The Winnipeg Icelander


Over my lifetime, I’ve read thousands of poems, as a student, as a teacher and as a reader who loves the well-wrought word.

Keats and Shelley and Donne and Yeats and Plath and Wakoski and Bly and Eliott and Frost and Berryman and Shakespeare and….the list seems endless.  I call it the anthology of my mind.

There is in that anthology a poem that I often think about it, and that is “The Winnipeg Icelander” by Guttormur Guttormsson from Riverton.

It’s a fun poem. Some might call it verse. I call it the mark of a society in transition. Here is the first verse.

Eg fór on’ í Main street með fimm dala cheque
Og forty eight riffil mér kaupti
Og ride út á Country með farmara fékk,
Svo fresh út í brushin eg hlaupti.
En þá sá eg moose, út í marshi það lá,
O my- eina sticku eg brjótti!
Þá fór það á gallop, not good anyhow,
Var gone þegar loksins eg skjótti.

It is a satirical look at how the Icelanders in Winnipeg spoke Icelandic.

It encapsulates, perhaps better than anything else, the internal conflict among the immigrants over whether they should assimilate as quickly as possible or whether they should isolate themselves from Canadian society in their New Iceland and remain as Icelandic as possible.

This conflict existed from the very beginning of the emigration. There were those who believed that the emigrants should go to various locations, hire out to established Norwegian and Swedish farmers and learn how to live and farm in North America. Photographs from the time show well-established farms, buildings, equipment and cultivated land. On the other side were those who wanted to create a New Iceland where everything would remain Icelandic, where it would be just like Iceland except in location.

The language, that secret code, that privileged communication, that way of identifying us from them, was the marker of identity.

It was also the evidence of how impossible was the dream of isolation. As Guttormur’s poem makes clear, this was a new land, it contained within it things that did not exist in Iceland. E.g. moose

The immigrants, during the first years, in Nova Scotia, in Kinmount, in New Iceland, struggled to stay alive. Many didn’t make it. They died on board ship, as they travelled across the continent, in various locations across North America. Graveyards tell their story.

Not to adapt was to die. Only a fool, and a short-lived one, at that, would have insisted against all evidence, on keeping fishing with the nets brought from Iceland. Only a fool would not have learned how to cut down large trees safely and how to build with them. Only a fool would have insisted that he, or she, would only do things just as they were done in Iceland, never mind the -40 below, the summer heat, the mosquitoes, the forests, the vast distances.

Why would language be any different? Only a fool would insist that no object be talked about if it didn’t exist in Iceland.

When people are going hunting in a Manitoba winter, trying to learn how to hunt animals that they had never before heard of, and returning empty handed, when they were trying to figure out how to get through four to six feet of ice to set nets and had to invent the tools to do it, when they had to plant crops they’d never planted (in Iceland, they’d planted no crops) in land that first had to be cleared, they didn’t have time for effete intellectual exercises in creating a new Icelandic word for the  thousands of things with which they were confronted on a daily basis.

When they had a chance to buy bif (something they weren’t able to buy in Iceland), or bins or kabits and karats to cure scurvy, there wasn’t time to have a discussion about how these new items should be properly described in Icelandic. The people they were buying from didn’t have time, either. They, too, were living on the edge of survival.

In Winnipeg the situation was less dire. There was work, at least for the women, sometimes for the men. However, Winnipeg was a city of immigrants. Survival required communication. Getting work from bosses from other ethnic groups required that Icelanders learn, as quickly as possible, to communicate, to learn a new vocabulary, one that described the world they woke up to every day. There was no time to write to Iceland to ask if the academic authorities would please tell them what to call a bonkhús. If these authorities had any idea of what a bunkhouse was. And then wait for a reply.

