the 1890s, the East Europeans would begin to flood into Western Canada.

When Horace Greeley, the 1871 editor of the New York Times, was asked by a young man working at the paper what he should do, he said that anyone who had to earn a living should go where workers are needed and wanted, where they will be hired because they’re needed, not because someone was doing them a favour. His advice was to go West but before anyone went West, he should have learned how to chop, plough and mow.

The Icelandic immigrants were at a great disadvantage when they arrived in Canada. They had only mastered mowing because in Iceland their only crop was hay. How could they have learned to chop? They’d come from a treeless land to a land of endless forests. How could they have learned to plough? They were used to being herdsmen, not grain farmers. They sowed no crops so they had no need to plough. How could they have known how to clear the land, to plough it, to seed it, to grow grain?

In Iceland, grazing land was at a premium. Good land for raising hay was owned by the church, the crown and private farmers. The figures from a survey in 1695 show there were 4059 farms. The Crown owned 718, the church owned 1494 and farmers owned 1847. The majority of the population were indentured servants, laborers, or crofters residing on marginal land. Two hundred years later not much had changed. New grazing land couldn’t be conjured out of the lava deserts.

The other skill that the Icelanders brought with them was that of deep sea fishing. To their sorrow, the immigrants discovered that the equipment and skills of deep sea fishing did not apply well to fishing on fresh water lakes that froze over in winter.

Yet, driven by lack of opportunity because of the shortage of land, the oppression of the ruling class (by both Danish and Icelandic) and volcanic eruptions that destroyed precious grazing land, some Icelanders made the decision to emigrate tp Amerika. They first settled in Nova Scotia and Ontario but good lands in Nova Scotia and Ontario were already taken.

They searched for more suitable land where they could apply the skills and knowledge they had in raising sheep, milk cows and in fishing. They ended up at Willow Point on Lake Winnipeg.

The stopped for a time in Winnipeg but decided to continue on to the area they called New Iceland. The decision to leave Winnipeg even though it was late in the season proved disastrous. In spite of its name, Iceland, Iceland’s weather is not like Manitoba’s.

They had learned something of chopping in Nova Scotia and Ontario but they were not skilled woodsmen. In Iceland, they built of lava rock and turf. At Willow Point they had to build houses from trees.

Unprepared for one of the coldest winters on record, the settlers were faced with conditions so unbearable that many of the stronger adults, and the older children capable of seeking work, walked to Selkirk and Winnipeg. According to Dr. Thompson in his history of Riverton, “the men found work at 10 to 20 dollars a month on the farms. Women and children were hired as domestics in Winnipeg homes. Only about one hundred were left in the original settlement when scurvy broke out. Thirty-four of the remaining one hundred died from the disease.”

The second group arrived and New Iceland was repopulated for a time. But good land was hard to find among the swamps and there was no way of draining off the water. Having made the long journey from Iceland, many now continued moving west, always looking for good land and opportunity. Some went to North Dakota where they found good land that was easier to prepare for crops.

Canada is vast. The distances a person has to travel is great. To travel by car from Gimli, Manitoba to Victoira, BC takes three ten  hour days.

Canadian distances are unimaginable for many people who have not lived here. Three days of steady driving in a modern car at speeds of 100 to 120 k an hour. To get some idea of how much slower travel was a hundred years ago, I will cite a biography written by a woman who left Edmonton, Alberta in a wagon pulled by horses during the winter of 1913. This was 38 years after the settlers arrived at Gimli. This winter journey to Slave Lake took a month In brutally cold weather.

Dr. Thompson in his history of Riverton says that Stefan Eyolfson left the Icelandic River settlement for North Dakota. He carried all he owned on his back, and walked the entire 320 kms, driving ahead of him two cows.

Nowadays, people sometimes say, it would have made sense for the first groups of Icelandic immigrants to have settled on the West Coast. There are greater similarities between between the West Coast of Canada and the coasts of Iceland. There was deep sea fishing for halibut and cod, there was a salmon fishery. The ocean didn’t freeze over. The climate was closer to Iceland’s than the climate of New Iceland.

What they leave out is that until the railways reached the West Coast of Canada, the prairies and then the mountains formed an insurmountable barrier.

