An Icelandic Wedding, Waller, 1874

As our young English painter, S. E. Waller continues his journey sketching saga sites, he goes to Kross.
While he is there, he is told that a wedding is going to take place. He wants to see as much about the manners and customs of the country as possible so he is keen to attend. The wedding is to occur at twelve o’clock. All he has is his traveling clothes so he combs his hair and puts a coloured handkerchief around his neck.
When he goes out of the house, he sees a lot of little dots on the horizon but they quickly turn into trains of horsemen. They’re the wedding guests of course, and they come in parties of five or six, dressed in every sort of Icelandic costume.
Everyone in the house is busy so Waller, the gregarious fellow that he is, goes down the muddy pathway and greets the guests as they arrive. He can’t speak a lot of Icelandic but he says he shook hands with the men, took off his hat to the women, and kissed the children and it all worked out fine.
The guests have had long, wet rides. Some are muddy and they sit on the grass to change their stockings before going into the house. There’s a fair amount of drinking going on in the house and after everybody has had something to help them overcome the fatigue of their trip, they march out of the house in couples, led by the bride and groom to the tune of one of the most dismal songs that Waller has ever heard.
The women, he says, are wearing wadmal dresses but the bride wore a large faldr. The bridegroom was old and fat but good-natured. The bride was much younger and a dreadful shrew. Waller said he felt sorry for the bridegroom. Because he is English, he doesn’t understand that a man cannot marry unless he is worth four hundreds, that is, the worth of four cows. Seldom would any young man be worth four hundreds. The young woman will not have chosen her husband. Her father will have arranged the marriage and she will be under great pressure to marry and move out for it is likely that her parent’s home is crowded. With her gone, there is one less mouth to feed. Behind the picturesqueness of the landscape, the clothes, the language, is always the need to survive. It is 1872, the mass migration to America has just begun.
The ceremony takes about three quarters of an hour. There’s a prayer, hymn, exhortation, and blessing.
The wedding dinner took place at a house ten miles away. Sixty men, women and children, he says, start off “trotting, galloping, and tumbling, over hills, through water, and into the bogs, amidst plenty of good-natured laughter. And talking of the children, how they do ride! Behind me for ten miles of most difficult country rode two little girls astride, with halters for bridles, on two raw-boned Iceland ponies. One was nine years old, the other seven, and they went splendidly, and enjoyed the journey more than any of us.
“When we reached the farm where the feast was to be held we found tents had been erected to accommodate the numerous company, and in one of these (a spacious marquee about four feet high, in which we were obliged to sit because we simply could not stand) the dinner was prepared.”
Everyone wants him to stay. He’s obviously made a good impression on the Icelanders. However, he explains that he has to get to Selja that evening. He says the countryside they had to cross was nasty for riding and they had much difficulty in crossing two rivers swollen by rain. At each river crossing, they had to hire a local guide to show them how to get across safely.
What risks Waller takes, riding through the heaths and bogs, risking quicksand and bottomless mud, crossing rivers with rocks rolling along the bottom that could break a horse’s leg or sweep its legs from under it, getting soaked in glacial water, riding for miles soaking wet, putting his life completely into his Icelandic guide’s hands, confident that they’ll find shelter. Yet, what rewards. 
Before the wedding, he has attended a confirmation. He has seen things and met people like he’s never met before. He’s taken into people’s homes, shared meals with them, sung with them, struggled to communicate with his limited Icelandic. He’s been wakened in the morning by, as he says, a very pretty young woman, bringing him coffee and something to eat for breakfast. What young man wouldn’t want these experiences? How could life be any more interesting or thrilling? He’s living a mad, romantic adventure as he rides from place to place so that he can make sketches of the places in Njal’s saga. He’s treading on the ground of his heroes.
What young man’s heart wouldn’t beat faster when faced with a dangerous river crossing, his guide a pretty young woman who, when she gets him safely to the other side, turns on her horse, kisses him on the cheek and, before he can react, plunges  her horse into the current and makes her way to the far bank?
1872. More than a hundred years ago, approaching one hundred and fifty years, but Waller singing with his hosts, sharing their meals, riding over vast expanses of wasteland, being kissed, all come alive as if it were yesterday. There is nothing ornate about his writing, thank goodness. It is heartfelt, honest and enriched by an artist’s eye for details.

On To Oddi, Waller, 1874

S. E. Waller is a young English artist. He doesn’t have much money but is determined to go to Iceland to sketch and paint the scenes of Njal’s Saga. He has had some hard riding before he reached Eyrarbakki but he finds there wonderful accommodation and kind hosts.
With his three horses and his guide, Bjarni, he leaves for Oddi which is thirty miles away. However, because of the bogs and heaths, the need to cross a river, the distance they have to travel is sixty miles. It becomes the hardest journey they have had so far. Bjarni nearly is killed when he rides into some quicksand. However, his horse manages to thrash his way out of it.
The river Thjórsá is in flood. It is so wide at this time of year that it takes them more than an hour to cross it. It is hard to imagine today what it must have been like to travel where there were no roads, only trails, over land so treacherous, filled with hidden dangers, that, time and again, a local guide had to be hired to show the traveler how to cross a river.
They start the crossing of the Thjórsá by going from sandbank to sandbank. To make matters more dangerous, most of the sandbanks are under two or three feet of water. The horses wade and even swim for twenty minutes to get to the middle of the river. Here they stop on a gravel bank that feels like it could suddenly disintegrate. They are now surrounded by water. Ahead of them is deep water, a half-mile wide.   
The melting snow in the interior has turned the river into a torrent.
In the distance, they can see a boat coming toward them. Some drovers are bringing over a herd of horses. As the boat and horses come closer, he can hear how frightened the horses are as they swim across the current.
Once the boat arrives, they put their saddles and baggage. They tie ropes to the horses and Bjarni takes two ropes and Waller takes the other. Waller’s self-confidence is not increased by Bjarni saying that horses are often lost while crossing a river.
They reach the other side, after which they have to cross two smaller rivers on their own. They left Eyrarbakki at half-past twelve in the morning and don’t reach Oddi until half-past eight at night. Waller is delighted that the priest has some good pasture and allows the three horses to graze there.
Waller says, “The little house at Oddi was exceedingly comfortable, the food good, the bed clean, our host kindness itself. All this we were very grateful for; but to make the evening complete, I found, to my intense joy, a Shakespeare lying in a dusty corner. I had brought no books with me, fearing they might tend to idleness, so that, on discovering this treasure, my delight was great.”
Rain pours down during the night. He hopes that the morning will bring clear skies but, instead, it is still pouring rain. Since there is little he can do, he tries to learn some Icelandic. Bjarni helps him learn some Icelandic words. He says, “I made desperate efforts to talk with the son of our host, who was physician to the district and had spent some years in Copenhagen. He was exceedingly good natured over my blunders, and produced a Danish-English phrase-book, which helped us along considerably.
“I shall always remember the kindness of both father and son. They begged me to stay a week with them, an invitation I was very sorry to refuse. When leaving on the Friday morning, Sr. Jonson positively refused to allow me to give compensation to any member of his household.”
On Friday, the weather is good so Waller decides to stay at Oddi all day and travel at night. All morning he works on a sketch of their white horse, then a view of Thryhriningr.
Their next destination is Kross, on the extreme south coast.
The hardship, the danger, the weather, the dangerous river crossing, are nothing exceptional in Iceland in 1874. These were the conditions everyone encountered. People buying and selling horses or sheep experienced these difficulties. Farmers and their families, t heir workers, faced these conditions on a daily basis.
In Independent People, Bjartur of Summerhouses, goes searching for sheep. He gets caught in a blizzard. “but still the blizzard assailed him with undiminished fury when he reached the next ridge, clawed at his eyes and the roots of his beard, howled vindictively in his ears, and tried to hurl him to the ground….he forced his way at first with lowered  head against the storm, but when he reached the ridge above the gully, he could no longer make any headway in this fashion, so he slumped forward on to  his hands and knees and made his way through the blizzard on all fours.”
In Indridason’s novels, the main character Erlender is obsessed with the loss of his younger brother in a storm. He realizes that with the bogs and quicksand that his brother could simply have disappeared and his body would never be found.

