Living in the home of the gods (part 2)

Like the Icelanders before them, the Ukrainians were attracted to Brazil. There was free passage, lots of land but conditions, it turned out, were very bad. In Reflections and Reminiscences, Michael Ewanchuk reports that in 1895, Indians attacked Ukrainian settlers. A woman and four children were killed. Dr. Oleskow says “People die there like flies. As it appears, the climate for our people is deadly.” A priest reports that also in 1895 more settlers are killed by the local natives.”
It is reports like these that turn some Ukrainians away from Brazil and toward Canada.
The Ukrainian settlers who decided to come to Canada were fortunate for they had emigration agents to advise them about what they would need. They were told to take tools for building wooden houses. They only brought the metal parts of the tools. There was lots of wood and the wooden parts could be made. The women were advised to bring vegetable seeds. When they arrived on their isolated sections of land, they could clear a plot, till it and plant right away.
In Hardships & Progress of Ukrainian Pioneers, by Peter Humeniuk, there is a list of what went into a settler’s trunk.
“In the very bottom of the trunk they placed their winter clothes, bed sheets and blankets. On top of the trunk went carpentry tools: an axe, hatchet, draw knife, spade, hammers, planes, framed handsaws, bits, chisels, 2 sickles, grass-scythe, hoes, sieve, garden rake and other tools without handles, including the shorter stick and leathers of a flail….on top about twenty-five little cloth bundles of various garden seeds, onions, garlic, horse-radish and dried corn cobs…. four books were placed near the top. They were: a prayer book, History of Ukraine, a school primer, and Short Bible Stories….Mother tied some utensils and food in a cloth bundle.”
Once in Canada, the Ukrainians go through the same emotional and mental struggles as the Icelanders have gone through before them. A priest comes to see the settlers in the Dauphin area and he “wanted the people to assimilate” but “he exhorted them to maintain their culture, language and traditions. But, he encouraged them to learn English.” Already, assimilation has begun. The Icelanders had gone through this twenty years before with some wanting to assimilate and become part of the larger society while others wanted to create an exclusive Icelandic community. That argument, in spite of five generations in Canada, in spite of all the assimilation, still goes on.
The Ukrainians, too, wanted to live in a home of the gods. They wanted good land, good crops, good opportunities for themselves and their children. Their disillusionment, like that of the Icelanders, comes quickly.
Harvey, the immigration agent came to the Immigration Hall in East Selkirk. To the people who want to go to Gimli, he said “There is no future there: neither you nor your children will eat bread from that soil. That is poor land, wet and mosquito infested.” When people insist, he adds, “All right, go! You will break your necks there.”
They go to Gimli on Kristjanson’s boat and with that they have their first experience with Icelanders. The interaction has begun. Two different languages, two different cultures, two different religions, two different histories but the Kristianson brothers end up marrying two sisters from among the new immigrants. The dreams of a New Iceland, a new Ukraine, and separate cultures, have already begun to crumble around the edges.
The seeds that are carried in the immigrants’ trunks serve the people well. One settler says, ‘There were beets, carrots, peas, beans, onions, garlic, dill, cucumbers, cabbage, turnips, potatoes and corn…She (mother) had planted enough to last the family until the following spring.”
However, it is not just the knowledge and skill of growing vegetables that the Ukrainian settlers bring with them. First, like the Icelandic settlers before them, they have to feed themselves. The Icelanders fished to feed themselves but once they became expert enough to create a surplus, they then sold what they didn’t need. The same was to become true for the Ukrainians but it was their garden produce they sold.
Even though many of the Ukrainian settlers had been peasants, they owned a few morgans of land in Urkaine and, like the share croppers in Iceland, were able to sell both land and animals. The Icelanders had come from the poorest country in Europe. One report says they had an average of seven dollars a person and had so few resources that they had to get financial assistance from the federal government to relocate within Canada to New Iceland. Many of the Ukrainians, on the other  hand, brought money with them into the Gimli district. Nicholas Marcina took up a farm eight miles south of Gimli in 1897. He bought a cow for $20.00, a plough for $15.00, $3.75 for a harrow, a wagon for $36.00. Nicholas Krysansky says his father paid $55.00 for a yoke of young oxen and $35.00 for a cow, $12.00 for a plow and $30.00 for a sleigh. That was cash going into a local area that was constantly short of money.
