Food for the Soul

salmongears

When the first Icelandic settlers arrived in Victoria, the city already had a substantial history. In Iceland, there was no military. When they came to Victoria, they came to a city that started off as a fort and, as an outpost of the British Empire, was always vulnerable to attack as a result of European conflicts.

Esquimalt Harbour was used by the British Navy in the 1840s. By the 1850s, a fully active naval base had been established. A fort was built at Macaulay Point 1894 to 1897. That Point was armed and rearmed numerous times as more powerful weapons were created to fend off an invasion. While people today often find the idea of an invasion of Vancouver Island amusing, during WWII, a family that had owned the last house I lived in prior to this one, sold it for a pittance and fled inland because they were certain that a Japanese invasion was going to occur at any time. The Japanese army and navy had successfully conquered one area after the other and seemed unstoppable.

Back in the days when there was an Icelandic community on Spring Ridge, the naval base in Victoria was an active, important place and during the years leading up to and during WW1, it became even more important.

Today, the Macaulay Point area incorporates a beach, a greensward, and winding trails that, from time to time, pass the large concrete and stone emplacements built to defend the West Coast. The old bunkers, ammunition houses and a spiderweb of tunnels (one tunnel goes back to 1895 about nine years after those first Icelanders stepped off the local steamer) are fascinating. The view over the Strait of Juan de Fuca is exceptional

However, today I didn’t just go to wander among the historical sites or to take in the thrashing waves but to take in Sculpture Splash.

greensward

Along the ocean walk and on the greensward, out on the granite outcrops, over ninety sculptures were on display. They were worth the trip. The show was, like all good art shows, full of surprises. One of the tasks of an artist or writer is to get the viewer to look at something familiar in a new way. These artists certainly did that.

There were, for example, two large heads of crocodiles at the edge of the sand. It would have been easy to miss them but as a spectator said to me as he put his hand on my shoulder, “Isn’t that amazing!” I agreed. It was amazing. Two crocodiles staring up at us out of the sand and water.

There were the Asian stone heads set on a rocky outcrop. Given the importance of the Chinese in the history of Victoria (I believe we have Canada’s oldest Chinatown), I felt it was a nice bow in the direction of our Asian history. Now, I would like to see an expanded art exhibition in or before the Chinese cemetery at Harling Point.

There was a nearly life-size rhino hiding in the tall grass on the edge of a cliff, looking like he was going to rush at the passersby. There were birds on the beach made of the most inventive items, feathers from dinner knives, for example. Salmon created from metal gears. A wooden man on a bench but a man that looked like an android. People were lined up to get their picture taken with him.

There were demonstrations and classes and a steady stream of people with their dogs. Dogs love this area because they can be off leash. There were nearly as many cameras as dogs. I knew how successful the sculptures were from the array of cameras that were out. The sculptures were fascinating, surprising, delightful and part of that was the choice of having the show outdoors at Macaulay Point with the wind blowing, a few flecks of rain to remind us that we were on the West Coast, the waves breaking on the rocks, two eagles floating overhead. All that was needed was for a pod of Orcas to come by to say hello. They are seen fairly regularly in this area.

I had lots of work to do today but I’m glad I took the time to drive to Sculpture Splash. Our stomach needs to be fed but so does our soul and, sometimes, lost in our busy days, we forget about nourishing our soul.

Lanes

lane

A lane is defined as a narrow country road or a narrow way or passage between walls, hedges or fences.

In Gimli where I grew up, a lane wasn’t either of these. It was a back lane. Gimli had been laid out on a grid with front streets and back lanes. Early on, I learned to love back lanes. Front streets were where people put up a front for their neighbours and the public. If a yard was going to be prettified, the grass cut, flowers planted, hedges trimmed, it was in the front yard. The owner’s public persona was on display.

Now, the back lane was different. It’s not just that the back lane was where people put out their garbage with all that revealed about what they ate, bought, cast aside. It was also the muddy, rutted track where fishing boxes were piled, corks hung to dry after being oiled, skiffs rested between fishing seasons, anchors and ropes lined up. It was where you saw who was precise and organized. Gardens revealed a great deal about someone. There were back yards with gardens with exact rows and there were gardens that were chaotic.

Back lanes often had fences, especially the back lanes that bordered cottages. Those fences, usually posts with wire stretched across them, provided us with good times. Gimli was a swamp in the 1940s and 50s. When the spring runoff came, it filled the ditches that fronted all the streets and flooded the low lying cottage yards. Squashers, our name for the egg shaped fruit that grew on the  vines that overtook the fences every spring, grew prolifically. When squashers hit an object such as another kid, they splattered. The inside was wet and filled with sectioned soft membranes and brown or black seeds. The mess was gratifying.

