Playfair Park

 Flower pix by WDV

Playfair Park is about one acre. A pocket park. Gorgeous summer and winter. A five minute walk from my house. If there had been time, I’d have asked everyone coming to Atli and Þruður´s reception to meet at the park for a walk around the gardens. We could have done an easy stroll about the park. If we had done that, it would have been with a purpose. I´d have used the opportunity to tell everyone about Christian Sivertz and his family and Victoria.

Wherever you live, demand pocket parks. Big parks are nice but pocket parks are secrets hidden in neighborhoods where people picnic, throw balls for their dogs, lie on the grass, admire the flowers, play with their children.
Once, I was surprised to see a wedding, ceremony and all in Playfair Park. I thought it a fine place for a wedding. I watched the wedding ceremony, the guests in chairs set in a crescent, children running about, the flowered gardens as a backdrop, the bride and groom a bit giddy with happiness.
There’s a small playground for children with a slide and a teeter totter, a bench for parents. There are benches here and there and, if you follow the paths that weave through the rhododendron forest, you’ll find rocky outcrops on which to sit.
In May, the gardens will be at their best. I’ll miss them this year. I regret that. Today, I had to make a circle around the park, filling up my eyes and soul with the colours. Whose heart wouldn’t pause slightly when they see the purple rhodo arching over one of the paths? 
That´s when I thought of Icelanders like Christian Sivertz (in spite of the adopted name, he was an Icelander) who worked as a farmhand and tutor in Iceland, came to Winnipeg in 1883, to Victoria in the 1890. He’d had time to adjust to the New World in Manitoba, working at the Winnipeg Gas and Electric Plant, with summers as a fireman and 2nd engineer in small steamers on Lake Winnipeg.
He’d read about the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast. People had started coming here by train in 1886. That’s only eleven years after the first settlers landed at Willow Island in Manitoba.
Christian´s parents, three brothers and a sister soon joined him in Victoria.

Photo credit: J. O. Magnusson

Playfair Park was still wilderness then but Victoria was already the flower capital of Canada. If I still am amazed by places like Playfair Park, by rhodos ablaze with bloom, what must he and his parents and siblings have thought?    

Jón Bjarman: Memories a Year Later

Hanna Katrín Pálsdóttir and Jon Bjarman with son Pall shortly after they came to Lundar in Nov. 1958

by Nina Lee Colwill

When Jón Bjarman died on March 17, 2011, his loss was keenly felt in many places. And today, a year later, his absence continues to arouse bittersweet memories. For Jón touched numerous lives in his 78 years.  As his longterm friend and fellow pastor, Ingthor Isfeld said, “I remember Jón as a good conversationalist, a patient and empathetic listener, and a trustworthy friend, with a cup of coffee in hand.”

It would be easy to write about Jón’s many accomplishments: author; pastor to congregations in Canada and Iceland; pastor in towns and hospitals and prisons; advocate for the humane treatment of prisoners worldwide; and a driving force behind and lifetime president of the International Christian Youth Exchange (ICYE).  But Jón was far more than the sum of his achievements, and this is a tribute, not to his professional acumen, but to the love and admiration he engendered in others.

It’s difficult to think about Jón without thinking of Jóhanna Katrín Pálsdóttir—his Hanna. They were born less than a month apart; they fell in love at 16, married at 21, and spent the next 57 years together in Canada, USA, and Iceland. Their hospitality is legendary—a tradition that Hanna continues with joy.

The founding of the Lundar Luther League, March 1959 Back row: Chris Erlendson, Norman Johnson, Michael Danielson, Ken Sigurdson and Jón; Middle row: Donald Coldwell, Linda (Rafnkelsson) Williamson, Lorne Foster, Joan (Andrews) Proctor and Hope (Olson) McNeil; Front row: Bill Breckman, Ethel (Arnason) Desjarlais, Margaret Johnson and Judy (Danielson) Thorsteinson
One of Jón’s most telling characteristics was the affection he inspired in children and teenagers. He worked tirelessly for ICYE and with teenagers in Lundar Manitoba, Akureyri, and Reykjavík. As his granddaughter, Hanna, wrote in Morgunblaðið, Our grandfather had a way with children. He treated us all with respect, and we felt our opinions were always fully valid. We had long discussions on all kinds of topics, and when we were a bit older, he became our most important teacher… Our grandparents were tireless in taking us to see a play, a movie, an exhibition, or just out to dinner.”1

Jón and Hanna with their grandchildren 1997
Jón was a brilliant writer who switched languages with ease.  His ability to bring his love of language into conversation was a constant joy to everyone who knew him.  Johann Ulfar Sigurdsson lived with the family for awhile: “During my time with Jón and Hanna in Lundar,” he said, “I realized that Jón had a very carefree and fun side to his personality and a keen sense of humour. Language fascinated him—such as the frequently humorous outcome when Icelandic and English were mixed together. He then started to mix the languages deliberately, creating some humorous outcomes.

Some twenty years ago, Jón was faced with a situation that would challenge the magnanimous spirit of the strongest person.  He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. But even here his equanimity prevailed.  As he wrote in his book, Af föngum og frjálsum mönnum (Of Free Men and Jailed): “It is better to make fun of oneself and not to take oneself too seriously … Hanna…has not shown me pity, but treated me the same as before, made the same demands of me, and never viewed me as a patient.  Nevertheless she is considerate of me, stands by my side, and follows me in joy and sorrow.”2

Jón’s work life and personal life were so inextricably intertwined that people like Conrad Sigurdson, a friend of Jón and Hanna’s for over half a century, could easily envision him in work situations: “He was intelligent, kind, patient, and generous. He lived and worked for others. I can imagine how patient he was in his affiliation with the prisons and in his dedication to his work with international students.” 

Hanna and Jón on a cruise in the Mediterranean, Sept.2000
Even in his routine professional tasks – like the conducting of marriage ceremonies – Jón brought his unique poetic touch. In 2000 he married our daughter Erla Louise Colwill Anderson and our son-in-law, Ármann Ingólfsson in Akureyri, and, like the rest of us, Ármann marvelled at the way Jón “wove the histories of our two families together, mentioning my afi’s work in growing Kjarni Forest and talking about Erla’s ancestors, some of whom lived on the Kjarni Farm. He drew an analogy between planting trees in a barren place and consoling and encouraging people in desperate situations.  It made me think of Jón’s work with prisoners and hospital patients.  I can’t think of a person I would rather have had presiding over our wedding.”