In 1810, Mackenzie says that he had begun to ascend near several craters larger than any we had yet seen. “While examining some of the fissures, we found the remains of a woman who had been lost about a year before, and of whom there had hitherto been no tiding. Her clothes and bones were lying scatttered about; the bones of one leg remained in the stocking. It is probably that she had missed the path during a thick shower of snow, and had fallen over the precipice, where her body was torn to pieces by eagles and foxes.It’s astonishing how the Icelanders find their way during winter across these trackless deserts.”

The weather, in every traveler’s book, is front and centre. It determines what can and can’t be done. It brings good grass or no grass, a full belly or starvation. There is no escaping it. Even if people are at a farm, it imprisons them just as it imprisons Waller. Once a journey has begun, it can, as with Bjartur, bring the traveler close to death or to death itself.
A ten day journey, sleeping in churches, farmhouses, tents, even in good weather , was demanding. As Waller discovers, as-the-crow-flies meant nothing in terms of the distance to be covered for bogs had to be skirted, rivers crossed where there were ferries or fords.
No wonder Icelandic families were used to getting up at any time during the night to provide refuge for a traveler. Their farm may have been the only place of shelter in the area. When Bjartur finally makes it to Brun, it is night, everyone is in bed, but the farm wife hears someone groaning, hammering on the door. They go to the door with a light and Bjartur topples in. He’s covered in ice.
This is later in the season but the weather that Waller and many others describe during June, July, August, can be a deadly. That makes the welcome that Waller has had at Eyrarbakki and Oddi all the warmer, all the more appreciated, all the more remembered. What feels better than to be safe in a warm house as a storm rages outside
(Quotes from Six Weeks in the Saddle, S. E. Waller, 1874)
Waller gives the priest’s name as Sr. Jonson but there are many Jonsons. Nor does he give the name of the priest’s son who is the doctor for the district. If anyone reading this knows who these two were, would you please write to let me know.  If they are relatives, I’d like to hear about that.

icelanders of victoria

Emily Campbell, Carol Johannson, Ruth Olafson
It was a great evening. Tom and Beverly and the volunteers did a great job of the food. Jodi, as usual, decorated the hall beautifully. We had prizes and two of them were vinarterta. Can’t get better than that. Especially when made by Margo and Vorna. The cookie layers just right, not too thin and not too thick. The prune filling of this prune torte cooked to a consistency that lets the the seven layers melt in your mouth.
We know that the annual Thorrablot is all about food. Feasting in the name of Thor. It raises images of Vikings on a rampage, Vikings at a long table swilling back ale and ripping meat off the bone with their teeth, bellowing and challenging and yelling for wenches and blood.
Sorry if anyone is disappointed. We’re much more sedate. We’re the sheep farming kind of Thorrabloters. The kind who get dressed up and arrive on time. The kind who shake hands and hug and talk quietly in small groups as we catch up on news. We’re Christianized, urbanized, civilized Vikings.
The kind of Vikings who bring wives and children and grandchildren with them. Besides, most of us are at an age where our wenching days are done. Morning after hangovers are a thing of the past. Given the liquor laws in BC, a half dozen beers has given away to sipping on a glass of wine. Imagine what Viking times would have been like if they could have been fined for drunken longboating or horse riding. It would have put a damper on things.
Wayne Erickson, Lorie Olson
That’s okay. The rúllupylsa on brown bread is great. The hangikjöt, cold or hot, is delicious. The lox and the pickled herring melt in your mouth. I’m not sure what the Vikings would have thought of salad. They’d probably have fed it to their horses. I mean, what is the difference between lettuce and grass? But then, I doubt if anyone of them were on a diet. If they had high blood pressure, they didn’t know it. I suspect that with their diet of fish, meat and milk products diabetes wasn’t a problem. I like salad and the salads were really good but then I’m half Irish.
Personally, I like my parties quiet. It’s probably my age. Although, if a party is noisy, I just take out my hearing aid. The disc jockey did a great job. He’s a nice guy and he knows how to tailor his music to the crowd. It’s in the background, not competing with everyone who is trying to communicate.
We probably should get up and rock around the clock but my arthritis bothers me when I start whooping it up. A waltz or two usually is fine.
There was no hakarl this year. I didn’t miss it. I remember what Manitoba backhouses smelled like on a hot summer’s day. I don’t need to be reminded.  I’ve not been tempted to kill a shark and bury it in the sand up at Tofino for six months and then dig it up and slurp it down.
The dried cod was good. I like dried cod. My guests thought it had the texture of cardboard (must be memories from their childhood, I can’t see them chewing on cardboard now). I ate their share. I skipped the butter. My doctor says I’ve got to take off ten pounds.
The crowd at Norway House for Thorrablot
The best part of the evening was the company. It always is. A lot of people only turn up for Thorrablot. You get to shake their hand once a year and catch up on their life. It’s nice to see that we’re still with us. We’re not as us as we used to be, of course. Some people from that first meeting for the establishment of the Icelanders of Victoria Club that was arranged by Alphonse have died. Mattie Clegg (Gislason) is gone.Mattie was a dynamo. Great musician and our first Fjalkona. Amma Runa is gone. Runa was always at every event in her Icelandic dress serving coffee. Eric Clemens, our joyous Christmas elf, slipped away and even our friendship could not hold him here. I hope they have Christmas parties in heaven. Norm Jonasson departed unexpectedly, shockingly. He used to organize the cooking for the Thorrablot, worked all day in the kitchen with his family. There are other members who have left forever. 
Then there are other people who have disappeared because they have moved. Lois, I heard, will be moving to Vancouver. We’ll miss her.
That’s okay. These things happen. You get to be a certain age and you aren’t shocked anymore by losses. 
However, you are comforted by fellowship, community and ritual. We can all afford to buy our own rúllupylsa or skyr, make our own pönukökur or vinarterta but eating it by ourselves isn’t the same as sharing a meal.
Coming together, whether in church, or at sports events, for parades, picnics, celebrations, are one of the ways we define ourselves, let ourselves and others know who we are. Even if we are gradually shifting our identity from Icelandic to Icelandic-Canadian to Canadian, our Thorrablots and other events, help us to make the change over time, mixing together the old and the new. That’s why we can have smoked mutton and roast beef, rúllupylsa and potato salad, old memories and new hopes.