Until the railway reached the Coast, a traveler in the East had to take a ship around the Horn. Such a trip was long and dangerous. The ocean around Cape Horn is known for storms, large waves, powerful currents and even icebergs. So many ships foundered in the waters off Cape Horn that it was regarded as a sailor’s graveyard.

Faced with the difficulties in New Iceland, many of the settlers began moving West—like Stefan Eyolfson often walking, or on wagons pulled by oxen and horses but the distances that could be traveled were small. They went west of Winnipeg to Brandon, to Argyle. When the railroad reached Swift Current, Sask., settlers took wagons, cattle, equipment in boxcars, then unloaded and drove away onto the vast prairie.

In 1886, the first train went to Port Moody, B.C. In 1887, the first CPR passenger train arrived in Vancouver. Some Icelanders were on those first trains to BC. We have been coming to BC ever since. There is evidence of this migration everywhere you look. Some of it is in graveyards but some of it is right here, right now. Fred Bjarnason from Golden, BC, came to Victoria to work as a chef. Janis Olof Magnusson, from Winnipeg’s west end moved to Regina, Saskatchewan, then to BC to work as an agricultural economist. I moved to Victoria to be a professor at the University of Victoria.

Richard Beck moved from North Dakota to Victoria when he retired. He brought with him his passion for all things Icelandic and he and his wife, Margaret, created the Richard and Margaret Beck Trust at the U. of Victoria. With the income from that money, the trust has brought over a hundred experts on many aspects of Icelandic history, society and culture to give lectures. The Beck Trust has sponsored summer school courses, including courses in Icelandic film.

Bob Aesgeirson who you will have seen on Vesturfarar and may have met in Vancouver, told me that he was working as a radio announcer in Winnipeg. He left Winnipeg in a raging blizzard to have a holiday in Vancouver. When he got off the train in Vancouver, there was a light, warm rain. He bought a return ticket to Winnipeg, quit his job and moved to Vancouver. On Salt Spring Island Ian Sigvaldason has come from Arborg to create a beautiful art gallery.

There are endless stories of this journey West, both historic and current. But one of the most fascinating is that of Christian Sivertz and Elinborg Samuelsdottir. Although Christian’s last name was Sivertz, he was a hundred percent Icelandic. His family took that name Sivertsen to honour a Dane who helped the family and then when Christian was crossing the Canadian border, he decided to drop the sen and the border guard added a z. This is one of the perils of immigration.

Christian Sivertz and Elinborg Samuelsdottir both came separately from Iceland. They knew no English. Christian arrived in Winnipeg in 1883. Christian worked long, hard hours in Winnipeg for little pay. He traveled West to Victoria in 1890. He was 25 years old.

After he arrived he met Elinborg Samuelsdottir who had left Iceland in 1888 with two brothers and two sisters. They had spent two years in Winnipeg. At the time they arrived in Victoria there were about 20 Icelandic families.

I mention the Sivertz family because I got to know Ben Sivertz, the youngest son, quite well. On many a Sunday in good weather, although he was in his 80s, he would leave his retirement home and walk a mile uphill to my house with a bottle of expensive gin. He’d arrive looking as neat and tidy as the naval officer he once was. He’d have a drink of gin and coffee and a visit and then I’d drive him back to his retirement home where we’d have lunch. He was typically Icelandic in that he did not brag. We all know that bragging is at the top of Icelandic Canadian sins. He was so modest that I knew Ben for a long time before I discovered that he’d been awarded a medal, the Order of the British Empire, for his work during the war. It also took quite a while before I discovered that he was rich. He is the only person I’ve ever known who owned an original Van Gogh. His parent’s trip West had given him an exceptional life. Opportunity existed and he made the most of it.

I also mention the Sivertz family because their story is so typical in many ways. They came to Canada because there was a lack of opportunity in Iceland in the 1880s. They didn’t know English. They first settled in Winnipeg.. They came to Victoria and joined a small community of Icelanders who had arrived before them. Ben says about his father, Christian, that he was proud of being Icelandic, but also, of being a British citizen. That was typical of the Icelanders.

The Victoria that the Icelanders came to was very British. It was a place of coal barons who could afford to build places like Craigdarroch Castle. It was a city with aboriginal people who had a highly developed culture evident in their totem poles and art work. Victoria was a city of street cars and four story stone and brick buildings. Many of the buildings that were here when Christian and Elinborg arrived still exist. There were newspapers and aboriginal canoe races on the Gorge. There was high tea, formal dress, outdoor picnics, and cricket.

