The Icelanders Go West

prince rupert

Go West young man, go West. In 1871 that was the advice of Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Times.

Horace Greeley said that anyone who had to earn a living should go where workers were needed and wanted, where they will be hired because they are needed, not because someone is giving them a job as a favour. He added some conditions to his advice. Before going west, he said, a young man should learn to chop, to plough and to mow.

Because of geography and shipping routes, the Icelanders arrived in Quebec City. Some made their way even further East to Nova Scotia. But that did not last. The Icelanders were late comers. The good land was already taken. Others went to Kinmount, Ontario. After a disastrous year, they, too, continued the journey West. That journey West, with many stops and starts, would continue over the years until Icelandic immigrants reached the furthest West possible, first Vancouver, then Victoria, British Columbia. This weekend, we have all gathered to celebrate that long, arduous and often dangerous journey.

Following their dream of travelling to Amerika and the life it offered had a high price. Not in the fares people paid but in the lives lost. In the first stage of this saga, people died and were buried at sea. Later, they died in Nova Scotia, in Kinmount, they died on the journey to the promised land of New Iceland.

These sacrifices were not made for frivolous reasons. They were made because in Iceland there was a shortage of land, a lack of opportunity, a rigid social system, and natural disasters created by cold weather and volcanic eruption.

Horace Greeley had said learn to chop. The movement West was made harder by the fact that the Icelanders didn’t know how to chop. How do you learn woodsmen’s skills when your forests are dwarf birch?

Greeley said learn to plow. They didn’t know how to plow. How can you plow lava deserts and glaciers? How could they learn to plow when no crop other than grass would grow?

They did know how to mow, but as more than one writer has pointed out, they mowed what we would think of as short     domestic grass, not prairie grass that reached to the top of a man’s hips. On the immigration forms, they called themselves bondi, farmers, but they were not farmers by any definition in the West. They were herders.

According to Dr.Thompson in his history of Riverton, the settlers were unprepared for one of the coldest winters on record. They 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. He says “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.”

Faced with the difficulties in New Iceland, many of the settlers began moving West to Brandon, and to Argyle. It is hard for us to conceive how slow travel with horses or oxen and wagons was. What made it possible for people to move further West was the building of the railroad. As the railway moved West, settlers took wagons, cattle, and equipment in the boxcars to the end of the rail line, then unloaded and drove away onto the vast prairie.

It wasn’t until 1886, that the first train reached 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.

Horace Greeley said go where you will get a job because you are needed, not because someone is doing you a favour.

Icelanders followed this advice in the past and their descendants have followed this advice in the present. In preparing this speech, I began to think about the members of my family who have moved West. One of the first was Valentinus Valgardson. He was married to Thora Sigurgeirson from Hecla Island. They got as far as Moose Jaw. They stayed and he became both a teacher and a farmer. My father’s brothers, Earl and Allan, moved to Edmonton and Calgary. My cousins Rudy and Sandy Bristow moved to Victoria and Vancouver. One of my father’s aunts moved to Vancouver. My family marks the Icelandic trail West.

Hulli Bjarnason was a successful businessman and our neighbour in Gimli. When  he retired, he and his wife Gusta moved to Victoria. Their three daughters, Linda, Margaret and Carol also came West. Keith Sigmundson came to be the head of pysychiatry. Elroy Sveinsson became a salmon fisherman. Janis Olof Magnusson, from Winnipeg’s west end  went to Regina, Saskatchewan, then to Victoria to work as an agricultural economist. I went from Gimli to Winnipeg, to Victoria to be a professor at the university of Victoria. There’s Glenn Sigurdson from Riverton and Heather Ireland from West End Winnipeg. Heather can tell you about the migration from Lundar to Winnipeg and the trek west. The exodus West came from every community. This room, this city, this province, is filled with people of Icelandic descent.

Richard Beck came from North Dakota to Victoria to retire. He brought with him his passion for all things Icelandic and he and his wife, Margret, 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 and language. Glenn Sigurdson moved to Vancouver to work as a successful lawyer and then negotiator. Yet, he recently published a book about the Lake Winnipeg fishery called Vikings on a Prairie Ocean. In this journey west, our heritage has not been forgotten.

We’ve come here under many different conditions. Bob Asgeirsson told me 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.  Ian Sigvaldason who is originally from Arborg moved to Salt Spring Island to open the Pegasus art gallery.

There are here, today, the descendants of the group of Icelanders who left Riverton and Hecla and Gimli in the late thirties and early forties. They were fishermen and boatbuilders. One of their descendants Lisa Sigurgeirsson Maxx is with us. Ken Kristjanson of Gimli tells me that a number of this group tried to get his father and uncle to join them. Many of that group settled in Steveston.

There are enough of us living on the West Coast to have Icelandic clubs in Vancouver, Victoria, Naniamo, Bellingham, Blaine, and Seattle.

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.

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 travelled West to Victoria in 1890 for greater opportunities. 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 already 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 so modest that I knew Ben for a long time before I discovered that he’d been awarded a medal, the OBE, for his work during WWII. 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. Horace Greely’s advice, travel West, young man had proved prophetic. Ben’s parent’s trip West had given their children exceptional lives. Opportunity existed and they 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.

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 the totem poles and art work and in their buildings. It was a city of street cars and four story stone and brick buildings. There were newspapers and aboriginal canoe races on the Gorge. There was high tea, formal dress, outdoor picnics, and cricket.