Conrad Sigurdson sums it up perfectly: “Over the years we shared in all that Jón was to others.  Thinking of Jón brings good memories of a beautiful friend and wonderful friendship.  Our world is a better place because Jón was a part of it.”


1 Translation by Páll Jónsson, son of Hanna Pálsdóttir and Jón Bjarman

2 Translation by Ármann Ingólfsson, son of Hrefna Hjálmarsdóttir and Ingólfur Ármannsson
(This article was first published in Lögberg-Heimskringla, Canada’s oldest ethnic newspaper. LH is published in English and on-line subscriptions are available.)

Paupers and taxes

When we say we want to embrace our heritage, we aren’t just talking about how much we like eating vinarterta or soaking in the Blue Lagoon. We’re talking about all everything that has made up our heritage, everything that made our great grandparents and great great grandparents, etc. who they were. We’re talking about all of Icelandic society.
We’re also talking about making an effort to understand the daily lives of the people. A big part of those daily lives were taxes.
There were numerous taxes but the major tax that Icelandic farmers paid was the tax to support the poor, the paupers.
Who were the paupers and why did they exist?
There were lots of ways to become a pauper.
Fishing was very dangerous. Burton says four out of every ten male deaths was by drowning. One can probably expect that those deaths by drowning were fishermen. An open row boat might hold fifteen men. Virtually every description of Icelandic open boats I’ve read describes them as leaky or very leaky. North Sea weather is repeatedly described as violent with high winds and waves. Bringing a boat ashore where there were no docks or jetties meant launching and returning through the surf. The surf was always dangerous.
When a fish boat sank or overturned there were seldom survivors. The fishermen were weighed down with their sheepskin clothes, most, maybe none, could swim, swimming described in the sagas was long forgotten. The water was freezing cold. Say fifteen men drowned. These would not all be single, hired men. Many would be farmers, crofters, men with families, and since there was no such thing as birth control many of these families would be large.  If eight of the men had wives and an average of six children, there were now 54 paupers.
Then there were avalanches. There are many reports of good farmland being destroyed by cascades of rock. Sometimes these avalanches also buried houses and people but sometimes they just destroyed the  home field. That was enough. In a few minutes, the independent farmer could be reduced to poverty. Without a home field with its supply of grass, sheep and cows could not be fed and had to be slaughtered. A live sheep or cow was worth much more alive producing wool and milk than dead. With no home field, with destroyed grazing land, a farmer was reduced to penury. There were no other jobs. If twenty people lived on the farm, all had to seek employment elsewhere. Some might be hired as laborers, of course, but some not.
Rich farms with good land, with shore rights, with boats, with owners with political connections, could survive some bad seasons but small farmers could be reduced to poverty by bad weather. A short growing season, unseasonal snows, rain, hail, could mean not enough grass to feed animals. Combined that with a poor fishing catch and there was starvation. Farmers on marginal land couldn’t survive.
Of course, there also were volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions were good ways of creating paupers. It’s pretty hard to grow grass on a lava stream. Lava streams in Iceland are long and broad. They destroy everything in their path. People might flee but with grazing fields, home fields, houses, cattle, reduced to ashes, entombed in solid rock, where do the survivors go for food and shelter?

It was not just the people on farms swept away by lava who suffered. The poisonous gases and the particulates spread from the eruptions did great damage. In places, the grass was covered with silica granules. The cattle, from eating the grass, got cuts in their mouths, sores developed and from these, blood poisoning. The cattle had to be killed. 

Old age, if you survived to an old age, could turn you into one of the poor wretches described by travellers, living at the mercy of the hreppar and the farmer. You might have got by working as a farm hand and fisherman, never making enough money to buy land and animals, to have your own place but, eventually, disease and infirmity would make it necessary for you to go back to the hreppar where you were born and ask for welfare.

Thuridur (177-1863) started working on her father’s boat when she was eleven.l When she was seventeen, she was working on her brother’s boat as a full seaman. She became a foreman. She supported herself and her children but in old age she had to ask the hreppar for assistance.

Or, you could be an orphan. There were lots of orphans for epidemics were common, women dying in childbirth was common. In spite of all the restrictions on marriage, illegitimate births happened. In some syslas, they were one in every three births.
There were few ways of becoming rich but many ways of becoming a pauper. You might, for example, have become addicted to cheap Danish brandy. You might have had one or more children out of wedlock. You might have had an accident or become ill with a debilitating disease and Burton says there are so many diseases that all a writer can do is list them.
With so many ways to become a pauper, it is no wonder that there were many of them and since they had to be supported by those who had enough money to pay taxes, that is the land owning farmers, it is no wonder that the farmers didn’t want anyone marrying until he could prove that he could support himself, his wife and the inevitable children.
Tomasson, in Iceland, the First New Society, says that in 1870, 5.6% of the population were paupers.
Burton says that the farmer, besides paying regular taxes, also pays three tithes: to the priest, the Church and the poor. The tax to pay for the poor is the largest tax of all. It was called fátækra útsvar. This is on top of what is called the poor rate. It is as much as all the other taxes  put together. In some parishes, it is double the amount of all the other taxes.
In the autumn when the parish had a meeting, the Hreppstjóri set the amount of the tax. It would be interesting if we could listen in on one of those meetings. I expect the debate was somewhat heated.
Burton, in 1872, regards pauperism as evil. His solution, when our ancestors were getting ready to leave Iceland, is to get rid of the “sturdy vagrants who infest the land by providing free passages to America, or elsewhere.” It would be interesting to know who these “sturdy vagrants” are.
My great great grandfather, Valgardur Jonsson, came to Canada in 1878. He was definitely not sturdy. I expect that he was ill when he left Iceland. He died three years after he arrived. Ethel B. Harley (Mrs. Alec Tweedie) in A Girl’s Ride in Iceland, pub. 1889, looks from her ship’s cabin to see 40 Icelandic emigrants. These are our ancestors. “men, women, and children, many of the former quite old, apparently not more than one in five capable of a good day’s work”.  These were not the “sturdy vagrants” Burton wrote about from 1872. From her description some of these may very well have been paupers having their way paid to North America. England had got rid of its undesirables by shipping them to Australia. Iceland got rid of some of its tax burden by shipping some people not capable of a good day’s work to Amerika.
I wonder, though, if my great grandfather, Ketill, was one of those sturdy vagrants? He was eighteen, healthy, when he came with his father to New Iceland. His mother, his twin, and a sister had all died. There was just him and his ill father. Were he and his father such a burden on the tax paying farmers that it was cheaper to pay their fare to New Iceland than to keep them? Ketill came to Canada prepared to work, at fishing, on the railway, building a dairy, then a farm supply business, then a farm. He may have been irascible and sometimes difficult to get along with but no one could ever accuse him of being lazy.
Guðmundur Stefánsson who emigrated in 1873 writes to Iceland saying that emigration is good “But it is no good for those to come who are neither adaptable nor ready for hard work.“ For him to say this there must have been some he thought not willing to do hard work. He did not say not able. He said not willing.   
Who were then, these healthy, lazy louts who lived off the public dole? They, the farmers who paid a  heavy poor tax to support them and resented it (nothing new in that, we still have great effusions of resentment from taxpayers over people on welfare), the parish officials who officiated, the people who made the decision to solve the  pauper problem by shipping people to Amerika–all of them–are our heritage. They all sound terribly human if not always humane. I embrace them all for they struggled against forces beyond their control in an environment where day to say survival was an accomplishment and, if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here. And neither would you.