Today, in Victoria, far in time and place from the Gimli of my childhood, I went for a fifty minute walk, up hill and down dale. Some of that walk was on local roads but Victoria is a city of narrow country roads and passageways between walls, hedges and fences.

I walked the road to Playfair Park, crossed the park with its lawns and flower beds, its rhododendron copse, and slipped into a narrow lane between fences. I came out on a dead end road and hiked uphill back to the park where I followed a lane between the park fence and an area of salal and scruffy Gary Oaks. I’d done a loop and ended up back on the road that I’d followed to the park. I slipped away to the left to follow a loop that would make my walk a figure eight.  I was on a busy thoroughfare, but that only lasted a couple of blocks before I crossed over and, although I continued on a paved road, there were no sidewalks and a lot of vegetation dearly beloved by the local deer. The road winds through a neighbourhood of rock, blackberry thickets and fir trees.

I ended up on Cook St. one of Victoria’s busiest thoroughfares. I didn’t stay on it for long but turned onto a laneway, one of those odd little jogs that must have a history of sorts because it is so unexpected. It is at the bottom of a steep slope and the lane runs flat along the bottom of the slope. There are cherry trees grown rampant, an overgrown ditch, blackberry thickets on one side.  At this time of year, the ditch is dotted with light purple daisies growing wild. On the other side there is a mishmash of fences and driveways. Enclosed by the lane, I’m hard pressed to remember I’m in the city.

The lane ended and I began the slow slog up the steep back of the Rise. This road can be called a lane, no sidewalks, twisting its way up, past carefully tended houses and yards,past rosemary bushes so large they form a hedge, past the yard of an urban gardener who I haven’t met but have watched as he tends his half-dozen bee hives or plants and harvests his leeks and raspberries.

There are in these lanes, small surprises. Bird houses tucked here and there. A potting shed resting high up on an outcrop. Ceramic trolls and elves. Uncountable Douglas squirrels running up and down the oak trees. A tree, deciduous, with forgotten Christmas ornaments sparkling in the sun. A box of apples set out for anyone passing by to share. A large metal bowl of water for the? Deer, raccoons, dogs, cats, cougars, squirrels, blue jays, robins, hawks. A begonia at the bottom of a hedge, flaming red.

At the top of the rise is a dead end. No vehicles can pass but I can cross over to the lane that leads down to my house. It is here  one evening as dusk was falling that I met a four point stag. We both stopped and studied each other. I wished I had an apple to roll toward him. He was just about at the cross road where I was standing. Handsome, the way the stags in the old Encyclopedia Britannica looked, noble, head held high. The words from Scot jumped into my mind unbidden. “The stag at eve had drunk his fill/Where danced the moon on Monan’s rill.” Finally, I lifted my right hand in a salute and went on my way.

 

Cornucopia

saanichcorucopia

When the Icelandic immigrants came to Canada, they left a country where the soil was only suitable for grazing. Even that grazing land was only about one percent of the total land because the rest of the country was covered in mountains, lava deserts, lava fields and glaciers. To make matters worse, during many years, because of cold weather, the grass didn’t grow. That meant there was no food for sheep or dairy cows and with the die off of cattle, starvation was inevitable. The only alternative food was fish and in particularly cold years , the harbours filled with ice so that inshore fishing with open boats was not possible. There were no other sources of food.

Visitors to Iceland commented on the fact that farm land could be much improved with drainage. However, the return on drainage, given that it had to be dug by hand and because of the land ownership and rental system, was questionable.

There were attempts to grow grain but those failed. In 1772, Governor Thodal planted barley. It grew well but before it could be harvested, a storm destroyed the crop. Governor Finsen tried to grow oats but it was never warm enough for oats to ripen. In the Faroes, the farmers were able to grow and harvest oats.

At the end of the 1700s, the Danish government established model farms in Húnavatn. The farm managers tried to grow oats, barley, and rye. When walls were built to protect the grain from the cold wind, the grain nearly ripened. We think of Quinoe as a new discovery but in 1875 Burton mentions the possibility of it being grown in Iceland because it is grown in the Peruvian Andes at altitudes and temperatures where no other grain can grow.

Hr. Haldorsen introduced the potato to Iceland and by the time that Burton is writing Ultima Thule, the potato is grown all over Iceland. It is small but satisfactory, he says. Burton suggests that people grow turnips. Radishes are grown but are ‘hard, coarse, and woody.” Spinach is a success.