When we gather as we are doing this weekend, we remind ourselves of our heritage with the nostalgia of vinartera, of kleiner, of brennavin, of clothes from the time of immigration.

But there is something here, among us, right now, that is invisible that in the past and present we have carried as we have traveled West. It was an essential part of our luggage. That is the desire for education. The immigrants carried that from Iceland to New Iceland, and from New Iceland West.

While literacy was wide spread in Iceland, the opportunity for an education was not available to many. According to Vidur Hreinsson  in Wakeful Nights, his marvelous biography of Stephan Stephansson, when Stephan was a boy he made every possible effort to learn and longed to go to school but that was impossible for the son of a poor lodger. The extent of his  yearning for formal schooling became evident on a Thursday in the fall of 1865. Stephan was outside during a storm, when he saw three people ride by the farm, heading towards the mountain pass. His friend Indridi was travelling to Reykjavik to go to school. On seeing his friend leaving for school and knowing he could not go, Stefan was overwhelmed with grief. He ran out among the tussocks and threw himself on the ground , sobbing in the rain.

It was not just Stefan who longed for the opportunity to get an education.

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.

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 two 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.

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. 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. Some stopped in the interior of British Columbia where they improbably became ranchers and orchardists. 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. He 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.

There was another Icelandic settlement that most people don’t know about at Osland on Smith Island in the mouth of the Skeena River.  This is seven hunded kilometres north and the site of a large salmon fishery. It was a small settlement but 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. “

  1. Olafson says, “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.” This is a Canadian talking. This is an Icelandic Canadian talking. This is someone talking who has come West, who has adapted to a new land and made it his own.

These people came West, as far West as it was possible to go, and made Canadian lives for themselves. They made a living the West Coast way boat building, running a shingle mill, logging, pile driving, sheep raising, goat raising, working in fish canneries.

Their children and grandchildren got educated and became doctors and lawyers and nurses, university professors,  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 themselves and their families.

How, after all these miles, all these journeys, all this time, has this pilgrimage West worked out? At the beginning of the Icelandic emigration, there were great fears that our heritage would be lost. We would forget the golden age of the Sagas, that we would lose our pride in our Viking ancestors, that we would no longer be connected to this land of fire and ice that our distant ancestors had settled in the late 800s. Icelanders were not the only ones who these fears. On maps, you can find places like New Denmark, New Sweden, New Germany, New England. Places where everyone would stay the same and have no contact with all those other foreigners. However, the land would not allow it. The opportunities would not allow it.

We are very fortunate. We came to a place where we could adapt and adopt, could integrate, but keep our identity, be proud of our history. I recently heard an aboriginal survivor of the residential schools say they took away our identity. We have seen and continue to see the tragedy that has created. Fortunately, we have managed to keep our identity and the benefits that go with that identity. Like Christian Sivertz, we can be proud of our Icelandic heritage and be proud of being Canadians.

How has trek West worked out? Each of you will have to ask yourself that question but for myself coming West has provided everything those early settlers hoped for.  Has our community, over one hundred and forty one years continued to carry both Icelandic values and history with us? Have we been true to the dreams of those early Western Far Travelers? I can best answer that question by pointing to my grand daughter, Rebecca, who graduates from UBC in a few weeks  and two days after that leaves for Iceland on the Snorri program. Her connection to the Icelandic past and the Icelandic present is shared by many in the West. This INL conference and all of you who have come to it proves that.

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.

The Railway Tracks

railway

 

I walked the tracks yesterday . When I was a teenager, I often walked the tracks, sometimes stepping from railway tie to railway tie, sometimes balancing on the steel rails, sometimes standing at the side of the tracks as a train rumbled past. Canada had a railway system in those days. It was that railway system that joined Canadians from coast to coast.

I had a sense of pride about the railways because my grandfather worked for The Great Northern Railway at the roundhouse in Winnipeg.

As a child, I’d ridden the train with my parents. There was train service twice a day in summer, once a day during the rest of the year. One unforgettable time when my father was taking me to Winnipeg because I had a bad ear infection (no antibiotics in those days), we missed the train. It was pulling out as we got to the top of Centre and the highway. My father, who had stopped to talk to various people as we walked to the station, ran over to a taxi (yes, Gimli had taxis in those days. The war was on and Gimli had lots of single air force men who hired taxis.) and shouted “Catch that train.”

Highway nine was gravel, rutted, we bounced about in the back seat as the taxi driver did his best to get to the Winnipeg Beach before the train. It was like being in a movie. The taxi driver hunched over his steering wheel. My father with his head out the window yelling “Faster. Faster.” There were no seat belts in those days, the gravel surface of the road and the ruts meant slipping and sliding sideways, bouncing up and down. “Faster. Faster,” my father yelled.

I remember the moment we passed the train. We screeched to a halt at the Winnipeg Beach stop. My father said I’ll pay you when I get back, grabbed me and bounded onto the platform. My father hoped my mother wouldn’t hear what had happened but, alas, Gimli was a small town, nearly everyone was related, and hardly before the taxi had raced out of sight someone had stopped at the house and said, “Rae, Dempsey missed the train.”

Traveling by train was comfortable. The click click of the wheels on the rails.. The magic of the passing landscape. Few people owned cars so there were always people on the train that my parents knew so every trip was a chance for a leisurely visit and my thoughtful mother always packed a sandwich along with home made lemonade in a glass sealer.

When I was twelve, I started delivering The Winnipeg Free Press. That meant going to the train station each day to meet the train, to hang around with the other carriers, collect our bundles of newspapers that were thrown onto the wagons that had been pulled up beside the freight car. We filled our canvas bags and off we went, young entrepreneurs at the end of the line of railways that had spread out across Canada.