A lot is made of the fact that Icelanders today can still read the sagas. Some would claim that means that Icelandic doesn´t change. Hogwash! In my reading about Iceland in the 19th C. I come across words that even Icelandic historians do not recognize or they disagree about the meaning. Language exists to communicate not to ex-communicate, although some would have it that way. Purity of language, enforced by official purifiers, is an exercise conducted in a society with resources to spend, where hunger doesn’t greet you every morning and go to bed with you every night.

My grandfather built a bunkhús, he told his Icelandic relatives that he´d built a bunkhús, and since he went to Winnipeg buying supplies, he learned to go to the hólsíl. When the Icelandic emigrants were leaving Iceland, there were few fences, there were, however, lots of stone walls because there was little wood and lots of stone. Stone walls are walls, not fences and, in Canada there was lots of wood and it was necessary to fence land, and the Icelandic immigrant learned to build a fens. They learned to build a fens on a hómsteð. There were no hómsteðs in Iceland. The very idea was foreign, beyond imagining for most people in Iceland. It required a new way of thinking.

None of this change, physical, mental, spiritual, was done without sacrifice, without pain, without suffering, without conflict.

Guttormur’s poem, “The Winnipeg Icelander,” nicely encapsulates a society in transition, moving from the past into the present. He was able to do it in a clever, amusing way. GG left us a poem to enjoy but more than that, he left us a picture, through language, of the transition our Icelandic ancestors underwent as they struggled to survive and prosper.



The Lazy LInguist



Learning to read, write and speak a language other than your own, unless you are a natural polyglot, is hard work. Learning all those grammar rules, vocabulary, how to say the words properly, getting just the right accent. However, I’ve found a way around it. It’s fun and it’s easy. I like fun and easy.

Instead of learning the language, I just learn the accent and speak English with that accent.

I learned this from some of my Icelandic Canadian friends. They consider being able to talk English with the same ringing and dinging cadence as Icelandic is every bit as good as speaking Icelandic and absolutely,  completely confirms their identity as Icelandic.  Practice an Icelandic accent and eat vinarterta and Icelandic citizenship is guaranteed.

I love curry. I really love curry. When I have people over for a curry supper, then we all do our best to speak with an East Indian accent. To get ready for such suppers, some of us seek out East Indian taxi drivers, especially for long drives to the airport and we ask them endless questions, doing our best to get the accent just right. It doesn’t matter what they say, it’s the way they say it. Never mind all that history and political and cultural stuff. We also make it a rule that every dinner guest brings with them the names of six common objects from that language like roti, bazaar, chili, chutney, curry, dhoti,  hubble bubble, madras, jodhpurs and find ways to fit them into the conversation. The more words someone fits into the conversation, the more points. It´s very competitive.

Sometimes, we have Greek evenings. I think Greek food divine. Succulent lamb, Greek salad, yogurt.  And everyone brings a Greek accent. If you’ve been to Greece, you get bonus points.  Spanakopita, feta, salata, calamari,  ouzo, baklava, opa (but not with my good china). They’ve got this crazy alphabet but if you’re just learning the accent so you can speak English as if you are Greek, you don’t need to worry about that. It´s sort of like the Icelandic alphabet with its weird letters. If you get the accent right when you are speaking Icelandic English, you don’t have to worry about things like  þ and ð and ö.  Who needs them anyway? Th,  d and oo do just fine.

I always look forward to going to Vancouver. I love Chinese food and I love having authentic Chinese dinners. Chow Mein. I love Chow Mein. Sometimes, though, we mix it up and also have Swedish meat balls. When I go to Vancouver, I try to overhear Chinese conversations. I go to the Chinese stores and while I’m looking at brightly colored fans and dragons and chopsticks I might use for decore for the supper, I listen as closely as I can to how Chinese people speak English. I want to get that accent just right.

International evenings are fun. Sometimes, we have an international potluck night and each person brings food from a different ethnic group and they also speak with that accent for the evening and try to use some specific words from that culture.  You might have someone with a Swedish accent, next to a Russian accent, next to an Irish accent, next to a Texan accent, next to Japanese accent, next to an Italian accent, next to a German accent. Fantastic! It is really international and really multi-cultural. And all those different tastes! Of course, we always have someone who has an Icelandic accent.

