by Ken Kristjanson

My grandson Ben age 11 years and I were making a “Whatzit” or whatever a Grandfather and Grand son make in the workshop on a lazy afternoon at the cottage.We had used some scrap lumber,some long ago metal items stored in a Blue Ribbon coffee can and an assortment of nuts and bolts.We admired our creation briefly. Then Grampa said put the tools back where you found them so you will know where to look for them the next time they are needed. As I was about to throw away the rest of the long forgotten assortment of metal junk I was gently reminded that they may come in handy for some future project.

I laughed as my mind harkened back to my pre school days. In the late 30’s and early 40’s every August our whole family would empty the rain barrel and put the key under the mat.We would walk the 4 blocks to the Gimli harbor and leave Gimli on the boat the Roddy S.or the Barney-Thomas. We would travel the 7 hours around Hecla Island to our fishing station at Albert’s Point on Humbuck Bay .This was to be my brother Robert’s and cousins Beverley and Eddie’s home until Winter fishing was over in the first week in April.A wondrous free wheeling adventurous place which could easily double as Tom Sawyers second home.

Fall fishing in those days was labour intensive. A fisherman would row his flat bottomed skiff as far as he could. Set his nets them row back. The process would be repeated each day come wind,rain,sleet or gale the nets had to be lifted. The catch would be brought ashore, dressed and packed in ice awaiting the freight boats next visit.Early in the century Ole Evinrude invented a Mix Master of sorts that you attached to the stern of a skiff . No need for oars just put in gasoline. The idea of using such a contraption commercially quickly caught on with the Great Lakes fishermen. Not so on Lake Winnipeg. The enterprising Kristjanson Brothers (Hannes & Ted)tired of rowing bought a used 2 1/2 horse power Champion outboard motor. it proved to be a winner. They were fondly called screw tops because they were started by wrapping a cord around the fly wheel .The cord was pulled in a strong fashion thus starting the motor. .The use of this motor allowed the fisherman to go out further with more nets.If the wind or current was against you no problem.All went smoothly until one day.

One October day while travelling back to the station the Screw tops propeller hit a dead head. This is a submerged water logged log. One blade of the outboard broke off. This forced the fisherman to row ashore. Immediately the other fishermen gathered around to see what happened. As 10 or 12 weather beaten men gathered as if at a viewing of a corpse my grandfather pushed into the circle. He studied the problem for a moment. Then went out back of the cook shack where an old Findlay stove had been discarded. He took one of the cast iron lids of the stove. The men like pall bearers at a funeral awaiting the ministers instructions were still there. He took the damaged propeller of the out board. He traced with a sharp nail the good blade onto the cast iron stove link.

He handed the lid to the hired man along with the only a hacksaw. There were no power tools in those days. Between them and others they laborously cut out a new blade. Many hours with a bastard file produced a passable and balanced blade. More labor was required to hand drill a hole in the blade.Foraging thru some old tobacco tins produced a useable bolt This was used to attach the new blade to the spot where the old blade had broken off. The propeller was reattached to the out board. Now the moment of truth.A cord was wound around the fly wheel. The motor started. After a couple of coughs it was put in gear. The machine ran like a top with very little vibrations all fall. The outboard has long been retired. For many years it was proudly displayed in my Fathers back yard museum.


I feel like I have committed treason. I have cast off thirty years of loyalty to the PC and bought a Mac Airbook. I could probably convert from Lutheran to Catholic and feel less like I’d betrayed my beliefs.

I started using computers before most people had any idea of what they were. Just us wonky professors and the military. I’d tell people what I was doing and they’d look at me like there he goes again, talking gibberish.

We were using VT100s, learning code. The computer filled up the entire basement of the Clairihue Building. The first book move was when we got VT100s in our office. We could send messages. We could write documents and control layout with code. We could print out our documents. We had to run down three stories to the basement to retrieve the print outs. They weren’t immediately available. Printing was queued. We all had mail boxes and our work would be put in a mail box by a certain time each day. It was space age stuff.

Then, we were told we could take the VT terminals home and use them over the phone line. Captain Kirk, I’m living in the future. We could write on them, we could send print commands to the computer in the basement of Clairihue. We could play Pong. It was astounding. Hitting a square back and forth on a black and white screen.

The earth shaking stuff was when we were told, the VT100s were being scrapped. We were each given an allowance and told to go out and buy a PC.
I went to London Drugs. The salesman was crazy. He kept clicking on things, creating windows, closing windows,. None of it made any sense. I bought a computer anyway.