The railways nearly didn’t come to Gimli. Marshy land and Willow Creek were barriers. It made more financial sense for the railway to be built west of town where the land rose up and formed gravel ridges. This was very serious. There are numerous stories of towns being built on what was expected to be the railway line only to have the railway line built miles away. Entire towns made of frame buildings were moved to where the railway line existed. Goods had to be sent to market. Goods were needed in the towns and farms. Transportation was everything.

The Icelanders of Gimli always had good political connections. It was those connections that got them the only known transportation grant for immigrants within Canada. Faced with no railway, they formed a committee and went to Winnipeg. After a lot of lobbying, they got the railway line extended from Winnipeg Beach to Gimli. Winnipeg Beach had been the terminal point for the cordwood economy that kept Winnipeg houses and businesses warm in winter. Now, cordwood, farm produce, fish, everything that country people might produce and city people, buy, could be sent directly to Winnipeg.

The railway brought people to the village, people who needed hotel accommodation. Some people liked the town so much that they built cottages. Without the CPR line I wouldn’t have been born. My grandparents came to visit friends who had a cottage. They liked Gimli so much that they built a cottage. While my father was helping his father build my mother’s parents’ cottage, my father and mother saw each other through a window and we all know how that worked out.

You could say that I was a CPR kid.

That’s why my walk along the railway tracks yesterday was filled with sadness. Canada used to have a strong, powerful railway system. It was our railway system. It has been allowed to fall into disuse.Clean, cheap, efficient transportation for people and goods has been replaced by the car economy. The profits from making cars, building highways for them, producing oil to fuel them are so great that common sense and the environment have been brushed aside and, in many cases, bribed aside.

Between the ties there are now weeds. The ties are rotten, falling apart. The tracks are being torn up and sold to other countries. The railways made Canada. It wasn’t enough to save them.

The Dying of Old Dreams

monkey
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.

The New Iceland Diaspora

michal-mountains
When I first moved to Victoria many years ago, one of my colleagues said, “On the prairies, people live to work. On the West Coast people work to pay for skiing, scuba diving, drinking wine, smoking weed, sailing, surfing and, as soon as they have enough money to live on, they quit their job and buy a few acres so they can raise prize animals, fruit or vegetables and pour their passion into producing the best wines or peacocks. Or plums. Or peaches. Or kiwi fruit. Or sheep. Or llamas. Or they buy a boat and sail.”

People who move west and then further west and then even further west until they can’t go any further west end up on the shores of mainland BC or on the many islands that dot the coast.

In Vesturfarar, Heather Ireland, (from Winnipeg but moved to Vancouver long ago with her husband Bill Ireland) the grand daughter of Guttormur Guttormson, tells us that she said to her uncle that she wished her amma and afi Guttormson had moved to the Coast. Her uncle said, they’d been to the coast a number of times but wouldn’t have moved there because life was just too easy. It was also a world beyond imagining. Think what those early arrivals must have thought of the world represented by this masks like this one by Bill Henderson of the Kwakwaka’wakw?

Bill Henderson,Kwakwaka'wakw

Joan Thorsteinson Linde says that when her parents were on the train to Winnipeg and they arrived, her mother took a look at the city and said, “Let’s keep going.” She said Point Roberts was a wonderful place to grow up and she was grateful her parents stayed on the train.
Jerry McDonald says she is grateful that her grandparents moved to the Coast in 1943. Her grandmother read a poem about the West Coast and insisted on moving there.

Years ago, Bob Asgeirson, told me that he had been working for a radio station in Winnipeg. He had holidays at Christmas. He got on a train during a blizzard and arrived to a light rain and everything green in Vancouver. He immediately bought a ticket back to Winnipeg, quit his job and moved permanently to Vancouver.

Fort Victoria had been first settled in 1843. By the time the first Icelanders started arriving with the railway reaching Vancouver, there were scenes like this.

Tea Party at Point Ellice House

Although my wife and I visited my wife’s grandmother in Victoria during the summer of 1967, I’d never thought of moving here. In 1974, I had a job in Missouri, was heading for a better job in Texas, when I was asked if I’d like a job at the University in Victoria. I said I’d come for a year. That was forty years ago. I did try to move back to Winnipeg. However, try as I might, no job was forthcoming. I was following an old pattern created by the Icelandic immigrants. Go where there is work.

Most Icelanders left Iceland because of poverty, hunger, lack of opportunity, bad weather, political oppression. Although the fares were small and, in some cases, subsidized, many could not afford to pay for the trip from Iceland to Scotland, from Scotland to Quebec, from Quebec to their final destination in the United States or Canada. If they could, they sold their land and animals to pay for their trip. It was the bad luck of some that stormy weather delayed the sailing ships and the would-be travelers’ funds were used up paying for room and board at the harbours. Not only did these people not get to go to Ameríka but they now were landless and were going to be poverty stricken farm workers.

However, times were so desperate that it was worth taking risks. Living conditions were poor. Sod and lava huts nowadays are made for museums and tourists so they are constructed to look romantic. Sod and turf huts were not romantic. IN 1845 Madame Pfeiffer says ‘Small and low, built of lava, with the interstices filled with earth…A dark narrow passage about four feet high, leads on one side into the common room, and on the other to a few compartments, some of which are used as storehouses for provisions and the rest as winter stables for the cows and sheep…The rooms of the poorer class have neither wooden walls nor floors, and are just large enough to admit of the inhabitants sleeping, and perhaps turning round in them. …Above the beds are fixed rods, from with depend clothes, shoes, stockings, &c….Stoves are considered unnecessary, for as the space is very confined, and the house densely populated.