When I was a kid, everyone was trying to get rid of their accents. They all wanted to talk like the announcers on the BBC. It was incredibly boring. Plummy voices and plum pudding. We needed Spanish accents full of sunshine during the winter.

Our club’s annual Thorrablot is coming up soon. I’m so looking forward to it. I’m practicing my Icelander-speaking -English accent. I’m practicing my vocabulary so I can sprinkle in some authentic Icelandic words: faktori, farmari, fón,  harvista, jarður,  kabits, balari, bif, bonkhús. My grandfather built a bonkhús for unemployed men in his back yard. They had very little money so they ate a lot of kabits and bins. Sometimes a farmari would give them work making a fens. None of them  had a fón. If they wanted to shop at the hósil in Vinnipeg, they had to take the bus.

I’m going to eat dried cod, rotten shark , boiled lamb flank and vinartera. I might even have a drink of black death, a vodka like drink made from potatoes and spiced with caraway. Three black death  and my accent will be perfect.

If the honorary consul is there, I’m going to demand an Icelandic passport.


Google Translate and Star Trek



I hope readers of this blog got a laugh out of the cartoons I posted. I hope they got a bigger laugh at my lame attempts to translate the captions under the cartoons.

I used Google Translate and Zoega’s Icelandic dictionary but I have no background in the Icelandic language. My great grandparents and my Icelandic grandparents spoke, read and wrote Icelandic. My English great grandfather, my Irish grandparents, did not speak Icelandic. This is the way of an immigrant, multi-cultural country like Canada.

When I was a boy in the 1940s, Icelandic was still spoken in homes, in stores, at social occasions. By the time my great aunts and uncles started dying in the 70s and 80s, Icelandic was mostly a kitchen language, spoken over coffee with relatives or other people with a strong Icelandic background. Today, a small group meets at Amma’s restaurant in Gimli for the opportunity to speak Icelandic.

Part of this was because, in an immigrant society, getting ahead, that is, getting a good job, making a good income, achieving some social status, requires integration and integration, inevitably results in assimilation. If our great grandparents didn’t know this then, certainly, our grandparents did. In places like Gimli, Riverton, Arborg, Lundar, there were holdouts, people who wanted to maintain an Icelandic community. These people were no different from those who, in other places, wanted a New Denmark, New Finland, New Sweden.

The two desires, to get ahead in business and socially, and to preserve an exclusive community were in a conflict.  The need to earn a living, particularly in urban areas, won. How could it be otherwise? It was in rural areas where the need to work with other ethnic groups was less pronounced that an ethnic identity could be best maintained.

The erosion of physical communities, even when they re-formed, in places like the West End of Winnipeg, or Victoria, BC, or Seattle, was inevitable. Public schools bring young people from all ethnic  communities together. It’s certain that there will be intermarriage and, with it, a need for a new identity. The immigrants were Icelandic, Danish, German, Norwegian, Dutch, English, Scots, Irish, Ukrainian, Polish, and others, plus the local native population.

The Canadian solution was to speak English. This was enforced in the schools. Children caught speaking languages other than English at school were often physically punished. You only need to be strapped once to realize that speaking your parents’ original language is a bad thing, to associate it with pain and punishment, not pleasure and knowledge. Languages other than English were seen as inferior. Accents betrayed people’s immigrant background and were to be discarded as quickly as possible. No wonder I can’t say Icelandic words properly.

The result was that ethnic languages were lost. The problem is that when a language is lost so is a culture.

Icelandic, with its complicated structure, its different alphabet, may give North Americans who are brought up speaking it, a sense of identity, a feeling of being exclusive, but the pool of the exclusive grows smaller every year. The vast majority of people, like me, are locked out of Icelandic history, culture, literature both in the present and the past.