A Visit to Eyrarbakki, 1874

If you were in Gimli, Manitoba,  and said that you were going to visit Eyrarbakki, most people would assume you were going to visit Nelson Gerrard at Hnausa. His home and his cultural centre for all things Icelandic is called Eyrarbakki. But in 1874 when S. Waller, a young English painter who had fallen in love with Njal’s Saga, went to Eyrarbakki, it was a prosperous farm in Iceland that stood in contrast to most of the farms in the country.
Most people who went to Iceland in the 1800s were wealthy, they hired yachts, or owned them, brought large amounts of supplies, hired large numbers of horses and guides. However, in 1874, S. Waller, a painter earning is living from his art didn’t have much money.
 He took the train to Edinburgh, then went to Granton. He wanted to go on a small Danish steamer (it was inexpensive), the Diana, that made six trips each year from Copenhagen to Reykjavik, stopping at Leith. 
Waller arrives in Reykjavik,  hires Bjarni Finnbogason for two rigs-dalers a day and food. He discovers that English traders have been buying up so many horses that renting or buying them has doubled the price of only a few months before. He should really have six horses but can only afford three. This later causes him problems. 
He has come to sketch and paint so he goes alone onto the heaths and into the deserts, just him and his guide. He decides against traveling with a group because h knows he won’t get as much sketching done. Over his six weeks in the saddle, he has many adventures, both good and bad, but nearly everyone treats him kindly for they realize that he is not one of the rich tourists but just a young man in love with the sagas.
He is living hard, his bed is often uncomfortable, food scarce, so when he reaches Eyrarbakki, he is delighted. I’ll let him describe his visit.
“We reached the other side (of the river) quite safely, and after a great deal of land riding through miles of morass we sighted Eyrarbakki. So bad were the bogs that we simply dare not push on without something to guide us, so we bethought ourselves of making “Sudden Death” eminently useful. We drove him on ahead, and as long as he kept above ground we followed him, and wherever we saw him get into the last stage of difficulty we took warning by his errors and gracefully avoided the spot. Poor beast! He was in no danger, for whenever he sunk in up to the girths the travelling boxes slung at  his sides came to h is rescue and kept him from getting utterly involved, as they projected at least eighteen inches from the saddle.
“At about three o’clock we reached Mr. Thorgrimsen’s, in time for an excellent dinner.
“This house at Eyrarbakki is the central store of the south coast of Iceland, and consists of a dwelling, surrounded by some wooden warehouses, standing close down up the beach.
“It is the last vestige of civilization that the traveller meets with in journeying east, and moreover, as it has the reputation of being the best establishment in Iceland, I determined to avail myself of m y host’s kind invitation to stop a day or two and enjoy a few hours’ comfort before attempting a month of desert life; a desert indeed so complete, that I always used to say, that if three people were seen together some great excitement must be on hand.
“The luxury of this house must really seem extraordinary to a native Icelander. It is quite European in style, and possesses several exceedingly nice rooms and, wonderful to relate, a piano, upon which my host’s daughters played remarkably well. I can never forget the kindness with which I was treated. The free and easy style pervading the whole place was most delightful. I have seen rich things in great quantities in England, but never saw cream brought to table in a huge washing ewer before dining here. It must have contained at least two gallons, and this in a country where pasture (of any quality) is so scarce.
“When we had finished dinner Mrs.Thorgrimson and her daughters took care to make the evening pass most agreeably, and tough our conversation was extremely limited, we got on very well. I played several games with one of the young ladies, and was beaten every time.
“On retiring to bed I discovered that the window of my room looked out upon Ingolfs fiall, a magnificent old mountain, and which, although of no great size, is always ful of interest on account of its prominent position, both on the face of the landscape, a nd in the early history of the country.
“Next morning, I was aroused by the rain coming down in torrents, and, as it looked like continuing for a long period, was much annoyed. My time was so very limited that a day was a very considerable loss. However, there was no help for it, and I had to content myself with taking hurried notes, in the intervals of the storms, all day long. It so happened that some Scotch merchants were buying ponies for exportation in this neighbourhood…there were nearly 200 ponies….I was interested in the “Fiskr-mann-lestir,” or “fish carriers,” who made most effective and original subjects as they came riding in form the country, half a-dozen at a time, with fifteen or twenty heavily-laden ponies, all running in single-file. The dried fish, which strongly resemble parchment, are tied together in great bundles, and slung upon the pack-saddles, towering up three or four feet above the horse’s head.
“As we were going to make a start on the morrow, I took the opportunity of buying few necessities before leaving all civilization behind me, and some brandy, spare girths, etc., found their way into the travelling boxes.
“Mr. Thorgrimsen appeared really sorry that I did not make a longer stay, but on explaining that my sole reason for wishing to push on was the little time at my disposal, he said he would not detain me, but exacted a promise to call upon him again on our return fi we came within a day’s journey.
“So on Wednesday morning, after the stirrup-cup and all the good wishes of  this kind family, Bjarni and I again were on the move. We were bound for Oddi.”
This is just one of Waller’s memories. Iceland lives up to his expectations. Unfortunately, it rains a lot and rains hard, pours down, and he has to make sketches inside, but then there are good days and he is free to seek out the places in Njal’s Saga and capture them in his paintings.
It is a trip he will obviously remember both as an artist and a person for the rest of his life.
From Six Weeks In The Saddle by S. E. Waller, 1874.      

Saving our heritage: a child’s Íslendingadagurinn

Paul Gottskalkson (he changed his last name to Olson) and his sister,  Guðrun Fridrikka Gottskalksdóttir, in Fridrikka´s front yard on First Avenue in Gimli, Manitoba. Rikka, as she was called, was my great grandmother. She came with her parents to Gimli in 1876 and lived until 1958. I knew her when I was a teenager. She was three when she arrived, lived in Gimli until she went to work at Fort Garry, married a soldier and then they moved to Gimli and he became a fisherman. Her brother, Paul, was a fisherman. No vikings there. Just hard working, dedicated pioneers. The kind of people we celebrate at Íslendingadagurinn.

Imagine a celebration more exciting than Christmas? Pretty hard isn’t it.

But, when I was a child, when the long days of summer started with the early sun rising from the east over Lake Winnipeg, then slowly, slowly, climbing golden in the clear blue sky, seeming to barely move as my mother made lemonade and sandwiches and walked with us to the beach two blocks away, two hours later we came home, my brother and I,  exhausted by running in and out of the water, building dams in the ditch that ran through the sand beach, making castles of sand and stones, recouped by having a nap while our mother prepared supper, wakened to eat and to play in the declining, softening light, riding our tricycles up and down the sidewalk, or playing tag on the boulevard or hunting frogs in the ditch in front of the house, the sun slowly, slowly descended to the west, brilliant red and purple, and we finally went to bed exhausted, as we slept, we dreamt of Íslendingadagurinn.
Our summer days were filled with great events. Bonfires in the back yard in which our father put potatoes sealed in Manitoba clay and left them to roast among the coals. We melted fishing leads in a tin can on those coals, made slugs, and pretended they were coins. The swampy cottage lots behind us had fences heavy with squasher vines, those thick tangled vines with egg sized and shaped fruit, and we engaged in squasher war, delighting as the green fruit splattered delightfully on anyone they struck.
During thunderstorms, we lay outside on the covered front porch with lightening fiercely making ragged bolts from sky to land, with thunder shaking windows and rolling overheard. Snug on a comforter, beneath a blanket, we lay and watched the gods throwing furniture in heaven. Or so my mother said.
Always, though, the nights led us closer to Íslendingadagurinn, the Icelandic Celebration held in the Gimli Park. 
For there would be the excitement of our relatives coming from near and far, there’d be potato salad and ham, pickles, fresh buns, and pönnukökur, rúllupylsa on dark rye bread, rosettes, vinarterta, and handshakes and conversation, laughter, and bedding down in a tent so adults could have our beds.
There’d be the runners from the long distant race arriving, we’d stand and clap them to the finish line, for ever since its beginning, the Icelandic Celebration, in Winnipeg, Hnausa and Gimli, included sports.
In spite of our constant going to the gate to watch people streaming by toward the park, the adults would spend Saturday catching up their lives.