Rods are also placed round the fire place, and on these the wet clothes and fishes are hung up in company to dry. The smoke completely fills the room.”

Houses were cold. They was no stove. They were crowded. There was little light because glass was scarce. Laws were passed by the landowners to control all the workers who, by law, were forced to work on a farm. They could only change jobs on one day a year. Marriage was not allowed unless a man had the equivalent of four hundreds. This meant that many men and women had no hope of marriage. With wages appalling low, in some cases a few dollars a year, there was little opportunity for a man to save enough money to put down on a piece of land and some animals. It might take a careful, tight fisted man twenty years working as a farm hand to save enough for a down payment on a farm. When he did he also had to rent the sheep or cows from a wealthy landowner at exorbitant rates. What land was available for men who wanted to become independent farmers in the years of good weather was marginal land.

Good land had long ago been taken. The land that became available was usually on the edge of lava deserts. With a cold summer that same land quickly became uninhabitable. A cold summer meant the grass didn’t grow. No grass, the sheep and cows didn’t survive. Without them, there was starvation. People farming marginal land could with one or two cold summers lose everything and become paupers with family members sold off to whoever would keep them for the smallest amount of money. A volcanic eruption that destroyed hay land was a disaster.

Even when the weather was decent, farming alone was not enough to sustain most people so the men walked to the coastal fishing areas. Fishing conditions on the North Sea were dangerous. Boats frequently sank, taking ten or fifteen men with them.

Richard Burton, 1875, says that “The storekeeper must advance goods to the farmer, and the latter refunds him when he can, especially in June and July, September and October, when wool is pulled (Icelanders did not shear sheep. The wool was pulled as it became loose.)and wethers (castrated male sheep)killed. A few of the farmers have money at the merchants, who do not, however, pay interest; many are in debt, and the two classes hardly balance each other. Prices are generally high.” That is the prices of goods available at the store are high.

Those people who chose to make two dangerous sea voyages, first to Scotland or England, then to the North America, were people prepared to take risks and endure hardship. Sailing ships were at the mercy of the weather. Conditions on board the ships for steerage passengers were appalling. Narratives of those voyages often record burials at sea.

Icelandic emigrants tried Nova Scotia.The good land was taken. They tried Kinmount, Ontario. The Pennsylvania Dutch (Germans) already had taken up the good farmland in Ontario. The land in Kinmount was not suitable for farming. The immigrants then made a long and hard journey that ended on the beach at Willow Point with winter closing in and no milk cows because hay had not been put up to feed them. The land was mostly swamp and higher ground was heavily forested. Icelanders were not farmers. When an Icelander answered bondur to the question about his employment on his immigration paper, he was not describing himself as a farmer but as a herder of sheep and milk cows.

Having endured living in ratty tents, then packed into roughly made log cabins because there could only be as many cabins as there were stoves, they endured more hardship. The settlers must have wondered when their suffering would be over. If ever.

Gimli may mean the home of the gods but these people were not gods. They were farm folk who had made a heroic journey from Iceland to Canada only to suffer from lack of food, from poor shelter, from diseases such as smallpox and scurvy. It is no wonder that nearly all of them abandoned New Iceland. They’d already made the decision to leave Iceland to search for a better life. For many, New Iceland was not providing a better life. It was cut off from trade. Except for some work provided by the government, jobs were non-existent. In breakup and freezeup, it was impossible to travel over the lake. There was work in Winnipeg. There was work, at least at harvest time, further west where farms were already established. Many walked west.

Will Kristjanson, in The Icelandic People in Manitoba, says, because of the exodus from 1878 to 1881, the colony was reduced to 250 people. It would be replenished as more Icelandic immigrants arrived. However, a pattern of arrival and departure was established that continues to this day.

They went to Brandon. They went to Argyle. Always looking for good land. They went to North Dakota. The good land in North Dakota filled up quickly so those who didn’t get some of it, went back to Manitoba and settled in the Arborg area. The immigrants traveled for years, making a living where they could. Magnús Jónsson with his wife, Margét, and two daughters, settled in New Iceland in 1887. In 1891, they homesteaded in the Argyle district. In 1902 they moved to Blaine, WA.

Metúsalem Vigfússon moved to New Iceland in 1876. He moved to Winnipeg and worked around Manitoba wherever he could find work. He and his wife, Borghildur bought 80 acres southeast of Mountain, North Dakota. After seven years they moved to Roseau, Minn. They lived there eleven years. In 1917, they moved to Yakima, WA.

Many settlers went to Swift Current when the railway line ended there. From there they went by horse and wagon north. They went to Alberta and settled in places like Markerville.

Good land. A place where they might prosper, where they might have a Canadian farm, grow grain, raise animals and, when they got over the mountains into the Okanagan, as unlikely as it seems for Icelanders, create orchards.

The railways opened up land, made it possible to ship produce and to receive necessities. In New Iceland the railway, first stopping at Winnipeg Beach and then Gimli and, finally, Riverton, created the cordwood economy. While those people in New Iceland were struggling in the second poorest part of Canada, only ahead of Newfoundland economically, their brethren, the original settlers and their children, were moving west. Some of those found jobs, land, possibilities. Many stayed in Winnipeg, the new Chicago, a dynamic city, for a time, but then the Panama Canal was built and the boom began to fade. Others gathered in places like Wynyard and Foam Lake, Regina, Moosejaw, Calgary, Edmonton, eddied around the base of the mountains, but with Olafur Norman arriving in Victoria in 1883, the path to the coast was established.