I bought a PC because we had Dave Godfrey in our department and he was a PC man. He extolled PCs for the many tasks they could do. We became PC people. Windows people.

The university made a deal with Apple. Apple was making deals everywhere to get their computers into learning situations so that users were become attached to the Mac. Even our faculty got a Mac lab. We looked down on Mac users. Losers. Kid’s stuff. Real computers for grownups were PCs.

Except, of course, I wasn’t running a publishing business. I wasn’t doing mathematics. When it came down to it, I was writing stories, reports, emails. What I really needed was an efficient typewriter.

When someone said “Get an Apple,” I said, “The only thing apples are good for are making pies.”

I went through a number of desktops and laptops over the years. Technology ages quickly. Nine years ago, I found a Sony ViO. I was shocked by the cost: $1200.00. Top of the line. “You won’t have to replace this computer for a long time.” the salesman said. He was right. It has been an indestructible machine. Its been dropped, soaked, had food dropped on it, coffee spilled on it, left in a hot car, a cold car, it has suffered every insult possible. I love it still but even after some upgrades, it boots up very slowly. Some days it is cranky and won’t open until I’ve started it and turned it off a number of times. For no knowable reason, it has started opening a lot of time in safe mode. It won’t download large updates. “No,” I can hear it saying, “I’m not going to cooperate.”

I’ve transferred all my important files to memory sticks. Just in case death overcomes it before my new Mac arrives.

I thought about getting another PC but I want one that is `13”, I don’t want a touch screen, I don’t want Windows 8 or 8.1 and I’m suspicious of Windows10. That’s going to be a pig in a poke. I’ve been reading the pre-reviews. I don’t think I want to go there.

Yet, I might have chanced buying a Lenovo. That is, if I hadn’t got a message from Aeroplan saying they are having a special on Macs. Turns out that a new generation is coming out shortly, like in a few weeks, and Apple wants store shelves cleared of old stock. This new issue is going to have a new processor. How much processor is necessary? The Mac Airbook will likely be the last laptop I’ll need.

I’m not jumping into water without knowing what is under the surface. When I worked at the newspaper, I learned to use a Mac. Once I got used to the silly icons on the bottom of the page and their bouts of hysteria, I was fine.

Done is done. My air miles are spent. The notice says that the Mac should arrive in three to five weeks. Lots of time for buyer’s remorse. I know it is just a computer but sitting here at my desk with my Sony laptop in front of me I feel I should apologize, say I’m sorry, comfort it. Rejection is hard, even for computers. We’ve traveled the world together. Worked through the night together. Been on trains, planes and buses together. The only thing it hasn’t had to do for me is stop a bullet. Thank goodness.

I’m not going to throw my Sony into the garbage. I’m not going to give it away. I’m going to give it a place of honour, go look at it every so often. Maybe even use it for working on a separate project, always backing up just in case one day no lights flash, no screen appears.

The Puzzle

dad hmcs kamsack

HMCS Kamsack

by Ken Kristjanson

Growing up in the latter part of the great depression and into the war years, we were fortunate to get one present at Christmas. Many families got none. We would think about what we wanted all year. I wanted a Buddy L dump truck. Times were tough and money was tight and my father would often say if he had an extra dollar in his pocket, it went to buy nets. We kids didn’t know any different and thought with all the suffering in the world due to the war raging everywhere, we were lucky to be living in Gimli. One Christmas during the war we received a family present. A 500 piece puzzle. It was a picture of a Canadian Corvette. This was Canada’s answer to the U Boat menace that was sinking ships in the North Atlantic faster than the ship yards could build them. It became world famous for its speed and killing efficiency.

As was the custom, all the family including grandparents would gather at our home for the traditional Christmas dinner. It seemed to us kids that the dinner and good wishes would last forever. When the magnificent dinner was over and the dishes washed, the guests went on their way to their respective homes. Then dining room table was cleared and the puzzle spread out. Everyone looking for pieces that matched – sometimes pieces that you didn’t think would fit came together unexpectedly. We must have broken up that puzzle and put it back together a 1000 times. We never grew tired of fitting in each piece. It was a family thing.

My mother, Annie, was a puzzle maven, spotting pieces with a similar shade of color or a matching bit of ink with uncanny speed. She would patiently tell the grandkids – if you just keep trying to connect pieces, eventually it will all come together. I would occasionally place a piece in one of her puzzles but hadn’t done an entire puzzle in years. I am not sure why, but one day we put up a card table and liberated one of Annie’s favorites – a 1000 piece picture of dozens of old post cards. After several weeks of insisting there were pieces missing, I am proud to say we finished the assembly.

