On Being Canadian

Canada is an immigrant country. Our immigrations have happened at different times in Canada’s history. The flood of refugees from Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, happened around the same time. However, when those surges ended because of population pressure easing, because of economic conditions improving, refugees started to come from other countries.
We all like to think that our group’s immigrant experience was unique. However, the challenges faced by having to adapt to Canada have proven to be much the same. The need to learn English or French. The need to adapt to Canadian law. The need to learn to work in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious community. The need to adapt to new ways of working, of learning new skills. The need to accept change of their most dearly held beliefs.  The need to accept intermarriage. The need to be tolerant of people who look, think, and believe differently. The need to change one’s identity from I’m Icelandic, Ukrainian, German, Polish, English, or X, to I’m Canadian.
We all want to hang onto some aspects of our community’s pre-immigration life.
Religion, for example. It has a structure that helps bind the community. It often provides organized support. The religious leaders, whatever they are called, are usually the best educated. Religious leaders can provide guidance, provide help with documents, make their believers feel less isolated. However, both the Roman Catholic priests and the Lutheran ministers, of my childhood, once powerful decision makers,  have faded away, become mostly irrelevant in a growing secular society. We no longer hold church services in Icelandic. Pews in every church are empty.
Clothes. At first, we hang onto them because that’s what we’ve got to wear. But living conditions are different and soon they are replaced and become something to wear on special holidays. Some end up in museums.When that happens, they have become the past.
Food. Food is the easiest to hold onto. Recipes come in heads of wives and mothers and grandmothers and are shared in a tight knit community. Early cook books testify to this with every recipe having a name attached to it. Runa´s peanut butter cookies. After a time, they are codified in recipe books, made available for those leaving the community and for those outside the community. Food is often part of ritual and even when it is something not eaten regularly, it appears at certain holidays. Hakarl, rotted shark, is one of those. However, some foods adapt well, are easily copied, commercialized. The perogi is probably the best Canadian example. It appears at buffets from Victoria to Newfoundland. What buffet in Gimli, the heart of New Iceland, would be complete without perogis?
Holidays. Immigrant groups keep some of these but often they fade away because the larger society has its own holidays and the larger society accommodates variety by making these holidays secular. Christmas has traded Christ for consumerism. Gifts to the Christ child have become midnight madness at Walmart. The death and resurrection of Christ have become a rabbit hopping about giving away chocolates. In an attempt to regain some sense of ethnicity, older immigrant cultures such as ours, create events around holidays that have been long forgotten, and these are fun,  but they are history lessons.
Publications. We created publications for our people out of necessity. It was the best way to provide new immigrants with information on everything from Canadian law to how to grow and store potatoes. Advice was desperately needed. Information about where and how to get work. Help with learning English. Newspapers like Lögberg and Heimskringla were essential. Now, over a hundred years later, those essential tasks no longer need to be done. We are so integrated, we no longer have immigrant needs.The paper´s current role is to provide connectivity to a widespread population of people whose relationship to their heritage is often tenuous. Intermarriage, the loss of Icelandic as a daily language, migration within and away from Canada, all are forces of ethnic community dispersal and integration into the larger society.LH can provide context, history, connection, a relationship with Iceland.
Language. At first there is no need to try to preserve language. It is the language of the immigrant community. But the demands of survival are that at a minimum, English be learned. If other ethnic groups live in the area, then there is often the need to learn those languages. My grandfather’s solution was to stop the babel of Icelandic, German, Polish, Ukrainian by declaring that English be spoken in his house. There were many like him. Many parents didn’t want their children to learn the original language so as to avoid discrimination because of having an accent. Later, when people were more established, there were classes set up but with the classes there was the acknowledgement that the immigrant language was no longer the working language of the community. For us, at the beginning, church services were in Icelandic. Newspapers were in Icelandic. But, gradually, that had to change as the language was lost. It became irrelevant to daily life and particularly irrelevant to members of the community who migrated to other areas.
What makes me think of these things is that on the weekend, I went to the funeral of a friend. She was Jamaican. The gathering of mourners was the largest I´ve ever seen. Sarah was beloved in the Jamaican community. At the service, a number of the people who spoke said how much they loved Jamaica. They reminisced about going back to Jamaica for holidays. They spoke much like some people in the Icelandic Canadian community speak about Iceland. After the service, we gathered for the reception and shared a meal of curried goat, red beans and rice, spiced chicken, salad. It was a fine reception.
Some of my people came from Iceland in 1875, others in the 1880s. We´ve been here a long time. Our connection with Iceland is not so passionate, so filled with recent loss, so closely attached as the Jamaican mourners. The large majority of the people at the funeral and reception were Jamaican but, already, there were us others, these descendents of Icelanders, sharing  friendship, grief and a meal.
Afterwards, on the trip home, I thought about me and my generation, about how my Irish half has faded, simply become Canadian, how my Icelandic half has retained something of an ethnic identity because of living in an Icelandic Canadian community when I was a child, becoming and staying involved with other Icelandic Canadian communities, and I wouldn´t want to give that up, but as I sat at Swartz Bay, waiting to drive off the ferry onto Vancouver Island, I thought about the funeral, the reception, my friends, that I would not want to give up any of this, and said to myself, this is what it means to be Canadian.