Death by drowning

There have been in our family since it arrived in New Iceland, three drownings. Alfred and Herbert Bristow, sons of Fredrikka Gottskalksdottir and William Bristow, drowned with three other young people when they were returning on a sailboat from a berry picking expedition. My father, in an old tradition, was named after them. My brother drowned when his front end loader went off the side of a barge into the Mackenzie River.
These drownings, while tragic, were part of an old tradition. Can we call it that? When something is done repeatedly over a very long time?
To drown was the fate of many men in Iceland. According to Richard Burton, in Iceland there was an “unusual loss of adult males, which is said to average forty per cent drowned.”
Every year, in a land where only one crop, hay, could grow, where arctic ice filling the bays, could lower the temperature enough that the ground would not thaw and the hay would not grow, producing enough food to last the coming winter was a struggle. Hay and sheep and cattle alone would not provide the food necessary. 
Fishing was essential. It provided the second part of the people’s diet but it also provided something to trade for the many products that could not be produced in Iceland.
To produce boats, a builder needs wood. Iceland, in the 1800s, had long ceased to have wood. What had been there had been used for building and fuel and, perhaps, more importantly, for charcoal. Iceland has little in the way of minerals but it does have bog iron and bog iron, to be smelted, requires charcoal.

What was available was driftwood.

When Richard Burton arrives in Iceland in 1872 he observes what he calls “the mosquito flotilla of fishing-boats”.
The largest of the fishing boats carry two masts, he says. They are clinker-built, high in the stem and stern with a high projection for the rudder. When the sun is hot, and the wood shrinks, the boats are exceptionally leaky. The boats are not well cared for and do not last very long.
He sees no decked boats. The decked boats that do exist, sixty-one or sixty-three, are nearly all used for shark fishing on the north coast. There are 3,092 open boats. These have two to twelve oars. These boats are preferred by the fishermen because they can hold a lot of fishermen. The problem is that when they sink and the crew drown, there are a lot of deaths.
The open row boats go out three to six miles to get to the fishing ground. Then they have to row back. Burton considers this arrangement a waste of both effort and time.
The crews have guts. If necessary, they’ll cross Faxa Fjörð which is around fifty miles broad.
Basalt blocks are used for ballast. The sails are just strips of cloth. He is amazed, even perplexed by how narrow the oars are. The locals say that narrow oars are necessary because of the strong currents. He doesn´t believe it and thinks it is just tradition and folklore. The oars fit into thwarts that are lined with hoop-iron or they are set between two wooden pins. 
Having rowed a skiff on Lake Winnipeg as a boy, I found the oarlocks we used that set into the thwarts worked very well. They would seem to have been more efficient than the hoop-iron or the wooden pins. Iron in Iceland was expensive and the wooden pins more readily available but without the equivalent of oar locks, oars are useless and I can’t imagine that wooden pins under the strain of the constant rowing did not often break. In a heavy sea, the loss of even one oar would be serious.
The Icelandic nets, he says, are ridiculously small. The floats are gourd-shaped bottles made in Denmark.
Burton compares the boats and fishermen he sees with the images of Viking long ships and Viking sailors and finds the current fishermen and their craft deficient. He thinks the crews perform well in good weather but in poor weather, they often do not work as a crew or team effectively but all want to be in charge with the result that no one is in charge.
The fishermen have given up the old way of dressing and now dress much like English fishermen. However, they wear three or four pair of coarse woolen socks and the socks retain water. Burton thinks Icelandic fishermen must enjoy having wet feet.
I found most interesting that the fishermen were using the Icelandic glove with two thumbs. When the palm gets wet or worn, the glove can be flipped over and the other side used. Many years ago when I was giving a reading at a school on an island in Ontario, I was shown such a pair of mittens with two thumbs, not gloves, and asked if they were Icelandic. Apparently, around the turn of the century there had been some Icelandic people living in the area and these mittens had been kept and now were in a local museum.
Burton mentions, as do many others, that the fishermen take little in the way of food with them even though they may be at sea for twelve hours doing strenuous labor, working in a cold wind, often soaking wet. They do take a mixture of whey and water to drink and lots of snuff.
The fishermen, he says, rarely live for long. Poor food, fatigue, the tremendous hardship of the work and environment, constant wet feet, poor hygiene. The fishermen suffer from chronic rheumatism that is so severe that the fingers bend backwards. Death often comes from lung infections, gout or paralysis.
Since What The Bear Said was published with its fourteen folk tales, many people have talked to me about their families. Time and again, people have said, my great great grandfather drowned. It is a constant refrain. If forty percent of male deaths were by drowning, what family could escape such a fate?
When men were not needed for hay harvest, they rode or walked to the coast and joined a fishing crew. They lived in rudely built huts near the shore. No stove. Sometimes not enough fuel to cook their food. They were wet all the time. There was no chance to sit before a blazing fire or even close to a wood stove.
Fall fishing in Manitoba was often brutal with winds from the north, ice freezing on both men and skiffs but, at the end of the day, there was a stove and an abundance of wood. Both men and clothes could dry out and get warm. There was hot food. The waterproof clothes, the rubber boots, most of the time, kept the fishermen dry.
That Icelandic fishermen survived at all seems like a miracle. Each year when they went to the coast, they knew the odds, they knew the living conditions, but they lived in a world with no choice because they fished or died of hunger. As dangerous and difficult was the fishing, the greater tragedy was when the harbours filled with drift ice and there could be no fishing. Then there wasn’t much left to be done except pray and, sometimes, those prayers were answered with the stranding of whales. They must have seemed like manna from heaven. A gift of meat and fat from God.
Embrace my heritage? Yes, I embrace these men on their trek through the mountains, their nights on hard beds made of sand and seaweed, of dark winter days spent in open boats hauling in fish. They may, as Burton says, no longer be Vikings and their boats may be poor craft but they went to sea day after day to put out a line and what could be braver than that?
(With notes and quotes from Richard Burton’s Ultima Thule or A Summer In Iceland, 1875. Although the book was published in 1875, Burton was in Iceland in 1872 so he describes the Iceland of our immigrant ancestors.)