After this herculean task, I was indulging myself and looking at real post cards at a recent flea market show with an old friend, a Royal Canadian Navy WW2 veteran. We came across a post card of a Canadian Corvette. He immediately started reminiscing about the hazards of wartime duty. He was on the Murmansk run on a Corvette. This voyage meant they had to constantly chip away at freezing ice since the short length and shallow draft made the Corvettes bounce around like corks. Too much ice on deck and the Corvette would be top heavy. Chipping ice on deck and at the same time keeping an eye out for the German U Boats – if you were torpedoed you had no chance in the frigid waters. The voyages were necessary for the Allies to supply Russia with war materials so they could keep up the pressure on the German’s on the Eastern front.

As we discussed the Corvette postcard, a person on the other side of me said in a deep German accent. “Yes I know I was there too. But on the other side. I was in a U boat trying to sink you. I had no choice, of course. I was drafted.” Sudden silence. Then my friend stuck out his hand and they shook warmly. Like two long lost friends, they started comparing dates and locations during their tour. After much discussion they both said in unison “We were there on the same date!”

Sometimes puzzle pieces come together in the most unexpected ways. Each piece holds a small but vital part of the grand picture. When they come together, when we come together, we sometimes make unexpected connections and in those moments, maybe we are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the larger picture.

The Dying of Old Dreams

My Irish grandfather came to Canada from Northern Ireland so he would “no longer have to carry a pistol in his pocket.”

He had joined the Orange Order in Ireland. He told me that he was the youngest member who had been inducted into the order. In Ireland, the Order was a political and military power. When I was a young boy living in Gimli, Manitoba people knew about the Orangemen but, nowadays,in North America, the name doesn’t mean anything to most people.

The Orange Order was founded in 1795. Its purpose was to protect and support the Protestant faith and, also, to protect Protestant privilege.

When I was growing up, once a year on Orangeman’s day, my mother and brother, my grandmother and I, would stand on Main Street in Winnipeg to watch my grandfather march by. Parades are always exciting for children. To me, it wasn’t any different from watching the Santa Clause parade at Christmas. There were the fifes and drums, the kilts, the colorful banners and, for a moment, my grandfather marching past wearing his sash.

At the head of the parade there was a man in a red coat, wearing a white wig and riding a white horse. Everyone applauded as King Billy rode past. After the parade was over, we went to a local park for a family picnic. There always was a stage from which some men made speeches but none of us ever sat close enough to hear what was said. We were more interested in potato salad, chicken, green salad, apple pie, and lemonade. The men’s drinks often had a bit of whiskey added to the lemonade.

I never thought to ask who King Billy was or why he led the parade. Or why, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, we were applauding a man on a white horse. Once the day was over, my grandfather put away his sash until it was used the following year.

In Northern Ireland and Scotland, King Billy was revered by the protestant population because in 1688, he invaded England, got rid of the Catholic king James II and became the king of England, Scotland and Ireland.

My grandfather often praised the Battle of the Boyne but, again, no one explained what it was or its historical importance. Or why two armies were fighting.

The Catholics were fighting for Irish sovereignty, toleration for their faith and the right to own land. When Cromwell (two of my ancestors were officers in his invading army) conquered Ireland, he took the land away from the Catholic upper classes and redistributed among his followers, including those two ancestors. He also took away a Catholic’s right to hold public office, practice Catholicism or be elected to Parliament.

From this distant perspective, Cromwell’s behaviour seems excessive and just about guaranteed rebellion. If someone came along and said I’m taking your house, you can’t be Lutheran anymore, and you can’t hold any political office, I expect that I’d be rebellious. However, much more was afoot. There were Catholic ambitions in France. There were previous conflicts in which people had been slaughtered. Everything comes with a history.

Nobody told me any of this. All I ever heard from my grandmother was that there was a book in Ireland with a hand written account of our family, that said that one of the two brothers who came with Cromwell thought so little of the land he was given that he traded it for a fighting cock (rooster) and went back to Scotland. The brother who stayed is the Irish-Scot who founded my mother’s family.