Like many Icelandic families, when their children went to public school, the Sivertz were faced with a problem. Their first son was used to speaking Icelandic at home but the school was in English. They decided that they should speak English to their children. That was a decision that many of our parents made. To get ahead in an English dominated society, one had to look and speak English.

But there is something else the Icelandic settlers brought with them and that was a desire for their children to be educated.

Think about the situation of those first settlers in New Iceland. They landed on a sand bar as winter was beginning. They had ratty second hand Hudson Bay tents for shelter. Their first task was to build as many log cabins as there were stoves.

Yet, nine days after their landing at Willow Point, John Taylor, their leader, sent a letter to the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba saying
“The Icelanders in the colony are desirous of having a school for their children as soon as they can put up a schoolhouse They have a teacher with them and wish to be connected to the regular educational system of Canada.”

Nine days after landing. Wanting a schoolhouse. That, to me, is amazing. They had traveled all this distance with great difficulty, had undergone severe hardships, and now were in the midst of the wilderness in a completely foreign land and what they wanted was a school house. It was 1875.

The settlers could only build as many cabins as there were stoves. The result was crowded, inadequate shelter. Some of the food the Icelanders were sold in Winnipeg was of poor quality. Once the lake froze over, to keep from starving, they had to learn how to fish under the ice. Yet, before Christmas, Caroline Taylor, the niece of John Taylor, opened a school in English. Thirty people enrolled. Imagine the situation. Winter, snow drifts, blizzards, no roads, isolation, inadequate food, illness because they didn’t have the cows they were promised. In Iceland, milk had been a major part of their diet. Yet, they had a school. And people struggled through the snow and cold to get there.

The next year when the smallpox started, the school was disbanded. Temporarily disbanded. One hundred and three people died from the smallpox. The settlement was devastated. Yet, once the smallpox was over, Jane Taylor restarted the school, this time with sixty-three students.

In the following years, Rev. Pall Thorlakson held classes. In 1885 Gudni Thiorsteinsson organized and taught classes. There was Sigrdur G. Thorarensen and Johann P. Solmundsson and Bjorn B. Olson. All of them and many others were determined to see that children would get an education.

Most of these classes were of short duration. Classes would be held for weeks or months. In 1878-79, For example, Kristjan Jonsson conducted elementary classes on Sundays and Wednesdays. Classes were held in whatever space was available.

Finally, in 1890, fifteen years after the settlers arrived, the same year Christian Sivertz left Winnipeg for Victoria, the school district bought a building from the Lutheran church. It was a large log cabin. Enough people wanted an education that this building had to be enlarged and the first high school section added.

In 1915, the brick school was built. It had six rooms. A dream that had begun in 1875, 40 years before was finally realized. The school cost 20,000 dollars. It seems like a small amount of money but it was actually a large amount.

In 1915 the average yearly salary was 687.00 a year for a man; 343.00 for a woman. Eggs, 34 cents a dozen. A pound of steak, 26 cents. A lb. of bacon, 27 cents. A loaf of bread, 7 cents. Gasoline was 15 cents a gallon.

The desire for their children to be educated was carried by the westward traveling Icelanders all the way to the coast.
Ben Sivertz says at the beginning of the book he wrote about his father that his father was a laborer and his mother did housekeeping. His father, Christian, finally got a job as a postman delivering mail. Being a mailman paid enough that they had their own house and they could afford to educate their six sons. Their sons did not need to become indentured servants with no future.

Henry, the eldest, took teacher training and taught school before joining the army. He was killed in the war. Gus, the second son, became an optometrist and then a reporter with the Vancouver Sun. Chris earned a Phd and became a prof of Chem at U. of Western On. Vic earned a Phd and became a Prof chem. at U. of Washington Sam was a bank officer in Shanghai until WWII He then joined the armed forces and after the war became an office manager. Ben, the youngest son, became a Navy officer. Then he joined the Department of External Affairs setting up consulates. He became the last Commissionaire of the North West Territories.

There were many others who came west. Some stopped in Brandon, Manitoba, in Regina, Saskatchwan, in Foam Lake, Saskatchewan, in Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta. In the interior of British Columbia. Others came to the coast and created Icelandic communities in Vancouver, Port Roberts, Blaine, Bellingham, and Seattle, etc.