Leading up to a reception

 Photos by WDV
Atli, the Icelandic Consul General, explaining the Icelandic economy to his second cousin, Myrna MacFadden who is from Port Alberni.
I’m not the world’s worst housekeeper but I don’t put a lot of effort into dusting. I’m too busy writing, chopping down gorse and broom, hacking away at English ivy, too busy doing research to spend much time on checking for dust on the trim in the living room. The carpets get an occasional vacuum. Most of the time, I live in the kitchen, office, bedroom and wander occasionally into the living room and dining room. I’m always a bit surprised to discover that I have a guest bathroom. You get used to what you are used to.
So, when I was on Salt Spring Island cutting gorse for JO and said to her, I’m going to have a reception for Atli Asmundsson, the Icelandic consul general, and his wife Þruður, she blanched, and said something like, “Oh, my God.” Or Mein Gott. Or Ekki Gott.I’m not sure since the battery in my hearing aide had died.
“What?” I asked.
“Your house!” she said. From the look on her face, it was obvious that she was remembering cobwebs so large they held the bodies of small birds, dust bunnies as big as tumbleweed, wine stains on carpets, my mountainous piles of papers and books threatening always to topple over and bury unwary guests.

According to her, if there was dust along the window sills, cobwebs in the corners, women guests would all notice it. I pshawed, but then I remembered what my mother told me. She got married when she was sixteen. Moved to Gimli, Manitoba. Joined a couple of the women’s groups. They rotated meetings, going from one member’s house to another. When it came to her hosting her first meeting, she was still not quite ready when a half  hour before the appointed time, one of the matriarchs of the town appeared, noticed that my mother was still in the dress she wore while cleaning  house and said, “Aren’t you ready yet?”
The matriarch was wearing white gloves. She proceeded to run her index finger along various surfaces to see if they had been properly dusted.
Matthew Fitzsimmons and Kladia Robertsdottir. Matthew is
this year’s recipient of the Beck Trust Student Research Travel
Award to Iceland. He has been learning Icelandic on his own but will be going to Iceland for a full academic year to learn the language. Kladia, originally from Germany, moved to Iceland, lived there many years, worked as a travel guide before moving to Victoria. Just got back from attending a family confirmation in Iceland.
Remembering this, I quit pshawing and went to work scrubbing the deck and the balcony. There is a very large fir tree at the corner of the deck. A fir tree that litters my deck with needles, pollen, and bits of branches. The pollen provides feed stock for black mold that requires a long handled deck brush, a B-mop, hot water, soap and a lot of scrubbing. In the shade of the tree, green mold multiplies.
The hot tub, I did not want a hot tub, it came with the house, I long ago gave up adolescent fantasies of partying in a hot tub with hot babes in G-string bikinis, was a disaster.  I’d just about forgotten that there was a hot tub on the back deck. I seldom go there. Small ferns grew out of some of the cracks of the frame. I never thought I’d spend time weeding a hot tub.
There is a brick ramp that leads into my garage. The bricks are beautiful. However, the spaces between the bricks collect pollen from the tree, dust from the road, and turn it into soil that nurtures weeds. These weeds are about the same size as a birch forest in Iceland.
I took a pointed trowel and went along every crack, vertically and horizontally, until the roots of every weed lay shrivelling in the sun. 
I swept my side of the road. That’s the kind of neighbourhood this is. No sidewalks. But every one sweeps their side of the road. This is hard for me to adjust to. I grew up in Gimli. My father had boats, nets, anchors, buoy poles stored in the yard. Fishing nets hanging from crossbars. Oiled corks strung like sausage rings on more crossbars. When my mother suggested my father mow the lawn, he brought home two goats.
JO said things like your carpets need cleaning. She even provided a machine that would do the job. I’d never seen one before. It was purple. She cleaned the hallway carpet, then said, “Come and look at this. I’ve left a small spot uncleaned so you can see the difference.” It was true. The carpet had darkened with age and the tracked-in fir dust.  Washed, it was a surprisingly light grey.
Power women at the party.
Dr. Ellen Guttormson is a 1976 graduate of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine and is a long standing member of the American Association of Feline Practitioners.
Dr. Margo L. Matwychuk, Cultural and Social Anthropologist,
Janis O. Magnusson, agricultural economist
Apparently, there is something called “detail cleaning.” Or so JO says. I’m not sure. She may be putting me on. But I went to work on the en-suite bathroom just in case someone needed to use it. Surprising where dust gathers.  At the top of the shower. How does it get there? Dust, like life, is a mystery.
Every time I went to say “Nobody will notice” to JO’s list of what needed to be done, I remembered the matriarch with the white gloves.
“What are your plans for food?.”