In the north-west the Stranda Sýsla has tried to grow various kales. Broccoli, turnip-cabbage, red cabbage, cauliflower. Lettuces are common; beets both red and yellow, carrots, onions, garlic, and shallots, chevril, black mustard, watercress, horse radish and parsley.

Ultima Thule was published in 1875 so Burton‘s comments are relevant to the experience of our immigrant ancestors. His observations are not that the growing of these various food plants was widespread but, rather, that they were experimented with. The attempted growing of food plants is reported by other travelers at earlier times but those experiments were usually associated with the bishoprics where there was the influence of clerics from Europe.

Therefore, when the Icelanders boarded ships to Ameríka, their wooden traveling chests were not filled with agricultural implements unless it was the short blade from a scythe. Their only crop was hay and their agricultural experience was limited to manuring a home field, cutting, raking and stacking the grass. They brought no seeds, nor garden implements, no ploughs. They came singularly unprepared for farming.

In New Iceland and as they moved Westward toward Brandon, then Argyle, further to Regina and Swift Current, they learned to evaluate land, but often the lessons were costly both in resources and in lives. Graveyards and family stories testify to that cost.
Many Icelanders began their journey westward from New Iceland shortly after they arrived in 1875. In the meantime, across the Rockies much had been happening during the 1800s.

On Vancouver Island, the Hudson Bay Company established a number of farms in Victoria as far as Colwood. Settlers were arriving and they wanted to have their own farms. One of the first independent farms was bought by a Captain Cooper in 1851. It’s interesting that as the land was cleared, it wasn’t just farmed but sheep and cattle were grazed. That meant when the Icelanders arrived, there was already a precedent and experience in grazing animals locally.

The first gold rush that brought American miners and others north was the Fraser Canyon gold rush of 1857. This rush was mostly over in three years but prospectors kept finding new gold areas. Most miners by necessity and by government decree entered the goldfields through Victoria. Business boomed. Then in 1896 to 1899 the Kondike goldrush began. A hundred thousand hopeful gold seekers headed north.
Cattle ranching developed to feed the early gold seekers but spread beyond that goal as ranchers sought markets for their cattle. In 1876, the year the large group of Icelanders arrived in New Iceland, Thaddeur Sarper started a cattle drive to Salt Lake City. His goal was to put his cattle into rail cars and ship them to Chicago. Instead, seeing an opportunity closer at hand, he shipped the cattle to San Francisco.

The ranchers also started fruit farming. Between 1864 and 1880 one rancher planted a huge orchard. In the meantime, on Salt Spring Island, apples had been growing since 1860. The first Salt Spring Island Fall Fair was held in 1896. By 1900 there were 80 official farms.

The immigrants had left an Iceland plagued by severe weather that brought many of them to the brink of starvation. Their journey had taken some of them to Nova Scotia where poor conditions drove them away. They traveled to Kinmount where tragedy beset them and the land was not suitable for grazing or growing grain. They traveled on to New Iceland to face a dreadful winter and disease. Westward, always westward, looking for good land, for opportunity. When those immigrants who made it to the Coast stepped off a train in Vancouver, after a long and arduous journey, they were greeted with flower gardens, fruit trees, vegetable gardens, wild berries in abundance. They were greeted with cornucopia.

When I was at the Saanich Fair this past weekend, I thought of those Icelanders who came to Vancouver Island in the late 1800s. I gazed at the abundance of vegetables, fruit, and flowers, and when I came across a display of local produce in a basket, I thought Cornucopia, they were greeted by Cornucopia. To me that basket of fresh produce symbolized this new world they had struggled so long and hard to reach. Of course, sadness, hardship, disappointment did not end. Those are all part of life. Tragedy can occur anywhere but for most, the West Coast provided opportunity.

Cornucopia! As I studied the basket on display with its blue ribbon, I thought of those immigrants as I stood there at the Saanich Fair.

(Material for this article from numerous sources including Burton, Ultima Thule. Lutz, Interlude or Industry? Ranching in British Columbia, 1859-1885, British Columbia Historical News, Summer 1980, Vol. 13, No. 4. Sivertz, The Sivertz Family, Book 2, Elinborg. Wickipdia.)

Go West Young Man

egillsicelanders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big One Is Coming

earthquakehouse

It must be a slow day when The Globe and Mail runs an article on the next big earthquake out here in Never Never Land. Usually, their concerns are kept to traffic congestion and Rob Ford’s peccadilloes.