But no one ever mentioned Cromwell and, I, for my part, living in Gimli, Manitoba in the 1940s and 50’s despised history because all we seemed to do was memorize the dates and names of England’s kings and queens. The town was predominately Icelandic surrounded by Ukrainians with a few Germans and Poles. We lived a hardscrabble life. The area was the poorest in Canada except for Newfoundland. When we heard any history at home or on the street, it was Icelandic and Ukrainian and those stories were nearly always about the tragedies and triumphs of our fairly recent immigration. Nobody cared about or knew about the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Nobody cared about the Orangemen. It wasn’t our circus and they weren’t our monkeys. Well, it was our family’s circus a bit and we were monkeys in this circus, but we were barely on stage.

The only Irish elements in my life were my grandparents’ thick accents, the occasional Irish lottery tickets (which were illegal), the annual parade and my grandfather, if he’d had a few drinks, declaring “Down with the Pope.” But there, too, no one bothered to explain who the pope was. There was no TV in those days. Radio news didn’t provide any clues as to who he might be. In any case, I was much more interested in rushing home from school at noon hour to hear the beginning of The Happy Gang and to have soup and a sandwich before I rushed back to school to kick around a soccer ball.

As well, I had good friends in Gimli who were Catholic. We went to school together, we played together, we shared holiday meals like Christmas and New Year’s and we went to each other’s birthdays. If someone had said that Catholics should have houses taken away from them or that they had no right to go to church or be on the town council, I would have thought that person was a monster.

Over the years, the Orange parades, once long, became short, the young men became old men and, gradually, there were fewer and fewer of them. King Billy’s soldiers were conquered by age and by the fact that Ireland’s conflicts weren’t Manitoba’s conflicts. The present gradually pushed aside the past. Public schooling can take a lot of the credit for that. Play on a hockey team, curling team, soccer team, baseball team, sit beside someone all day in the classroom, get crushes on the opposite sex, go to dances together, it all helped make the present matter and the past largely irrelevant for my generation.

There have been attempts to hang onto vestiges of the past. Romantic nostalgia. In Gimli, we’ve had decades and decades of the Islendingadagurinn that became the Icelandic Celebration that became the Icelandic Festival and which will probably morf into the Gimli cultural festival or the pickerel festival and be more concerned about bringing business into town than preserving an Icelandic heritage. It’s harder and harder to get volunteers. A lot of people are like me, a mongrel: half Irish, three eighths Icelandic, one eighth English.

The same is  happening to the descendents of the Ukrainians, Poles and Germans.

The Northern Irish were assimilated quickly, became part of the mainstream. When my grandfather came to Winnipeg, his accent got him a job at Eaton’s. Those days are long gone. Eaton’s, once a powerhouse, is long gone. Companies are often multi-national with employees posted around the world.

Time betrayed my grandfather as it betrays us all. Gout kept him from marching and then there were no marches, no fifes and drums, no King Billy on a white horse.

It’s not just the Irish, of course. The people of Icelandic descent in what is called New Iceland who are FBis (full blooded Icelanders) grow fewer and fewer. Our children marry people from every tribe and race. The world has grown smaller with immigration and travel. We live in a society divided by classes determined by money but not so much by ethnicity or history. The conflict in the Middle East with people murdering each other over differing views of how the world was created or what clothes women should wear seems like something from Medieval Times but it wasn’t so long ago that my ancestors were murdering and being murdered by their neighbours.

It’s interesting and amusing to know that somewhere in the distant past, one of my Irish relatives is supposed to have led King Billy across the Boyne River, that relatives fought with Cromwell but it is irrelevant to my daily life. I’m more concerned nowadays with global warming, with conflict in the Ukraine, with conflict in the Middle East, with the price of oil, with drug dealling, with the stock market, with the degradation of the environment, with poverty in our society.

This is the circus in which I perform every day.

Economist extraordinaire


Story by Karen Morrison

When others are hanging their “gone fishin’” sign Leo Kristjanson is contemplating how to save the western economy.

The former president of the University of Saskatchewan retired to Gimli, Manitoba, this past year to try to slow down the advance of Parkinson’s disease. But he hasn’t spent the time idly watching the boats go by in this sleepy resort town.

He renovated a brother’s home and daughter’s basement with his wife Jean, while continuing with fund raising efforts for the University of Saskatchewan’s new agriculture building. Somewhere in between, he found time to create The Western Institute for Public Policy.

He had planned to take a one year’s leave and see if his health improved, but as the Kristjansons conceded they have since decided to move the furniture to Gimli.
The transition has been no less difficult for jean, whose schedule was kept busy raising their four children, and in volunteer activities. Playground equipment in the backyard indicates time is now spent enjoying the next generation of six Kristjanson grandchildren.
Leo credits much of his success to having Jean at home to keep the home fires burning when he was away. In retirement, Leo laments that time away from his family. “He did a lot on the job and did a lot of extra things,” said Jean, a self-proclaimed feminist who chose to give up nursing and raise a family. “In order to do those extra things someone had to be at home.”