 (Violet Einarson in her Fjalkona royal robes. Violet was one of Fridrikka’s daughters. She took the opportunities presented by life in New Iceland. She became a real estate and insurance agent and, for a period of two terms, mayor of Gimli.)

On Monday, we stood on our boulevard to watch the Fjalkona in her robes and headdress, descending regally from a car to set a wreath before the cairn my grandfather helped to build, local stone topped by a massive boulder, dedicated to the first pioneers, then we’d rush to the park to see her arrive and be led with her princesses to her throne. The park would be aswarm with people, women in Icelandic peysuföt or upphlutur, regal and exotic. We’d be kissed by relatives, for kissing is a thing these Lutherans do in spite of sermons against our fleshy sins.  But after that we’d drift away for speeches are for adults while in the north-east corner there were races with cash prizes for which we could compete.

Everywhere, there were Icelandic flags.
It was a gathering of the clan, a reassembling of a community already dispersed. From near as Husavik, as far as Vancouver Island, they came, these people with impossible names. Our brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, would hold us close and often slip a nickel into our hand.
At night, the pavilion shutters were up, the hall was lit, the music drifted through the warm night. We sat on wooden benches along the walls or sometimes got together with other kids and practiced dancing in one corner of the hall. There was talk, and talk, and talk, and laughter, and lives were once more joined.
Icelandic flags and food and friends. Remembering was easy, for in the forties and fifties, we were not so far away from those first barges that landed at Willow Point in cold and storm. My great grandmother was one of those first pioneers and still alive and so were others who were among the first to arrive. And many others, like my father, born in 1918, only 43 years from that arrival in the promised land.
Icelandic flags and food and people streaming by and visiting, and forming bonds again, assuaging loneliness of far places for jobs were scarce and many had left for work out West. But Íslendingadagurinn was magic. Somehow, it drew them back and we were all one again.
Flags and food and Icelandic songs and talk, a day reminding us of 1875, a beach already cold with frost, heavy clouds presaging winter.
Although I did not know it then, what we were doing was reaffirming our identity, momentarily recreating our community, teaching and reinforcing our story of our people’s emigration, our history and links with Iceland. 
As people met and visited, listened to speeches, participated in races, attended the traditional dance, we were saying, although we have become far travelers in our quest for education and jobs, although we now live among people with different stories, we are still community, there’ s still history and tradition that bind us, and define who we are.
Íslendingadagurinn is held on the first Monday of August and, the local joke is that God loves Icelanders for there have seldom been anything but clear skies and warm days on this celebration. But, just as certain, this Monday is a pivot point for once it’s over, the air turns colder and, although, there’s still a month of summer, now you can feel the days move toward the fall. Gimli quiets. The summer visitors become less and less. But that was fine, for we’d had our Íslendingadagurinn and with it memory-locked, we use it to keep us warm through the coming winter.
Before we went to sleep, we’d lie awake and think about the day, and in our dreams, there’d be talk and talk and talk, and flags, and the Fjalkona in her robes, and running fast for quarter prizes, and relatives of every size and shape, and bowls of skyr, and by these things we’d get a sense of who we were.

The Icelandic Costa Concordia

Will they choose the euro, or the American dollar or, heavenly days, the loonie? Will they pick a currency behind door 1, 2 or 3?
Will they dollarize?

I’m talking about the Icelanders, of course. Having privatized the banks and let them behave as if they were Vikings out plundering the world only to discover that they weren’t Vikings at all but simply incompetent, inexperienced louts with massive egos, the Icelandic government has started looking at creating a system that will take some of the disastrous decision  making out its hands and put it into more competent hands.
Iceland, because of its history of Danish rule and having a small group of wealthy farmers who had political control of the country, does not have a long history of taking care of its own business. The Danes ran things. Badly, even very badly. So badly, in fact, that hunger was common, poverty endemic, disaster always at hand because of selling off the exclusive right to trade meant no competition but, instead, loss of control of pricing. A country with a population of approximately 70,000 during the  mid-18th C and a small group of farmers knit together by having the same interests, t hat is, keeping wages low, workers disenfranchised, and currying favour with the Danish traders.
The result was a group of land owners who employed seasonal workers and doled out land to share croppers.
The Danish traders, in the meantime, controlled trade. There wasn’t much chance of an Icelander getting a lot of experience at international trade or business in general, unless it was something like guiding foreign visitors to the geysers in summer.
Icelanders weren’t hewers of wood or miners of rock because there was no wood and no ore. They raised sheep and did off-shore fishing with hook and line in a survivalist economy.
They eventually got the Danes to quit selling the exclusive rights to trade with them and once the English and Scots started turning up to buy sheep and horses and whatever surplus the Icelanders had, there was actually money in the economy. Before that, it was all trade, a lot of which was priced in butter. In 1878 there was still no bank in Reykjavik. It would have been pretty difficult to have taken deposits in butter.
There was some Danish silver around. When reports say someone was paid in dollars, those were rigs dollars, Danish dollars. There weren’t many of them.
Iceland was a curiosity.  German, French and English explorers and tourists made the dangerous and difficult trip to see the volcanos, the geysers, the lava fields. They left behind coin in kind. But it was a very small amount and most of it went to a few guides and outfitters in Reykjavik.
Then, after a lot of campaigning, Iceland got its constitution back. It got to make its own financial decisions. WWI drove agricultural and sea products up in price. WWII brought the English and then the American occupiers who paid for everything instead of looting. If you are going to have occupiers, they’re the kind you want. They pumped a lot of money into the economy. They’re gone now and Iceland no longer holds a strategic place for the defense of the Americans and their allies.
But Iceland lagged. It was slow to mechanize. It clung to old ways. However, when it modernized, it went for it flat out.
The problem is that Iceland doesn’t have much in the way of resources. Seafood. Tourism. Wool products. Bjork. Cheap electricity. The cheap electricity is good for smelting bauxite into aluminum. It’s not like the country is sitting on diamond fields or nickel deposits. The climate dictates against agriculture. So, what the Icelanders needed was a product that didn’t require these things. In international finance, it found just what was needed. Some cell phones, computers, the ability to issue bonds, make loans, and take in deposits. Shazam. The perfect product.
The problem was that the country is still small. No longer 70,000 but 300,000 people. That’s still about the size of Victoria, BC and Victoria, BC wouldn’t dream of providing in and of itself all the people needed to create an international financial empire. Icelanders are astounding in that they often master a variety of skills, often at a very high level. They say it is because there are so few of them.
However, that doesn’t make a poet an international banker. It doesn’t make a chef a hedge fund manager. It doesn’t suddenly give someone running a gift shop for tourists, the ability to run a chain of clothing stores.
The craziness was so great that no one bothered to ask if there shouldn’t be some restrictions on the ability of the banks to borrow and lend money. No one asked why the Icelandic banks could offer interest rates on their bank deposits or on their bonds many times greater than banks and bankers in institutions with hundreds of years of accumulated experience. No one asked how the banks were making money. If the banks were providing large loans to favoured lends, it was just business as usual, capitalist cronyism.
You see, the old mentality still existed. There were still the important ruling families who took for granted their right to make decisions, the right to make money, the right to fill the positions of power. That’s the way it’s always been. Iceland never had a resident king or royal family but it still had a ruling class that over a very long time had come to believe they had the right to run things, no matter whether they were competent or not. The problem was that everybody else was part of the system. They believed it, too.
The system created a monetary unit that was volatile. Inflation was a problem. Therefore, mortgages were tied to inflation. People chose to dollarize, or, in this case, Danishize. They took out mortgages in Danish currency. That way their mortgages didn’t go up with inflation. Which was great, until the krona fell by fifty percent and people’s mortgages doubled.
What people in Iceland were doing is what people do everywhere when they don’t trust their currency. They try to deal in a stable currency. In Cuba, the official currency is the peso but what people want is the American dollar. The same is true everywhere. We all want our hard earned money to retain its value. What is happening in these cases is called a flight from domestic money. However, the more people buy foreign currency, the lower the domestic currency falls. Governments deal with this by imposing currency controls. Iceland did this. You had to get a permit to buy other currencies.
Who wants to hold kronur if they’re going to be worth half as much and if the real exchange rate, never mind what the government says, is steadily dropping.
Can the Icelandic government give its citizens places to put their savings so that they hold their value? If not, people will want to trade those kronur for anything that will retain its value, including Canadian dollars. 
If, as we’ve recently heard, Iceland might adopt the Canadian dollar, it could no longer be the lender of last resort for any of its banks that got into financial trouble. It couldn’t simply print money or create it electronically. What the Icelandic government could still do is raise taxes and offer bonds for sale. However, raising taxes in a time of recession is difficult, if not impossible, and given the losses Greek bond holders just suffered, lenders are going to want to be paid high interest rates and given guarantees against default.
Still, if converting to the Canadian dollar imposes some external discipline upon the Icelandic government and the banks, it may well be worthwhile. Dollarization is already used in numerous countries such as the British Virgin Islands, the Caribbean Netherlands, East Timor, El Salvador, Panama.
These are not uncharted waters. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t full of reefs and no Icelandic Prime Minister wants to become Iceland’s Captain Schettino. Iceland, in 2008, looked a lot like the Costa Concordia. It looks now like the Costa Concordia might look like if it were patched and re-floated. The Canadian loonie might be the tug needed to tow it to dry dock.The question is who is capable of being its new captain?

