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.

Will You Remember Them?

benedictsson_m2
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.

The side of the road

 

July 02 V959872 $1,348,888 $-350,112 -21%

“Will you live in a box by the side of the road? Will you live in a tent? Or in your car, if it hasn’t been repossessed? Will you sleep on the WalMart parking lot? Will you, will you?”

To hear some “experts” this will be the fate of those who have large mortgages. The fate of people who will be bankrupted by interest rates climbing even a percent or two. The fate of people who, when their mortgage has to be renewed, can’t come up with the difference between what is owed on the mortgage and the new, lower assessed value.

The Norns

The doomsayers say that house prices will drop 25%, 40%, 70%. All equity will be lost. Foreclosures will happen. It will be slow  but relentless, just like when the bank foreclosed on my grandfather’s house. The furniture will go out on the street. Or to the auction. Or sold off for whatever you can get at a garage sale.

The doomsayers, rubbing their hands with glee, are selling their properties, hoarding cash, waiting for when the banks and credit unions, desperate to unload properties they’ve foreclosed on, put up wall dividers, pin hundreds of pictures of houses and condos on them. Just like they did in the 1980s. I remember those wall dividers and pictures. If you had cash, you could bargain for 50% of the mortgage. Mortgage of 300,000? Buy it out for 150,000. The person foreclosed on may have paid off 200,000. Doesn’t matter. They couldn’t come up with the difference, they couldn’t make the payments, they couldn’t keep their job, they couldn’t stop getting sick, they couldn’t keep their marriage intact, they couldn’t. They couldn’t.

Tent city, New Jersey, USA Photo by Robert Johnson

Of course, there are the flippers, the ones who have been buying condos before they are built, get in early, get in cheap and when the condos are built, sell and make a big profit. Make a really big profit by buying five with as little down as possible. Now caught with prices falling. There goes the Ferrari.

And the builders. You’d think the builders, being in the business, would be the first to avoid disaster. Never. They never see it coming. They’re building houses for which they want twice the assessed value. Except the doomsayers say that soon assessed value will mean nothing. In the Vancouver area, in Victoria, in the Okanagan, the unheard of, the unbelievable is  happening. Houses are selling below assessed value. Even more unbelievable in these places where the only direction for prices is up, asking prices below assessment aren’t bringing in sellers, aren’t even bringing in viewers.

That, of course, is the doomsayers point of view. But the real estate agents are saying nonsense, the bankers are saying nonsense, the mortgage brokers are saying nonsense, they’re not making land anymore, immigration creates constant demand, rich Chinese will pay any price to have a haven.

Will we, like the Americans, have tent cities of those foreclosed on, tossed out into the street? Will we have people who, over campfires, reminisce fondly about when they had granite counter tops? Solid maple cabinets, Molteni Range Cookers, with  a Combination Oven, the Blast Chiller, the Precision Vacuum Sealer, and even a Stand Mixer. Will some men weep with memories of a lost P.D. Part Cooker? Will the dispossessed as they spoon beans out of tin, despair over their lost Perlick Outdoor Fridge and Beer Dispenser? Will there be one upmanship as someone mentions the Kalamazoo 900 Series Hybrid Grill? Will someone lie awake at night, tossing and turning, as she remembers her Cal Spa Outdoor Super Sports Cabana (35,000) at the edge of her swimming pool, now someone else’s at half the price or less?

If you listen to the doomsayers, all this will come to pass. The Lexus will be lost. A shower at KOA will be a treat.

Not here, mortgage holders scoff, not here. It’s different here, in Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg. The real estate agents, the bankers, the mortgage brokers say, that’s right. Calgary is booming, Saskatoon is booming, Winnipeg never felt the recession. Here, we will get to keep our granite counter tops, our Kaos lamp fixture by Orazio, our Vividus mattress.

Take your pick. Place your bets. Ask the Norns for guidance.

Real Estate Gossip

Address:# 5 1483 BEACH AV, West End, Vancouver West

March 09 V903565 $7,500,000 $0 0%
April 08 V903565 removed
April 18 V944049 $6,900,000 $-600,000 -8%
May 30 V944049 $5,999,000 $-1,501,000 -20%
June 20 V944049 $5,899,000 $-1,601,000 -21%
July 31 V944049 $5,799,950 $-1,700,050 -23%
August 14 V944049 $4,950,000 $-2,550,000 -34%
August 17 V944049 $4,695,000 $-2,805,000 -37%

This table is from the blog site, Vancouver Price Drop. It’s for shock effect. I mean even after the price is off 37%, I couldn’t afford it. Even if it goes down 80%, I couldn’t afford it. Neither, I expect, could you. What would anyone expect to happen with a house priced at 7,500,000?  I mean, how many buyers are out there with 7,500,000 burning a hole in their pocket?

But that’s what has people on the internet whispering, whispering that  the rah rah promo of real estate always going up is becoming less believable. That some real estate agents are now delivering pizza.

