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.

Economist extraordinaire

leokistjanson

Story by Karen Morrison

When others are hanging their “gone fishin’” sign Leo Kristjanson is contemplating how to save the western economy.

The former president of the University of Saskatchewan retired to Gimli, Manitoba, this past year to try to slow down the advance of Parkinson’s disease. But he hasn’t spent the time idly watching the boats go by in this sleepy resort town.

He renovated a brother’s home and daughter’s basement with his wife Jean, while continuing with fund raising efforts for the University of Saskatchewan’s new agriculture building. Somewhere in between, he found time to create The Western Institute for Public Policy.

He had planned to take a one year’s leave and see if his health improved, but as the Kristjansons conceded they have since decided to move the furniture to Gimli.
The transition has been no less difficult for jean, whose schedule was kept busy raising their four children, and in volunteer activities. Playground equipment in the backyard indicates time is now spent enjoying the next generation of six Kristjanson grandchildren.
Leo credits much of his success to having Jean at home to keep the home fires burning when he was away. In retirement, Leo laments that time away from his family. “He did a lot on the job and did a lot of extra things,” said Jean, a self-proclaimed feminist who chose to give up nursing and raise a family. “In order to do those extra things someone had to be at home.”

“Jean gets very little credit for what I did at university but it would have been impossible for me to act as I did without that understanding and participation,” said Leo, who was quick to point out his family member’s many accomplishments alongside his own.

His latest project, the public policy institute, is comprised of academics, businessmen and lawyers seeking to generate research and challenge fiscal policies of the Bank of Canada and government.

Calling such work good therapy for both the mind and body, the conversation quickly becomes more philosophical as he launches into a long-winded explanation of what the institute’s goals are.

“It emerged because a group talked about the nature of the response to insufficiencies and inadequacies in society,” he said, noting most reactions have been too stereotyped.
“You have people wanting to turn the clock back to solve the problems of the future or turning the clock back to something that didn’t exist,” he said. “They didn’t really have a complete grasp of what’s happening.”

Privatization is espoused as the answer to our current economic woes, but he said letting the market rule doesn’t work any better than the total government involvement of Eastern Europe.

He said the answer is to find what is appropriate to solve particular problems of society, with the main goals of his group being western solutions to western problems.
Leo’s personal goals for individuals to live with dignity, self –respect and equity are also the goals of the institute.

The group produced a research paper examining growth, income, immigration and investment levels over the last decade called the “State of the West Report”.

They have plans to do it annually, commissioning studies on a code of ethics for public officials, on the state of housing in the West, examining ways of creating equal pay for women in the workplace, and on poverty and health care systems.

Downplaying his role in the group Leo said, “I agreed to chair this group for a little while, but we need to let people in with more ideas than I have.”

He encourages that innovativeness because it is a means of helping people feel some control over their own destiny, as opposed to having Main Street Canada impose what it feels best for Canada on the West.

“Instead of asking what we can do, there is a tendency to ask what programs are available for this purpose,” he said. “I think things can be done that are uniquely western and unique to a particular region.”

Lobbying Ottawa to create programs is the traditional approach, but Leo said solutions might be more available through purely local action. “Politicians will try to solve it when it really is more suitably handled at the local level,” he said.

Leo warned against universities fueling this bureaucratic solution to problems by producing people enslaved to systems, citing the dehumanizing effects of assigning student numbers and enrollment quotas.

“A number is unique but if you don’t deal with it as a unique individual, then you lose students with particular characteristic,” he said.

“People look at them as the 30 to 500 who didn’t get in—it’s not 500 people whose careers might be affected,” he said, reiterating his desire to treat people with dignity. He noted he might have been one of those denied education opportunities when he applied to do a PhD in economics with a master’s degree in history.

He felt a greater share of the country’s gross national product should be invested in education in the West to solve current funding crises.

He expressed concern over the urban orientation of the University of Saskatchewan, publicly funded by a largely rural, agricultural tax base. There has to be special effort made in extension services for this rural community, building it into the workload of the staff, he said.

One of six boys and two girls born to Hannes and Elin Kristjanson, Leo’s support for the grass roots approach and the co-operative movement and his sense of responsibility towards community and family came from his Unitarian upbringing. His parents brought the family as children to Manitoba from Iceland.

Today the Kristjanson siblings continue to gravitate there to t heir summer and year-round homes and to the original two-story homestead, in which Leo and Jean now live. “It’s where we belong,” said Leo simply.

While his sisters Maria and Alda chose careers traditional for the time, in business and nursing, Leo and his brothers all pursued doctoral degrees. Baldur was an agricultural economics professor, Larry, assistant chief commissioner of the Canadian Wheat Board, and Kris was chairman of Manitoba Hydro and Great-West Life Insurance Company. Albert worked as a sociology professor and Burbank was once the agricultural advisor to the Shah of Iran. They were raised to challenge world issues, but also to help one another and their fellow man.

Leo’s goal while university vice-president and president was to enhance the agricultural component, by establishing the centre for agricultural medicine and a new $75 million agriculture building now nearly completion.

For the immediate future, he looks to upgrading the sprawling 1914 retirement cottage on the lake in which he was born and raised, taking time off only to accept such prestigious recent honors as being named to the Saskatchewan Agricultural Hall of Fame and Order of Canada.

Published on WDValgardsonKaffiHus with permission from The Western Producer and Western People magazine, Nov. 1, 1990.

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.

Laxness as a client

laxnesshat

Chapter 11

“You! A farmer!” Connor laughed uproariously. He nearly fell off his chair. We were at my parents’. When we are at my parents’, he immediately reverts to his adolescent self.

Connor is my older brother. He is big. He tried out for the Blue Bombers but didn’t make it. He bashes into things. Ever since I can remember, he’s bashed into me. When we were little, say two and four or four and six, I’d be standing in the yard and he’d make a run for me and send me flying. He thought how-far-can-I-knock-Tom was a game.

“It wasn’t my idea. I didn’t suggest it.”

“The old guy’s getting Alzheimer’s,” Connor said. He was rocking around in his chair with hilarity. “That place of his must be worth over a million dollars. Even if you knew the difference between wheat and barley, you wouldn’t have a down payment. You want to buy big stuff, you’ve got to get a real job, make real money.” Connor was a stock broker. His specialty seemed to be putting lipstick on pigs and making them fly. He was always trying to get me interested in some penny mining stock no one else had ever heard of. Flow through shares of gold companies in places I’d never heard of seemed to come up regularly. He leased a Lexus ES 350. Before he’d become a stock broker, he’d sold used cars. He’s always on the edge of making a fortune. He should have been the fiction writer.

“Are you going to see Valdi today,” my mother asked. She was making cinnamon buns. Connor loved cinnamon buns. He could eat a dozen without pausing. His stomach hung over his belt.

“They’re in lockdown,” I said. The flu had got worse. The staff were run off their feet feeding people in their rooms, cleaning up after people threw up, taking temperatures. I’d gone to the front door and the dreaded sign was up. “Quarantine. Do not enter.” I backed away and went to Tergesen’s book store to see if they had any new self-published books or new local histories. You could find things there you couldn’t find anywhere else. There was a book on commercial fishing. I thumbed through it, noted the information on fishing stations, amounts of fish caught over the years and paid for it at the front counter where there was a stack of plastic Viking helmets with horns.

The town of Gimli was a mistake. It was settled in eighteen seventy-five because a bunch of Icelandic immigrants were being towed north on Lake Winnipeg on barges to the Whitemud River. A storm came up, the captain of the steam ship cut the barges loose and left the immigrants to fend for themselves. They landed on a sandbar that was exposed to winds from Hudson Bay, where the forest was scruffy and scabby and anyone with a lick of sense would have immediately left and moved onto higher ground with thick forest, preferably sheltered by spruce trees that kept the drifting snow back. Unfortunately, these people had been raised on the story of the settlement of Iceland.  Ingolfur Arnarson, the first Icelandic settler, chucked his high seat pillars overboard, let the gods of wind and wave take them, and when they were found, settled there. The immigrants to Canada, like the high seat pillars, were cast off, drifted ashore and they assumed, since settling where things drifted ashore worked for Ingolfur, it would work for them.