Gerri McDonald says that a survey in the 1930s showed that only 5% of people of Icelandic descent lived in BC. In 2011 25% of people of Icelandic descent lived in BC.

That is not surprising. Although there was no organized group movement to the West Coast, many people during the Depression moved from the Gimli-Riverton area to Steveston to fish, work in the canneries and build boats. A group did settle Osland on Hunter Island in the mouth of the Skeena.

But most were like me or Robert Asgeirson, moving west to take or find a job. My contact with the West Coast wasn’t Icelandic. My wife’s grandmother and grandfather were English. The Oak Bay neighbourhood was still referred to as behind the Tweed Curtain. I knew of no one in Victoria of Icelandic background before I arrived. I’d come to take a good job. There were tea houses, not coffee houses. Doormen in historic English outfits stood outside tourist establishments. The accents on the streets and in the stores were not Icelandic or Ukrainian. They were English, Irish and Scots.

It took a while to discover other people of Icelandic background. Halli Johnson, Mattie Gislason, then a meeting organized by Alphonse Hansen at a restaurant in the country to discuss forming an Icelandic club, the Icelanders of Victoria. Fred Bjarnason was there. We did form a club. We went on to have Thorrablots. We do celebrate June 17.

Richard Beck, that great champion of all things Icelandic, retired to Victoria. He died, then his wife, Margaret, died and their joint will left the University of Victoria their house to sell and create a foundation for the dissemination of Icelandic literature, language and culture. The Beck lectures began in 1988. Since then the Richard and Margret Beck Trust, under the direction of Dr. John Tucker, has funded around two hundred lectures by Icelandic experts.

This is how a diaspora is created. Travelers settling somewhere, meeting each other, forming a cultural club, or a church group, or an educational group. Point Roberts, Bellingham, Blaine, outposts held together by memories, evidence found in photo albums, club records, graveyards. Outposts like Osland on Smith Island, now nearly abandoned, its existence attested to by the book, Memories of Osland. The Jonassons, Haldorsons, Johnsons, Philippsons, Freemans, Oddsons, Grimsons, Kristmanssons, Longs, Snidals, Bjornsons, Einarssons, Laurassons, Erlendsons, Emmersons.

Think on it. The people who have gone west. My uncle Earl (Gimli) went to Edmonton. My uncle Alan (Gimli) ended up in Calgary. My sister in law (Riverton) moved to Victoria. My nephew and niece (Gimli) are here. My cousin, Rudy (Gimli), is on the mainland. His wife, Sig (Riverton) just died. His daughter (Winnipeg) is with him.  Keith Sigmundson (Gimli) has a place here. Dennis Oleson (Riverton) is in Victoria. Glenn Sigurdsson (Riverton) in Vancouver. His mother. (Riverton) His father died here not too long ago. Ruth and Randi Jonasson (Riverton). Christine Anderson (Riverton).

The list seems endless. Linda Bjarnason (Gimli) in Naniamo. Carol Bjarnason (Gimli) Whiterock. Margaret Bjarnason (Gimli) Vancouver. If I tried to list all the people of Icelandic descent in Vancouver, it would fill pages. It far outnumbers the people of Icelandic descent now living within the boundaries of New Iceland. If all these people had stayed in New Iceland, what would they do? They are teachers, architects, lawyers, stock brokers, art gallery owners, veterinarians, chefs, secretaries, professors, city planners. They are myriad.

The Icelanders were not alone in their experience. The Finns came to the coast of BC. They created a village called Sointula on Malcolm Island in 1901. It was to be the new Finland, led by a charismatic leader Matti Kurikka. They came as a group, rowing their way north from Naniamo.

In 1908, led by Verigin, 6,000 members of the Doukhobor sect migrated to BC. Neither of these communities survived in their ideal form. This was the fate of most immigrant groups. They left the mother country, Finland and Russia, in these cases, formed communities in Canada bound by ethnicity, religion and isolation, and these communities could not remain cohesive. Even isolation is not enough to keep the community together. So, there was the original diaspora and then the diaspora from the original settlements. All such cases can be looked at as failed dreams, failed ideal images. On the other hand, they can be looked at as successes because the original communities provided a place for its members to prepare to enter Canadian society.

New Iceland lost many of its original settlers. However, others came, settled in an area where they knew some of the earlier settlers, where people spoke Icelandic, where the harshness of immigration could be softened a bit as people adjusted to a new life. They moved to take up greater opportunities, that often meant leaving the mother colony. That is they stayed true to their original purpose in emigrating, to create a better life for themselves, their children, and future generations.

Our Ancestral Loggers

treelimbinggood5chainsaw

For this prairie boy who grew up in the mixed poplar, spruce, birch forests of the Interlake of Manitoba, the trees of British Columbia will never lose their overwhelming majesty.

There are, of course, the forests of the past, the old growth stumps, stumps so wide, that imagining the trees that grew from them seems impossible. There are still a couple of trees in Goldstream Park that existed around the time that Columbus came to America. There are the old photographs of loggers in front of and on top of tree trunks so large that they dwarf everything else.

You seldom see trees that huge anymore but even in my yard, in my neighbours’ yards are massive trees, the kind of trees that tower over everything, great Douglas Firs in which Douglas Fir Squirrels gambol. They cast down vast numbers of pine cones onto my deck, both the trees and the squirrels, layers of pollen and needles.