The Icelanders got their land for ten dollars. Many of the Ukrainians had to purchase land and some paid as high as $`1200.00.
Once the Ukrainians had shelter, the problem was to start to make money to pay off debts (many borrowed money to pay the high fare from Ukraine to Gimli. One family paid $700.00 for their fare. There was no subsidy.)  They needed, as quickly as possible, to buy one or two oxen and a sleigh. This was important because New Iceland became a cordwood economy. The first major way of making money was to cut and sell cordwood. Houses were heated with wood so the demand for wood was high.
Stefan Yendyk says, “we started to haul cordwood to Winnipeg Beach. One had to get up during the night and feed the oxen, then start out early in the morning so that by sunrise one would be by the Ewanchuk farm….My early Canadian winters saw me in the bush, cutting cordwood or hauling the wood 22 miles to Winnipeg Beach.”
Later, when the railway tracks were extended, the farmers delivered wood to Gimli. In 1907, 95,000 cords of wood were sold in Winnipeg. The demand seemed insatiable. Even in summer, wood was needed for wood stoves.
However, cordwood alone wouldn’t pay for a farm. The men went away to work, often on the railway, or, to farms that were already established. Everyone had to work. Single women, young girls, usually, often walked to Winnipeg to find jobs.
On the farms, the wives dug Seneca root because it could be traded for goods at the local stores in Gimli. They also took eggs and vegetables to town in season.
Prices were low for farm goods but then, with the beginning of WWI,  there was a demand for everything the farmers could produce. Eggs sold for 60c a dozen, butter for 60c a pound. Once the railway came as far as Gimli, campers (summer cottagers drawn to the village of Gimli because of its beaches) created a demand for fresh produce and wild berries. The Ukrainian farm families also sold cream, milk and poultry. The Icelandic fishermen, in the meantime, were selling the same people, fresh fish, particularly pickerel fillets.
In 1902 Gimli was still exclusively Icelandic, or close to it. I know that there were other nationalities represented because my Icelandic grandmother Fredrikka Gostskalksdottir and her English husband from Fort Garry had moved to Gimli and he had become a fisherman. However, it is not until 1904 that Wasyl Ewanchuk built the first Ukrainian house in the village.
The Ukrainians build houses, clear land, plant crops, use all the knowledge and skills they have, but drainage is a serious problem, getting goods to market , whether to Gimli, Winnipeg Beach or Winnipeg, is an arduous task.
Harvey, the immigration agent, turned out to be right. There was better soil elsewhere. Gradually, families began to leave, abandoning the farms they’d worked so hard to establish, or, if they were lucky, selling them to newcomers.
Some of the Ukrainian farmers who left for other areas were able to sell their farms that they had created out of the bush. After 12 years of clearing land, pulling stumps, collecting rock, building houses and barns, making fences, the farmers got from $561.00 to $900.00. Others took over with dreams of making the land profitable.
The dreams of the two immigrant groups, to live in the home of the gods, a place where they would propser, where the land would provide plenty, instead, were defeated by marginal and sub-marginal and, by problems with drainage, with a lack of roads. Those who hung on had a hard struggle ahead of them. When George Johnson (later Minister of Health in the provincial government, then Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba) came to Gimli to practice medicine, he discovered, in the Interlake, the second  poorest area of Canada. Only Newfoundland was poorer. Conditions were such that he went into politics to try to find a remedy for the poverty.
However, both the Icelanders and the Ukrainians managed to create a life for themselves better than that which they left. The Icelanders, often little more than indentured servants, the Ukrainians, serfs, became their own masters. Their children and their grandchildren went on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians, businessmen. Most of these children left both the fishing and farming to seek success in urban areas. The opportunities that the original settlers from both groups had sought for their children did exist. No one said it would be easy.
The land in the Gimli area, Michael Ewanchuk describes as spruce, swamp and stone. For those who have lived in and around Gimli, the rock piles at the sides of farm fields have been a familiar sight. The stone boat was a vehicle of pain as every year, farmers and their families followed it over the fields, collecting the rocks that had surfaced during the spring. Although there were good strips of land, much of it was marginal, some of it good for nothing but pasture.