The land was lousy. What looked like hay meadows were actually swamps but they thought they were hay fields because it was a dry year. The next year wasn’t dry. The water came back. There were only two kinds of ground in the local area: swampy and more swampy. The immigrants knew how to raise sheep and dairy cows and how to fish in the North Atlantic. Swamps are lousy places to try to raise sheep and dairy cows and the ocean fishing equipment didn’t work in a fresh water lake. The following summer a large group of Icelandic immigrants arrived to share the misery of the first arrivals. To make matters worse, there was a smallpox epidemic. Entire families died. Nobody likes to talk about the cause of the deaths, but when you are researching a book you keep coming across embarrassing facts. One hundred and three people died. Nobody should have died. Small pox inoculations had been known for a long time in Iceland. English explorers had brought cowpox scabs and taught the local priests how to inoculate people. The problem was that the majority of the immigrants were dreadfully poor indentured servants and the local well-to-do farmers couldn’t be bothered to have them innoculated. There were, after all, way too many poor people living on a kind of welfare system that required rich people to pay a poor tax. It was cheaper to bury poor people than to feed them.

To give Laxness his due with regard to his short story, “New Iceland”, that had so infuriated people that they had chased him through the night in an attempt to tar and feather him, the Icelandic immigrants’ story from the time they left Iceland until Laxness turned up in the late 1920s, was pretty bad. The earliest ships to the UK were transporting horses for the mines. Icelandic horses are small so they fit into the mine shafts. The ship owners from England and Scotland, not seeing much difference in the horses and the would-be immigrants, simply ran a partition down the centre of the ship’s hold. Horses, horse piss and shit on one side, men, women and children on the other. Actions speak louder than words and the action in this case made it clear the immigrants were beasts of burden. It wasn’t just the Ukrainian’s under Polish and Russian rule who were considered nothing but expendable animals.

The Industrial Revolution never came to Iceland. When other countries had roads and railways, Iceland still had horse trails and horses. There were no wheeled vehicles. The invention of steam ships meant regular scheduled travel replaced the inconsistency of sailing ships and those poverty stricken Icelandic peasants who could manage to pay the fare, could take a ship to England or Scotland and, from there, another ship to Quebec City. The poor people that the rich farmers never quit bitching about having to feed and clothe started leaving and the farmers, seeing their cheap labor disappear went on a rampage to stop them. Unlike the English slave owners and the Russian serf owners, the land owning farmers in Iceland weren’t going to get compensated for losing their indentured servants and share croppers.

Although the rich farmers treated the Icelandic un-landed peasants as disposable and valueless, once they started to crowd down to the harbors to get onto ships, the landed farmers thought this scruff was so valuable that they hired men to disrupt information meetings being held for the potential emigrants. The disrupters made so much noise that the emigration agents couldn’t be heard. That, in itself, was an acknowledgement that it was the share croppers who, by paying outrageous mortgages on their farms, paying outrageous interest on their leased sheep and cattle, provided the rich farmers with their wealth. The indentured servants who were paid as little as two dollars a year plus room and board and a piece of clothing a year, the fishermen who went to sea with nothing to eat from morning to night, who lived in stone huts often with no fuel for cooking, who drowned in vast numbers in terrible weather and poor boats, it was these people who created the rich farmers’ wealth. No rich farmer could take care of his own dairy cows, his own sheep or go fishing by himself. The game was rigged. The rich made laws that benefited the rich and then believed they were rich because they were superior to the serfs living in squalor.

My brother, Connor, aspired to be the modern equivalent of one of those wealthy landowners. He wanted minions to do his bidding. He made life hell for people who worked under him and kissed the ass of anyone above him. It was, he said, the natural order of things. Life was competitive, survival of the fittest, eat or be eaten, kill or be killed, the cream rose to the top. His cream didn’t rise to the top when he was trying out for the Blue Bombers. It was more like he was skim milk. He made the most of it, though. He got as many autographed photographs as possible with him in his uniform standing beside Blue Bomber stars. He papered his office wall with them. He let prospective clients assume that he had been on the team. He even had a replica Grey Cup on one shelf but if you looked closely it was a popcorn popper.

When we were kids, he used to beat me at Monopoly but he cheated. Cheating was fair, he claimed, it was just adding creativity to games. The point was to out cheat each other. He developed a philosophy about cheating. The rich got rich because they were the experts at cheating. Politicians spent most of their time figuring out ways to cheat. He was always pointing out articles in the paper about politicians cheating to get a nomination, cheating at raising money, cheating at the ballot box, cheating on expenses. There wasn’t anything they did that they didn’t cheat at. When Connor was playing midget hockey for the provincial title, he went so far as to slip into the visiting team’s dressing room and run a sharpening stone along their star player’s skates. Except he wasn’t sharpening the skates, he was dulling the edges. In spite of that effort, Connor’s team lost. He shrugged and said, “I did my best. You can’t win them all.”

My mother was very proud of him because he dressed well and he was good at greeting all her friends with hugs and handshakes. He made them feel special. Fortunately, for most of them, they didn’t have enough money for him to put his hand in their pockets. When the boom was on in Iceland, he suddenly became interested in his Icelandic heritage. When the Icelandic bankers turned up, he was all over them. He wanted a piece of the action. They weren’t interested in anyone who didn’t have a million dollars to invest. He wanted to show them opportunities in penny mining stocks that were going to go to dollars. They weren’t interested because they already had their own scam.

He had his Lexus, a house, a wife and two kids and a mega mortgage and line of credit. I had the beginning of a pension and ten thousand in a TFSA. I was fortunate that Jasmine had worked and saved before she went to university and, while there, had obtained scholarships. The split didn’t cost me anything but aggravation. The only thing I had that was worth anything was my van. I’d bought my van second hand, a hundred and thirty thousand kilometers on it. I had a complete set of the sagas and my laptop.

At the moment, I had a precious roaster full of hollopchi. Connor, if he knew they existed, wouldn’t have been able to keep his hands off them. I’d slipped my hollopchi into the house without anyone noticing and put them in the freezer downstairs under eight packages of waffles. My father liked store bought waffles he could pop into the toaster. Otherwise, Connor would have eaten the hollopchi at one sitting. He wouldn’t even have said thank you or expressed remorse. He’d have belched and rubbed his gut.

“How’s the Bookster doing?” Connor asked. He’d started calling me the Bookster back in high school because I read books from beginning to end. I don’t think he’d actually ever read any of the English course books. He’d got summary notes for them, read the summaries and after he’d passed the course said, see, there’s efficient and there’s inefficient. Get the grades and have time for other things. “You still working on that tome?”

I don’t think he hated me. I’d just always been there to torment. When he wasn’t calling me The Bookster, he called me Commie Tom. That was because I occasionally expressed concern about homeless people, the mentally ill, the treatment of military personnel, those sorts of people. “If they have to buy their toilet paper at Walmart, you don’t want to know them,” he said. “Don’t waste your time thinking about people who can’t afford to buy their sardines at Sobey’s for full price.” I wasn’t impressed. He and his wife dumped the kids on my folks last Christmas and used a HELOC to go to Mexico. This year my folks beat him to the punch. They were going on a Christmas cruise. It was booked, paid for and couldn’t be canceled.

“Yeah,” I said, “I’m still working on that tome.”

“You figure you’ll get a million dollar advance? I read in the paper someone got a million bucks for scribbling something. There’s always somebody getting a million bucks for doing nothing. You make big money, I’ll manage it for you. One percent a year.”

“Tom’s working hard at that book,” my mother said. “He’s interviewing lots of people. I’m sure it’ll be a success.”

“The bloom is off the rose,” Connor said. He never thought negative thoughts so I was surprised. “People are putting too much money into buying houses. They haven’t got money for stocks. However, all is not lost. I noticed at church last week a lot of grey hair and bald heads. Those people need financial advice. I’ve decided to change my speciality to financial advisor for the elderly. You have to move with the times. You hear that Bookster? You have to adapt or die. Just like the birds and reptiles. Except you’ve got to do it faster.”

Connor didn’t believe in God. He thought Jesus was a fraud. He thought church was a social club that could be mined for prospects. He claimed that church was a way to get people to trust you. You were in church, you must be good, you must be trustworthy, you shared the same values, you got to talk to people who wouldn’t have let you into their house if you’d just knocked at their door. In every pew there were opportunities. The problem was that most of the parishioners were older women who weren’t interested in speculative mining stocks. They were, however, in need of someone to look after the insurance their dead husbands had left them.