Well, let me say, as I shamble through the honey suckle vines the Oregon grape searching for wind blown trees I can cut up for firewood, always checking over my shoulder, of course, for a cougar that hangs around the place. I think he hopes to turn the ferile peacock into dinner one day. Sorry, I got distracted there so I’ll go back to the first part of that sentence. Let me say that we don’t get too excited when we wake up because the bed is dancing. It reminds me of the days of my passionate youth.

It’s not just the bed, of course. It’s the dresser, side table, the chair and out in the dining room it sounds like a furniture party. Never lasts, of course. When I first moved to the West Coast and there was an earthquake, I’d panic. What else can you expect from a prairie boy? If the furniture started dancing in our house in Manitoba, we’d have hired and exorcist.

The article made it sound like people are prepared. Pshaw! Nonsense. The only person I know who is prepared is my daughter. She’s an accountant. She keeps lists, itemizes, organizes. She’s got blue bins full of canned goods, a can opener, dry foods, water, you name it. Everybody else goes, I’ve got a case of pop and a bottle of whiskey in the garage. That’ll do until the helicopters come. We’re okay. I think there’s stash of potato chips down there as well.

During the time that I was the Chair of a University department in Victoria, I had to attend a number of earthquake preparedness workshops. Everybody smiled and was enthusiastic , academics love meetings, it makes them feel they’re doing something. I kept thinking, we’re doomed. Of course, I’m naturally pessimistic.

Don’t expect any help from outside for a least a week. If we’re done, so will Vancouver and Seattle. Edmonton will be the staging area. The ferry terminals will be gone. No leaving and no getting food supplies. Some years ago when we had the BIG SNOW, the local stores ran out of food in four days. People were already starting to discuss eating the family dog. Lucky it rained otherwise BBQ dog recipes would have been used all over the city.

Realistically, someone asked, how soon before residents of the Island would get help. Two weeks, maybe more. Dogs will be a treasure. Especially big ones. Pekinese, not so much.
Someone asked about water. The lady giving he workshop tried to duck that but some audience members knew about water. There will be no water. The city has known for decades that the very old, concrete pipe that brings water from a lake will break, shatter, disintegrate. The workshop participants went very quiet.

“What,” one of them asked, “will people do drink and pee?”

There was a bit of shuffling as people ruminated on the question. “Don’t use any type of cleaner in the back of your toilet. That water is clean. It’ll keep you going for a few days. Drain the water out of your water tank. That water will be fine.”
“I live on the seventh floor of a high rise,” a woman with green streaks in her hair said.
“You’ll have to buy bottled water.”

Someone else chimed in, “There won’t be any power. No elevator.”

“Are you saying we won’t be able to flush our toilets?”

There was some uneasy shifting.

“Keep a two week supply of water in your closet or under your bed or in your garage.

Figure out what you eat over two weeks and keep a supply of packaged food. Porridge, rice, macaroni, soup.”

“Those require water. Besides, what am supposed to do on the seventh floor to cook?”

“You’ll have to buy take out,” someone suggested. Everyone turned to look at him to see if he was joking or just really stupid.

The speaker rapped on her lectern to get our attention away from the lilkelihood of takeout if there was no power.

“As employees of the university, you are expected to come to the university to help deal the problems here. We have sixteen thousand students we need to feed. There’ll be damage.

There’ll be injured.”

“What about our families?” someone from the back shouted.

“They’ll have to manage on their own,’ was the reply.

Right. There’s an earthquake. I had a wife and two small children. The house has mostly fallen down, everything in it is smashed, everybody has bumps, bruises and cuts. They’re scared. I’m scared. There may be a tsunami coming and I’m supposed to say to my wife,

‘Sorry, Ducks, but the Dean and duty calls.” Not.

A local tsunami is likely to be six to twelve feet. Not big, big, not four stories high like some. I live at the top of a ridge, reasonably far inland. A tsunami is unlikely to reach here. If it does, I’ve got a large fir tree to climb. If it is so large that it reaches the top of the ridge, there go my supplies of soft drinks and potato chips.

I was at Parksville once when there was a tsunami warning. The summer cottage units that were created from an old motel was right on the beach. I looked to see where we would go to get to high ground. There was a large cliff. If wave of even a couple of feet roared ashore, we’d all be swept out to sea. When the wave did come, thank goodness it was only a few inches. We were okay, Jack. But for the next few nights, I slept with a flotation device strapped on.

The truth is we’re doomed. A big earthquake will result in airport runway fractures. Buildings falling down. Ferry terminals unusable. No power. No water. Little medical care. Fires caused by broken gas lines. After two weeks no dogs, no squirrels, no cats.
Rich people will have private helicopters fly in to get them, cost no object. The rest of us will go from eating our neighbour’s dog to eating our neighbours.