Why Thorrablot matters

This year’s Thorrablot has come and gone. It was a great success. Thorrablots are all about food. They are midwinter feasts, originally, to celebrate the pagan god, Thor, and to  herald the turning of the year toward spring. Today, in North America, Thorrablots are an opportunity for members of the Icelandic North American community to get together to visit, to eat, and honour our ancestors who came to North America during the great emigration that started around 1873.
Food. Food. Food. Not something most of us think too much about except to complain about the rising prices. Even at the time of emigration, when other countries had industrialized, Iceland was a rural nation. Not rural in the sense of small villages and towns but, rural, in the sense of isolated, individual farms.
The only crop was hay but it was essential to survival. The hay fed sheep and dairy cows. They provided milk products and meat. No grains would ripen so no fields were ploughed or seeded. The only agricultural activity was the spreading of sheep manure on the precious home field where the best grass was grown. So few vegetables were grown that when foreign visitors saw turnips or cabbages, hardy vegetables that could withstand both the cold summer temperatures, the rain and the wind, they commented on it. They also commented on how small the vegetables were.
The standard meal was dark rye bread, the rye flour being made from rye grain imported by the Danish trading merchants. Grain was expensive and only those whose farms were prosperous could afford it. Many Icelanders didn’t taste bread from one year to the next. The rye bread was eaten with skyr and dried cod with butter. If there was no rye flour, then the meal would be skyr, dried cod, butter and,  hopefully, coffee.
The Icelandic farmers, every year, faced an incredible challenge. In the three months of summer, they had to produce and store enough food to last through the next nine months. If they didn’t, they starved, often they starved to death.  There were no grocery stores, no credit cards, no food banks.
That is why every part of an animal was used. That’s why people ate svið, singed and boiled sheep heads. That´s why they made sviðpasulta,  head cheese, lifrarpylsa, liver sausage, bloðmör, or slátur, blood sausage. Nothing was wasted.
When working men and even the owners of small farms were not cutting hay and storing it, they went fishing in open boats. Dangerous, cold work, fishing with a hook and line, they lived in stone huts on the wind and rain swept shore. The fish and the fish heads were dried. Again, nothing edible was wasted.
Contrary to popular belief, Iceland is not cold like  the prairies of Canada, nor is it cold like the Arctic. The temperatures are moderate with few really cold days and few really hot days.  However, there is a lot of wet, windy weather. This posed a major problem for a people who needed to store food for nine months of the year. Their solution was brilliant. They produced a lot of skyr (it is like a firm yogurt). That produced a lot of whey. Whey is acidic and can be used to preserve food.
That’s why hrútspungar, pressed sheep´s testicles  (I told you nothing was wasted) are served. The are pickled in whey. It’s not available in North America but if it were, hvalspik, or pickled whale blubber, would be served. Sometimes you might find lundabagger. It’s made from all the animal’s leftovers that are rolled together and boiled, pickled and spiced.
The closest dish to our normal North American diet is hangikjöt. It is smoked lamb or mutton.
There´s also rullupylsa, rolled, pickled and boiled sheep´s flank. It is served on brown bread and is a great favorite.
But the favorites are always the Icelandic sweets. There´s the ponnokokur (thin pancakes spread with brown sugar and rolled), vinarterta (a prune torte, usually seven layers), skyr (nowadays served with strawberries). If you are lucky, there’ll be rosettes, crisp, deep fried cookies with a dollop of whipped cream and a dab of strawberry jam. The rosettes were originally Swedish but, no mind, vinertarta, the most beloved of all Icelandic food, was originally a Viennese torte.
This celebration is important to the Icelandic North American Icelandic community because it does a number of things. The feast itself is a symbol of our identity. It perpetuates our myths of Iceland, of the emigration, of the resulting struggle to survive and prosper in a foreign land and make it ours. It helps to transfer our values and traditions to a younger generation. It helps us to maintain a cultural identity.
It is these functions that must be preserved. If they are not, if we do not understand what it is that we eat and why, if we do not use these occasions to perpetuate our myths of Iceland and the emigration, if we do not use these occasions to pass on our values and traditions, then we will, as a community, dissipate, and lose our identity.
Thorrablots are enjoyable but if all they become is an evening on which to dine and dance, they will  have no call upon the members of our community to make them a priority and they will, and we will, succumb to competing desires and demands.