“You, Bookster, are another possible source. You’re going around interviewing all these people for this book. You’ve got the key to their front door. You could introduce me. If I get a contract to manage their account, you get a finder’s fee. Some of these farmers must be worth a bundle. What’s the name of this guy you’ve been researching lately?”

“Laxness. He’s dead. He lived in Iceland. He’s not a prospect.”

“Icelanders,” he said and took two cinnamon buns out of the pan my mother had just pulled out of the oven. He flipped them from one hand to the other because the sugar was hot. He kept saying ow, ow, ow but he wouldn’t put them down.

“They’re still hot inside,” my mother said. “Wait for a couple of minutes. Get a cold glass of milk just in case you burn yourself.”

Connor went to the fridge for milk. “Icelanders,” he repeated. “They had it all. The world was their oyster. Their timing was off. When the bankers were here, I tried to tell them, buy Canadian, do it through a trust in the Bahamas, shelter your profits. Bury it and if everything goes toes up, it doesn’t matter.” He had the two cinnamon buns in his right hand and the glass of cold milk in his left. He was ripping off chunks of the cinnamon buns with his teeth. Ripping things with his teeth was a genetic thing except his Viking ancestors would have been ripping meat off a leg of mutton. When he finished the buns, he sucked on his fingers to get all the sugar and cinnamon off them. I could see Laxness’s Vikings licking and sucking the lamb fat off their hands. Connor took another two cinnamon buns. My mother took that as a compliment.

“You got a girlfriend yet?” he asked. I didn’t bother to reply. He had an inordinate interest in my sex life. It was probably because he’d been married since he was twenty. He saw me as a bachelor and then married to Jasmine the Hot Number as he called her and, now, as a divorced guy free to hump anything available. There was a touch of envy in his voice.

“How’s Trudy,” I replied. He’d found Trudy in a pool room. She had big tits, blonde hair to her ass, cowboy boots and an attitude. He challenged her to a game and she beat his balls around the table and took five dollars off him. He’d been trying to get even ever since. Two kids and too much watching soap opera and she’d expanded to plus plus sizes.

“Doing good,” he said but his happy face had gone a little grimmer. There were, I expected, temptations at the office. There were opportunities for dalliances with his female clients, although as fat had replaced his stomach muscle those were likely fading. The Blue Bomber photos were with players whose names no one remembered.

I imagined Connor looking for new victims after church services were over, chatting up the widows, inquiring after their health, their interests, never asking about their money,  that would scare them. He’d feel them out, not up, to see if their husbands had left them well off, might mention the threat of inflation, of the importance of having their affairs in safe hands, little things, asking if they had a financial advisor, dropping a hint, nothing direct, just an oh, I see, and looking uncomfortable, making them concerned about that person, taking a stone to the edge of the advisor’s skates as it were, offering, at no cost, to take a look at their investments at some time in the future, raising the danger of another Nortel.

Laxness had used women to finance his writing. His mother knitted to make money to support him, she sold off land and mailed him the proceeds. If it had been possible in those days, she’d probably have sold a kidney to raise money for him. He borrowed money from women and never paid it back. He let them support him. He was an equal opportunity borrower. He didn’t just get money from priests and monks and businessmen. It was all justified because he won the Nobel Prize. I wondered, though, watching Connor gobbling down the fourth cinnamon bun, would it have been justified if he hadn’t won the prize.

“You doing anything for Christmas?” Connor asked and I knew better than to think he and Trudy might be planning on inviting me for Christmas dinner. If I said no, I didn’t have any plans, they’d want me to move into their place and take care of their kids for a week while they lay on the beach in Acapulco.

“Yeah,” I lied, “I’ve got a ticket for Cuba. Veradero.” Connor hated that, giving money to the commies, commies who refused to give the mafia back their property that had been confiscated by Castro, he didn’t differentiate between honest and dishonest capitalists. There was no such thing to him as a dishonest capitalist, just those who got caught and those who didn’t get caught. To him they were all the same. He’d eaten four cinnamon buns and was eyeing the last six. I expected him to lunge toward the pan, grab the buns and stuff them into his mouth. So did my mother. She said, “Leave one for Tom and one for your father.” He pulled another two free. His belly, I noticed, hung further over his belt since the last time I’d seen him.

 

 

Laxness nearly remembered

laxness3

Chapter 4

Valdi had sung with the area choir as long as his knees held out but when it became too painful to stand, he left the choir to join the audience. The choir master would have arranged a chair for him so that he only had to stand when he was singing but Valdi said no, there’s a time when you have to let an old bull go to pasture. At the nursing home, he was willing to join the motley crew that turned up on Saturday nights to entertain. He’d stand with one hand on the arm of his wheel chair. There was a thrill among the residents when one of their own stood up to perform.

His interests were unashamedly local. He might occasionally watch an NHL game but he took no great pleasure in it. Instead, he preferred to attend local hockey games where he knew the grandfathers and fathers of the players. He would much rather have talked about the local players, discussing their skating and stick handling, than some over paid person he knew nothing about. A player on the Midget hockey team was of more interest to him than the star forward of the Winnipeg Jets. He only followed the NHL closely during the years when Reggie Leach, the Riverton Rifle, was playing in the big leagues.

I visited Gimli in the winter but not as often as in the summer. The highways were often blurred with drifting snow, there was ice, cars frequently stuck in the roadside snowbanks, temperatures that with wind chill were minus forty.

He had my phone number and, from time to time, he’d phone me. “Are you coming to Gimli?” he’d demand.

“The roads are bad,” I’d say.

“You’ve got snow tires. What’s the use of paying to have snow tires if you don’t use them?”

“The RCMP have issued a weather warning.”

“It’s a good day for chess. Besides, that cute nurse that flirted with you last time is going to be on duty. You know, the one who plaits her hair.”

“She did not flirt with me.”

“She did. She did everything but pat your bum. She’s separated, she’s hot. A real man would invite her over to the hotel for a drink. It’s just across the street. There are lots of empty rooms. They don’t cost much. Don’t be cheap.”

I waited to hear why he was trying to tempt me to risk my life driving sixty miles when the RCMP were saying stay off the highways.

“The Wolves are playing tonight. I haven’t been out of this bloody prison for three weeks. You need to get out. There’s more to life than lesson plans and correcting papers.”

“The game will be canceled. The other team won’t come.”

“They’re here,” he replied. “They’re not wimps.”

“If they go into the ditch, they can pick up the car and carry it back onto the road.”

“I remembered some things about Laxness.”

“It can wait.”

“I’ll forget. My memory is getting very bad.”

Sometimes, I went in spite of the weather. I knew when he called like that he was pretty desperate. He and I would go to the hockey game and he’d watch from behind the glass and wire windows but I knew that something had happened, he’d got bad news from his doctor or his daughter had phoned.  Or both. Other times when he called, he’d want me to drive him out to the farm. His longing for the farm was like an ache that couldn’t be cured.

He’d sold off his animals but he refused to sell the farm. In spite of everything he held onto the buildings and the land. His daughter had tried to persuade him, even threatened to take over as Power of Attorney and sell it in spite of him but he’d fought back, enlisted his lawyer, insisted on taking a mental competency test. As he said, failing knees and failing kidneys didn’t mean a failing mind.  Although it made no sense, he still hoped for a miracle. His daughter went back to her library in a huff.

The house sat empty. He paid for the grass to be cut, allowed a neighbour to use the garden, rented out his fields. The barn and toolshed still housed his equipment.  At first when we’d go to the farm, he’d asked for my help getting onto the tractor, the combine, the grain truck but in the last few visits, he hadn’t attempted  climbing up. When we visited, I usually stayed near the door as he moved around the shed using a cane, talking to the machines as if they were animals, patted them,  ran his hand lovingly along them. When we visited his shop, he touched the welder, the lathe, the saw, stood beside them lost in thought. We never went in the house. That had been his wife’s domain.

I drove a ten year old Ford van. It worked out just fine.  He could get into the passenger seat. I could put his wheelchair in the back.

When I was in Gimli and stayed overnight, I usually stayed with friends who had a single bed in one corner of the basement.  Most of the time it was covered in boxes and clothes. I just moved them onto the floor and went to sleep. In spite of Valdi’s saying the hotel wasn’t expensive, it was, at least on my salary. It was meant for holidaying tourists with open wallets, not a high school teacher collecting early immigrant stories for what he hoped would become a book.

