The Victoria of 1897.
Bob Asgeirson once told me that he was working in Winnipeg when he took the train to Vancouver for a holiday. He left in a blizzard and when he got to Vancouver, a gentle rain was falling and everything was green. He immediately booked a ticket back to Winnipeg, quit his job and moved permanently to the West Coast.
When I first arrived here (I was living in Missouri, and the phone rang and an English voice said, “Would you like to come back to Canada and teach at the University of Victoria?”), it was because a job was proffered and accepted.
Richard Beck had retired here. One of the great promoters of everything Icelandic, he had taught at the University of North Dakota until his retirement and then moved to Victoria. His wife had relatives here. When he died, he left his house to the University of Victoria to create the Richard and Margaret Beck Trust.
We all came to the West Coast at different times for different reasons, drawn here by weather, by jobs, by family.
When I came to Victoria, I had no idea that it contained an Icelandic history, that, at one time, an Icelandic community with a store and a church existed in Fernwood. All of this would be revealed by Ben Sivertz, the quintessential Icelandic Canadian.
I met Ben at the University of Victoria at a Richard and Margaret Beck lecture. Ben was short, slightly built, had a white goatee and was one of the most accomplished and modest individuals I have ever met. A lot of people respect, even worship money, and if someone is lucky enough or smart enough to accumulate a lot of money, a lot of people worship them. Ben wanted none of that. He took no credit for his wealth. He once said to me, “I don’t know how it happened but everything I touched, turned to money.” He was the only person I’ve ever known who owned an original Van Gogh. That kind of money.
However, it wasn’t his money that made Ben impressive. It was his Icelandic-ness.
William Irving, sidewheeler, Victoria, 1880
His parents were Christian Sivertz and Elinborg Samuelsdottir. They emigrated, separately, from Iceland to Manitoba in the late 1880s. They met in Victoria in 1890. Christian and Elinborg married in 1893 and eventually had six sons.
Ben says in his autobiography “The Life of Bent Gestur Sivertz A Seaman, A Teacher and a Worker in the Canadian Arctic” “The Icelandic families of Victoria were not numerous, perhaps twenty in all, settled mostly around Spring Ridge, the district now called Fernwood. This group of about 100 people spoke the language of their birth and were lively, friendly, and immensely helpful to each other as they sought social, economic, and intellectual orientation in the new land. There were Sunday gatherings in different homes where the house would fill with people in an atmosphere of story and song, coffee and cake and poems—always poems. Recent compositions would be read and met with universal applause.”
Ben’s father, Christian, had spent four summers as a fireman and second engineer on Lake Winnipeg. He also spent twenty-seven months working at the Winnipeg Gas and Electric plant, twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for $1.50 a day. The CPR had started carrying passengers to the Pacific Coast in 1886 and in 1890, Christian took the train west. His parents, three brothers and a sister followed him to Victoria from Winnipeg.
There were other Icelanders, of course, settling not just in Victoria but in various parts of British Columbia and, even if the distances were large and the travel not easy, blood bound people together. The Thorlakssons, for example, were operating a cattle ranch eight miles south of Vernon. They wanted to send their daughters to Victoria for further education and appealed to Elinborg to give them room and board.
One fine summer day some years ago, Ben took Mattie Gislason and me on a walk-about through Spring Ridge. He showed us all the houses in which Icelanders had lived, named the occupants, told us their history and showed us the house where he and his brothers were born.
He didn’t brag about how much money he had, or how he had served in the Royal Canadian Navy, had run a school for navigation, retired with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and been awarded the Order of the British Empire. He never mentioned that he’d had a career as a foreign service officer in the department of External affairs and chief of the Arctic division in the department of Northern Affairs or was the Commissioner of the NWT. It was only with a bit of prompting from Mattie that he mentioned that the Hay River arena is named after him.
Christian’s parents and Elinborg’s parents left Iceland, not to have a great adventure, but because conditions in Iceland were dire. Political oppression, life threatening weather, hunger, lack of opportunity for a better life, caused them to move to Canada. Once in Canada, they played an important role within the Icelandic community on the West Coast. One of their sons gave his life in the war.
The Icelandic community does not end at the boundaries of New Iceland. Many came there first because, as with all immigrant groups, individuals need a place where a transformation can take place: where English can be learned, where new skills can be mastered, where a new system can be assimilated. New Iceland and Winnipeg provided that resting place, that place of learning for many of the immigrants.
However, opportunity in New Iceland was severely limited. The Interlake of Manitoba was, when I was growing up, the second poorest part of Canada, after Newfoundland. The journey could not be over for many of those seeking a better life. They moved out, to Winnipeg, to the Argyle area, to Saskatchewan, to Alberta, to British Columbia, Washington State, down to California.
As the community fanned out seeking opportunity, each part became smaller, more a part of the larger, multi-ethnic community of North America. However, some traditions still exist, even if they only occur from time to time. When Viðar Hreinson was in Victoria, I held a reception for him in my home. He gave a reading from his biography of Stephan G. Stephanson, Wakeful Nights. He also read poetry. I remembered what Ben had written about those early Sundays that ‘the house would fill with people in an atmosphere of story and song, coffee and cake and poems—always poems. Recent compositions would be read and met with universal applause.” And I invited them back, those who had come before us, to join us for an evening, to listen, once again, to poetry being read in Icelandic. I made them welcome and I know they accepted the invitation for the house felt full, not just from those of us who live In the present but also with those who created both us and our past.
(Information for this article came from two of Ben’s books: The Life of Bent Gestur Sivertz (available on Amazon) and The Sivertz Family Book 1 Christian Sivertz)