Lake Winnipeg provided bounty to the fishermen, most of whom were Icelandic but there were good seasons and bad seasons. The lake also took many lives. There is a cost to everything.
Today, a Gimli banquet is not complete without perogis and hollopchi, ham, kubysa. It often ends with vinarterta, skyr with strawberries, and ponnokokur. They say we are what we eat and from the smorgasbord table, it would appear we’re a little bit of both, if not in blood, then in dreams, history and experience.
(Facts, figures and quotes from the books of Michael Ewanchuk, Spruce, Swamp and Stone; Pioneer Profiles; Reflections and Reminiscences; Peter Humeniuk’s, Hardships&Progress of Ukrainian Pioneers. For anyone interested in the Ukrainian emigration to Western Canada, these are good places to start. For the Icelandic experience, W. Kristjanson’s, The Icelandic People In Manitoba; W. Lindal’s, The Saskatchewan Icelanders. There is a lot of material on-line. Most of it is personal reminiscence and carries with it the expected biases but is still valuable.)

In the home of the gods (part 1)

They came with a dream. They would leave Iceland and their lives of poverty and privation. They would have land. They would be able to marry. They would have wooden houses like the Danes. There would be opportunities to be something other than a farm laborer or a share cropper eking out a living on marginal land. But most of all, they would be able to eat. There would be food. The hunger would end.
They would have come earlier but ships came seldom and only in the summer months when weather would allow. Then the English started to come. They wanted sheep and horses. The Danes didn’t pay in cash. They only traded goods. The English paid in silver. The silver could pay for passage on the cattle ships.
The ships took the emigrants from Iceland to England and Scotland. From there they went to Quebec City. Canada wanted settlers. It wanted to fill up all the empty spaces. It wanted enough people to produce and buy goods that a railway running from coast to coast would be profitable. It wanted the empty lands filled up so the Americans didn’t invade them.  The government wanted immigrants badly enough that they allocated funds to help them emigrate and get settled.
The Icelanders were late comers to the massive European emigration. They’d been held back by the lack ships, the lack of money, the resistance of the land owners who didn’t want to lose all that cheap labour.
The Icelanders made some false starts. Kinmount. Nova Scotia. But then they decided to go west, to Gimli, the home of the gods, the home where they’d live like gods with good houses, good food, where their children would have an opportunity to become something other than an indentured servant, working on an isolated farm for board and room and a few Danish dollars a year that was usually paid in butter or wadmal, not silver.
They came late in the season. Even after Nova Scotia and Kinmount, Toronto, they didn’t understand how bad a Manitoba winter could be. 
The first Icelandic settlers arrived at Gimli in 1875. They had no cows. Poor provisions. Even poorer accommodation. They had few stoves, poor quality tents, no cows for milk which was a substantial part of their normal diet. They were not woodsmen, yet all building had to be done with wood. Sheer grit and determination helped them survive. They were plagued by smallpox and then by flooding. The large group arrived in 1876.
They’d come to Gimli in New Iceland. New Iceland. It was going to be just like Old Iceland except better because there’d be land, and freedom and opportunity and food.
The home of the gods was swamp and bush and rock. It was so swampy that 65 years later when I was a child, much of Gimli was still swamp. Every spring Gimli flooded.  Our basement often had two feet of water. The sump pump ran all day and all night.
W. Kristjanson, in The Icelandic People In Manitoba, says
“On account of the low-lying land and poor drainage, the ground was covered with two or three inches of water for some time in the spring, but in May the weather turned warm, the thermometer frequently rising to eighty and ninety degrees in the shade, and the settlers were able to turn to their fields and gardens.
“The settlers, on the average, cleared 2-3 acres of ground, and planted wheat, peas, and root corps. This entailed much manual labor, for they had no horses or oxen and pick-axe and hoe were their only implements of cultivation, and in some cases at least, the ground was a mass of tangled roots.
“The meaning of the word cultivation was by no means clear to some of the settlers. One man planted several acres of wheat without proper preparation of the ground, with the result that he had no crop.”