I didn’t go the day he called so he had to play checkers with a resident who wasn’t suffering from dementia. Shortly after he’d got to Betel, he’d said, “It’s no fun playing against someone whose brain has gone off the tracks.” Most of the residents had brains that had gone off the tracks and some of them had brains that were complete train wrecks. Their heads leaned to one side and their mouths  hung open. What was painful for him was that he’d known many of these people all his life.

I did go a week later. It was cold but there was no wind, the highways had been ploughed, the sky was a bright blue. It was 35 below but inside the van, with the heater ramped up, it was too warm for wearing mukluks and thermal  long underwear so I turned the heat down and drifted down the dark channel created by the ploughed drifts on either side of the highway.  The poplar forests behind the barbed wire fences that were buried in snow had snow piled so high that their tops might have been a forest of bushes. The shadows were shades of blue. It was deceptive, this artificial warmth inside the van where my feet sweated and I’d had to shrug off my parka. If the van stalled or slid off the road, I’d have to wrap mysel f in my down parka, pull on my deer hide gauntlets that came nearly to my elbows, pull the flaps of my sheep’s hide helmet down and tie them under my chin, and wrap a scarf around my face.  In this weather you could die within a quarter of a mile and if you were stupid enough to try to cross an area of unploughed snow, you’d become exhausted and die standing up, your legs frozen into the snow up to your crotch.

I thought we’d play checkers or chess or discuss the latest idiocies of the Canadian government or the Icelandic government. He had on his wall two metal  scales. I don’t know their original purpose but he used them to express his disgust with both governments. He called them his stupidity scales. He moved the marker up or down as news of government actions warrented. The markers slid up and down in a vertical slot and could be put into short horizontal slots marked from zero to twenty. He bemoaned that the scales didn’t go to a hundred, particularly during the years of the kreppa, the financial crash in Iceland. “There are stupider politicians than in Canada and Iceland,” I said. “I don’t care what they do in in North Korea or Malaya,” he snapped.

I tried to talk him out of going to the farm but it was hopeless. He hadn’t been there since November. It was now Christmas holidays. “You might as well take me to the farm,” he said. “You’re living off my tax money for doing nothing. You lollygag about your place, sleep in, watch TV, eat spaghetti out of tins and fart.”

I did nothing of the sort. I graded papers, made up lesson plans, did research at the archives and the Icelandic library at the University of Manitoba. I seldom watched TV and I hadn’t eaten spaghetti out of a tin since I was twelve. As for farting, I avoided garbanzo beans even though I liked eating them curried. Besides, one of the freedoms of living alone is that one can fart as often and loud as one wants and no one complains.

An attendant helped Valdi get dressed for winter, clucked her tongue at our going out,  blamed me for the idea. Valdi had told her that I wanted to take some pictures of the farm in winter. The attendant had taken it as gospel. The staff had all seen that I carried a camera around most of the time.

The town had nearly disappeared under the snow. Snow banks were as high as the eaves where the north wind got to sweep in unobstructed from the lake. The road west was clear, the road north was clear, but when we turned west again onto a country road, there were small drifts that ran from shoulder to shoulder. We could see where vehicles had come through. By the time we got to Valdi’s farm the snow had narrowed the road to one lane. The farmer who rented Valdi’s land also checked periodically on the house. However, he didn’t bother to plough the driveway. We could see snowmobile tracks that went to the side door and circled the house. He’d shoveled the snow away from the side door but the front steps were buried. The drifts spread away over the fields so it was like looking at a white ocean. What had been thick, unrelenting forest when Valdi had bought the land had been reduced to the occasional tree that stood black against the snow.

We sat there, looking at the house and the barn and work shed. There was a large three sided structure that had been used to store hay. The three metal silos reflected the sun. A jack rabbit appeared. White on white, we wouldn’t have seen it except for its movement. It must have been forty pounds. It paused to study us.

“I used to hunt those buggers,” Valdi said. “Hardly ever got one. Bush bunnies are easy. Whistle, they stop, you shoot them in the head.” Valdi reached out and hit the horn. It blared and the jack rabbit bounded away in a frantic zig zag path meant to throw off eagles or wolves.

A snow devil appeared on a drift beside us. It looked like a small tornado.  It appeared and disappeared. It was a first warning of wind starting up. If we got drifted in, as close as the house was, there was no way of getting Valdi from the truck to the house. I wondered if I could make my way there.

“We’d better be going,” I said. I put the van into gear and wished the farmer who rented the land had cleared part of the driveway so it would be easy to turn around.

“Go straight,” Valdi said, “turn at the next cross road. It’s just half a mile from here.”

I looked ahead and didn’t like the narrow trail that had been pushed open by vehicles traveling over the road. Unless I shoveled out a spot on the driveway to the house there was no place to turn around. I had a shovel in the back of the van but the drifts were over three feet high and the constant wind and cold had made the surface hard. I decided to back up. I figured with the wheels in the ruts, I’d follow them with no problem. I lowered the window and eased the van backward.

“Don’t you think you should go forward?” Valdi asked.

“The cross road may not be open, then we’ll be a mile in and if we get stuck, I’ll have a mile to walk to the highway. “ Two more snow devils whirled and disappeared.

I got back about a hundred feet when the van slipped sideways off the hard packed snow and the left back wheel  dropped. “Shit, shit, shit,” I said. It wasn’t a creative response but it was appropriate. I got out, took out my shovel and began to dig around the back wheel. I chipped away at the hard packed snow.  I got back into the van, tried to pull forward, the tires spun, I backed slightly, rocked the van a number of times, and when the tires caught, I was running the motor too fast and we shot across the road and both front wheels went into the snow bank.

“Better call the tow truck,” Valdi said.

I didn’t know the local number for a tow truck so I decided to call the nursing home. I’d explain our predicament and ask them to send a tow truck. I had a service plan. It cost 118.00 a year. I took out my cell phone, went to punch in the number and realized the battery was dead. I hadn’t used the phone for some time.

I looked back toward the highway. At this time of day, at this time of year, there might not be a vehicle going by for hours.

“There’s a toboggan in the work shed. You could pull me on that,” Valdi said. “Here’s the key. Don’t drop it. I’ve a key for the house and the house is heated, the electricity works and the phone is working.”

I looked at the gas gage and decided that we couldn’t spend the night in the van. It would be dark soon and nobody, if they actually noticed a vehicle on the side road, was going to come to see if everything was all right. A toboggan! Down the road, over the snowbanks. At least the side door had been shoveled free.

I wrapped myself in my parka, helmet, scarf, pulled on my deerskin gauntlets, pulled up my mukluks and tightened the drawstring at the top. The wind was becoming more persistent. I could see loose snow lifting over the fields. If it persisted, there could be a white out. People got lost and froze to death going from a house to a barn, never mind trying to find a house set back an eighth of a mile.

The road was treacherous. The surface was slippery and uneven.  I walked with my arms spread. When I got to the beginning of the driveway, I had to kick into the snow to make a step, then heave myself onto the surface of the drifts. The first few steps were easy. The snow was hard and held my weight. I didn’t lift my feet but skidded forward. That is, I skidded forward until I broke through and my left leg sank up to my knee.  I had to lie forward and pull so the force of getting the one leg free didn’t make the other one break through the surface. It went like that the whole way. Hard, hard, soft, hard, hard, hard, hard, soft.  Fortunately, the shed door opened inward.  I climbed over the drift that was piled up against it.

The toboggan was hanging on the wall. I stopped to rest, then took it down. I shut the door behind me and retraced my steps or, I should say, tried not to retrace them , avoiding soft spots.

When Valdi lay down on his back on the toboggan, his feet hung over the end, I gave him the shovel to hold. He grasped it to his chest. I pulled him along the road. The wind was steadier and even though only my eyes were uncovered, it was cold. I pulled Valdi to the beginning of the driveway. There was no way I could get him up onto the snowbank.

I took the shovel and cut a narrow inclined path for about nine feet. I then packed down the snow. At the top, I turned around, got on my knees and pulled the toboggan hand over hand as I backed up, all the time hoping my weight wouldn’t break through the glazed surface.