Living in the home of the gods (part 2)

Like the Icelanders before them, the Ukrainians were attracted to Brazil. There was free passage, lots of land but conditions, it turned out, were very bad. In Reflections and Reminiscences, Michael Ewanchuk reports that in 1895, Indians attacked Ukrainian settlers. A woman and four children were killed. Dr. Oleskow says “People die there like flies. As it appears, the climate for our people is deadly.” A priest reports that also in 1895 more settlers are killed by the local natives.”
It is reports like these that turn some Ukrainians away from Brazil and toward Canada.
The Ukrainian settlers who decided to come to Canada were fortunate for they had emigration agents to advise them about what they would need. They were told to take tools for building wooden houses. They only brought the metal parts of the tools. There was lots of wood and the wooden parts could be made. The women were advised to bring vegetable seeds. When they arrived on their isolated sections of land, they could clear a plot, till it and plant right away.
In Hardships & Progress of Ukrainian Pioneers, by Peter Humeniuk, there is a list of what went into a settler’s trunk.
“In the very bottom of the trunk they placed their winter clothes, bed sheets and blankets. On top of the trunk went carpentry tools: an axe, hatchet, draw knife, spade, hammers, planes, framed handsaws, bits, chisels, 2 sickles, grass-scythe, hoes, sieve, garden rake and other tools without handles, including the shorter stick and leathers of a flail….on top about twenty-five little cloth bundles of various garden seeds, onions, garlic, horse-radish and dried corn cobs…. four books were placed near the top. They were: a prayer book, History of Ukraine, a school primer, and Short Bible Stories….Mother tied some utensils and food in a cloth bundle.”
Once in Canada, the Ukrainians go through the same emotional and mental struggles as the Icelanders have gone through before them. A priest comes to see the settlers in the Dauphin area and he “wanted the people to assimilate” but “he exhorted them to maintain their culture, language and traditions. But, he encouraged them to learn English.” Already, assimilation has begun. The Icelanders had gone through this twenty years before with some wanting to assimilate and become part of the larger society while others wanted to create an exclusive Icelandic community. That argument, in spite of five generations in Canada, in spite of all the assimilation, still goes on.
The Ukrainians, too, wanted to live in a home of the gods. They wanted good land, good crops, good opportunities for themselves and their children. Their disillusionment, like that of the Icelanders, comes quickly.
Harvey, the immigration agent came to the Immigration Hall in East Selkirk. To the people who want to go to Gimli, he said “There is no future there: neither you nor your children will eat bread from that soil. That is poor land, wet and mosquito infested.” When people insist, he adds, “All right, go! You will break your necks there.”
They go to Gimli on Kristjanson’s boat and with that they have their first experience with Icelanders. The interaction has begun. Two different languages, two different cultures, two different religions, two different histories but the Kristianson brothers end up marrying two sisters from among the new immigrants. The dreams of a New Iceland, a new Ukraine, and separate cultures, have already begun to crumble around the edges.
The seeds that are carried in the immigrants’ trunks serve the people well. One settler says, ‘There were beets, carrots, peas, beans, onions, garlic, dill, cucumbers, cabbage, turnips, potatoes and corn…She (mother) had planted enough to last the family until the following spring.”
However, it is not just the knowledge and skill of growing vegetables that the Ukrainian settlers bring with them. First, like the Icelandic settlers before them, they have to feed themselves. The Icelanders fished to feed themselves but once they became expert enough to create a surplus, they then sold what they didn’t need. The same was to become true for the Ukrainians but it was their garden produce they sold.
Even though many of the Ukrainian settlers had been peasants, they owned a few morgans of land in Urkaine and, like the share croppers in Iceland, were able to sell both land and animals. The Icelanders had come from the poorest country in Europe. One report says they had an average of seven dollars a person and had so few resources that they had to get financial assistance from the federal government to relocate within Canada to New Iceland. Many of the Ukrainians, on the other  hand, brought money with them into the Gimli district. Nicholas Marcina took up a farm eight miles south of Gimli in 1897. He bought a cow for $20.00, a plough for $15.00, $3.75 for a harrow, a wagon for $36.00. Nicholas Krysansky says his father paid $55.00 for a yoke of young oxen and $35.00 for a cow, $12.00 for a plow and $30.00 for a sleigh. That was cash going into a local area that was constantly short of money.
The Icelanders got their land for ten dollars. Many of the Ukrainians had to purchase land and some paid as high as $`1200.00.
Once the Ukrainians had shelter, the problem was to start to make money to pay off debts (many borrowed money to pay the high fare from Ukraine to Gimli. One family paid $700.00 for their fare. There was no subsidy.)  They needed, as quickly as possible, to buy one or two oxen and a sleigh. This was important because New Iceland became a cordwood economy. The first major way of making money was to cut and sell cordwood. Houses were heated with wood so the demand for wood was high.
Stefan Yendyk says, “we started to haul cordwood to Winnipeg Beach. One had to get up during the night and feed the oxen, then start out early in the morning so that by sunrise one would be by the Ewanchuk farm….My early Canadian winters saw me in the bush, cutting cordwood or hauling the wood 22 miles to Winnipeg Beach.”
Later, when the railway tracks were extended, the farmers delivered wood to Gimli. In 1907, 95,000 cords of wood were sold in Winnipeg. The demand seemed insatiable. Even in summer, wood was needed for wood stoves.
However, cordwood alone wouldn’t pay for a farm. The men went away to work, often on the railway, or, to farms that were already established. Everyone had to work. Single women, young girls, usually, often walked to Winnipeg to find jobs.
On the farms, the wives dug Seneca root because it could be traded for goods at the local stores in Gimli. They also took eggs and vegetables to town in season.
Prices were low for farm goods but then, with the beginning of WWI,  there was a demand for everything the farmers could produce. Eggs sold for 60c a dozen, butter for 60c a pound. Once the railway came as far as Gimli, campers (summer cottagers drawn to the village of Gimli because of its beaches) created a demand for fresh produce and wild berries. The Ukrainian farm families also sold cream, milk and poultry. The Icelandic fishermen, in the meantime, were selling the same people, fresh fish, particularly pickerel fillets.
In 1902 Gimli was still exclusively Icelandic, or close to it. I know that there were other nationalities represented because my Icelandic grandmother Fredrikka Gostskalksdottir and her English husband from Fort Garry had moved to Gimli and he had become a fisherman. However, it is not until 1904 that Wasyl Ewanchuk built the first Ukrainian house in the village.
The Ukrainians build houses, clear land, plant crops, use all the knowledge and skills they have, but drainage is a serious problem, getting goods to market , whether to Gimli, Winnipeg Beach or Winnipeg, is an arduous task.
Harvey, the immigration agent, turned out to be right. There was better soil elsewhere. Gradually, families began to leave, abandoning the farms they’d worked so hard to establish, or, if they were lucky, selling them to newcomers.
Some of the Ukrainian farmers who left for other areas were able to sell their farms that they had created out of the bush. After 12 years of clearing land, pulling stumps, collecting rock, building houses and barns, making fences, the farmers got from $561.00 to $900.00. Others took over with dreams of making the land profitable.
The dreams of the two immigrant groups, to live in the home of the gods, a place where they would propser, where the land would provide plenty, instead, were defeated by marginal and sub-marginal and, by problems with drainage, with a lack of roads. Those who hung on had a hard struggle ahead of them. When George Johnson (later Minister of Health in the provincial government, then Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba) came to Gimli to practice medicine, he discovered, in the Interlake, the second  poorest area of Canada. Only Newfoundland was poorer. Conditions were such that he went into politics to try to find a remedy for the poverty.
However, both the Icelanders and the Ukrainians managed to create a life for themselves better than that which they left. The Icelanders, often little more than indentured servants, the Ukrainians, serfs, became their own masters. Their children and their grandchildren went on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians, businessmen. Most of these children left both the fishing and farming to seek success in urban areas. The opportunities that the original settlers from both groups had sought for their children did exist. No one said it would be easy.
The land in the Gimli area, Michael Ewanchuk describes as spruce, swamp and stone. For those who have lived in and around Gimli, the rock piles at the sides of farm fields have been a familiar sight. The stone boat was a vehicle of pain as every year, farmers and their families followed it over the fields, collecting the rocks that had surfaced during the spring. Although there were good strips of land, much of it was marginal, some of it good for nothing but pasture.
Lake Winnipeg provided bounty to the fishermen, most of whom were Icelandic but there were good seasons and bad seasons. The lake also took many lives. There is a cost to everything.
Today, a Gimli banquet is not complete without perogis and hollopchi, ham, kubysa. It often ends with vinarterta, skyr with strawberries, and ponnokokur. They say we are what we eat and from the smorgasbord table, it would appear we’re a little bit of both, if not in blood, then in dreams, history and experience.
(Facts, figures and quotes from the books of Michael Ewanchuk, Spruce, Swamp and Stone; Pioneer Profiles; Reflections and Reminiscences; Peter Humeniuk’s, Hardships&Progress of Ukrainian Pioneers. For anyone interested in the Ukrainian emigration to Western Canada, these are good places to start. For the Icelandic experience, W. Kristjanson’s, The Icelandic People In Manitoba; W. Lindal’s, The Saskatchewan Icelanders. There is a lot of material on-line. Most of it is personal reminiscence and carries with it the expected biases but is still valuable.)