There was Gisli Gudmundsson from the Western Fjords and his wife Sigurbjorg. The lived in Wpg for several years, then went to Victoria. From there to Point Roberts.

Jonas Saemundsson from Grafarkot. He came to Amerika in 1889. He lived in Wpg, then went to Victoria and finally to Point Roberts in 1904.
Arni Myrdal emigrated with his parents and lived with them through the misery in New Iceland, the notorious small pox, scarlet fever and many illnesses that followed. His two sisters died there that winter. He went to Pembina and from there to Victoria. He went to Point Roberts. He was the first man in Point Roberts to have electric lights in his house.

There was another Icelandic settlementcalled Osland on Smith Island. It is in the mouth of the Skeena River. This is seven hunded kilometres north and was the site of a large salmon fishery. Small as the settlement was it included Haldorsons, Johnsons, Philipsons, Freemans, Odddsons, Grimsons, Kristmansons, Snidals and many others. It was settled by a mix of bachelors and families between the early 1900s and 1940s.

These people had made the great trek West. They had created an Icelandic colony on an island. They fished, raised animals, worked in the cannery in Prince Rupert. Elin Einarsson’s memories are in the Osland history. This is what she says “At times during the winter months we would be locked in by the ice that came down the river. Before winter set in my father would go to Prince Rupert for supplies—sacks of flour and sugar, butter in 14 pound boxes and a quarter of beef. The men would hunt deer for extra meat during the winter. My dad made a good root cellar with a cement floor below our house. We stored vegetables from my mother’s garden there. Potatoes in large bins and carrots and beets in barrels of sand. During the summer my mother was kept busy tending the gardens and the animals while the men were fishing. She would salt fish and preserve salmon and fruit in jars for the winter. Every weekend she baked a layer cake spread with jam filling for the family. Vinartarta was special and only baked at Christmas and Easter. “

“The Eyolfson family had a green gage plum tree that produced the best plums on the island.”

G. Olafson says “One year Pop said if he caught over2,000 sockeye he’d buy me a .22. Well he did and I got it, 12 years old and got my first deer with it that Fall. One morning, later on, Frances woke me up early in the morning to tell me a nice deer was standing behind our house so I took pop’s 30 30 and nailed it. Had to get Uncle Walter to help me skin it and cut it up.”

“Lots of wild berries,–blueberries, huckleberries, salmon berries and salal and crabapples. Mom grew gooseberries and currant and once in a while we’d have a few plums and apples off the trees.”

The metamorphosis has begun. There are no deer in Iceland. No plum and apple trees. They still speak Icelandic.They still make vinarterta, an Icelandic seven layer cake. But one only has to read this description of daily life to know that this is a Canadian talking about Canadian experience.

These people came West, as far West as it was possible to go, and made a life for themselves at Osland. They made a living boat building, running a shingle mill, logging, pile driving, sheep raising, goat raising, working in fish canneries. Icelanders spread along the West coast all the way to California. Some went to Hollywood to pursue the dream of becoming a successful actor. They were make the journey from being Icelandic to becoming Canadians and American of Icelandic descent.

Their children and grandchildren got educated and became doctors and lawyers and nurses and started their own businesses. They found good jobs and had their own families. The original settlers made a heroic journey from Iceland, to Scotland, to Quebec City, to New Iceland, always west, across the prairies where headstones in lonely graveyards testify to their journey but they reached the West Coast and they found, I believe, what they were seeking: a good life for them and their families.

Movie Review”: Of Horses and Men

ofhorses
You usually know that when people start praising the landscape in a movie, that the movie is terrible and they’re desperately trying to find something good to say. Or when people say, weren’t the giraffes, lions, gazelles, porpoises, horses wonderful, you know they’re talking about a turkey. The amazing thing about the movie, Of Horses and Men, that the Icelanders of Victoria watched this afternoon at the University of Victoria is that one can honestly say wasn’t the landscape fantastic, weren’t the horses gorgeous and while both are true, one can also say “What a good movie.”

Benedikt Erlingsson, the director, deserves a great deal of praise for this understated narrative of rural Iceland that is riven through with the unexpected, the tragic and the comic.