I’m Proud but proud of what?

The most significant event during my tenure as editor of Logberg-Heimskringla was a letter to the editor castigating me for my bias and narrow-mindedness, surely a fault we all share, along with the statement, “I’m a proud Icelander.”

Being Lutheran, I didn’t mind a touch of the whip. It gets one’s attention. In any case, it’s part of the job of editors to receive letters from all and sundry, letters usually written in upset, anger and even fury. The world is an infuriating place. Injustice abounds. I completely agreed with the letter writer that a worthy history had been neglected, not just by me but the entire community. My only solace was that I had already begun to plan a series that would cover the neglected history. I haven’t forgotten. That will come as I have time to do the necessary research, take the photographs and write the articles.

However, what has stuck with me even more is a simple, heartfelt statement that also was in the email. It said, “I’m a proud Icelander.”

Since the writer is a fourth generation Canadian, I was flummoxed. I didn’t know how to reply. I’m a fourth generation Canadian from one Icelandic ancestor and a fifth generation from another. I cannot claim to be Icelandic by birth or citizenship.

What then could the statement mean?

It could mean, “I’m proud of my Icelandic heritage.” That made sense. Of course, “I’m a proud Icelander.” is shorthand for pride in one’s heritage.

And what a heritage it is. It’s got more drama, tragedy, triumph, melodrama, narrative, culture, history, than you can shake a stick at. But once I had sorted this out, I was left with this voice in my head asking questions, demanding answers. The biggest of all was, “Okay, you’re proud of your Icelandic heritage. What are you proud about?”

The answers were fragmented. Bits of this and pieces of that.  I’m proud of vinartera. Can you be proud of vinarterta? To make that even more difficult, vinarterta has largely disappeared from Icelandic cooking because Icelandic cooking today is very European. I definitely like vinarterta. I’ve eaten vast numbers of vinarterta slices in my lifetime. Would one say, “I’m proud of rabbit stew.”? I like rabbit stew. But am I proud of it? And rullapylsa and ponnokokur and rosettes (woops, rosettes are Swedish). Okay, okay. But I am proud of Icelandic desserts in that I enjoy sharing them with friends. I like saying, “Try this prune torte.”

I like taking non-Icelanders (see, there it is again, saying people of non-Icelandic descent is such a mouthful) to Thorrablot. I like seeing them try the Icelandic dishes. I take a certain pride in explaining what they are and a bit of the history behind them. I like watching their eyes get big when I explain about rotted shark. There’s a certain perverted satisfaction in scoffing up a plate of dried cod with butter. Mmmm mmmm! Worn asphalt shingle with motor oil. I don’t care. I enjoy it and if it wasn’t there, I’d miss it.

But is that an Icelandic heritage? I also like peroghis, hollopchi, Won Ton soup, apple pie, curries of all kind and like bragging a bit about how liking all those things is about being Canadian. I also like maple syrup, tortiere, BBQ ribs, blackberry pudding. In a bow to the little bit of English in my genetic code, I also like the occasional kipper for breakfast but no kipper ever smoked has come close to being as good as a Lake Winnipeg Goldeye but that’s not Icelandic, it’s Gimli. It’s part of my Icelandic Canadian heritage and I’m proud of the fact that it is served at events like embassy suppers. Some of us have heritages that let them say, “I’m proud of the fact that we conquered most of the known world.” Or “We defeated the Spanish Armada.”  With me, it’s “Smoked fish.”

So, what then is it that we’re proud of in our Icelandic heritage? I’m going to write some articles about things in my Icelandic heritage that I’m proud of. See if you agree. If you don’t, say so. Tell me what it is you are proud of.