Valdi was now face down, holding onto the curved front of the toboggan. The surface of the snow was as difficult as the first time I crossed it. I didn’t dare go off the driveway because there was a ditch that fronted the property and if I sank into that I might never get out. In places, I crawled.

Darkness comes early in December in Manitoba and it obliterates everything unless there is a moon. Thank God a moon rose up, enough of a moon, so that light reflected off the snow. The world turned purple.

Valdi gave me the key to the house. I got the storm door open, then the inside door. I helped him sit up, then he put his arms around my shoulders and we did a kind of crazy, drunken dance up the steps, me hanging onto the railing, backing into the house, him struggling to get his feet up the steps and over the lintel. The door opened into the kitchen and I was able to walk him to a rocking chair beside the kitchen table.  He fell into it and I caught his knees so he didn’t go over backwards.

I was breathing too hard to say anything. I shut the two doors, then turned up the heat and thought, thank God, when I heard the furnace start. The house was too cold for us to take off our parkas so he rocked in his rocking chair and I paced back and forth thinking of everything that could go wrong, like the furnace running out of oil.

“Give me the phone,” he said. There was an old fashioned phone on the counter. It had a long cord. I gave it to him. He rang a number.  There was no answer.  He tried two more times. “They must be out,” he said. “Probably curling. They curl.”

“We can call the tow truck,” I said. I was annoyed. We were marooned in a vast ocean of snow and ice.

“No point,” he answered. “He can get the car out but he’s not going to get us out of here. You want to make that trip back to the road? Just wait. They’ll get home soon enough.”

He put down the phone and said, “There’s bowls in the cupboard, a can opener over there, lots of canned soup in that cupboard, there’s bread in the freezer and a toaster to toast it.” He was struggling with his parka. I helped him take it off. “Good thing I’m prepared for the worst. Be prepared, that’s what the Boy Scouts say.”

“You need to get back to the nursing home to take your medication,” I said. He might think it was a great adventure but I didn’t.

He fished in his parka pocket and pulled out three pill bottles. “I never go anywhere without these.”

I heated up tomato soup in the microwave, made a pile of toast, made coffee and discovered some whitener and sugar for the coffee.

“Isn’t this great?” he said. It was obvious that he saw it as a great adventure. After being confined to his poky room in the nursing home, I expect it was. However, I wasn’t in a mood to be generous. I had planned on spending the night at my friend’s place. They were going to have a few people over, eat BBQ ribs, drink a few beer, have a few laughs. It had been a heavy term and I needed a few laughs.

“I loved it in weather like this. Nothing to do in the winter except read and relax. Take a look at the living room. There’s a fireplace. There might even be some wood. Catherine and I used to have a fire on days like this. It’s a great feeling. Get a fire going and we can sit in there. No TV but lots to read.”

He put his arm over my shoulders and we struggled to the living room. He sat in his leather armchair like he was king of the world. There was, as he’d said, kindling and birch slabs. I found some paper and matches and started a fire. Three walls of the room had bookshelves from the floor to the ceiling. Shelves were taken up with books about Iceland, many of them in Icelandic, quite a few in English. There were books of poetry in Icelandic. I flipped one open. It had been printed in Winnipeg in 1898. I took out another one. It had been printed in Gimli in 1901. I ran a finger over the spines. He had an early Madame Pfeiffer, A Journey to Iceland and Travels in Sweden and Norway  and a reprint of Olafsson and Palsson’s 1752-1757 Travels in Iceland.  I worked my way along one shelf and then started on another.

“What are you going to do with these?” I asked. I’d taken down a copy of the Almanak from 1875. Someone had bound it with tape to the Almanak for 1876.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Hard to say. Maybe the person who buys the house will want them.”

“They should go to the Icelandic library at the university.”

“Now you sound like my daughter. That’s all she can think of. Books should be in libraries. They sit there gathering dust and after they’re copied digitally, they’re tossed out.”

“Why don’t you call Joe again?”

“Yes,” he sighed. “Bring me the phone.”

He called and this time Joe answered. “Joe,” he said, “Valdi here. I’m at the farm. We slipped off the road. Yeah, we got in fine. Could you come and get us? After you’re finished with the cows? That’s fine. We’ve got all we need here.”

We played cribbage until we heard the sound of a skidoo, two skidoos, actually. Joe and his wife, Alice, each had a skidoo. They raced over the snow and stopped at the kitchen door. They came in, took off their helmets, shook hands, and Valdi insisted on their having coffee.

“It’s like old times,” he said and I imagined that they’d had dozens or hundreds of evenings around the kitchen table.

We got dressed for the outdoors. I got on behind Alice and Valdi got behind Joe and off went, racing through the night, up and down drifts, around trees and stopped at their back door. We had to go inside, take off our winter gear, have more coffee, then Joe said, “We’d better be getting you back. We got into his Ford Ram with the big tires, he took us down a mile, across a mile, out onto the highway, then pulled the van onto the road and waited to be sure I got the motor started, then that I got the van onto the highway. He helped me get Valdi into the van and flashed his lights and beeped his horn when we drove away.

“We could have stayed the night,” Valdi said. “There’s three bedrooms. It was built for a family.”

The wind was blowing steadily now, the highway was blurred by drifting snow, fingers of snow were starting to reach across the pavement.

“You were going to tell me something about Laxness,” I said.

“I forgot,” he replied, “in all the excitement caused by your not being able to stay on the road.” I glared at him. He had a way of shifting blame that was very annoying. “I figured we’d just stop for a look at the farm in the snow, then go further down the highway to a place I know. It’s got a Laxness connection.”

“Tell me about it,” I said.

“No point, unless you can see it. What do you think of the house?”

“House?” I said, I was torn between being annoyed at having tomato soup and toast instead of BBQ ribs and not hearing something new about Laxness. Besides, if his librarian daughter heard about this adventure, I’d be hearing from her. She reminded me of some teachers I’d had in public school. I did not remember them fondly.

 

 

 

Laxness in the Interlake

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I was visiting Valdi Vigfusson in the nursing home in Gimli, Manitoba, and mentioned that I was reading one of Laxness’s novels. “I saw him once,” he said.  “He came to give a reading.”

Valdi came from a farm in the Interlake of Manitoba. The area was settled by Icelandic immigrants around the turn of the century. His parent’s farm was on marginal land so life was hard scrabble for them and since he’d been an only child and had inherited their farm, life was hardscrabble for him, too. In other areas, the land was good and many of the farmers had prospered, at least much more than those who had stayed in the swamps around Lake Winnipeg or among the gravel ridges.

Although the settlers were all related by blood or marriage, there was quite a bit of rivalry and not a little resentment toward those who were doing better than others.  When Valdi told me stories about the communities, I always had to take that into account. Many of his stories seemed impossible. Men walking all night on legs frozen solid. Men, after having their legs amputated, clearing their land on their knees. Sturgeon so big their heads were at the bow of a skiff and the tail at the stern.  However,  time and again, my research confirmed what he said.

Valdi’s hand shook as he took the cup of coffee I’d brought him. He used his left hand to steady his right wrist. He’d sold his parent’s farm and bought one on land along the Icelandic River. The Icelandic River, originally called the White Mud river,  ran all the way from west  through the municipality of Bifrost to Lake Winnipeg.  At one time, Valdi had been a big, strapping man, broad shouldered from a life-time of heavy work, his skin darkened by sun and wind. Now, he sat hunched in his wheelchair. His hair had turned grey and his skin was yellow. “Kidney’s are going,” he said.

“Laxness, in the Interlake?” I said skeptically. From time to time, I’d heard rumours of Laxness coming to the Interlake, but when I’d tried to find out any details of his visit, I me with silence. The closest I got to something specific was that Laxness had stayed for a time in my home town of Gimli. But who he stayed with, how long he stayed, what he did was unknown or, at least, not to be shared.

Valdi sipped  his coffee, then put the cup down. The ripples on the top of the cup went over the rim. I pulled a Kleenex out of a box and mopped up the coffee. “Lousy way to die,” he said. “I shoulda had a heart attack while I was threshing.”

“Laxness?” I prompted him.