There is, lurking in the dark corners of every man’s soul, a messy adolescent, a belief in serendipity. There is, it would seem, in the dark corners of every woman’s soul, a need to organize the mess, to have a place for everything and everything in its place. I keep everything on the top of my desk because if I file it, I forget about it and rediscover it, with great surprise, years later.
“Wine, sparkling apple juice, Pellegrino, coffee, need wine glasses and cups,”she said.
I went through my cupboards. Thirteen wine glasses. Six cups and saucers and another four china cups from my grandmother’s china set.
I found a rental company on the internet. Turns out it is just around the corner on Quadra Street. It’s the most amazing place. You can rent anything. Leprechaun hats, big shamrocks. I nearly rented a Viking costume. One that had a helmet with horns.
I made a scouting trip to Costco. I usually try to avoid Costco. Nothing against it, just that my father liked to buy big. My mother lived in terror of his shopping trips to Winnipeg. He came home once all excited because there was an entire semi-trailer of paint for sale at the salvage company where he liked to shop. He was supposed to buy four gallons of white paint so he could paint the house.
When I think Costco, I think of my father. When I go through the door of Costco, he possesses my mind. The words “Buy lots” overwhelm my mind. I start to look for the largest dolly available even though I’m just coming for yogurt, coffee, a fruit tray, a veggie tray, some cheese.
When I resist the urge to buy big and am checking out, I feel embarrassed. In front of me is a woman with two carts, pushing one, pulling the other, piled high, thousands of dollars of everything. Behind me is a guy with a cart. He has gallon jugs of mayonnaise, five gallon containers of olive oil, cases of mangoes, enough bread for one thousand sandwiches, peanut butter by the gallon. When I get to the checkout girl, I always end up making excuses for having bought so little.
 Fred Bjarnason discussing the intricacies of being a chef with Judy Wilson and Linda Bjarnason, both of Nanaiamo. They braved driving over the dreaded Malahat to join the party.
The evening before the reception, I bought a patio set, a table and two chairs. Metal. Nowadays, everything comes in boxes. You’re expected to assemble what you buy using directions written by someone whose learned English off corn flakes boxes. The nightmare of Christmas Eve is now with us every day. I started to put together a chair. Three legs fit but not the fourth. The factory hadn’t drilled the necessary holes. The next morning, I raced to Zellers, gave them the pieces, grabbed a display chair and fled through the door. Nothing beeped. No sirens screamed. No police cars cut me off before I made it home.
At two thirty when the first guests arrived, JO had everything organized. Bottles of bubbly on the dining room table, food around the perimeter, everything overlooked by the ceramic cat I’d bought for a centrepiece, there were daffodils and ferns in a vase on the patio table.
None of the guests wore white gloves. If they checked for dust, they did so discretely. Thank God. Instead, they engaged in lively conversations, chatted with Atli and Þruður, Atli gave a marvelous, funny, informative talk, then answered questions, the food mostly got eaten, the wine bottles drained, the coffee cups used. There was lots of laughter. The weather was grand.It was an afternoon to remember.
However, there was only one chair with the patio table on the balcony. The one that I´d absconded with from Zellers. I couldn´t finish putting together the second chair because the kit had two right legs.Life is filled 
 with the unanticipated.

PS: Today, I returned to Zellers and, amazingly, surprisingly, wonderfully, after looking at the two right legs, a clerk went and got me another display chair. Now, that is good customer service.

A day in the life of a Lake Winnipeg fisherman

Photo supplied by Ken Kristjanson
By Ken Kristjanson
My father’s father, Siggi, was born April 25, 1879 at Skagafjorður, Iceland. Shortly thereafter, his father, Kristjan, died from consumption (tuberculosis). Bad luck dogged the people of northern Iceland. The fjord ice remained longer than normal, preventing the fishermen from getting out to sea.
To make matters worse, the cold weather produced a poor hay crop. Unable to feed their animals through the coming winter, the farmers had to sell their sheep at distressed prices. Many in the area looked to North America as a place where they could start a new life.
Grandfather Siggi’s mother was having a desperate time caring for her family. When a local childless couple, Hannes and Ingiborg Jónsson, offered to adopt my grandfather and take him to Canada, my great-grandmother, with a heavy heart, gratefully agreed.
My grandfather was four years old when he was fostered out in this way. Fostering was common in Iceland.
The family sailed in a small sailboat to Rekjavik and waited for a coastal steamer to Scotland.
The wait was several weeks. This must have been a very difficult time for the emigres, considering that they had sold all their meagre possessions at giveaway prices. They had very little money to purchase necessities. What made the situation more difficult was that the local population was not at all pleased that the emigrants were leaving the country and were reluctant to help.
Fortuitously, the steamship company provided supplies until the coastal freighter arrived. The family eventually sailed for Scotland and boarded a Canadian Government subsidized steamship for the long voyage to Canada.
On the way, several of Siggi´s friends died and were buried at sea. Siggi related t his incident to my father, Ted Krsitjanson, years later, saying he had asked  his foster parents why one of his friends was wrapped in a bed sheet. He was told to be quiet.
They eventually arrived at Quebec City. The next part of their odyssey ws a 1,500 mile trip in a day coach to Winnipeg. Once in Winnipeg, they rested in the old immigration sheds. From there they travelled 60 miles by boat down the Red River and along Lake Winnipeg to Gimli, the capital of New Iceland.
Their trip wasn‘t finished. Ahead of them were three miles by oxen to their homestead north of Gimli. It was located on a small creek which they called Skipalak, Ship‘s Harbour. There the Jónssons kept a small flat-bottomed boat which they used to cautiously fish Lake Winnipeg.
Siggi, as he grew up, tried many occupations. He was a commercial fisherman at age 12 at Albert’s P:oint on Humpbuck Bay. He drove a hansom cab for Bardal and Sons Funeral Emporium in Winnipeg. He clerked at Tergesen’s general store in Gimli.
He was even a contract mail hauler. Twice a month, he walked or hauled by horse, the mail from Cavalier, ND to Icelandic River (present day Riverton). He bragged that he worked for both Queen Victoria and the President of the USA at the same time. I have a letter addressed S. Jonasson (Sigtryggur Jonasson, the “Father of New Iceland”) dated 1897. It could very well have been carried by my grandfather.
From these disparate beginnings, he began a lifelong love affair with Lake Winnipeg, graduating to fisherman, boat owner and fish station operator. Eventually, the Canadian Pacific Railway extended its rail line north from Winnipeg Beach to Gimli, Manitoba. This was partly to keep pace with the new Province of Manitoba’s expansion from its “postage stamp” configuration of 1870, but more important, it was a good business move—hauling freight and passengers was immediately profitable for the railroad.
The railway hauled in settlers and supplies and, on the return trip, took cord wood and fish to Winnipeg. The cord wood was to supply fuel for the stoves and furnaces of the people of Winnipeg. The fish was shipped to the USA.
In those years, the fishing was good with tens of thousands of pounds of pickerel, sturgeon, whitefish and goldeye shipped south. Fishing, however, was seasonal. My grandfather had a job between seasons as a bartender at the Lakeview Hotel in Gimli. Here, he met the hard-living, hard-drinking railroad workers. After hours, he participated in their nightly card games—he was a natural gambler, a born risk-taker.
My grandmother, on the other hand, was totally against this apparent career change. She was an early supporter of Nellie McClung and the suffragette movement, as well as being a strong supporter of the Good Templars. My grandfather returned to fishing. In those days, the summer whitefish season on the north end of Lake Winnipeg started June 1 and continued uninterrupted until Oct. 15.
The fishermen sailed in open sailboats with an overall length of 28 ft. They usually ranged about 30 miles from the fish station. There were no gas stoves to heat food or to make hot coffee. My grandfather related years later that towards the end of the season it was not uncommon for the sails to freeze solid.
This required them to beat the sails with boards so that they could haul them up the mast. In the summer of 1922,he and his crew were fishing at Warren’s Landing at the north end of Lake Winnipeg. A couple of Hudson Bay men were travelling to visit their post at Norway house.
As the Nelson River is not navigable at night, they were forced to stay over at Warren’s Landing. To pass the evening they asked the local RCMP officer if h e k new any card players. The Bay men whispered to each other that they would clean out the locals before proceeding downriver to Norway House. The Mountie contacted my grandfather and the game was on. Needless to say it was the Bay men who came up short in the morning. Their complaints to the RCMP about a fixed game were waved off.
At first light my grandfather cleared his throat, lit a cigar, took a swallow Gooderham &Worts, then assembled his crew and headed for the fishing grounds. Fishing was good that day. However, just as they were finishing lifting their nets, a major storm blew up from the northeast. To prevent their overloaded sailboat from sinking they tacked to the nearest shelter.
The Spider Islands didn’t offer much lee form the wind. They managed to get behind one of the bigger islands and beached their craft. Hungry, wet and totally exhausted, they built a fire and cooked some of their catch. In the morning, while the storm was still raging, Grampa Siggi took out of his pocked a huge roll of sodden bills. As one of the crew was later to relate, “There we were placing rocks on the wet bills to try and dry them out while the wind howled. We had all this money and couldn’t buy a cup of hot coffee.
 (Ken Kristjanson comes from a family with generations of experience of fishing on Lake Winnipeg.)