Toronto the smug will see this as divine justice on the hooligans and hillbillys of the West Coast who never work when the surfs up, when its good scuba weather, when there’s snow on the ski slopes. If it’s a slow news day, someone will type out a column about how HAM (hot Asian money) has had their investment properties reduced to rubble.

The truth is we’re not prepared. If the big one feels like it might happen, I’ll put some cases of canned goods in the garage, buy a hibachi, a small tent, stock up on bottled water, sleep wearing a hard hat and a life vest. Until then when the furniture dancing wakes me up, I’ll just roll over and go back to sleep.

Oh, and add a Porta Potty to my list.

The Kindest Gift

DSC00595Yesterday, I found an unexpected package at my front door. I’m not used to receiving packages unless it is a book I’ve ordered over the internet.

The return address said it was from Clayton and Doris Bristow.

My finding the package, picking it up, reading the return address, taking the package into the house and setting it out on the dining room table, opening it, is a scene in a long narrative that began before either Clayton or Doris or I were born.

My great grandmother, Fridrikka Gottskalksdottir, came to Canada in 1876. She was three years old. Her parents had left a desperate situation in Iceland and traveled to the UK, changed ships, traveled to Quebec City, then on to a swampy, forested shoreline on Lake Winnipeg. They were part of what was called The Large Group. Earlier, a small, initial group had arrived on the shores of Willow Point after their barges were cut loose by a steamboat captain because a storm had started.

Shortly after my great grandmother and her parents arrived, smallpox broke out. One hundred and three people died. One of those was Fridrikka’s three month old brother. That they all didn’t die was probably due to the fact that some of them had previously had the cow pox, either from working with dairy cattle in Iceland or because they had been inoculated. .

At sixteen, Fridrikka went to Fort Garry to work. There she met William Bristow, a member of the British Army. The Icelanders had come to Canada hoping, like many other groups, to preserve their language, culture and religion. They named the exclusive reserve the government had given them New Iceland. None of the fantasies of cultural purity had much impact on young people and certainly not on Fridrikka. She married William Bristow.

One would expect that he would have stayed in the army, that Fridrikka would have become English. After all, the English dominated Western Canada politically, financially, and socially. Instead, William Bristow left the army and moved to what was now Gimli. Gimli, a small village on the shore of Lake Winnipeg, survived on commercial fishing. William became a fisherman.

William and Fridrikka had thirteen children.

My grandmother, Blanche Bristow, was a sister to Clayton’s grandfather, George Bristow. George and his wife, Dolly, lived across the big field from us. We were on third and they were directly opposite us on second avenue. Times were hard but at Christmas we always exchanged gifts.

Dolly and George had four children. One of those was Clayton’s father,Rudy.  Rudy and I, in spite of our travels,  have always stayed in touch.

Clayton and Doris live in Winnipeg, a three or four day drive from Victoria. I don’t get to see them very often. Usually, if we bump into each other, it is at Gimli’s annual Islendingadagurinnin. This is the way of the world in 2014. When I was growing up, our families all lived close to each other. Nowadays, we are spread across the world.

This journey that culminated on my front porch began when Fridrikka, and her parents Gottskalk Sigfusson and Holmdridur Jonatansdottir, made the decision to leave Akureyri, Iceland. When William Herbert Bristow, the son of a Church of England minister,came to Canada on his own at fifteen.

When I opened the package that Clayton and Doris had sent me, there was a cheerful cookie tin. When I pried open the tin, there was a Christmas card and a vinarterta, the layered prune tort that symbolizes everything about our North American Icelandic culture. The note was from Doris and it said that like me, Clayton has celiac disease, and they knew how much I must be missing having vinartera at Christmas. They’d baked some vinartera as an experiment and were sending me one of the layered cakes.

It’s been a long journey, from Aukreyri and Oxford to decades in Gimli, Manitoba,, from Gimli to Winnipeg, from Gimli on my crooked path through Iowa and Missouri to Victoria, from 1876 to 2014.

I pick up this package and take it inside and put it on the dining room table where the winter sun shines on it and I cut off the padded envelope, then I take off the brown wrapper and open the tin and find within it that special vinarterta and I stand there and think, thank you Clayton and Doris, Rudy and Sig, Dolly and George, William and Fredrikka, Gottskalk and Holmfridur. Thank you. .

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.