One can go around saying, “Amma, we’re still Icelanders aren’t we?” Or “I’m proud of being Icelandic.” But with our history and culture locked away in books and documents that we cannot read, any pride, any identity has to be based on a lack of knowledge, not on knowledge. No identity means much of ethnic identity in Canada is based on is the fact that a person eats vinarterta or perogis or strudle.

People of Icelandic descent in North America are not suddenly all going to learn to read, write and speak Icelandic. Therefore, the solution is the regular translation of materials into English.

However, as my public examples show, Google Translate is a long way from Star Treck’s simultaneous translation of alien languages. Many times, the translation is gibberish. At best, one can try to sort it out with a dictionary or by making a best guess. However, one shouldn’t be guessing when it comes to translation. Look at where some of my guesses took me.

How eroded is our ability to read Icelandic? Logberg-Heimskringla is, in spite of its name, published in English. The literary magazine, The Icelandic Connection, is published in English. The speeches at Íslindingadgurinn are in English and Íslindingadagurinn is now called The Icelandic Festival.

However, the real example of the loss of culture through the loss of language has been evident many times on my doorstep. Because of my work with The Beck Trust over the years plus my writing, people have frequently left boxes of Icelandic books and magazines on my doorstep. Usually, there is note explaining that someone´s amma or afi has died, that this library was brought from Iceland in the late 1800s or the early 1900s but no one in the family reads Icelandic anymore. These books were so important that they were brought to Canada and preserved under the most difficult of circumstances.

Today, these books are irrelevant. A book that cannot be read is irrelevant. One might as well have books on one´s shelves that are in Chinese or Japanese. One might keep them on one´s shelves out of nostalgia but not out of a love of the words or the importance of the information.

If we want to preserve our Icelandic heritage, if we want to understand what it is, if we want to make sense of who we are and why we are the way we are, we have to organize and support the translation of documents central to our understanding our Icelandic history and culture.

We already have the Icelandic library and Icelandic department at the University of Manitoba. It would seem to be the easiest and best path to provide the department with a fund, the interest from which would pay for translation. This would provide income for graduate students and also attract visiting scholars. It could, over a period of years, provide translations of material that is central to our identity.

The great benefit of such a fund would be that no one would have to suffer with my rather sad attempted translations with Google and a dictionary, translations that mix up I and cat and cream jug. Translation disasters are good for a laugh but it is correct translations that open up our history and culture and can help us maintain our identity.

A Fond Farewell


There are goodbyes that are hard. These are the kind where it is likely that you will never see someone again. Such goodbyes were frequent in days past. I’ve heard about them in reminiscences of Icelandic people. Most emigrants getting onto a boat knew that they would never return to Iceland, the last glimpse of a mother, father, brother, sister, friend, would be the last glimpse they would ever have.

I’ve heard the same story on the train station in Liviv. The tearful goodbyes as a train left the station and their relatives and friends followed along for a few steps for one last look at the person who was leaving for America.

We have in Winnipeg the opposite situation now. Atli Asmundsson, the consul  general, and his wife, Þrúður Helgadóttir, after spending years among us, will be leaving Canada and returning to Iceland.

It is normal for diplomats to be constantly on the move. Like people in the military, they get posted from Vancouver to some place in Africa. From Africa to China.  From here to there, filling a position, doing a necessary job, then being moved for some unfathomable reason.

What is unique about Atli and Þrúður  is the length of time they’ve stayed in Winnipeg and how, during that time, they have become so much a part of the community that it seems impossible that they would not continue to be part of it.

When I briefly took over as editor of Lögberg-Heimskingla, I had no experience as a reporter or newspaper editor. I had lived the quiet life of an academic and writer, analyzing and writing manuscripts. Newspapers, I quickly found out, even quite small ones such as LH, attract a lot of passion and conflict.