In the home of the gods (part 1)

They came with a dream. They would leave Iceland and their lives of poverty and privation. They would have land. They would be able to marry. They would have wooden houses like the Danes. There would be opportunities to be something other than a farm laborer or a share cropper eking out a living on marginal land. But most of all, they would be able to eat. There would be food. The hunger would end.
They would have come earlier but ships came seldom and only in the summer months when weather would allow. Then the English started to come. They wanted sheep and horses. The Danes didn’t pay in cash. They only traded goods. The English paid in silver. The silver could pay for passage on the cattle ships.
The ships took the emigrants from Iceland to England and Scotland. From there they went to Quebec City. Canada wanted settlers. It wanted to fill up all the empty spaces. It wanted enough people to produce and buy goods that a railway running from coast to coast would be profitable. It wanted the empty lands filled up so the Americans didn’t invade them.  The government wanted immigrants badly enough that they allocated funds to help them emigrate and get settled.
The Icelanders were late comers to the massive European emigration. They’d been held back by the lack ships, the lack of money, the resistance of the land owners who didn’t want to lose all that cheap labour.
The Icelanders made some false starts. Kinmount. Nova Scotia. But then they decided to go west, to Gimli, the home of the gods, the home where they’d live like gods with good houses, good food, where their children would have an opportunity to become something other than an indentured servant, working on an isolated farm for board and room and a few Danish dollars a year that was usually paid in butter or wadmal, not silver.
They came late in the season. Even after Nova Scotia and Kinmount, Toronto, they didn’t understand how bad a Manitoba winter could be. 
The first Icelandic settlers arrived at Gimli in 1875. They had no cows. Poor provisions. Even poorer accommodation. They had few stoves, poor quality tents, no cows for milk which was a substantial part of their normal diet. They were not woodsmen, yet all building had to be done with wood. Sheer grit and determination helped them survive. They were plagued by smallpox and then by flooding. The large group arrived in 1876.
They’d come to Gimli in New Iceland. New Iceland. It was going to be just like Old Iceland except better because there’d be land, and freedom and opportunity and food.
The home of the gods was swamp and bush and rock. It was so swampy that 65 years later when I was a child, much of Gimli was still swamp. Every spring Gimli flooded.  Our basement often had two feet of water. The sump pump ran all day and all night.
W. Kristjanson, in The Icelandic People In Manitoba, says
“On account of the low-lying land and poor drainage, the ground was covered with two or three inches of water for some time in the spring, but in May the weather turned warm, the thermometer frequently rising to eighty and ninety degrees in the shade, and the settlers were able to turn to their fields and gardens.
“The settlers, on the average, cleared 2-3 acres of ground, and planted wheat, peas, and root corps. This entailed much manual labor, for they had no horses or oxen and pick-axe and hoe were their only implements of cultivation, and in some cases at least, the ground was a mass of tangled roots.
“The meaning of the word cultivation was by no means clear to some of the settlers. One man planted several acres of wheat without proper preparation of the ground, with the result that he had no crop.”

The meaning of the word cultivation wasn’t clear to the settlers. How could it be? They’d never worked the land. They’d never ploughed, harrowed, seeded. No grain would ripen in Iceland. They put sheep manure on the home field to help the grass grow. Vegetable gardens were seldom planted and those were usually planted by Danes. Visitors often reported on how poor vegetables grew because of the wind and the summer temperatures. Seeds were expensive and produced poor crops.
There were no forests so there was no opportunity to learn how to cut down trees, to build houses from logs or lumber. There were few opportunities to learn to make wooden utensils, tools, furniture. There was driftwood but it was owned by whoever owned the foreshore rights.
In New Iceland, the land was heavily wooded. Everything about cutting down trees, clearing land, cultivating it, sowing, harvesting,  had to be learned.
And, in spite of being the home of the gods, much of the land, when cleared by hand with axe and mattock, turned out to be marginal farm land. Much of it was good for nothing but pasture.
Is it any wonder that within three years of arriving, the mortals who now lived there started to leave? They’d heard of land that wasn’t heavily wooded, was dryer, more fertile, not covered in stones.
Some settlers had begun to leave in 1878. By 1880 and 1881, there was a general exodus. There remained only 250 in all of New Iceland. However, in 1883, new settlers from Iceland started to arrive. By 1891 there were about forty homes in Gimli. However, the settlers, having been fishermen in Iceland, and seeing the potential  of fishing in Lake Winnipeg, turned their attention there rather than to the land.
In 1896 the government decided that not enough settlers were coming from Iceland and opened up New Iceland to whoever wanted to live there. With this act, the end of a dream of a New Iceland, a place exclusively for Icelanders where they could remain Icelandic, was ended. The colony had been established in 1875. It had lasted for twenty-two years. New Iceland and a home good enough for gods was not realized but Gimli and New Iceland had served their purpose. They had provided a focus, a place with an Icelandic identity where new immigrants could come and, even if they did not stay long, had an opportunity to adjust to life in Western Canada. The existence of New Iceland must have been a great encouragement for people half a world away. They knew that at the end of their journey there would be relatives, friends, countrymen who would welcome them and help them.
As fate would have it, the land that had not been settled plus the land that had been abandoned, would become available to a group of people very different from the Icelanders. These were the Ukrainians, the men in sheepskin coats.
The Ukrainians came from Europe’s breadbasket. They were Greek and Roman Catholic, financially better off, many had little formal education, they were used to living in villages and working collectively, they were both herdsmen and farmers, used to clearing land, cultivating it, seeding it, harvesting it. They were used to a much wider variety of domesticated animals including chickens, geese, ducks, swine, goats. They were woodsmen. They were gardeners and came to Canada with seeds in their trunks.
Sydor Zelenitsky, in Spruce, Swamp and Stone, by Michael Ewanchuk, says, “On the higher land we planted potatoes and the cabbages on the lower slope”.  His cabbages grow so well that he takes a wagonload of cabbages to Gimli where the Icelanders “paid me a five or ten cent piece each and I sold all my vegetables. I guess this was the first business transaction between the Ukrainians and the Icelanders in this part of the country.”
The Ukrainians experience better suited them for the land. In the Gimli area, they were quickly able to build houses like those they had left. Logs chinked with clay, then clayed over outside and in, the walls whitewashed, the roofs thatched. They were used to stoves and even though they did not have indoor ovens, they were quickly able to build the outdoor clay ovens in which they could bake a week’s bread.
The had the tremendous advantage of being woodsmen, used to building houses with the same materials that existed in the Gimli area. Ewanchuk says, “They brought with them utensils required for working with wood.” They brought different types of axes that allowed them to splitting  logs or rails, to smooth out log walls, they had “spirit levels, a plumb line, a carpenter’s saw and a rip saw, various sizes of hand augers and drills, gimlets, chisels and hand-planes.”
They were used to thatched roofs and quickly cut dry hay or reeds. The tied these with bands of hay. They dampened them and placed the thatch close together on the roof so that when the thatch dried, it swole and tightened to form a weather proof roof. None of this was new. Where the Icelanders had been used to building with turf and rock and faced with the need to learn everything that needed to be done in a new climate, the Ukrainians were working with familiar materials. Wood, straw, clay, limestone were at hand.
(Quotes and information from W. Kristjanson, The Icelandic People In Manitoba; Michael Ewanchuik, Spruce, Swamp and Stone)