The meaning of the word cultivation wasn’t clear to the settlers. How could it be? They’d never worked the land. They’d never ploughed, harrowed, seeded. No grain would ripen in Iceland. They put sheep manure on the home field to help the grass grow. Vegetable gardens were seldom planted and those were usually planted by Danes. Visitors often reported on how poor vegetables grew because of the wind and the summer temperatures. Seeds were expensive and produced poor crops.
There were no forests so there was no opportunity to learn how to cut down trees, to build houses from logs or lumber. There were few opportunities to learn to make wooden utensils, tools, furniture. There was driftwood but it was owned by whoever owned the foreshore rights.
In New Iceland, the land was heavily wooded. Everything about cutting down trees, clearing land, cultivating it, sowing, harvesting,  had to be learned.
And, in spite of being the home of the gods, much of the land, when cleared by hand with axe and mattock, turned out to be marginal farm land. Much of it was good for nothing but pasture.
Is it any wonder that within three years of arriving, the mortals who now lived there started to leave? They’d heard of land that wasn’t heavily wooded, was dryer, more fertile, not covered in stones.
Some settlers had begun to leave in 1878. By 1880 and 1881, there was a general exodus. There remained only 250 in all of New Iceland. However, in 1883, new settlers from Iceland started to arrive. By 1891 there were about forty homes in Gimli. However, the settlers, having been fishermen in Iceland, and seeing the potential  of fishing in Lake Winnipeg, turned their attention there rather than to the land.
In 1896 the government decided that not enough settlers were coming from Iceland and opened up New Iceland to whoever wanted to live there. With this act, the end of a dream of a New Iceland, a place exclusively for Icelanders where they could remain Icelandic, was ended. The colony had been established in 1875. It had lasted for twenty-two years. New Iceland and a home good enough for gods was not realized but Gimli and New Iceland had served their purpose. They had provided a focus, a place with an Icelandic identity where new immigrants could come and, even if they did not stay long, had an opportunity to adjust to life in Western Canada. The existence of New Iceland must have been a great encouragement for people half a world away. They knew that at the end of their journey there would be relatives, friends, countrymen who would welcome them and help them.
As fate would have it, the land that had not been settled plus the land that had been abandoned, would become available to a group of people very different from the Icelanders. These were the Ukrainians, the men in sheepskin coats.
The Ukrainians came from Europe’s breadbasket. They were Greek and Roman Catholic, financially better off, many had little formal education, they were used to living in villages and working collectively, they were both herdsmen and farmers, used to clearing land, cultivating it, seeding it, harvesting it. They were used to a much wider variety of domesticated animals including chickens, geese, ducks, swine, goats. They were woodsmen. They were gardeners and came to Canada with seeds in their trunks.
Sydor Zelenitsky, in Spruce, Swamp and Stone, by Michael Ewanchuk, says, “On the higher land we planted potatoes and the cabbages on the lower slope”.  His cabbages grow so well that he takes a wagonload of cabbages to Gimli where the Icelanders “paid me a five or ten cent piece each and I sold all my vegetables. I guess this was the first business transaction between the Ukrainians and the Icelanders in this part of the country.”
The Ukrainians experience better suited them for the land. In the Gimli area, they were quickly able to build houses like those they had left. Logs chinked with clay, then clayed over outside and in, the walls whitewashed, the roofs thatched. They were used to stoves and even though they did not have indoor ovens, they were quickly able to build the outdoor clay ovens in which they could bake a week’s bread.
The had the tremendous advantage of being woodsmen, used to building houses with the same materials that existed in the Gimli area. Ewanchuk says, “They brought with them utensils required for working with wood.” They brought different types of axes that allowed them to splitting  logs or rails, to smooth out log walls, they had “spirit levels, a plumb line, a carpenter’s saw and a rip saw, various sizes of hand augers and drills, gimlets, chisels and hand-planes.”
They were used to thatched roofs and quickly cut dry hay or reeds. The tied these with bands of hay. They dampened them and placed the thatch close together on the roof so that when the thatch dried, it swole and tightened to form a weather proof roof. None of this was new. Where the Icelanders had been used to building with turf and rock and faced with the need to learn everything that needed to be done in a new climate, the Ukrainians were working with familiar materials. Wood, straw, clay, limestone were at hand.
(Quotes and information from W. Kristjanson, The Icelandic People In Manitoba; Michael Ewanchuik, Spruce, Swamp and Stone)