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.

On Losing Icelandic

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There were good reasons for our immigrant great grandparents and grandparents not wanting their children to learn Icelandic.

All you have to do is read some books about how immigrants were treated. The stories are disheartening. The racism, tribalism, and prejudice was overwhelming. Comments about immigrants in the newspapers are shocking.

Icelanders, when they first came to Canada, were not considered equal to people from the UK. Icelanders were not “white”. It took a long time for people of Icelandic background to gain social status, to be accepted by Anglo society. A Northern Irish accent got my Irish grandfather a job at Eaton’s but until Signy Hildur Stefansson married David Eaton, an Icelandic accent wouldn’t. When Signy married into what was considered Canada’s royal family it suddenly raised the social status of the Icelandic community.

Icelanders came to Canada, in the most part, to flee from poor treatment, from poverty, from natural disasters. They were so poor that they required government assistance to move internally. No one is impressed by poverty. No one wants to associate with poverty or marry poverty. No one wants to hire poverty unless it is to exploit it.

The Icelanders, like all immigrants, had to fight to be accepted and make a place for themselves and their children. By the time David Eaton married Signy, Icelanders had adapted to Canadian society, had established themselves in education, law and business.

The Icelanders adapted in a number of ways. They gathered together in groups. They formed organizations. They supported each other through the worst of the transition period. They changed their names, made them more English sounding. My great great uncle changed his last name from Gottskalksson to Olson. Good move. They learned English.

They emulated how the English dressed. They learned English manners. They learned English law. Most of them, like the immigrant groups who followed them, did not teach their children their native language. They understood that having an accent meant that you were not one of “us”, that is, the ruling class, you were “other”. And “other” is always treated with suspicion, denied a place with the majority. If you have an accent, you are one of those others.

They were, like all immigrants, caught in two worlds. They needed their immigrant world to provide help and protection. A group is always stronger than an individual. However, to prosper, they needed to become part of the bigger world, the world of the dominant social and economic class.

The transition took time. My great great grandfather and my great grandfather came from Iceland in 1878. Their native language was Icelandic. My great great grandfather died two years after coming to Canada. His son. Ketill, made a place for himself in the Icelandic community. He was active in social, religious and political activities. He was fluent in Icelandic and English but Icelandic was essential to his business as a dairyman and storekeeper.

His son, my grandfather, born in Canada, spoke Icelandic, needed it for a social life, and for business. As a carpenter and sometime fisherman, he worked for people in the local Icelandic community but he also worked for non-Icelanders. English was becoming more important to survival and prosperity.

My father, in his turn, knew just enough Icelandic to get by. It was useful socially and in business but it wasn’t essential. He had no accent. From him, I learned no Icelandic. The transition to being part of the larger society was complete. In spite of my last name, I was one of “us”. Educated, no accent, English speaking. Dress me up and call me Smith or Jones or Brown and I could pass as the descendent of the British working class.

There are, somewhat surprisingly, families who have retained the Icelandic language. In many cases, they have married within the Icelandic Canadian community or even have married someone from Iceland. We point them out and are proud of them. They carry the flag for all of us. However, they are an anomaly not a majority. Icelandic being spoken in stores and at social occasions even in New Iceland has been replaced by a weekly meeting at Amma’s restaurant in Gimli where people can practice speaking Icelandic and there’s an Icelandic reading class in Arborg. Where Icelandic was a natural language used in every day communication, it has become something that has to be preserved. When something has to be preserved, it has become a museum piece.

In multicultural societies, it is normal for immigrants to change, to fit in. In Canada the language that binds people together is English. It allows communication across cultural and linguistic barriers.

What society faces is no different than what my grandfather faced after his Icelandic wife died and he married a woman who was Polish and German. Her family spoke English, Polish, German and Ukrainian. His family spoke English and Icelandic. Faced with a tower of Babel, he declared that only English would be spoken in his house.

Learning English, learning to speak without an accent, were all part of necessary adaptation. However, as we lose our original language, there is much more than words that we lose.

UNESCO says, “Every language reflects a unique world-view with its own value system, philosophy and particular cultural features. The extinction of a language results in the irrevocable loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries.”

The cost of this loss is all around us. The Icelandic immigrants were not only literate but proud of their literature. There was a tradition of literacy and of the writing of both poetry and prose. At one time there were more books in Icelandic published in Manitoba than in Iceland. When I was gathering and preserving Icelandic books, I found books that had been published not just in Winnipeg but in Gimli and Riverton. Writing about their lives and feelings was so important that books were published even in small villages.

Those books reflect the concerns, the beliefs of our people. Unable to read them, we cannot know what moved the authors to express themselves in poetry and prose. We do not just lose the words, we lose the voices and, along with the voices, an understanding of the generations from which we have sprung.

By losing the language, we’ve also lost our connection to Icelandic literature. Good translations are a treasure but they are not the same as reading the sagas in the original or reading Haldor Laxness in the original or reading anything in the original. Words are not simple. They are freighted with meaning. They are culturally embedded. It is impossible to capture all the connotations of words in a translation.
I grieve that loss. I blame no one. What was done was necessary. Survival always comes first. It wasn’t just our grandparents or our parents. It is not like they failed us. We were part of the equation.

Remembering our teenage selves, I ask myself would we have wanted to learn Icelandic? Would these arguments about preserving our heritage mattered enough for us to have made the effort to learn a language that had no daily relevance to us? I doubt it. Elvis ruled. Hollywood ruled. We wanted to be individuals while being just like all of our peers. We wanted to have good jobs, a nice car, have a girlfriend or boyfriend, then a family. We wanted to get ahead. For those things, we needed English.

I wonder, though, when our grandparents and older family members listened to us chattering in English, a language some of them never did learn, if they sometimes wondered if this was what they or their parents had intended as the outcome from that difficult journey across the Atlantic? Because we were unable to talk to them, unable to read what it is they wrote—all those letters, diaries, books of poetry—we lost them as we rushed into the future.

The conflict between those who wanted to adapt as quickly as possible and those who wanted to preserve a New Iceland in Canada went on from the very beginning. It was not only an Icelandic dream. There were New Denmarks, New Finlands, New Swedens, New (name any area from which immigrants came).

Vestiges remain. There are places where fragments of the early society can be seen, mostly in local museums. Languages are promoted in ethnic clubs. There are classes. However, ethnic groups in a multicultural society constantly fragment.

What is learned in the long term is what is useful in daily life.

At the university level, language programs in Ukrainian, Russian, the Scandinavian languages, are being closed as programs are being opened in Asian languages. Money flows to where there are opportunities in trade and employment.

For those of us who wish to keep the opportunity open for young people to study Icelandic, to learn about Icelandic history and culture, we have to fund and re-fund, the Icelandic department at the University of Manitoba, the Icelandic library, scholarships, research grants. We have got to say, with our dollars, Icelandic matters. What was done was necessary but we are long established in Canadian society now. We don’t have to give up anything more to survive and prosper.