The Moveable Feast

cnristmas

After I was born, my father and mother and I took the bus to Winnipeg every December for Christmas. Then, when I was four, my brother joined us and the four of us made this perilous journey. We went to my mother’s parents’ house. At first we took the street car down Osborne then struggled through the snow along Walker to the small bungalow with the glassed in front porch. They sold that house and, briefly, bought a brick house on Stafford. My grandparents stayed there for only a couple of years while they had a house built a short distance away on Fleet.

We came with a few gifts, never anything extravagant, and under the Christmas tree with its bright lights and brightly colored decorations, there were gifts for us. Usually, hand knitted sweaters, vests, for my grandmother was a talented knitter and seamstress, maybe toy for each of us. One Christmas when we made this journey over the frozen countryside, the Winnipeg weather was bitterly cold with a sharp wind. We had to stand in the open waiting for a streetcar and nothing my parents did could keep us warm. My father and mother held us close, tried to protect us from the wind but our hands and feet became so cold, we cried. When we got to our stop, we still had a distance to go over sidewalks piled high with drifts.

My mother said to her parents, we can’t do this again with two little kids. You’ve got to come to Gimli. And, dutiful parents that they were, they gave up the tradition of Christmas dinner at their home.

Christmas to us, was more about people than it was about gifts. Like all children we enjoyed getting gifts but it was the decorating of the house, the smell of the prepatory baking, the cookies and cakes and pies, and then, on Christmas Eve, my grandparents arriving on the bus. My brother and I were glued to the window, kneeling on the couch, looking into the darkness for our grandfather in his wool overcoat and my grandmother in her Persian lamb. “They’re here. They’re here,” we’d announce and rush to the door. There is no feeling so great as the arrival of someone whom you know loves you and whom you love in return.

On Christmas day there would be all the preparations. Sometimes, other relatives would also have arrived on Christmas Eve and since we lived in a very small house with three tiny bedrooms, we gave over the bedrooms to the adults and thought it a great adventure to be able to sleep on the living room floor.

The transition to Christmas at my parents’ house went smoothly, although, I expect that it wasn’t without some regret that my grandmother no longer set her table and planned the most important meal of the year.

In their final years, my grandparents moved in with my parents. During those years, I had moved away, taking jobs, going to graduate school so Christmas was too far away for winter travel. Eventually, I got a job in Victoria, British Columbia and, once again, Christmas shifted, now with my parents coming to Victoria, with my sister in law and her children joining us, with neighbours from next door filling out our table. My nephew moved to Victoria and my niece moved Abbotsford and, when she retired, my sister-in-law moved to Victoria. My parents came for twenty-six Christmases.

During those years, it was my turn to host our Christmas Eve of gift giving and to have Christmas dinner. But then that changed as marriages took place, family members had to divide their time between our Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner and those of their spouses. Times have changed again. My children have children. I’m in my seventies, just as my grandparents were and just as my parents were when our Christmases changed location. Christmas now is at my daughter’s house. She and her husband make the Christmas meal, set out the table, greet us at the door. My son and his wife and two children come from Bellingham to join us.

Four generations of Christmas, in Winnipeg, Gimli, Victoria and Victoria again, four homes. We suffer from the modern disease, move-itis, not out of frivolity but because modern life demands we move to where we can find work. I found work at the University of Victoria. My children came with me. My niece and nephew and sister-in-law followed.

I would have preferred to have stayed in the town where I grew up but there were few jobs there. All across Canada, young people were faced with a similar situation. Leave because there are so few jobs, get an education, then find you can’t return home because the jobs you are qualified for don’t exist in the town from which you came.

In 1957 I did not want to be a barber and fisherman like my father, I didn’t want to work in the fish processing plant. The airport that had provided so many jobs was beginning a long decline. Graduate school led me to Iowa, then Missouri and, finally, Victoria. I was one of the tens of thousands of the working class who were getting an education and moving away from rural Manitoba. We got good salaries, benefits, working conditions, interesting work but, at most, we could return home for our summer vacation. Christmas (and Thanksgiving and Easter and New Years) would be in a distant place.

We celebrated with neighbours, with John and Joan and Tina Economides in Iowa, with Al and Connie Fenske and their sons in Missouri, with our next door neighbours, the Kendricks, and their three daughters in Victoria and reveled in the connection of the Kendricks to our family, for Graham had worked with and knew my favorite uncle in the air force and Graham’s wife, Betty, came from Manitoba. We take what pleasures we can from circumstance. Gene and Agnes Kline and their family became part of our celebrations. Wherever we went we gathered around us people with whom it was a pleasure to share Christmas.