One of the first conflicts I faced, I was completely unprepared for. However, Atli bought me lunch (it should have been the other way around) and discussed the problem with me and the diplomatic way of handling it. I followed his advice and diplomacy triumphed. It was interesting because in conflict situations, I was inclined to go in with both guns blazing. That wouldn’t have worked too well with board members, subscribers, advertisers, writers, readers and staff.

Some of Atli´s wise counsel was an echo of my mother who always said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Atli rephrased that in diplomatic terms but during my tenure, I did my best to practice it. I didn’t say I did it, I said, I did my best to do it. It takes discipline to govern one’s temper and one’s tongue.

We, that is those of us in Victoria, have had two receptions to honour Atli and ­­þrúður, the Icelander’s of Victoria (that’s our club), the Beck Trust (that’s John Tucker and Patricia Baer and Uvic), and a number of people from the Icelandic Canadian community. We schmoozed, we ate, we had a little to drink, and Atli sat in the big leather chair and charmed us with his story about barely escaping with his life from an exploding Icelandic volcano and about his courting of Þrúður. He survived the volcano and he managed to woo Þrúður even though he says, “At first, she wasn’t impressed.”

It is hard to explain the impact of Atli and Þrúður. He has said about the Icelandic people he has dealt with over the years, “We love you.” And, truly, they do.

JO says that Atli and Þrúður are like royalty for us western Icelanders. Not royalty like the Tudors. More like Good King Wenceslas, full of strength, warmth, and love.

On both occasions of hosting them in my home, JO insisted that we clean and prepare my house as if the Queen were coming for tea. Crowds of Victorian Icelanders came out to see them. JO reminds me when Atli, on one of  his visits to Victoria, addressed Iceland’s financial situation and asked us to love Iceland, in its difficulties, we could not but agree.   Atli and Þrúður have done so much to strengthen the Icelandic diaspora in these modern times.  We know Atli and Þrúður would not like to be called regal, but they likely understand that many Icelandic-Canadians, who are accustomed to the reign of Queen Elizabeth and her ancestors, who pledge allegiance to the British monarch in their work and service to their country, have always longed for stronger ties with our own mother country, Iceland. And through Atli and Þrúður, we have had this.

I have a friend, Lauga, whom I value dearly.  Her parents were from Iceland. She married Agnar R. Magnússon, his people also from Iceland. He taught at the Jon Bjarnason academy, and in the public schools in Riverton and Winnipeg. Agnar died some years ago.

Lauga, at ninety seven, had to move into a nursing home recently. She has lived some 83 years in the west end, 57 years in their Garfield Street home. JO is their youngest daughter, and as the family got ready to sell the storied house, she was making sure that no documents of historic significance were lost. She invited me and Atli and Þrúður over to see the family treasures. We looked at the spinning wheel, old poems, chess games, books, books, and more books, and photographs from as far back as 1917 when Agnar first came to Winnipeg as a teenage student.

Among the photographs were those Agnar had taken on Empire Day 1939, of Icelandic Canadians, crowds of Icelandic-Canadians, dressed to the nines, heading for Sherbrook near Sargent, waiting for King George and his Queen Elizabeth. (I was there, a babe in my mother’s arms, seventy three years ago. )

After viewing these photos, we stepped out onto the streets of Goolietown, JO as our tour guide.  Down Alverstone, up Sargent, up Home Street. Past the houses, the theatres, the Wevel Cafe, the woodlots, the publishers and printers, the J.B. Academy. And JO will tell you this. There were a lot of ghosts. Crowds of ghosts.  All the old Icelanders came out, dressed in their finest. Old Arinbjorn Bardal in his bowler hat, Rev. B.B. Johnson in his morning coat, Loa Davidson in her Fjalkona dress. Salome Halldorson, M.L.A. The Jonssons from Borgafjord. The Longs, the Becks, the Bjerrings and all the other Goodtemplars. The Stephansons, the Sigurdsons, the Olafsons, the Kristjansons, the Swansons, the Eyjolfsons.  Ragnar and his choir. The Unitarians, the Lutherans.  Hjartur Leo and the chess club. The Icelandic-whist and bridge players. Finnur, the Book Binder. Olafur, the Almanak publisher. The Wevel waitresses. Woodlot Kelley and his brother. The fellows working at Columbia press and the Viking Press. Sig the Barber. Principal Marteinsson and his students.  Lulli the poet-plasterer. They were all there, waiting to see our Icelandic royalty, Atli and Þrúður. And the crowds were not disappointed. Atli and Þrúður graced the streets and charmed the ghosts of Goolietown with their wit, love, and devotion.