Erlingsson obviously understands how to tell a story visually. Easy to say, hard to do. Many directors simply do not understand how powerful subtle visual narrative can be. They burden a movie with dialogue.

Kolbeinn (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), the main male character in this movie whose disrupted courting provides a unifying thread for the middle aged love story, has a white mare that he treasures. She is difficult and it takes some effort for him to get a halter onto her. That the importance of the journey Kobeinn is going to take is made clear by the fact that he has a button come off his good jacket and he stops to sew it back on. He is dressed very much as the rural Icelandic gentleman. Waiting for him on a neighbouring farm is a middle-aged Solveig (Charlotte Boving), her young son, and Solveig’s mother.

The importance of this courting coffee visit is made clear in glances, expressions, body movements and that formality is nicely counterpointed with something as simple as Solveig’s son taking off the horse’s saddle and putting it on the steps.

Packed into this beginning of man, horse, romantic interest, is imagery that is repeated to great effect all through the movie. That is the reality of everyone in the valley knowing everyone else’s business and watching for Kolbeinn to ride over to Solveig’s farm. They do this through binoculars and spy glasses and everyone knows that everyone is watching from the reflection of the sun on the instruments. As a device, it works well for it helps to capture the small, intensely personal quality of the community.

Because there are a number of deaths, this could have been a dark tragedy like Zorba the Greek or a tale filled with great sacrifice such as Babette’s Feast but Erlingsson threads through the narrative’s darkness, human absurdities that make us shake our head or laugh. For example, the motif of the spy glasses, close to the end of the film, are used by two women to observe our hero, Kolbeinn, and our heroine, Solveig, making love on the grass when they should be gathering in horses at the annual horse roundup.

The film opens at Kolbeinn’s house and the camera pans more than once over the wall on which a shotgun is mounted. I immediately thought, the writer knows his Chekov. Chekov famously said, and I taught for years, that if at the beginning you show a rifle hanging on the wall, then you have got to have it used later in the story. Otherwise it is a red herring. I wondered who would get shot. It turns out it was Kolbeinn’s beloved white mare.

The reason Kolbeinn shoots his horse is because when he is leaving his coffee-flirting date with Solveig, a black stallion of Solveig’s has broken free. The white mare, in heat, stops and won’t move. The black stallion, with Kolbeinn on the mare’s back, mounts her. All this is seen by the various residents of the valley who are watching through their binoculars. Kolbeinn, because he is humiliated, shoots the white mare.

It is here where the logic of the film comes apart for me. Not that a vain man couldn’t or wouldn’t shoot his beloved horse if he’d felt humiliated. Rather, that having done something so irrational and vicious, that the rather attractive Solveig would, through the rest of the narrative, continue to pursue him. Is she in desperate financial circumstances? Can she not manage the farm by herself? Would he, I wondered, if she looked like she might stray, shoot her?

The film is broken up into vignettes about various people in the valley with two males being killed. Vernharður (Steinn Armann Magnusson) rides his horse into the ocean to a trawler where he can buy alcohol, then rides back to shore, seemingly none the worse for the freezing cold of the North Atlantic. The sailors have warned him that they are selling him pure alcohol, not vodka, but he drinks the alcohol straight from the containers, falls from his horse, vomits and dies.Since I had to follow the movie through English subtitles, this wasn’t clear to me.

The scenes of Vernharður riding his horse through the ocean waves and then, astoundingly, riding back to shore, are quite amazing. I immediately thought of Independent People (Laxness) and Bjartur of Summerhouses riding a reindeer across a river in winter.

The second death occurs when Grimur (Kjartan Ragnarsson) cuts down a barbed wire fence that Egill (Helgi Bjornsson) has built. The fence blocks what should be a public through way. In the ensuing pursui9t, Grimur is blinded in one eye by barbed wire and Egill, in his desire for revenge, rides his tractor over a cliff.

The deaths create two rather attractive widows who become competition for Solveig. However, she is determined to have Kolbeinn for a husband. When the locals gather for the annual horse roundup, there is some very nice visual sexual competition as the women try to take their place beside him. There are shared flasks of whiskey as they ride and jockeying for position. Solveig is determined to take charge. Rather than waiting for Kolbeinn to make up his mind, she insists on being his partner in exploring an isolated nook. There, she takes off her rain pants, then her long underwear and pulls down Kolbein’s pants and tells him to get the rest of his underclothes off. They do the same as the horses did at the beginning of the movie but I hoped that Kolbeinn wasn’t going to go for his shotgun afterwards.