What The Bear Said, Review

Prairie Fire Review of Books, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2012)
What the Bear Said: Skald Tales of New Iceland
by W.D. Valgardson
Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 2011, ISBN 9780888013804, 130 pp., $19.00 paper.
Reviewed by Sally Ito
What the Bear Said: Skald Tales of New Iceland is a collection of fourteen tales 
by W.D. Valgardson.
Told in the compelling voice of a seasoned story-maker, the tales bring to life the ‘folk’ 
ways of the early settlers in the Icelandic Canadian community in Manitoba. Valgardson, 
born in 1939, states in his preface that he grew up hearing stories around the kitchen table. 
The stories generally centred on“commercial freshwater fishing in the Interlake area and 
the other, the Icelandic community in the Interlake and beyond” but also bore “fragments 
of Icelandic folk tales.” The combination of a newland being interpreted with the imaginative
 and mythical framework of the old in the manner of the tale is what gives this collection a 
certain narrative frisson delectably and delightfully Canadian.
The title story gives us the classic boreal encounter of bear with human. However, 
this is no ordinary human, but Gusti, an Icelander, who has likely never seen a bear
 before (Iceland does not have bears). Gusti speaks with this bear. An unreported 
conversation, but one that left him with the “memory of swirling dark clouds, a 
sensation of something primitive, stirring something within him,
memories of ancient times, faint images that appeared and faded so quickly he 
could not really saywhat he had seen” (5). Gusti is a poet and is sensitive to the spirit worlds
 of other creatures; he is the kind of man who can have a communicative relationship with 
animals in a way others cannot. And so it is when Gusti’s beloved daughter Ninna goes missing
that the bear plays a role in her recovery.
Other mystical encounters of the ‘folk’ with the wildlife appear in such tales as “Ingrid\
of the Lake,” a story of a young woman and a sturgeon, and “Halldor Vitlaus,” a story of
 a man who has shot a wolf without reason. Told in quick, easy prose, the stories nonetheless
 present their moral and psychological dilemmas squarely. When the community finds out that
 Halldor has senselessly killed an animal, they question him about it. “Halldor just shrugged. 
He would have told them why if he had known, but he didn’t know” (42). Ingrid, of “Ingrid 
of the Lake,” has fallen under the spell of the  sturgeon. She confesses to the minister, citing 
the only possible biblical connection of Jonah and the Whale as a means of ‘explaining’ her 
attraction. But such a story is remotely unconnected and cannot help her; she must undergo 
an exorcism.
Besides the wildlife, there are other creatures, like the trolls, the ghosts, and 
the huldufolk –hidden people – that travel with the Icelanders to their new country. In “Loftur,”
 a ghost follows a couple to the shores of Lake Winnipeg; a somewhat comic figure, his meddling
 in their lives is not as effective in the new country and at last, the couple makes peace with him
 in their new and enlightened circumstances. Not only are the spirits and creatures of Iceland 
present, but so, too are the spirits of the Aboriginal people, like Wendigo in the eponymously 
named tale in the collection.
What the Bear Said is a masterful array of tales by a skilled artist and storyteller. Accessible
and engaging, it artfully combines elements of the tale or fable with the modern short story to
re-interpret the lives of the early Icelandic Canadian settlers of Manitoba. A multicultural 
cross-genre work, it heralds a new hybrid form of Canadian literature, well worth reading and 
emulating. p
Prairie Fire Review of Books, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2012)
Sally Ito is a writer, editor, teacher, and translator living in Winnipeg with her husband 
and two children. Her most recent book is the poetry collection Alert to Glory (
Turnstone Press, 2011). Buy What the Bear Said at McNally Robinson Booksellers (click on the 
line below):