This isn’t just an Icelandic NA community question. In the USA and Canada, we have immigrant cultures. Every immigrant group, in spite of their unique qualities, all go through the same process. They face the same questions. How German is German after four generations? What can they be proud of in their history. Or Italian. Or East Indian. Or Phillipino. What is worth preserving? What needs to be shed?

When someone chooses to leave home,  move to the USA or Canada, they begin a process that they cannot escape.

Something we should always remember. We can be proud not just of what our culture has done but also, maybe even more so, of what it has not done and does not do. Recently, four women were drowned to satisfy the honour of a man who was the father to three of them and the husband to one. We’re not perfect as a culture, we’ve made mistakes in the past and present. We’ll make mistakes in the future. But killing your daughters because you think your honour is lessened by their wanting to dress like other kids their age, wanting to have a boyfriend, wanting to be young, has never been part of our “tribal” culture. I’m proud of that.

On An Old Joke

When I was a kid, women weren’t allowed into beer parlours. These were male territory. Their purpose was not recreational. It was for drinking. There was no playing darts, no entertainment, no games of any kind. No standing up while drinking. You sat at a table and you drank.
Before my time, places like Portage Avenue in Winnipeg, according to both my grandfather and my grandmother, were not much more than a row of places to drink. A lot of men at the time were single men, often immigrants, working as laborers or tradesmen. There wasn’t anything to go home to except a rooming house. These places had one purpose, to separate as much payday money from the workingman as possible.
According to Harry Gutkin and Mildred Gutkin (The Manitoba Historical Society) “By the end of the nineteenth century, Winnipeg had mushroomed into a bulging outpost of some forty-two thousand people, with an unsavoury reputation as one of Canada’s wickedest cities. In the over-crowded North End, inadequate housing and poor sewage made disease endemic, and poverty fostered crime of every sort.”
Times had started to change by the time I was born and when I was growing up in the 40s and 50s. Also, wicked as Winnipeg might have been, Gimli, although connected to Winnipeg by road and train, was distant from the city and any evil ways that remained.
In Gimli, the local hotel was the den of iniquity, male territory, meant for drinking and fighting. When the fishermen came from north in time for the Icelandic celebration, we kids used to go downtown and sit across the street from the hotel.  There wasn’t much entertainment around so we got ours by watching the brawlers spill out the doors as the fishermen beat each other bloody. Our other entertainment was watching men stagger out the door so drunk they couldn’t walk a straight line. Sometimes, they collapsed in the centre of the street. They weren’t in any great danger because there was so little traffic. Still, someone would drag them off to the side of the road, roll them onto a sidewalk or prop them up against a wall or tree.
Fishermen lived hard lives but fishermen’s wives often lived harder lives. They usually got left behind with the kids when their husbands went north. Their husbands didn’t get paid until the fishing season was over. Some fishermen were on wages but some were on shares or contracts. They had to pay for their board and room and, by the time they were going home, there usually wasn’t a lot left on the credit side of the ledger. In the meantime, their wives had been making do with what money the fishing company had been willing to advance over the fishing season.
For those who got paid out on their return, the beer parlour was a dangerous lure. The fishermen had worked long hours, done hard work every day, seven days a week, risked their lives in terrible weather, lived in isolation. When they returned, they wanted to celebrate. The church didn’t provide coffee and rullapylsa and, even if it had, no one would have been interested. The fishermen wanted beer and bragging rights.
Faced with a desperate need to feed a family, the wives often sent word to the beer parlour for their husband to come home. Sometimes they sent a child, sometimes, they went themselves. The women and children were stopped at the front desk.  The clerk would go inside the parlour. He never came back with a husband. The answer the wife received was any one of the the following:.
$1 “Nope, not here.” Ha, ha.
$2 “Just  missed him.” Ha, ha, ha.
$3 “Just had a drink and left.” Ha, ha,  ha, ha, Isn’t that a scream?
$4 “Hasn’t been in all day.” He,  he,he,hah,hah, what a laugh.
$5 “Never heard of him.” That put her in her place. Hah, hah, ho, ho.
The only instance I’ve heard of in which a formidable woman shoved her way past the desk clerk, marched into the parlour, grabbed her husband by the scruff of his neck and propelled him out the door, ended in disaster. His humiliation was such that he shot himself. The startling thing is not that he shot himself but that people were outraged not by his spending all his money getting drunk but that his wife had the temerity to interfere.
Today, it seems unbelievable that women could have been treated the way they were but we have examples on the news every day of countries where women are still treated as chattels, where men are in control and won’t let women drive cars, where women can be murdered because some male relative feels his honour has been tarnished, where women can be stoned to death, or whipped to death, or hung because of an accusation of infidelity. Where a woman can be punished for having been raped.
We like to think of Iceland as a civilized country, we like to tell each other stories of how independent Icelandic women have been throughout history. It’s utter nonsense. The fact that half a dozen women over a thousand years managed to exert control over their lives has nothing to do with the reality of all the rest of the women. In Indriðason´s Silence of the Grave, he describes the brutal, endless physical abuse meted out to an Icelandic wife and the dismissive attitude of the police. The same was true in Manitoba. The police, faced with husbands, drunk or sober, beating up their wives, shrugged and said domestic problems weren’t their concern. A relative of mine sometimes beat up his wife so badly that she had to be rescued by relatives and spend weeks in bed recovering.
Domestic violence? It’s still all around us. Women can go into beer parlours and other drinking establishments now. They can’t be stopped at the front desk of the parlour and be the joke of both the clerk and the patrons. And there are alternatives. There used to be no jobs for women. Now there are. There is progress because some behaviours are no longer acceptable. The police have been forced to take domestic violence seriously. Not because they want to. The attitude of a lot of the police toward women is clear in the appalling attitude toward women in the RCMP. Toward the women murdered on the Picton farm. Attitudes have, however, changed enough that the abusive men in the RCMP look and sound ignorant, stupid, immoral. When something is seen as ignorant, stupid, immoral, the possibility of change exists.
In Harry Gutkin and Mildred Gutkin’s essay, they say, “The two women practitioners were frequently called to the jails, where the rowdiest of the ravaged prostitutes were confined, and where beaten and homeless women found a shelter of last resort, male and female prisoners housed together in the same wards.” Cora Hind wrote about conditions in the jails.
“The cells are totally devoid of light or ventilation, except such as may be had through the doors … No sleeping accommodation is provided, and no bedding is allowed, except that blankets are sometimes given to the women … The wards are infested with vermin, drugs, lice, and cockroaches … Some of the most abandoned are afflicted with syphilis and other loathsome diseases, and healthy prisoners are exposed to the danger of becoming similarly affected. The men and women are obliged to use the same towels, closets, etc., so that those who are healthy can scarcely escape the consequences.

