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.