Article by Ken Kristjanson, picture of  his G Man badge provided by him.
Shortly after arriving at the Booth Fisheries Station on Georges Island in July of 1950, I immediately started to explore the camp. We had eight whitefish boats, each boat crewed by four men.  Across the harbor, Sigurdson Fisheries had ten and Armstong Gimli Fisheries had eight.
My father informed me that as a Junior Shore Hand, I had duties and he proceeded to hand me a list. This included repairing wood fish boxes  – of which we had hundreds. The boxes were used to ship the Station’s catch twice a week via the M.S. Red Diamond to Selkirk for further processing. Each box held 50 pounds of fish. The box and the accompanying ice added another 25 pounds so the box had to be in good repair.
Other duties included making sure the cook shack had a sufficient amount of wood to burn. The cook shack had a monster of a wood stove that had come out of a fine Winnipeg Hotel. The beast was like a drunken sailor on a Saturday night spree –  it gobbled cord wood length pieces of birch and pine as fast as we could shovel it in. It was all the Cookie and myself could do just to keep up. The Cook had to be able to feed 50 hungry fishermen a hot evening meal all at once and so a roaring fire was what the Cook ordered. Once the meal was over the ashes were banked and the Night Watchman looked after the fire for the 4 A.M. Morning breakfast.
When the M.S. Red Diamond arrived for her twice weekly pickup of our stored catch, we had to off load the cargo she brought for us before we could fill her hold with the pre-iced boxes of fish. We unloaded mail, gasoline, groceries, miscellaneous  items and more boxes. Also dis-embarking on this trip, were two men, both rather shabbily dressed and unshaven. They had their personal gear plus some other strange supplies with them. My father greeted them warmly but no one else seemed to pay them any attention.  He helped them load their supplies on to a trailer which was pulled by a crawler tractor. The tractor’s main job was to haul the offal (fish guts) to the North side of the island in the evening after the fishermen had finished processing the day’s catch. Except now it was taking these two men and their gear there instead.
 After the strangers were settled they were invited in for the evening meal. They ate heartily. Ravenously as I recall. All evening, my enquiries about these newcomers were greeted with shrugs by the fishermen. So I took it upon myself to investigate. After all the Cold War was raging. The Korean War was about to begin. The world once again was headed for turmoil. Were these spies setting up a clandestine radar base to monitor Lake traffic? How or why was my father involved?  Why all the secrecy? Was he, perish the thought, in the employ of a foreign government? All these thoughts raced through my fourteen year old mind. So I made my way secretly  to the stranger’s camp to check things out. Just as I got there, the tractor came by hauling six gut barrels of fish guts. From my hiding place the strangers inspected the barrels and chose two .The tractor and remaining cargo proceeded to the dumping area. I was even more confused than before and sought out my father to confront him about being a spy or harboring spies or whatever was actually happening.
As it turned out the strangers were two old friends of the family who had fallen on hard times. In the days before wide spread old age security, they were simply trying to make a living rendering fish oil. As was the custom on the Lake, everyone helped where they could. Our family agreed to supply them with the raw product and to board them free of charge. They went about their smelly work and inside of a week they had rendered sufficient fish oil to catch the next boat south. I never ever saw them again.
And so I turned in my Junior G Man badge and returned to being a Junior Shore Hand.

(Ken Kristjanson is a former vice president at the Bank of Montreal but for the purposes of this blog, what is important, is that he is from the Kristjanson fishing family of Gimli. His father, Ted, created a local museum of fishing memorabilia and equipment and was one of the most knowledgeable individuals regarding fishing on Lake Winnipeg. Ken’s brother, Robert, is still a fisherman. I, and a number of other people, have been urging Ken to write up his memories of  his family history and his early years on Lake Winnipeg. Here is one of his stories. This story was first published in Lögberg-Heimskringla, Canada’s oldest continually published ethnic newspaper. Although its subject matter is concerned with the Icelandic North American community, it is published in English and can be purchased on-line.)

The Gimli Viking

I love the Gimli Viking. He’s been a part of my life since 1967. He was created by Gisur Eliasson, a friend, artist and professor. Being created by Gisur, how could he be anything but friendly?
I love him because he has horns on his helmet. That means that he is our New Iceland Viking. He is not a real Viking. Real Vikings, unfortunately, did nasty things. Viking means pirate. The whole purpose in life for a pirate was to steal as much as he could. Pirates were not brave warriors. They were plunderers. They chose soft targets. You know, monasteries full of monks who were busy praying, singing, copying and creating manuscripts. These weren’t warrior monks practicing Kung Fu. They were the educated segment of society that preserved and created knowledge. Today, it would be like a motorcycle gang descending on a university campus, burning the buildings, killing the professors, and kidnapping the students to sell into slavery.
I know that the Vikings, the Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, and some Icelanders, who went Viking, that is on pirate raids, eventually settled down. We all get older. Viking longboats were great technology for the times but they weren’t first class travel for aging bones. When they settled, the Vikings created societies and, with those societies, they developed cultures. Many aspects of that culture is admirable.
However, most people who rah, rah Vikings, don’t know anything about Viking culture. Unless, of course, it is from movies or comic books. After a few beers, it’s yah, we’re Vikings, we fight, we kill, we plunder. We take those Irish women as slaves. They get excited at the idea of Irish women as slaves. My response is “Get a girlfriend.” A little sex and you’ll not get so excited over an Irish slave fantasy.
I like the Gimli Viking because those horns on his helmet say he’s not a real Viking. He’s our Viking. He’s the Viking of our imagination. He’s an image of something we admire. Our people who came to Canada were so poor they had to have government help to relocate within Canada. They were laborers, domestics, paupers, farmers coming from the poorest country in Europe.
The Gimli statue captures the idea of nobility, of strength, of bravery, of seeking new lands, of opportunity. Interestingly, it’s positioned to look westward, at the land, not at Lake Winnipeg. The statue is not looking to leave, to go raiding, but to settle. He’s coming to New Iceland to be a dairy farmer, a sheep farmer, a grain farmer, a railway worker, a logger, a ditch digger, a fisherman. The first settlers of Iceland and the settlers of New Iceland had that in common. They weren’t going raiding. They were coming to settle the land.
 It was not Vikings who settled Iceland. It was Norwegian farmers. They weren’t going Viking. They didn’t go to Iceland to plunder it. They went to settle it. They brought cows and sheep and horses. They brought families. They might have looked a bit like the Gimli statue, but they, too, looked landward, looked for places to settle, to raise dairy cows and sheep.
There’s nothing wrong with admiring Vikings. There is much about Viking culture to admire. However, to admire it, you’ve got to know it. To know it, you’ve got to make the effort to read about it. Drinking six beers and eating some dried cod don’t make anyone a Viking or an expert on Viking history.
The next time you are in Gimli, go visit the Viking statue. Rub his knee for luck. If you are of Icelandic descent, put your hand on him for a moment and be grateful that through the centuries of political and economic exploitation, your people held onto the spirit of independence the statue represents so it was still there when they had a chance to sail to North America.
The model for my great great grandparents wasn’t of Viking raiders or pirates. It was of farmers fleeing an oppressive king to settle in a new land with new opportunities. That’s how they were similar to people like the Viking in the Viking statue.  