The trees are so large, so overwhelming, so majestic, that they dominate the neighbourhood. They seem indestructible. Therefore, it was a surprise when a neighbour came by and said that one of the firs on his property had rot in it that made it dangerous. It if toppled in a storm, it would take out my house. The tree was going to have to come down. Getting permission to fell  a tree in Victoria is not easy. You have to have it inspected and diagnosed. Someone has to pronounce it seriously ill, dangerous, and unsaveable. You need to get a permit. Only then do you contract an urban forester.

With houses in every direction, you can’t cut down a tree like you would in the forest. No yelling timber and letting it fall. The urban foresters arrive, in this case, five of them. They bring a very large chipper to turn the branches into chips. They bring chain saws. They wear yellow helmets. One of them, the main man, as it were, puts a lot of gear onto a belt, a handsaw, a chainsaw, a bag with rope coiled inside. He wears spiked boots. He has ropes tied to him that he wraps around the tree.

He leans back against his ropes, digs in his spiked boots and starts climbing the tree. He comes to the first branches, and these branches are not twigs, but thick, long, heavy and dangerous. He draws up his chain saw, pulls the start cord, cuts away the first branch, then the second, moves around the tree so he can cut branches that are out of reach.

He works his way up, denuding the trunk. Below, his assistants drag away the branches, push them into the chipper. The chipper is noisy, scary, powerful and as I watch, I keep hoping no one puts his (or her, there is a woman on the crew), arm in too far. A human body would be reduced to a smear of blood in seconds. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrhhhhhh. It’s a harsh, threatening sound as the branches are reduced to small wooden bits.

The climber keeps moving up, branches keep falling. He finds branches that are too dangerous to cut away directly so he leans out sawing them further out the branch, sometimes with his handsaw, sometimes with his chain saw. Having done that, he pulls back, digs in his spikes to get a good purchase, starts up his chain saw, cuts away the stub. He works his way up until there is just a crown of branches at the top. He cuts it off, shoves it to the side and it spirals down. The tree is not majestic anymore but a bent line against the sky.

Years ago, at my previous house, I had to have two very large Lombardy Poplar trees cut down because they were interfering with the drainage tiles and starting to break up the paving in the lane. The logger I hired was Australian. He explained what he was going to do and he mentioned that topping the trees could be dangerous. Sometimes, he said, the tree whips back and forth and the logger can be thrown over the top. His rope and spiked boots do him no good then. They work to keep him from falling, not flying through the air. With the first poplar there was no problem but when he topped the second, the tree began to swing wildly and he had to hang with all his strength until it stopped moving. This fir tree remains stable after its crown is cut off and cast down.

This logger, leaning back on his ropes at the top of the tree, is aware he has an audience. He ties a rope from his bag around the trunk, he knows his knots, he needs to know his knots for his life depends on them, and he pulls a trick I haven’t seen since I last attended All Sooke Day where local loggers competed with each other at logging skills. He kicks away from the tree trunk and rides the rope down to the ground. The first time I saw this, my heart stopped. This time, knowing what he was going to do, I just admired his skill and showmanship.

The crew took a much needed break, then the logger went back up the tree trunk until he got close to the top where he started cutting the trunk off a section at a time. He worked smoothly, sawing the trunk in one direction, then the other, pushing the trunk over, away from himself so the sections of wood tumbled down to be dragged away by the crew and cut into stove wood lengths. He worked his way down until about twelve feet of trunk were left. This stub was cut down from the bottom.

Chain saws were roaring, the chipper was roaring, the crew was raking and hauling and then it was done and where there had been a majestic tree, there was now a stump and a pile of wood. All done in a tight space among houses, in the urban forest.

As I watched the loggers work, I wondered what the Icelanders who came to the West Coast in the 1880s thought. How different a world to which they had to adapt. Someone like Kristjan Benediktsson (Benson) from Hrafnabjorg. He first lived in Winnipeg, Selkirk and New Iceland. Then he went to Seattle for a winter. His family joined him in Bellingham. According to Icelanders of the Pacific Coast “in a few years he had cleared the land of trees”.  I’d like to have a detailed diary describing how he did that.

Helgi Thorsteinsson emigrated in 1887. He went to Victoria and then Point Roberts in 1894, according to Icelanders of the Pacific Coast. He first took 40 acres, then added 20 acres more. “All the land was covered in thick forest. Now most of the land is cleared and cultivated”.

Coming from Iceland, a land with hardly any trees and those few that did exist were of no great size, there was much to learn. This is a double bitted axe. This is a cross cut saw. This is how you cut down a tree that may be a hundred feet tall and that will crush everything in its path when it does fall. In Iceland wood was so precious a commodity that there was elaborate rules over the ownership of driftwood. Here, in this West Coast world, there was wood everywhere. No houses of turf and rock. These massive trees could be turned into lumber and shingles.

Time and again, descriptions of the West Coast Icelanders say the land was cleared of thick forest, that fine wooden homes were built.

So much to learn in such a strange world. Yet, learn they did. Time and again, their short biographies say they built a fine house. What an accomplishment! As I watched the five people taking down the neighbour’s fir tree, cutting it up, I thought I could see the ghosts of our Icelandic countrymen working at what, in Iceland, must have seemed unimaginable. I remember reading a translated letter that was sent back to Iceland. The writer said, I can’t explain to you what things are like here. Beyond explaining, this forest world, filled with trees and wild beasts none of the Icelandic pioneers had ever known.