“Jean gets very little credit for what I did at university but it would have been impossible for me to act as I did without that understanding and participation,” said Leo, who was quick to point out his family member’s many accomplishments alongside his own.

His latest project, the public policy institute, is comprised of academics, businessmen and lawyers seeking to generate research and challenge fiscal policies of the Bank of Canada and government.

Calling such work good therapy for both the mind and body, the conversation quickly becomes more philosophical as he launches into a long-winded explanation of what the institute’s goals are.

“It emerged because a group talked about the nature of the response to insufficiencies and inadequacies in society,” he said, noting most reactions have been too stereotyped.
“You have people wanting to turn the clock back to solve the problems of the future or turning the clock back to something that didn’t exist,” he said. “They didn’t really have a complete grasp of what’s happening.”

Privatization is espoused as the answer to our current economic woes, but he said letting the market rule doesn’t work any better than the total government involvement of Eastern Europe.

He said the answer is to find what is appropriate to solve particular problems of society, with the main goals of his group being western solutions to western problems.
Leo’s personal goals for individuals to live with dignity, self –respect and equity are also the goals of the institute.

The group produced a research paper examining growth, income, immigration and investment levels over the last decade called the “State of the West Report”.

They have plans to do it annually, commissioning studies on a code of ethics for public officials, on the state of housing in the West, examining ways of creating equal pay for women in the workplace, and on poverty and health care systems.

Downplaying his role in the group Leo said, “I agreed to chair this group for a little while, but we need to let people in with more ideas than I have.”

He encourages that innovativeness because it is a means of helping people feel some control over their own destiny, as opposed to having Main Street Canada impose what it feels best for Canada on the West.

“Instead of asking what we can do, there is a tendency to ask what programs are available for this purpose,” he said. “I think things can be done that are uniquely western and unique to a particular region.”

Lobbying Ottawa to create programs is the traditional approach, but Leo said solutions might be more available through purely local action. “Politicians will try to solve it when it really is more suitably handled at the local level,” he said.

Leo warned against universities fueling this bureaucratic solution to problems by producing people enslaved to systems, citing the dehumanizing effects of assigning student numbers and enrollment quotas.

“A number is unique but if you don’t deal with it as a unique individual, then you lose students with particular characteristic,” he said.

“People look at them as the 30 to 500 who didn’t get in—it’s not 500 people whose careers might be affected,” he said, reiterating his desire to treat people with dignity. He noted he might have been one of those denied education opportunities when he applied to do a PhD in economics with a master’s degree in history.

He felt a greater share of the country’s gross national product should be invested in education in the West to solve current funding crises.

He expressed concern over the urban orientation of the University of Saskatchewan, publicly funded by a largely rural, agricultural tax base. There has to be special effort made in extension services for this rural community, building it into the workload of the staff, he said.

One of six boys and two girls born to Hannes and Elin Kristjanson, Leo’s support for the grass roots approach and the co-operative movement and his sense of responsibility towards community and family came from his Unitarian upbringing. His parents brought the family as children to Manitoba from Iceland.

Today the Kristjanson siblings continue to gravitate there to t heir summer and year-round homes and to the original two-story homestead, in which Leo and Jean now live. “It’s where we belong,” said Leo simply.

While his sisters Maria and Alda chose careers traditional for the time, in business and nursing, Leo and his brothers all pursued doctoral degrees. Baldur was an agricultural economics professor, Larry, assistant chief commissioner of the Canadian Wheat Board, and Kris was chairman of Manitoba Hydro and Great-West Life Insurance Company. Albert worked as a sociology professor and Burbank was once the agricultural advisor to the Shah of Iran. They were raised to challenge world issues, but also to help one another and their fellow man.

Leo’s goal while university vice-president and president was to enhance the agricultural component, by establishing the centre for agricultural medicine and a new $75 million agriculture building now nearly completion.

For the immediate future, he looks to upgrading the sprawling 1914 retirement cottage on the lake in which he was born and raised, taking time off only to accept such prestigious recent honors as being named to the Saskatchewan Agricultural Hall of Fame and Order of Canada.

Published on WDValgardsonKaffiHus with permission from The Western Producer and Western People magazine, Nov. 1, 1990.