Of course, the whispering is about the two major Canadian housing markets in Toronto and Vancouver. I don’t follow the Toronto market but Vancouver has been nuts. Tear down shacks sell for more than a million dollars, more than a million dollars. That means someone is willing to pay a million dollars for a lot, plus closing costs, taxes, and the cost of tearing down the tear down. No price has been too  much because you know prices always go up, houses have gone up ten times what they were bought for in the seventies.

Even in sleepy Victoria, the land of the newly wed and nearly dead, the land of few decent paying jobs, lots of crap jobs selling trinkets or sandwiches to the tourists for minimum wage, house prices have had nothing to do with local employment. There’s the Legislature and, therefore, civil servants but, contrary to what most people believe, most civil servants do not make large salaries. There’s the university. There’s dockyards where ships get built and repaired. The navy. But Victoria isn’t an industrial town. Tourists never bring the locals big money unless the local owns a few tourist traps that employ minimum wage workers. There are the hospitals and the schools.

Real estate agents have been making out like gangbusters. They’ve been selling to the retirees from the provinces on the other side of the mountains. The kind who have sold the farm and want to spend the rest of their life golfing instead of shovelling snow.

My first house, 1971, cost me 47,000. I sold it for 85,000. The buyer sold it for 250,000. It is now assessed at 520,000. Same house. 1915, 2.5 bedrooms, kitchen, formal living room and dining room, lots of built in cupboards and paneling (the builder/owner was a Welsh shipbuilder), one bathroom, an old fashioned basement with a low ceiling. The people I bought from had owned it for three years. They paid 18,000. Can you say “Nuts”? 18,000 to 520,000. For what? A house built in 1915 on a small lot.

I then bought a house that had been on the market for a year. Heritage, double lot, 1929. It needed work.I sold it two years ago for 3.5 times what I paid.

The whisperers say it is coming to an end. People have been buying the most expensive they can manage because real estate only goes up, didn’t ya know. Except anyone who knows anything about the history of real estate (this does not include real estate agents), knows real estate tanks and when it does, it takes everyone and everything with it. Or so the rumour goes.

My grandfather used to regale me with stories of real estate in Winnipeg. He bought a two story brownstone around Osborne. Then his employer cut his wages, then cut his wages, then cut his wages and there were no other jobs. And my grandfather no longer could pay the mortgage and his house was repossessed. He never got over being bitter about it.

He used to tell me about the big houses off Corydon that the owners couldn’t afford to keep up and rented them out, not for cash, but for someone to live in them, heat them, pay the electricity, cover the taxes.

Like the lots around Winnipeg Beach that had gone up to 1,200 dollars. When men were making a dollar a day. And which went down to 50.00 a lot and stayed there for a very long time.

But that was a long time ago and things are different now.

Houses aren’t just homes, they’re ATMs, they’re assets. That’s those things you can turn into money. I’ve got this asset, honey. I think I’ll sell it and we can go on a vacation to Southern France. Except, sometimes, the whisperers say, assets stop being liquid, like nobody wants to buy them anymore. Happens all the time. Businesses go under because no one wants to buy their product. Can’t pay the bills. The creditors refuse any more credit. I worked for a short time for a company that evaluated credit for businesses. Every day I saw small businesses where the stock was illiquid. It hadn’t sold. It was out of fashion. Credit payments were over ninety days late. It’s called going bankrupt. But houses aren’t like that. Someone always wants them.

The whisperers say houses are becoming illiquid. Imagine. You bought a house in the last few years. Your plan was to sell it to finance your retirement. Your assumption was that real estate always goes up, that there is always an eager buyer, no, not a buyer but buyers, just waiting to bid on it, paying even more than you imagined your house was worth. But what if buyers disappear? What if nobody bids? What if there are no offers? What if you lower the price to create, as the real estate agents call it, a better price point but nobody makes an offer? You get the idea. IIliquid.

All the chatter is about Toronto and Vancouver. Of course, what do you expect? The people living in those cities think they’re the centre of the Universe. Everywhere else the prices are still going up, the buyers are outbidding each other in a desperate competition to own a house with granite countertops, Jacuzzis with more jets than anyone else, places like Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina. Places where there are lots of jobs. I was in Calgary two days ago. There were posters everywhere asking people to apply for jobs, begging people to apply for jobs. Oil is 95.00 a barrel. The crops in Saskatchewan and Manitoba are bumper crops, magnificent crops, fantastic crops, I can afford a bigger house, a new truck, bigger farm machinery, a winter in Mexico, kind of crops.

But there are whispers like those on the blog site “Whispers from the edge of the rain forest”. Gossip on the internet, nothing but gossip. Urban myths. And, of course, there’s Garth Turner, that rabble rouser, with his blog. The sky is falling, he says. House prices are going down 45%.

At night when I think about the whisperers, I sometimes think, I shoulda rented instead of downsizing by buying a smaller place. I shoulda downsized into a rental apartment. Urban myths, that’s all they are, I tell myself. Real estate always goes up. It’s just internet gossip. People will always want to retire to Victoria, to Kelona, Salmon Arm, Kamloops.

I just had the balcony and the deck rebuilt. Why not? The price is sure to go up. I’ll get my money back.  It’s just internet gossip.