“I dunno if I should say anything.”  He took hold of his right wrist and lifted up the cup. I wanted to suggest that he use a straw but knowing him that would be the end of the visit. He’d jerk his thumb at the door. I’d be persona non grata for a week. He managed to get the cup down without spilling any coffee on himself or the table. “There was a sort of understanding. Nothing formal.  No taking of oaths or anything. You just knew you weren’t to talk about it.”

“It was a long time ago,” I said.

He sighed. We both knew that there were a lot of secrets  that went to the grave unspoken. I have my own but those are personal failures, mistakes, misunderstandings. This was a public event that included  a writer who would win the Nobel Prize in literature. Besides, Valdi loved to talk. He was happiest when he had an audience.

I thought about the town where I’d been told the event that no one talked about was supposed to have happened. It was a prosperous farming community. A main street lined with stores, a hotel, nicer houses than a lot of the surrounding communities had. It had prospered while other communities had faded away. I remembered being there for an athletic day.  Most of the school had gone there to participate. However, a visit by Laxness would  have to have been a couple of decades earlier, when the town was less formed, more isolated, more Icelandic.  I was particularly interested in this possible story about Laxness coming to the wilderness of Manitoba because I’d been to Iceland, visited  his home after his death, spent an afternoon with his widow, sat at  his desk, looked out his window at the landscape that spread out before him as he wrote his amazing books. I’d asked her for details about his visit and while she talked freely about his time Hollywood, she claimed to know nothing about his trip north.

Sometimes, silence is the best response to uncertainty. It allows the owner of a secret to unlock the door from inside, to peek out, to see if there is anything threatening. I sat and drank my coffee and studied the half-dozen Icelandic books on Valdi’s bedside table.

“I need a smoke,” he said.

I looked at him and didn’t say anything. He knew I didn’t approve of his smoking.

“My lungs will still be working when my kidneys quit,” he said.

I pushed his wheelchair to the door, punched in the numbers on the lock, then wheeled him through the door and parked him beside a bench where the smokers sat even in the coldest weather. There was a rusted coffee can for discarded butts.

Valdi fumbled a package of cigarettes and a matchbook folder out of his pocket. By pressing the cigarette package onto his lap with his left  hand, he managed to get a cigarette out. His hand vibrated as he got the cigarette to his lips. He moved it over to one side with his tongue. He kept his lips nearly closed when he said, “I can’t light a match.”

I picked up the matches, pulled one loose and held the flame to his cigarette. He sucked in the smoke, then breathed it out.

“Laxness,” I said.

He looked away, past the right side of my head. I thought he was dismissing my question but, instead, he was remembering. It was too  hard for him to take the cigarette out of his mouth so he kept it firmly in the corner of the left side. It waved up and down as he talked.

I was surprised that Laxness would go to the trouble of making the trip to Manitoba. In Iceland the emigrants had been called traitors, weaklings, cowards who ran away because times were hard. They even taught that in the schools.

“All right but you can’t mention the name of the town and you can’t tell anyone until I’ve been dead for ten years,” Valdi said. He butted out his cigarette. “The hall was full. People had to stand. I was just a kid. I went there with my parents.”

I imagined that country hall with its wooden benches, men and women dressed in their best, packed together, the overflow standing along the walls. Farmers in their good dark jackets and pants, their wives in long dresses.

Laxness was fifteen minutes late. The road was Manitoba clay with a sprinkling of gravel. It had been raining off and on for days and the roads were deeply rutted. To get from one town to another, you put your car wheels into the ruts and followed them just like they were a set of railway tracks.

Laxness followed his driver into the room. He was rather nattily dressed, with a vest and bow tie. The audience had been talking about the rain and flooding and whether the cattle were going to suffer from hoof rot. Hoof rot was on everyone’s mind. The hall fell silent as Laxness came in. He went straight to the stage. There was the sound of shuffling as people took their seats.

There was a brief introduction by the driver, then Laxness started to read from his story, “New Iceland”. It wasn’t a good choice. There were still bitter feelings over the emigration, times had been hard, a lot of people had died on the trip over and in New Iceland. Laxness’s short  story was about how the emigrants had failed, how they were going to keep failing and how they should have stayed in Iceland, how the men had disgraced themselves by allowing their wives go out to work as domestics. The audience already had heard rumours about the story. Laxness never got to the end of it. The local farmers had overcome huge obstacles, made tremendous sacrifices and many of them already had successful farms. In Iceland, as indentured servants working for some wealthy farmer or as tenant farmers, they’d have had nothing and would have been living in hovels made with rock and turf. The injustice of the accusations in the story were infuriating.  Even Valdi’s parent’s hardscrabble farm was better than anything they would have had in Iceland.

Three quarters of the way through, a farmer jumped up and yelled, “Get the tar and feathers.” Pandemonium broke out. People rushed for the door. People climbing over the benches knocked them over. On one of the wagons there was a metal tub full of tar and some bags of chicken feathers. People were jammed in the door. A few men, unable to get outside, after milling about for a few moments, turned and charged the stage.

Before he’d started reading, Laxness had checked the back door to be sure it was unlocked. He’d had unappreciative audiences before. When the farmer jumped up and yelled, “Get the tar and feathers,” Laxness bolted for the door, his driver behind him. Because of the rain, the door had swollen and it jammed.  However, they both got out and his driver held the door shut. Their car was parked at the front of the hall. It was a strategic mistake. It would have been better to have parked at the back with the car pointed to the road but Laxness had wanted to make a grand entrance. Laxness sloshed his way across the yard to the road that led out of town. It was pitch black, rain was pouring down. Lightning lit up the sky.

The farmers at the back door, frustrated at being unable to get it open, turned and ran to the front door just as the tub of tar and the sacks of feathers were being brought in. They collided with the group coming in. The tub went flying, the tar rose up in a black wave, drenching everyone in its path. Trying to avoid the tar, people tripped over the benches. Others slipped in the tar. Chicken feathers filled the air. Some women who were knocked over started screaming as they lay on the floor. Those inside were yelling stop, stop but it did no good. The crowd coming in the front door kept forcing its way in, pushing people backwards so more tripped over the benches and fell onto the tar.

“He’s outside,” one of the men who had been on the stage shouted and the crowd turned back toward the front door and, slipping and sliding in the tar, staggered and tripped down the front steps. A bolt of lightning revealed Laxness slogging down the mud road. “He’s there,” someone shouted but the next moment all was darkness.

A group of men waded through the water and mud and started along the road. Another bolt of lightning showed them Laxness struggling through the wet clay. Running was impossible. Manitoba clay clung to everything. Feet came up with a sucking sound. Men tripped in the ruts and fell and had a devil of a time to get up.  Some farmers had brought torches. They lit them and joined the others on the road. A few had taken pitchforks from their wagons.

“Put those down,” Gisur from Geyser yelled. “You’ll kill somebody.”

It was true. The men with the pitchforks were waving them wildly as they tried to keep their balance

There’d been enough time for the farmers to gather. With the aid of the torches that burned for a while in spite of the rain, they started out as a group. Lightening revealed Laxness well ahead of them but not so far that they couldn’t catch him. However, with the tar spread over the floor of the hall and over a good many of the audience and the women who’d rolled in the tar then been covered with the feathers, what good catching him would do was unclear. Still, the blood lust of the hunt was up.

The race was in slow motion. The clay clung to farmer’s feet until the pursuers were lifting large, heavy clumps of mud. They sank up to their ankles and when they pulled their feet up, their shoes stayed behind. Boots remained in place so that the owners walked out of them, then sank into the mud in their sock feet. Instead of making progress, more and more of the pursuers were demanding that those with torches come and help them find their shoes. Still, the pursuit continued. There were lightning bolts and thunder overhead. With each bolt of lightning, they could see Laxness and the fact that he wasn’t moving any faster than they were.  Sometimes, he had to put both hands under a leg to pull his foot out of the mud. Then the lightning stopped for a bit. When another bolt struck, Laxness was nowhere to be seen. The crowd surged forward, first shoeless, then sockless as the mud first took shoes, then socks. The clay didn’t stick as much to bare feet so those with one shoe and sock lost took the others off. Those with torches still lit, led the way.

Laxness, for his part, had reached the bridge at the edge of town. His shoes had been tightly laced so he still had them but they would never be the same. He was exhausted from lifting feet three times their normal size. When he came to the bridge, he slid down the embankment of the Icelandic River, then crawled along until he was well under the bridge. Overhead, he heard the farmers yelling and cursing. There had been the danger that someone might look under the bridge but, by then, all the torches had been doused by the rain.