Learning to cut down trees, mill them, build with their wood. Well done Páll from Mýrdalur, Eiríkur Anderson from Vesturhóp, Hinrik Eiríksson and all those others, and the wives and children who worked with them. Hard were the times and hard the work but triumph and success, like the triumph and success of the logger I watched the other day, can be counted in work well done, adaptions made, lessons learned. For an afternoon, you were with me, there on my deck as I watched a logger work his magic.

 

Who Am I?

Mournes_wiki
My grandfather came to Winnipeg from Ireland before WWI. He already had three sisters in Winnipeg, all three married to Scotsmen. His Winnipeg world was very Anglo-Saxon. He and my grandmother lived on a street with an English family on one side, a Scots family on the other, and an Irish family across the way.

From the time I was very young, I was shipped on the bus from Gimli to Winnipeg. My mother would take me to the bus, explain to the bus driver that my grandmother would meet the bus at the station in Winnipeg and off I’d go. My grandmother, always faithful, would be waiting at the spot where the bus pulled in, standing on her tip toes to try to see into the bus windows.

The bus trips, especially in winter, weren’t without some anxiety. Dark came early and with it the landscape, especially the long stretches of highway without any farm houses or roadside stores, disappeared. There was just the fragments of highway, the odd sign, the occasional passing car, outside the tunnel of the bus’s lights.

Even when I was too young for school, as I sat in my plush bus seat that was too big for me, too high for me, I worried about what would happen if I got off at the wrong stop, if the bus broke down, if it went to some place unfamiliar, if my grandmother wasn’t there to greet me. How would I find my way back home? How would I find my way to my grandparent’s house in a distant part of the city?

These were the days before parents worried about abductions of children by strangers, of pedophiles prowling bus and train stations, or would be pimps lurking around transit points. My fellow passengers were young airmen. There was an airbase outside of Gimli and there was such a shortage of transport that the buses often had stools with metal legs and canvas tops that could be lined up along the aisle.

In those cases where an airman would push me out of my paid for seat, the bus driver rather than getting into a fist fight with some young, aggressive and often drunk passenger, would get me to come to the front and sit beside him on the flat hump between him and the stairwell of the front door. I could sprawl on it and no one had thought yet of seat belts or the danger of flying bodies or suitcases.

My life with my Irish grandparents was uneventful. They left Ireland for opportunity, peace and tranquility. They did not carry the conflict from Northern Ireland with them. In their house there was little to identify their ethnicity. My grandmother listened to the singing of John McOrmack. My grandfather listened to the BBC news on the radio. When I was little, he sat me on his knee and recited “Master McGrath”. Once a year, he pulled his Orangmen’s sash out of a box, put it on and marched down Portage Avenue to drums and bagpipes. We watched the parade and didn’t know about the Troubles in Ireland because neither my grandmother nor grandfather talked about them. After the parade, we went to some nearby community for a picnic. Off in the distance there would be a stage and people made speeches. We ate ham and potato salad and the men had a beer. The only anti-Catholic thing I ever heard my grandfather say was “Down with the Pope.” That was after about three beer. He never said it after tea or coffee.

We tried to make them more Irish by giving them gifts made in Ireland. My brother and I both gave my grandmother a Belleek teapot and cups. They never got used. They sat on knick knack shelves, too precious to risk at tea time. We gave my grandmother an Irish towel but it was for Southern Ireland. No one had bothered to teach us any Irish geography or history.
When I was six or so, I remember my grandfather taking me to watch some soccer matches. It was cold and uncomfortable and didn’t make any sense.

I’m half Irish, that is both my grandparents came from Ireland. My mother was one hundred percent Irish. I guess I could go to Ireland and apply for Irish citizenship. I’m not sure what the point would be. Although she often told me that she was going to take me back to Ireland to visit, my grandmother never did. She never returned to Ireland. My grandfather returned to Ireland when he was on leave during WWI. That’s when he met my grandmother.

When he came back to Canada on a hospital ship in 1918, he was very ill from a shrapnel wound. It was a long time before he was able to leave the hospital. The war to end all wars was over. He didn’t choose to return to Ireland to farm.

He wrote my grandmother to ask her to come to Canada and marry him. She did that. As she said, there was nothing in Ireland for her. The land was entailed and she’d have spent her life being a servant for her brother’s wife, raising her brother’s children. In Canada, she had her own husband and children and her own house.

I miss them, I miss their accents.

A Northern Irish accent is wonderful. It is like being washed in warm water. I sometimes wish that my grandmother had kept her promise to take me with her to Ireland when I was in grade school. I’d have met some relatives, visited some castles and seen Loch Neagh and where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

Who knows, I might have developed a passion for Irish literature instead of the literature of the American South.

They didn’t ask for their ashes to be sent back to Ireland. Their bodies are buried in a small Manitoba graveyard that is inclined to flood in the spring. They are within hearing distance of the waves of Lake Winnipeg on a windy day. They’d lived out their lives in Winnipeg with its fierce winters and muggy summers. They had a cottage at Gimli, the centre of Icelandic immigration to Canada. It was to Gimli that they moved when they could no longer manage on their own in Winnipeg.

They lived with my parents until they died. They couldn’t bring much with them for it was a tiny house, even for two people, never mind four. My grandmother kept her Belleek and my grandfather kept his black thorn walking stick. They kept their accents but not much more. Maybe that was appropriate because they’d left Ireland a long time in the past.