The movie ends in marvelous scenes of the gathered horses being driven to the pen where they will be sorted out by their owners. The best images of Kolbeinn and Solveig in the movie are in the horse pen. They are obviously happy and Solveig, in spite of our not getting to know her very well, tugs at our heart for we hope that all works out well. And Kolbeinn? I hope he treats her better than his beloved mare.

So, there you have it. A romantic comedy filled with vignettes that end in tragedy or near tragedy, a strange mix that could have been a Bergman but isn’t, could have been a Monty Python, but isn’t. The horses are wonderful. The countryside is wonderful. And I’m not saying that because I have nothing good to say about the movie. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I recommend seeing it. The acting is good. The directing is good. The cinematography is good. David Thor Jonsson’s music is strange, surprising and highly effective. I just wish I knew what someone as attractive as Solveig sees in Kolbeinn.

 

Hofsos Hunts West

this one

Pictures on display at today’s coffee reception. These pictures provide evidence that families like those of Wayne Johnson still exist locally and have the materials that will  help create a permanent history of Icelanders on the West Coast.

Just like the pioneers who started off in Iceland, traveled to North America, settled for a time, at least in New Iceland, then began the long, slow process of moving West looking for good land, Valgeir of Hofsos has come west. His friend Bob Fridriksson is with him. They aren’t looking for land but for stories, family histories, letters, artifacts, evidence of those who, like Árni Mýrdal, as a child, survived the small pox in New Iceland. The land in New Iceland was swampy and provided only marginal farming. Not until a drainage system was developed was some of the best land available for farming. As well, most of the land was covered in dense bush. His parents, like many other Icelandic settlers, moved again, this time south to Pembina. From there they went to Victoria. This might have been a final stop but like many people, he moved to Point Roberts. Victoria drew immigrants and a good sized community developed but then a small pox epidemic and a recession caused people to leave. The railway and government brochures promised the best land imaginable. For many immigrants, finding that land took years and endless moves.
‘Arni did not travel alone. His wife, Sigríður, traveled with him.

Or they might try to find the descendants Pétur Ó. Hansen. Pétur emigrated in 1876 to Nova Scotia. Sive years later he moved to Winnipeg. From Wnnipeg to Hallson, North Dakota. He lived north of Hallson for 20 to 30 years. He then live din Mountain, North Dakota. In 1913 he moved to Blaine. His wife was Guðlaug Guðmundsdóttir. She came from Rangárvallarsýsla. They might find some descendants but it will be difficult because Guðlaug had three daughters so tracing their names may be impossible.

Valgeir and Bob say that they are not going to tackle the job from the past to the present but from the present to the past. They´re going to track down the living and work backward toward the dead. It sounds like a good plan. That´s what Valgeir´s presentation was about today.

The Icelanders of Victoria had a coffee reception for Valgeir Thorvaldsson and Thorhildur Bjarnadóttir today at the Tally Ho. Our president, Fred Bjarnason, is a chef at the Tally Ho and we get to use their banquet room. Having a chef for president has many advantages. Fred even made gluten free asta bollur for me. I ate four. What a great president! Twenty-two people turned up. Many of them I had not seen before. People like Susanna Helgason and Sian Hoff. They´ll be a great addition to our club.

Valgeir showed slides about Hofsos and told us its history. It was his dream to have an immigration museum. This harbor that was very busy at one time had fallen into disuse. He showed us pictures of the houses. Many were wrecks. He began by salvaging a house that was historically important. It was built in 1772. That alone should get him a mention in the history books and a public service award for rescuing an important part of Iceland’s history. It has obviously been a struggle to get people to accept the importance of the project and to provide the necessary funding but Valgeir has prevailed. There were pictures of more restored buildings and new buildings. There were pictures of Valgeir with Vigdis. Someone in the audience pointed out that he was thinner then but so were we all.