There was a storm of protest against the indecency of discussing such things in public…. Both the writer and the sponsoring group were roundly denounced for this assault on the sheltered innocence of womanhood and, Cora Hind remembered, fathers forbade their wives and daughters to attend the troublesome WCTU.”
Beaten and homeless women. Needing shelter.  Men outraged that a woman should drag her husband out of an establishment so he wouldn’t drink away everything he’d worked for and so she and their children would have food and shelter. Women used as prostitutes, often by the same men who railed against articles being written about the whorehouses because it would assault the “sheltered innocence of womanhood.” Fathers forbidding their wives and daughters to attend meetings where women’s rights were discussed.
Pick a town, any town. The one I know is Gimli because I grew up there. I expect it was no better, nor worse than any other. It may even have been better than many for here the Icelandic suffragettes thrived.
It’s not so long ago that women were fighting for the right to be recognized as human. Fighting for the right to vote. Fighting for the right to have jobs. Fighting for the right to have legal protection.
Not so long ago? The Picton slaughter took place how long ago?
Two and a half years ago, four women were drowned to satisfy a man’s honour.Two and a half years ago. But, of course, we can console ourselves by saying the killers were foreign, they were immigrants, they didn’t have Canadian values. Canadian values? Like those displayed in the RCMP toward female recruits? Like the attitudes still displayed toward prostitutes? Like the attitudes displayed in many work places? Like every report of women being murdered in domestic disputes? Like murder on an Alberta highway.
Four women drowned. Sisters Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, aged 19, 17 and 13, and their stepmother, Rona Amir Mohammad. A father, mother, brother convicted of first degree murder. A society where a man´s honour is so important that his daughters´ lives are an inconsequential price to pay to redeem it. Foreign values from a foreign country. But what is the degree of separation in attitude toward women in the joke hiding-from-wife phone rates and women as objects to be disposed of to redeem some man´s twisted honour? We’ve come a ways. But how far do we still have to go?