Laxness lay there, his heart pounding, his breath rasping in his chest, waiting until he was certain that all his pursuers had left. He could hear their departing vehicles crossing the bridge.  Then he crawled back onto the bank and up to the road.  In an attempt to get the mud off, he first stood under a small waterfall where a ditch emptied into the river.

When he got back to the car, his driver was waiting for him. Laxness opened the back door and threw himself inside.

“Would you like some coffee?” the driver asked.

There was supposed to have been a reception. The ladies had brought food. In the confusion, in despair over tar on their dresses, on their faces, in their hair, they left their food behind.  The driver, who was a big man with a good appetite, all through the pursuit, had been in the hall, working his way through the sandwiches, the vinarterta, the klienar, the rullupylsa on brown bread, the butter tarts. He’d been washing it down with excellent coffee from a large urn.

He went into the hall, piled two plates with sandwiches and desserts. He then went back for the urn and two cups. He and Laxness sat there in the car, eating the sandwiches and desserts and drinking the coffee. Laxness tried not to drip on his sandwiches.

“The local ladies are known to be good cooks,” the driver said as he finished off his sixth piece of vinarterta. Then he started the car and drove them back the way they had come. In spite of all that had happened, Laxness still had his bow tie.

For three days, Laxness recuperated in Gimli. “It was a good story,” he said to his host over breakfast the first morning, “but a hard audience.”

 

Will You Remember Them?

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Many came to Amerika because they were desperate. Desperate to leave behind hunger, insecurity, ill treatment, poor living conditions. They risked going to Amerika because they thought there’d be food, security, better treatment, and better living conditions. A man (and a woman) could claim land, his land, her land, their land. The land wasn’t taken, wasn’t in the hands of the few wealthy farmers who hired indentured servants, daily and seasonal workers, who rented to crofters, farmers who were as one of them said, like Napoleon on their own land. The settlers risked everything for opportunity, for the future.

They went to Nova Scotia, they went to Kinmount, they went to the United States, they began a journey that, for many, seemed to have no end. The settlement in Nova Scotia failed. Kinmount failed disasterously. New Iceland, begun with high hopes, was virtually abandoned within three years. These were not frivolous people. They were desperate for good land, land that could be broken with a plough, that could, within a year or two, provide crops that would feed the settlers, clothe them, house them.

Many kept moving Westward. Winnipeg, Brandon, Vatnbygg, Swift Current, Markerville, Calgary, Edmonton, the Peace River, over the mountains to Vancouver, to Victoria, to Point Roberts, Blaine, Bellingham, Boundary Bay (Seattle).

With each move the Icelandic immigrant community fragmented.
Communities were formed and then dissipated. Some, like the one on Smith Island, persevered for decades. In some cases, individuals disappeared, became rumours, memories. One book says that there is a rumour of an Icelandic family in the Interior.

Many were your lang afi and amma’s neighbours. Sigurdur Sigurdsson Myrdal was one of those. He was born in Gil in Myrdalur in West Skaftafellssysla in 1844. He married Valgerdur Jonsdottir and left for America in 1876. They went to New Iceland.

“They were there during the small pox epidemic and other miseries that accompanied it. They lost two of their young daughters to that disease. In 1880 they went to Pembina where they lived for seven years. Sigurdur worked there in a store, and participated considerably in the Icelandic community, particularly in church matters.”

“From there the couple went to Victoria B.C., and then to Point Roberts in 1894. Sigurdur is a good carpenter and built for himself and family a quite nice single-storey wood house. Because of his wife’s poor health, he moved again to Victoria, where it was possible to get better medical help, but let his son Arni take care of his home. Sigurdur lost his wife in 1912 and was after that variously in Victoria or Point Roberts, until 1914 when he married…Jonina Solveig Brynjolfsdottir, widow of Amundur Gislason.”

I wish that someone had written down Sigurdur and Valgerdur’s story. They arrived in New Iceland in 1876. They buried two daughters in New Iceland. The writer, Margret J. Benedictson, says “They were there during the small pox epidemic and other miseries that accompanied it.” They lived a tragedy. How many of us have buried two daughters? They are, I assume, in the old graveyard in Gimli. If not, then they might be in the graveyard at Arnes, Hnausa, Riverton, Hecla. There are lots of graveyards.

Margret doesn’t expand upon “the other miseries”. I wish she had because then we would know what Sigurdur and Valgerdur overcame. They moved Westward to Pembina in 1880. Four years had passed in Gimli with its death and other miseries. What did they find in Pembina? What did they not find in Pembina?

According to Margret’s description, they moved to Victoria, then Point Roberts in 1894. This would mean they’d spent 14 years in Pembina before moving Westward to the very edge of the continent where there was deep sea fishing, mountains, good land for raising sheep and a community of other Icelanders.

Valgerdur died in 1912. She had been ill a long time. Eighteen years had passed since they’d settled on the West Coast. Moving, moving, always westward until they came to the edge of the continent, finally completing a journey that had begun in Iceland in 1876.

The Icelandic community in New Iceland lost them as neighbours, relatives, friends but it also lost their story, their stories that would have fleshed out what it meant to make that critical journey with the big group, what it meant to try to prepare for winter, to survive the small pox but to bury two daughters.

One could say, of course, but there were other people who stayed, whose stories remained, but Sigurdur and Valgerdur were just two of many who left and history is like a jigsaw puzzle, the more missing pieces, the less complete the picture. Everyone may be in the same place but no two people’s experiences are the same.

And distance and time dim memories. People forget, never learn and the lines of the journey, the lives of the journey, are lost and we are less because of it. I’ve been a part of one of those communities ever since 1974. My path was a crooked one, Iowa, Winnipeg, Missouri, Victoria. There are many others here, in Blaine, Seattle, Bellingham, Vancouver, Naniamo. I’m a newcomer compared to many whose families like those of Sigurdur and Valgerdur trace their roots back to 1894.

When I was editor of LH, I tried to include as much news of our far flung communities as possible. Without them, we are lessened. Without Chicago and Minneapolis and Markerville and Calgary and Edmonton and Vatnbygg and Minneota and and and, we are less, not just in numbers but in the story of our community. Without the stories of Nova Scotia, Montreal, Toronto, Kinmount, we are incomplete. Our history, who were are, isn’t just New Iceland or Manitoba, although they are, without doubt the vortex to which we are all connected.

The INL has been doing everything it can to bring those pieces together, to reconnect forgotten connections, to make us aware of all of our story.

I met David Johnson at the INL conference in Seattle. He very kindly sent me a copy of Icelanders of the Pacific Coast: Point Roberts, Blaine, Bellingham, Marietta. I’m going to write about some of the people in this book, about our great grandparents friends, relatives, neighbours who kept traveling west until they couldn’t go any further. Unfortunately, I got one of the last three copies. There may or may not be two lef. I’ll do my best to tell you about some of the people who were written about in the Almanac by Margret J. Benedictson. Some of the people who appear in these pages. They are all a part of your history and mine.

Book Review: Historical Images of New Iceland Settlements

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Ben Holyk’s new book of historic photographs arrived today. It is called “Historical Images Lake Winnipeg New Iceland Settlements”. It covers more communities than usual: Arborg, Poplarfield, Fisher branch, Geysir, Gimli, Hecla Island, Hnausa, Ledwyn, Riverton, Winnipeg Beach. As well, it has a section on Lake Winnipeg Boats and Fishing. It is 376 pages and is crammed with pictures, many of which I have not previously seen.

I have read a fair amount about New Iceland, its people and places, the boats of Lake Winnipeg, the buildings, the farms but I’ve had to imagine what they looked like. Now, I have images for many of those people and places.

I’m happy to have a picture of the S.S.Colville, the ship that brought Icelanders to New Iceland but also a picture of an oxen team that was used in Arborg.

Pictures of Ragnheidur and Oscar Einarsson on their wedding day in 1914 and Sveinbjorg and Nikulas Halldorson provide a good idea of how people dressed. Dr. J. P. Palsson and his wife Sigudur in 1910, are fashion plates and one cannot help but wonder how their clothes were kept clean. No automatic washing machines. As far as I know, tubs and scrub boards and, if you could afford it, hired help were required to keep a person presentable.