In Victoria, I had that most important of all things, a good job. Even an excellent job. In a good place because Victoria is regarded as the garden capital of Canada and the first flowers bloom in my garden in January.

However, there is a cost to the opportunity created by urban life, by the massive migration to cities and the abandoning of rural Canada. In the Globe and Mail, Elizabeth Renzetti says “Loneliness has been linked to depression, anxiety, interpersonal hostility, increased vulnerability to health problems, and even to suicide.”

When I grew up, I was surrounded by relatives, uncles and aunts, cousins of every description. They gave us a rich life. Loneliness hardly existed. No one sat alone at Christmas. The problem, if it was a problem, was how to fit everyone at the table, in the bedrooms, in our lives. My father visited relatives every Sunday, stopping briefly at the homes of his aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, all contained within one small town.

However, we are now scattered like seeds on a winter wind. Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, the United States, distant foreign countries.
Now, with Christmas approaching, I rake the stiff, bronze leaves of the Garry Oaks. There is no winter here to speak of. In the mornings, there is sometimes a hard frost that is gone by early afternoon. The rhododendrons stay green all winter but as Christmas approaches, I my thoughts turn to Gimli, to the gravel road that runs north from town, a fragment of the original pioneer road on which my great grandparents traveled in the late 1800s. The ruts will be frozen solid, immovable until those early spring thaws. As I walk along it, snow will be drifting through the poplar bush, across the road, and I’ll hold out my tongue to catch a few flakes. The clouds will be grey, low hanging and the light will be weak. I’ll walk past snow covered hay bales, past old farm equipment, houses with lit windows even though it is still day. I’ll walk as far as the graveyard and climb over the chain link fence, pick my way through the headstones until I find my grandparents’ graves, my parents’, my brothers’. There they lie together in frozen ground. I’ll stand there in the fading light and think about those many Christmases, the laughter, the conversation, the warmth, the friendships, the love, my grandmother bending down to kiss me Merry Christmas, my grandfather picking me up so he could hold me tight. The memories will warm me in the fading light.

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.

Don’t Blame My Icelandic Heart (Part 1)

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I’d gone to see my doctor over a small matter that took about two minutes to resolve. He then said, “How have you been?”

I said, “Fine. Except when I’ve been hiking up McInnis Rise to my house, I’ve become short of breath. One day when I was carrying groceries, I had this odd sensation like someone was pricking my left chest with a needle.”

He whipped out a form and started asking questions. Unfortunately, I answered yes to all of them. “I’m arranging for you to see a cardiologist”, he said. I was taken aback. My mother and father lived to be 90 and never had any heart problems. I didn’t take it all that seriously. I don’t drink, smoke or do drugs. I walk nearly every day on ground that rises and falls. I was walking, with no problem, to the local mall which is a mile away.

The cardiologist asked me questions, used a model of a heart to display possible problems and arranged stress tests. The stress tests looked like they were fine, except, except, except, the numbers weren’t right for someone resting. Not enough blood going through.

Back for another test. Indecisive but worrying. An angiogram was arranged. There was no indecisiveness about the angiogram. Ninety percent blocked main artery. Seventy percent a second artery. Fifty percent another artery and the blockages precluded stents. It was a bypass or nothing. A rupture of the plaque in the main artery and I was history.

I had no idea what I was getting into. However, I did know that Victoria was one of the two top places in Canada to have heart surgery. They perform over 800 operations a year. Lots of practice. If you’ve got to have it done, this is the place.

JO went to the cardiologist with me. When an appointment was made with the surgeon, she agreed to leave Salt Spring and come to Victoria. We met with the surgeon. He drew diagrams, made a list of percentages of possible failures. There is a 2% chance of your dying of this during the operation. A 3% chance of dying from that. Etc. The medical world is a world of percentages and technologies. New technologies allow operations to be done that could never be done before. The operation would take about 4 hours. I’d be on a heart lung machine while they stopped my heart and made the bypasses. They’d harvest veins and arteries with which to make the bypasses. Probably from my leg and chest. They’d cut my sternum in half, make the bypasses, then wire my sternum back together.

I would have an IV in both arms and my neck. There’d be tubes running from my chest to drain fluid. There’d be wires on either side of my heart for a temporary pacemaker. I would look like a monster from the Dark Lagoon. Or a space alien. I’d have a breathing tube down my throat.

I was given two books that dealt with pre-op, op and post op. On a Sunday, JO and I went to an all-day pre-op session. It scared the crap out of me. All I could think of was “Into the Valley of Death rode the five hundred. Cannons to the left of them, cannons to the right of them.” Doomed, the brave soldiers faced certain death. The people preparing us all for the coming day were very good.