One difficulty that Valgeir will face is that many of us in the clubs have no family history on the West Coast. I, for example, grew up in Gimli. My family history there goes back to 1876. It is in the Gimli Saga. The other problem, as I mentioned, is the North American system of naming. Women who marry disappear. My son is Valgardson. My daughter is Hayman. How would anyone know about her Icelandic background? The other problem that I’ve noticed in my own research is that there are many references to Icelandic settlers or their immediate family leaving the Pacific North West and moving to California. It is obvious from the biography of Halldor Laxness, The Islander, by Halldór Guðmundsson, that a lot of Icelanders were drawn to Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s. My grandmother, Blanche was a playwright and harbored dreams of writing movies. Although she lived in Gimli, she corresponded with an Icelander who had made a bit of a name for himself in the movies. Also, I know of an Icelandic actor in Winnipeg who moved on to Hollywood. It wasn´t just Laxness who hoped to make it big in Hollywood. There was an Icelander in Hollywood who was making a fortune in construction and provided Laxness with an apartment.

The good side is that there are people whose families have been in Victoria for generations. They not only can provide their family histories but information about other families. Also, there are at least three important books. Icelanders of the Pacific West Coast from which I’ve taken my information about the early settlers. Ben Sizertz’s three volume tome on his father, mother and himself. The third book is Memories of Osland about the amazing but now forgotten Icelandic settlement on Hunter Island in the mouth of the Skeena.

There are, of course, families with a long history on the West Coast. It is these people who may provide photographs, diaries, letters, anecdotes of life back through the generations.
I wish Valgeir the best in this new search to find the forgotten Icelanders, those who moved West and West and West until they could move no further and settled to fish for salmon, or work in canning factories, or in the lumber industry, or raise sheep. It is the life of those of whom I sometimes write, those who left New Iceland for better land, greater opportunities, the same things that had caused them to leave Iceland, those who make up what I call the Icelandic Diaspora.

The Christmas Party

There was wind. There was threatening rain. There was a storm on the ocean, a storm strong enough to keep our guest speaker from Seattle, David Johnson, from joining us. Two days in a row, the Clipper catamaran’s run between Seattle and Victoria has been canceled. However, he sent a message encouraging us all to attend the INL weekend of fun and frolic in Seattle this coming spring. I made a short speech encouraging people to attend. I’ve found that attending INL conventions has increased and changed my knowledge and opinions about my Icelandic heritage.

However, none of us local members had to come by crossing the ocean. We came laden with good food. Much too much good food. Enough good food for a vast number of people. We could  have fed the multitudes on the Mount.

There was Riverton rúllupylsa, cookies that were in the shape of a Viking boat with its sail up, rosettes. I just about felt like I was back in New Iceland. There were cakes and fruits and more cookies and desserts I did not know the names of. You can tell we come from a culture where eating and celebrating went together.

Trish’s viking ship cookies.

Kladia Robertsdottir brought the laufabrauð that I made at her house the other day. Although they were not as pretty as Kladia and Trish´s, they got eaten. Kladia also had made one with the initial W on it for William. I accidentally included it in the basket on the table. However, it was retrieved. It´ll get eaten at the family Christmas dinner.

Kladia’s rosettes. There was a time when, I could have eaten a dozen topped with whipped cream and a bit of strawberry jam. Of course, in those days, I had a 28 inch waist.

Trish Baer told us a bit about her Phd dissertation on images in the Eddas. She gave a presentation in Sweden this summer, is going to give another at the University of Victoria and is, I believe, going to give a presentation at the INL conference. Her dissertation has been submitted and is being read by her committee.

The Vikings would hold parties that went on for days with feasting, drinking, story telling, negotiating, buying, selling, and just about anything you can think of and, when it was over, they gave their guests rich presents. That´s when things were good. Crops were good, and if they needed a bit extra, they went off and killed people, burned down their homes, looted their storehouses and demonstrated how good they were at this sort of thing by giving away a lot of what they´d stolen. That meant no one criticized them for their business  methods.

However, the Vikings ran out of wood for making ships,faded away,  became sheep farmers, lost their independence to Norway and then Denmark, and times became tough and then tougher. The weather changed. No more cereal crops. Not much to trade. However, they kept up the tradition of feasts as best they could.

The bishops may have been able to stamp out dancing but they couldn´t stop people from eating. The Icelanders did their best with what they had. During the hard years of famine, a sheep´s head was a feast. Nowadays, with Icelandic prosperity, there´s the Jólahlaðborð, the Christmas buffet. Some people go to two or three or more. That doesn´t surprise me. I remember, as a teenager, eating a full Christmas dinner at Fjola and Brinky Sveinsson´s and then their son, Robert, and I walking into town to my parent´s place to eat another full Christmas dinner. Little did we know that we were carrying out an Icelandic tradition.