Logging camps had bad reputations for the way they treated the men who worked for them. The work was hard, the pay low, the isolation complete and accommodation? Well, the picture of the logging camp north of Arborg provides a good idea of how loggers lived.

Wood, in the early days, was used for heating and cooking plus fueling the steam ships. It created a cordwood economy. It’s hard to imagine the amount of wood needed to fuel the local houses and the houses and businesses of Winnipeg. A sense of that can be seen in the picture of Chapil’s horse team hauling logs to the Arborg railway station, 1940.

One of the surprises in the book is provided by the pictures of Fisher Branch. There’s a general view taken in 1907 and a picture of the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church that was built in 1913. The Fisher Branch Creamery’s fleet of delivery vehicles is impressive. I count six nice looking cars. The Ukrainian Farmer’s Co-op store with its employees outside (I count 34) gives a sense of a thriving community. Trains arrived in 1914 and continued until 1980.

Geysir has always had a reputation many times its actually size. My impression of it has been of a dance hall (picture included), a church and a graveyard but Ben’s pictures show pictures of quite elaborate churches, St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic church (1913), Immaculate Conception RC church (1912) and Geysir Evangelical Lutheran Church (1928). There are pictures of the Geysir school, the students and staff, the men’s baseball team (baseball, when I was a boy in the 1940s was taken quite seriously), a threshing outfit and a rather amazing picture of J.K.B. Jonson hauling hay from Fisher Bay for Baldi Halldorson.

Gimli, as usual, takes up a good part of the book, mostly because people came there On holidays and took pictures. I see that at least one of them is credited to my great aunt Stina Johnson but others that I believe she took, are not. The picture of a Manitoba steam side paddler docking at Gimli in the 1910s gives me an image of what life was like in the 1910s that I never expected. My great grandfather’s store at the corner of Main & Centre in 1905 is displayed. It’s an often used photo and will be familiar to many. There’s a picture of the H.P. Tergesen house in 1906 when it sat on open land waiting for the town to be built around it. I was happy to see a picture of the Lutheran church with its spire. There’s a picture of “Beaver House, the Lake View hotel and Lyric Theatre taken sometime in the 1900s.

There are some fine pictures of campers’ cottages. I just wish that the locations were included. Many of the early cottages have been torn down and replaced with permanent houses. I was pleased to see a picture of Bjarnason’s grocery and dry goods store because no one except me seems to remember it. There’s a picture of the original Johnson Memorial Hospital that opened in January 28, 1939, just a few months too late for me to be born there. I’ve always regretted that and thought my mother could have waited or they could have finished the hospital sooner.

Hecla has been a storied place mostly because it is an island. Before the bridge was built from the mainland, access was by boat or ferry (picture included) and, during break up and freeze up, the people were isolated and left on their own to survive as best they could. As harsh as conditions were in the beginning, the local people built Hecla’s first school in 1890 and there is a picture of it.

What are amazing are the pictures of Reynistaour and the Tomasson Boarding house. There’s a picture of the Sigurgeirsson log house that served as a store and post office. There are pictures of a cat bringing logs from the north on five sleighs.

Hnausa often gets short shrift in articles about New Iceland. That is unfortunate because it played a major role in the prosperity of the early settlement. It was “a prosperous community, having a school postal office, store, saw mill, community hall, and a gas station.” It was here that “a trading and shipping centre was founded by Stefan and Johannes Sigurdson in 1890.”

Since I’ve read Glenn Sigurdson’s manuscript about his family’s role in the fishing industry, I know about the house and store that Stefan Sigurdsson built. However, I’d never seen a picture of them. Fortunately, there is such a picture and it fills me with amazement for who would think such elaborate and large buildings would be built in a small community on the shore of Lake Winnipeg?

Most people have forgotten, if they ever knew, but Hnausa held its own Islendingadagurinn in competition with Gimli. There are pictures of the celebration at Hnausa Park in 1932 and of the Fjallkona. There’s an excellent picture of winter freighting with a list of the men in the picture. Some are sitting on top of a sleigh of fish boxes and others lined up in front. There’s even a picture of their mobile home being pulled by two horses.

If Hnausa has been ignored in articles about New Iceland, Ledwyn has been cast into outer darkness. It’s wonderful that Ben has included Ledwyn. While there are Andersons and Arnasons among the pictures of the first settlers of Ledwyn, most of them are of Andrushankos, Bachynskis, Bonkowskis, Dziadykewiczs, Furgalas. These people don’t fit into the normal myth of New Iceland. However, they were every bit as much a part of New Iceland as the Icelanders. There are pictures of the catholic churches, of the Zinkowski store, of the Polish Hall, the community hall (where I had wonderful, memorable times) of the Ledwyn Band. There is a picture of school students that were taught by Peter and Mary Onysko. In 1961, Peter was the principal at Riverton and I was in my first year of teaching.

Riverton was supposed to be the capital of New Iceland but bad weather meant the barges carrying the settlers were cut loose and drifted to shore at Willow Point. Settlers moved north to settle along the lake shore. I found Ben’s description of the settlement of what was called Lundi, then Icelandic River and, finally, Riverton, unclear. I know the story, or at least some of it, but if I didn’t, I’d be confused.

It’s good that he adds in the Ukrainian settlers, the Hungarians, and the Mennonites but the local aboriginal people get short shrift even though they were very much part of the community. There are many pictures including some early ones of the bridges that joined the two sides of Riverton.

The Sigurdsson and Thorvaldson store gives a good example of prairie buildings. There are pictures of farm houses that became well known such as Bakka, Straumnee, Akri, Loni and Unaland. There’s a fine picture of Gunnsteinn Eyjolfsson’s threshing outfit at Unaland and a number of pictures of the freight trains that travelled over the lake in winter.

Riverton has always been known for its music and it is great that there is a picture of the Whiskey Jacks with an amazingly young group of musicians including my friend, Dennis Olson. There is a little bit of everything from Riverton Game & Fish Target Practise (people did shoot their dinner) and the Reggie Leach Night at the Riverton Hall (Reggie is called the Riverton Rifle but his rifle was his hockey stick and his bullet the puck).

I’ve never thought of Winnipeg Beach as being part of New Iceland but it was a big part of our life during the summer. We lived in anticipation of our parents taking us there for the day. It was the Coney Island of New Iceland, even of Manitoba.

Speculators saw a chance to make a lot of money selling lots at Winnipeg Beach for cottages. Therefore, the railway got pushed through to Winnipeg Beach. There’s a picture from 1903 with sailboats and tourists. The railway brought people by the thousands to ride on the ferris wheel, the roller coaster, to dance at the dance palace, to stay at the Empress Hotel. To buy lots and build cottages. The CPR wasn’t missing any tricks when it came to making a buck.

The astounding thing about these pictures and those in the book on the history of Winnipeg Beach is the contrast between the well to do who came to the Beach and the ordinary local people who were struggling to make a dollar. The Dance palace was one of the largest in Western Canada at 14,000 sq. ft. The picture that shows the boardwalk that fronted the beach and the shops where visitors could play games of chance makes clear just how fashionably dressed the visitors were.

I’m very pleased that Ben included the last section on Lake Winnipeg for while it was not a community in the sense of the towns and villages, it was still a community. It was spread all over the lake but it had its own identity. There are welcome pictures of the various freight boats plus pictures of how skiffs were towed out to the fishing grounds by the freighters. There are some pictures of the fishermen. However, the Lake Winnipeg fishery was large and has gone on for generations. It really deserves a book of its own.

This book would have benefited from an editor going over it for small details. There’s the occasional world spelled incorrectly and, in places, I thought some minor points were incorrect or, at least, confusing. However, this is not a book of text. It’s a book of pictures. It is a book that once bought, should be kept and if any corrections or additions are needed, the owner can put them in by hand. I wish this book had been published when my father was still alive. I’d have looked it over with him and added numerous notes in the margins about the places and people he knew. He spent a life time on Lake Winnipeg and in New Iceland and this book would have stirred many memories and stories.

If you grew up in New Iceland, this is a must book for your book shelf. It’s a book to share with friends and family. It can be ordered from Ben W. Holyk, Box 1316, Stonewall, MB R0C A20 for 39.95 plus shipping. His web page is BLAKK.com, email: blkholyk@mts.net.

On Losing Icelandic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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