JO and I had read the two books they gave me. Still, in these high stress situations, it is hard to take in everything you are being told. Having someone there with you is a blessing. One fellow was alone. He was in for a new valve for his heart. God help him, I thought.

However, there wasn’t much time to worry. I had to have a full body anti-bacterial shower. I was rattled. JO made sure I did everything that needed doing. She set four alarm clocks and then, just in case we didn’t wake up, I called my daughter and asked her to call at 5 a.m.

Last minute decisions had to be made regarding my coming home in five days. Five days! It seemed like madness. I was going to have my heart stopped for four hours. It was going to be cut into. My chest was going to be chopped in half. Veins and arteries were to be cut out and relocated. Five months recovery, I thought, in some Hollywood style recovery sanitarium in the Rockies. With nurses bringing fresh flowers and food while lambs nibbled at the grass. It turns out that only happens in Hollywood movies and in the lives of the super rich.

There were a number of surgeries scheduled for the day. Mine was an early one. JO took me to Jubilee Hospital for 5:30 a.m. I kept thinking, is this really happening? I had to have another shower. Other than that I don’t remember anything except lying on a gurney.

I woke up but I have no memory of it. JO tells me I looked terrible, my face swollen, my mouth wedged wide by the breathing tube. Someone leaned close and said, “I’m giving you some morphine.”

JO said “You had a triple bypass plus some other work.” The surgeon had called her and said the operation had gone well. However, she’d come to check for herself. I’d suggested she take pictures for my blog page. She wasn’t amused.

I was in shock. My body had been assaulted. There were tubes everywhere. Yet, a nurse appeared at some point and said you need to sit at the edge of the bed but time had lost all meaning. “Why didn’t I just walk in front of a bus?” I wondered. Still, I sat up.

Meals appeared but I was so violently ill to my stomach and bowel that I couldn’t eat. “Your oxygen level is good,” someone said. They’d used no blood transfusions. There was never any pain. If I started to thrash about someone would appear and give me a pain killer. If I couldn’t sleep, someone popped an ativan under my tongue.

JO would appear and disappear. She was the only semblance of normality. Everything else was foreign. Gut rumblings became central to my life. Why am I so seasick, I kept thinking? Someone said, I’m taking out your catheter. Food trays came and went back unused. Tubes and IVs were pulled out.

I got help at getting out of bed. Roll onto my side, put down my feet, press as gently as possible on the metal rail on the bed. Stagger to the bathroom.

“I don’t want this to be my movie,” I thought. “Lousy script for the leading man.”

JO told me the short sofa in my room could be lengthened to become a bed so she could lie down and rest.

Somewhere in there I went for a walk using a walker and thought “I’ve become my mother.”

And then I had a shower. It all seemed impossible. I’d just had a triple bypass and I was sitting in a shower trying to remember the rules. Don’t put your hands behind your back. Don’t bend over. Don’t get the spray on your chest. Sit with your back to the shower. Pat yourself dry. Don’t rub.

My right leg, I noticed, in my absence, had gone Goth. It had more metal in it than the most Gothic of Goths has in their faces. Four strips of silver staples. That’s what they do when they steal your veins for a bypass. I’ll never think of the office stapler in the same way again.

Five days, five days, then they kick you to the curb, if there’s no one there to rescue you, they feed you to the ravenous packs of dogs outside the hospital. Or so my drug induced dreams said.

Day 4 there was pre-release training. I had to climb 16 steps when I got home. They have a set of stairs and I had to climb up and down them to demonstrate that I could actually get into my house.

There was a group session. Three bypass patients and two heart valve. The guy that was alone at the beginning was still alone.

We got all the reminders of what we must not do and dire warnings about the consequences of forgetting. Patients have gone home and chopped wood, moved furniture, etc. so that their titanium wires holding their sternum came loose and they had to go through the operation again.

On Saturday I’m the last of the five to leave. JO has come to get me, take me back to the real world. I end up being the last patient released because of my problems with the violently upset stomach and bowel. However, there can be no dilly dallying as there are hundreds more waiting for this operation. Also, there are always emergencies as the para medics bring in heart attack victims

“I wonder how we’ll get you up those steps?” JO says after she’s helped me into her Honda CRV.

“It’ll be okay,” I say. “I’ll be fine.” But I don’t say anything about the packs of ravenous dogs hurtling about the entrance to the hospital. They are as real to me as everything that has happened in the last five and a half days.