Then there´s the Jólaglögg. Often made of wine and vodka, it stimulates the appetite and weakens the knees. With the harsh liquor laws in BC, one drink is all you are allowed before you risk losing both your driver´s license and your car and being forced to stand on a street corner with a sign saying you are an irresponsible glogger.

Also in Iceland, there´s Þorláksmesa, celebrating Iceland´s patron saint, Þorlákir helgi. I don´t remember us celebrating any saints. As a matter of fact, I didn´t know we had any. We just ate our way through Christmas day, dined on left over turkey and whatever on Boxing Day, struggled through boxes of chocolates and left over shortbread cookies for a week or so, then partied on New Years. New Year´s parties were about drinking, dancing, smooching, yelling, singing and having a hangover the next day . When there was food, it was more along the lines of dinner and dance food. Icelandic perogis, Icelandic hollopchi, Icelandic chow mein, Icelandic haggis, that sort of thing.

Times have changed. Old age has snuck up on some of us. Where did that hair go, we ask ourselves when we look in the mirror? Where did this stomach come from? Icelandic perogis, Icelandic hollopchi, Icelandic chow mein, Icelandic fried chicken, plus kleinur, vinarterta, hangikjöt, pönnukökur and rosetttes. Etc.

We can´t eat and drink as much as we used to but we can still talk as well as ever and at the Christmas party we did talk, we conversed, we visited, we enjoyed ourselves. When we were leaving, we felt better for our conversations about now and about our past, often a past that began in New Iceland, for, like the Vikings, we´re travelers, many of us having traveled across oceans and over continents earning a living. Most of us are far from home.

Gleðileg Jól, Gleðileg Jól, to one and all, wherever you are. We´re with you in spirit. May your Christmas party be as enjoyable as ours.

 

The Icelandic Connection

The arrival

The Icelandic connection. It’s the name  of a magazine but it is also a description of a reality for many of us.

At the moment, Pam Furesteneau is in Iceland, traveling about the country giving presentations about the connection of the North American Icelandic communities to Iceland. Two nights ago, Almar Grimsson, creator of the Snorri program and proponent of all things Icelandic, brought about forty Icelanders to Victoria as one stop on a tour of places on the West Coast where Icelandic settlements formed in the 1800s. Shortly, Viður Hreinsson, writer, translator, academic, will tour Canada to promote his book, Wakeful Nights, on Stephan G. Stephansson, the Icelandic poet of the Rocky Mountains.

A light snack is always appreciated.

The reception at Norway House that was put on by The Icelanders of Victoria club was fun. We, the Canadians, that is, told the Icelanders about our ancestors who came to Canada in the great migration. They introduced themselves and gave the name of the area in Iceland where they live. As usual, there was a language barrier with more Icelanders speaking English that Canadians speaking Icelandic. However, we managed conversations.

This Oddfellows group has been to Canada before. I met them in Toronto last summer and traveled with them to Kinmount and Hekla. Next year they are, apparently, planning a trip to Brazil because Icelanders did emigrate to Brazil and, even though the planned emigration of larger numbers did not occur, there are descendents of Icelanders living in Brazil.

The club’s display of photographs of the early Icelandic settlers in and around Victoria.

I was promoting my latest book, What The Bear Said, on the Toronto trip and many people bought copies after I gave a reading of the title story.  At the reception in Victoria, I met a man who told me  he had translated the title story into Icelandic and read it to a group in Iceland.

Almar thanking Tom, the club’s president, for the reception. Earlier, Tom had explained to the assembled multitude how it is that the president of the Icelanders of Victoria is led by someone with the name of Benjamin who has an English accent.

Introducing ourselves.

Fred Bjarnason, our famous  chef, genealogist, historian,guided the tour through the local sites. He obviously had a good time and his showing people about was obviously appreciated.

I lurked about taking pictures and as I lurked, watching events from the sidelines, I wondered what those early Icelandic settlers in Victoria, the Johnsons, Myrdals, Thorsteinsons, Brandsons, Seivertzs, would  have thought if they could have watched, as I was doing, over a hundred and twenty-five years later, their descendents mingling with visitors from Iceland.