And then Atli said, let’s go have supper and he and þrúður took us to a restaurant just off Corydon. The food was good, as one would expect since Atli likes good food and knows where to find it, the conversation was lively and interesting because Atli and þrúður are lively and interesting people but what is always most memorable about occasions is when something happens that is unexpected, spontaneous, and it happened as we were eating dessert.

What happened is that the discussion turned toward music and an Icelandic song  was mentioned. þrúður started humming the tune and JO joined her. They sang what they remembered of it and the song was wonderful. There we were in a public restaurant and both JO and þrúður, both of whom have low, strong voices, were having a great time singing together about hope for Iceland’s future.

To me this typifies Atli and þrúður, natural, modest rather than self-important, open and involved, able to turn a meal into a memorable occasion without trying. It is easy to have a good time when you are with them.

Logberg-Heimskringla is having a ljósanótt (an evening of light) to honour them. They deserve to be honoured for all they have done for our community but also for the way that they have embraced the community.

I wish them well. It is hard to think of them not being with us but, today, unlike when our ancestors came to Canada, travel is easy, there are frequent flights to Iceland and from Iceland, goodbye isn’t necessarily for a life time nowadays. So, perhaps instead of saying goodbye, we should say, “Until we meet again.”

(Thanks to JO Magnusson for her help with writing this tribute to Atli and þrúður.)


Laughter: Jeg (I), the cat and the cream jug



It is 1892, my lang amma has been in Canada for 17 years. She is married, very Icelandic but has chosen an Englishman, an army officer, the son of minister who has a master’s degree from Oxford. Surprisingly, shockingly, he leaves the army at Fort Garry, moves with her to Gimli, Manitoba, and learns how to fish. However, letters reveal that, like everyone else, his struggle to feed his family means hunting, often without much result, taking on construction work. The fact that he is English, speaks English, has an English name, Bristow, doesn’t make life any easier for him or Fridrikka in the Icelandic settlement of Gimli. Perhaps, if they’d moved to Winnipeg where his name and accent would have counted for something, life would have been better.

Like the cat, Bristow, as he was referred to, needed to find another way of getting at the cream in the jug. Just as the Icelanders needed to find other ways of getting the cream out of the jug or the fish from under the ice.

These were real people, people who when they got up every day, wondered where the next meal or the meal after that was coming from, wondered where they could go to make enough money to buy basic food stuffs, clothes, equipment, dogs, a horse and sleigh. Santa Claus didn’t come along and say “Here you are. All the cream you want and you don’t have to do anything to get it.”

So, maybe when they saw this cartoon about the cat appear in the Almanak and his having to work out how to get the cream, their laughter may have been partly from self-recognition.

Here is my translation. Corrections and additions not only welcome but sought. Give me a more accurate translation and I’ll make the necessary changes.

It’s painful to be as hungry and thirsty as cat is. She cannot get her head into the blessed cream pitcher. She has tried and it is impossible.

Wonderful  is the taste of the cream even though the cat had to wait but patience, after all, is a virtue.

Pussy is not used to thinking things out and planning but when there’s a goal in mind, she can manage it.

And I, how often have I longed for the cream in the cream jug and how hard have I had to think, to plan, to work to figure out a way to get the cream out of the jug?