And me? Who am I? Are fragmented memories three generations on enough to claim one is anything? That essential Canadian question in a country that does little or nothing to help us define ourselves and saying we’re not American isn’t an answer.

On Losing Icelandic

alphabet

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.

Immigration

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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.”

Icelandic population, 1861-1870

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Our lang lang and lang lang lang ammas and afis lived through these times. 1871 and 1872 were yet to come. Take a look at the relationship between births and deaths. In 1862 in Iceland there are more deaths than births and the population falls slightly. 1864 and 1865 must have been good years because there is a major increase in the population.However,in 1866 the population falls again but it is still well above 1861. More people are surviving. In 1867 there is a large increase, nearly a thousand more births than deaths. And by 1870 the population has climbed to 70,084.

Year Births Deaths Computed pop Percentage
1861 2525 2391 66,973 +0.20
1862 2693 2874 66,797 +0.27
1863 2648 2115 67,325 +0.80
1864 2760 2001 68,084 +1.13
1865 2757 2100 68,741 +0.96
1866 2662 3122 68,281 +0.67
1867 2743 1770 69,254 +1.42
1868 2449 1970 69,733 +O.69
1869 2177 2404 69,506 +O.33
1870 2276 1698 70,084 +0.83

There was the belief–I’ve run across it in a number of places– that Iceland could not sustain more than 60,000 people. If the population rose over that number, then starvation or disease would cut the number back.

When Icelanders were locked into a medieval system of land owner and serf or indentured servant with a severely limited supply of land and that land useful for nothing but grazing, the relationship between population and productivity was pretty predictable. You can only graze so many sheep or cows per acre.

There were no grain crops because there were not enough frost free nights for grain to ripen. The highly variable factor was the weather. Get three or four good years in a row and marginal land could be farmed. That led to families being established and families meant children being born. The population increased. But bad weather was inevitable and when that happened, snow and frozen ground in summer, harbours filled with ice, bitter cold winds, and the hay crop failed, sheep and cows died. People farming on the margins soon followed. In really bad years, it wasn’t just people on the margins.

However, even though it took a long time to break the hold of the land owning farmers over the right to fish, fishing was gradually increasing. Farmers wanted to keep the system going because it provided lots of cheap labour. Indentured servants don’t get much, if any, say in their pay or working conditions. The problem was that what existed was a system with predictable and limited means of production. Only fishing could increase wealth so that a temporary increase in population could be sustained.

From our historic hindsight we know what is coming after 1870. There will be volcanic eruptions and with them the destruction of grazing land, the destruction of livestock and the relationship of people to land, hay, and cattle, will be thrown out of whack.

Iceland wasn’t like Canada. There were no great frontier areas to farm. The pressure on what could be produced was huge. It was compounded by the fact that from 1861 to 1870 the population had gone from 66,973 to 70,084.

The people who left for Amerika because there was land, lots of it, vast amounts of it, did what was necessary for their own survival given these two factors: the increase in the size of the population and the destruction of grazing land. They also did everyone who stayed in Iceland a tremendous favour because their leaving brought the relationship of land to population back into balance.

Iceland missed the Industrial Revolution. The new technology wasn’t going to save it. When the emigrants left, there were still no roads. A Medieval system of land ownership and crofts and indentured servants still existed. There were no factories. No banks. If there was a wheeled vehicle, it was a wheelbarrow.

Iceland had not embraced the change sweeping through Europe. It’s salvation would be when the large land owners removed the restrictions on fishing. Icelanders had been fishing with one hook to a line while just offshore the Portuguese were laying fishing lines that were miles long and had thousands of hooks.

In Gimli, in my childhood, I heard of men crying because they felt they’d betrayed Iceland by leaving. Poetry books from that time and earlier, written in Icelandic, are filled with poems praising Iceland’s beauty. They are poems filled with regret and guilt. There is no reason for either. The emigrants betrayed no one. Their leaving left more food for those left behind and, indirectly, improved the lot of the indentured and wage workers, by removing some cheap labour and forcing up wages.

My great grandfather, Ketill, who, in Iceland, would have had nothing because he would have been paid so little, came to Canada in 1878 with nothing. He worked as a labourer, then he had a dairy, then a general store. He had a fine home. He owed no one anything. He kept his coffin in the basement because like many who started out with nothing, he didn’t want to be buried a pauper. He died with money in the bank.

As this table shows, the population had grown to what was considered unsustainable. Then there was volcanic disaster. The choice was stark. To die of hunger on a mountain path or leave for the unknown.

In Independent People, Laxness makes fun of the romantic movement created and populated by the well-to-do, the privileged in Iceland. They come to Bjartur’s farm, Summer Houses, to extoll the virtues of the peasant farmer. They are ridiculous, self-indulgent, dishonest for they know nothing of the real hardships of being a small holder.The emigrants knew reality.

Many in Iceland had a strong belief in the need to stay in Iceland to fight for its Independence. They saw Iceland rising toward its golden, glorious past. Others saw enough opportunity to satisfy them. Others would have left but didn’t have the means.

Eventually, it sorted itself out. One can write nostalgic poetry or make nostalgic speeches but, eventually, our lives are consumed by earning a living, raising a family, being part of our local community. Enough to eat, clothes, a place to live, necessities, some luxuries, for a few, wealth. But when I stand in the graveyard in Gimli and the wind is blowing in from the lake and I look at the graves of my great grandparents, my grandparents and my parents, I think, you did fine. Over three generations,you made a life.