At Last, In Iceland, 1900

And so, your wooden boxes for the horses are ready, your fishing equipment is packed, also your shotgun and shells. You’ve got flannel shirts, some woollen underclothing, a good stout mackintosh. You’ve a bottle of that good Scotch whiskey the guidebook recommends.
According to the guide book–remember it is the year 1900–“pack saddles, guides, and ponies can be hired, the usual charge for a pony and a saddle being 2 kroner per diem, and that for a guide from 4 to 6 kroner per diem, the kroner being equivalent to about 1 shilling 1 pence. Guides and tents can be hired at the capital—Reykjavik. It may be well to mention, however, that tents for those who wish them are usually obtainable from most of the farmers. This saves the trouble and expense transporting them about the country.”
Now, that surprised me. I, for one, didn’t realize that tourism had become such an established business from 1875 to 1900 that farmers kept tents for hire. That didn’t fit in with my impression of Iceland. Interestingly, the short, recommended tour is the same tour that people take today, except today, they go on buses instead of on horseback. The writer recommends Thingveller, Geysir, Mt. Hekla, Gulfoss.
After suggesting that tents can be rented from the farmers, the author cavils a bit and says that while the local people used to charge very little, as Iceland has become more of a tourist attraction, the prices have gone up. Also, most farms only have one tent and that is often old and dilapidated.
The author also suggests that the tourist make certain that he’s got a firm agreement about the price of hay. In this, he’s simply repeating what travelers have commented on since the 1700s. Hay is precious. Some farmers will charge whatever they think they can get for it.
Conditions in Iceland have changed enough that he can say that a night’s lodging “is obtainable almost everywhere throughout the country at the higher class farms, where the best room in the house is invariably reserved for the use of tourists.”
For tourists only visiting Thingveller and the Geysir, there is lots of accommodation. However, for people going farther afield, they have to be careful about their numbers. A party of two can “depend wholly on the farms and parsonages for quarters, and mainly for provisions. At all of the better class farms, there is an abundance of excellent coffee, milk, pancakes, butter, rye bread, smoked, salted, or fresh mutton, and fish…with a few preserved provisions and biscuits, travellers will not fare badly. Of course, at a little expense, another pony can be freighted with say one hundred weight of tinned luxuries and a case or two of wine.”
“The usual charge for a night’s lodging at a farmhouse, with supper and breakfast, varies from 2 to 3 kroner….the daily expense of two tourists travelling together with one guide and their ponies amounts to rather less than 1 pound per day each.” The day of providing shelter and food for travelers without charge but with the giving of a gift, a gift that was often refused, has passed. At one time, a farmer might have one foreigner as a guest in a lifetime. Now, the explorers, the members of Royal Societies, scientists, have been replaced by the curiosity seekers.
Our good Icelandic entrepreneur, Thorgrimur adds a note that nowadays, pasturage for the horses is usually 16 to 20 ore per head, and saddles are charged at 60 ore per day, except when ponies are hired by the month when saddles are free.”
In spite of the much better accommodation, traveling by horse is still hard, the weather unpredictable. Therefore it is recommended that the traveler bring good stout sea-boots, reaching up the thighs and a light pair of porpoise hide shooting-boots for ordinary wear. A good stout macintosh is indispensable and should be made of waterproofed tweed.
The writer emphasizes that everything has to be packed into the wooden boxes made for horse travel. The test of both the packing and the boxes is once they are packed, to roll them down a lengthy flight of stairs.
Reykjavik he praises. “It is pleasantly situated on the shore of a shallow bay on the north of a headland. Seen from a vessel in the harbour, the town has rather a colonial appearance, with its white painted wooden stores built round the curve of the shore with their little jetties stretching far out into the harbour….the streets are broad, and cleanly kept, and the drying of fish is mainly confined to the shore.”
“The chief buildings, none of which can boast of any architectural beauty, are the Cathedral, the Senate, the College, Hospital, Government House, the Antiquarian Museum, and a Free Library.”
“There are two  hotels and a few boarding-houses, in all of which charges are very moderate; a number of stores where everything required by the Icelanders is sold from a needle to an anchor; a post office, two booksellers, a number of silversmiths, printers, harness-makers, photographers, one druggist, a hatter, and several handy-craftsmen.”
This change is absolutely remarkable. In 25 years, Reykjavik has grown, people have been able to break free from the clutches of the farms. They have begun to have professions and trades. Heavens, there is even a road. The author says, “What strikes the stranger most is the almost entire absence of wheeled vehicles, though now that a good road has been made between Reykjavik and Thingvellir, a few vehicles and bicycles are to be seen.” A good road. This is like a miracle. With good roads being built, everything will change.
It has only been 26 years since Christian IX visited and gave the Icelanders their constitution. The picture of Iceland then, given by Bayard Taylor and Samuel Kneeland, or a few years before that, by Richard Burton, was of a populace locked into a rural, agricultural fiefdom which beggared everyone but Danish merchants and a few select farmers. Douglas Scott is giving would-be travelers a picture of a country that while still exotic is changing, is entering a new age.
(With quotes and notes from Sportsman’s and Tourist’s Handbook to Iceland by Douglas Hill Scott)