The Failed Brazilian Emigration

 Picking coffee beans in Brazil. (Wickipedia)
 It wasn’t just Icelanders who were enticed to Brazil.
Michael Ewanchuk, in his book, Pioneer Profiles, says this “In time immigration agents appeared in the villages and began to conduct a very intensive campaign to interest the people to settle in Brazil. These agents offered free transportation to Brazil and told the people that no medical examinations were needed.”
“In Brazil the European settlers had to adjust to the harsh tropical climate and life in the jungle .Those that were settling in the Parana area soon found out that the cost of transportation inland and the cost of land, food and supplies, was excessive. What they saved on fares crossing the ocean was soon spent on food and clothing – employment was hard to find. Soon letters reached the Ukrainian villages which showed that life in Brazil was untenable. They wrote back complaining: “All that we have been able to harvest is black beans and corn, and some vegetables. There is no wheat or rye grown here. We cannot get milled flour. All we are able to do is to grind the corn on a quern and bake corn bread. “
Prof. Joseph Oleskow wrote to the High Commissioner for Canada in 1896. In the letter he says, “In the meantime (settlers) leave the seaports of Hamburg, Bremen and Geneva (Italy) in every week several hundred families from “Western Ukraine” for Brazil.
“This very movement I have predicted, and I have in vain challenged the Canadian Government to help me in turning this flow from Brazil to Canada…the Brazilian interests are supported here with    considerable capital, nevertheless, I say once more, the little sum of say 800 pounds in my hands would suffice to lay the foundation for regular monthly expeditions of some 100 famiilies, agriculturists with necessary means to make a start on a homestead in Canada.”
Oleskow joined with the Hon. Clifford Sifton and federal immigration officials to begin the movement of thousands of Ukrainian settlers away from Brazil and to Canada.
The Ukrainian settlers, although it was now more than two decades after the first immigrants arrived in New Iceland, find themselves starting for one destination but changing for another. With the Icelanders it was Nova Scotia and the United States. For the Ukrainians, it was starting for Brazil and ending up in Canada.
In Michael Stashyn’s account, “Our neighbour drove us to Chorkiv, our nearest station, and from there we left by train for the German port of Hamburg.
“It was the first time that my parents rode on a train, and for the first time they saw an ocean liner….In Hamburg we met many Ukrainians who were not going to Brazil as we were, but to some kind of Canada. They started to convince my parents that we should come with them. “
Michael’s parents do change course. They board the ocean liner for Canada. Like the Icelanders before them, they head across the ocean, into the unknown. “On the fourteenth day, we disembarked and found ourselves in the port of Quebec City. There we boarded a train and headed west.”
Will Kristjanson says in his book , The Icelandic People in Manitoba, “About forty persons left for Brazil, 1863-1873. The precipitating factor was the disaster to the sheep industry, 1856-1860, and the hard winter of 1858-59, the second hardest in the century.”
“Einar Asmundsson, of Thingeyjarsysla, in the North, was a person widely read and well-informed. He had been reading much about Brazil and considered that country the most promising for Icelandic emigration…In 1860, Asmundsson promoted the founding of the Brazilian Emigration Association. Thirty-five persons reached Brazil and several  hundreds were prepared to go. However, transportation difficulties blocked this movement.”
The plans to move to Brazil were opposed by local officials and wealthy farmers. Even so, four men left for Brazil in 1863. Their job was to evaluate the possibility of Brazil as a home for Icelanders. By the beginning of 1865, about a 150 people had agreed to go. However, the plan fell through.  In 1873, a group of 500 had agreed to emigrate to Brazil. The Brazilian government, just as with the Ukrainians later, promised to pay the fare but that fare would be from Hamburg to Brazil. The Icelanders had to get from Iceland to Hamburg and were unable to do so. The Brazilian government, at one point, tried to rent a ship to sail to Iceland to collect the prospective immigrants but was unable to do so. Again the plan fell through. Eventually, only 34 people actually emigrated.
Even though the Ukrainian settlers who go to Brazil do so around fifteen years after the Icelanders, we can see from their experience the difficulties that the Icelandic emigrants must have faced.
Two countries distant from Canada, Iceland and Ukraine, where the lot of the common people is one of such hardship that people are willing to risk their lives venturing into the unknown. In both countries, the people are both caught up in medieval systems. There is hunger, injustice and lack of opportunity. They respond the same way: emigrate. Circumstance, randomness, misunderstanding, possibility, all result in these two disparate groups settling in the same area.
Their choice of settlement area, without any intention of doing so, makes them part of each others’ Canadian heritage, and gradually, through necessity, doing business, then some social events and, finally, intermarriage, their stories become inextricably entwined. Today, all across Canada, there are Ukrainian-Icelandic marriages. Yet, the two written histories have remained separate for no one has attempted to show how the two groups came to settle on the same land (not just nearby land but the same to such an extent that Ukrainians took up land abandoned by the early Icelandic settlers) and how the two communities learned to function together.

If the Brazilian immigrations had been successful, they may very well have ended up neighbours in Brazil. Instead, with the failure of the Brazilian ventures, they became neighbours in the wilderness of Manitoba.
(Sources: two books worth reading, if you can find copies. Michael Ewanchuk, Pioneer Profiles Ukrainian Settlers in Manitoba; W. Kristjanson, The Icelandic People in Manitoba A Manitoba Saga)