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)

The Failed Brazilian Emigration

 Picking coffee beans in Brazil. (Wickipedia)
 It wasn’t just Icelanders who were enticed to Brazil.
Michael Ewanchuk, in his book, Pioneer Profiles, says this “In time immigration agents appeared in the villages and began to conduct a very intensive campaign to interest the people to settle in Brazil. These agents offered free transportation to Brazil and told the people that no medical examinations were needed.”
“In Brazil the European settlers had to adjust to the harsh tropical climate and life in the jungle .Those that were settling in the Parana area soon found out that the cost of transportation inland and the cost of land, food and supplies, was excessive. What they saved on fares crossing the ocean was soon spent on food and clothing – employment was hard to find. Soon letters reached the Ukrainian villages which showed that life in Brazil was untenable. They wrote back complaining: “All that we have been able to harvest is black beans and corn, and some vegetables. There is no wheat or rye grown here. We cannot get milled flour. All we are able to do is to grind the corn on a quern and bake corn bread. “
Prof. Joseph Oleskow wrote to the High Commissioner for Canada in 1896. In the letter he says, “In the meantime (settlers) leave the seaports of Hamburg, Bremen and Geneva (Italy) in every week several hundred families from “Western Ukraine” for Brazil.
“This very movement I have predicted, and I have in vain challenged the Canadian Government to help me in turning this flow from Brazil to Canada…the Brazilian interests are supported here with    considerable capital, nevertheless, I say once more, the little sum of say 800 pounds in my hands would suffice to lay the foundation for regular monthly expeditions of some 100 famiilies, agriculturists with necessary means to make a start on a homestead in Canada.”
Oleskow joined with the Hon. Clifford Sifton and federal immigration officials to begin the movement of thousands of Ukrainian settlers away from Brazil and to Canada.
The Ukrainian settlers, although it was now more than two decades after the first immigrants arrived in New Iceland, find themselves starting for one destination but changing for another. With the Icelanders it was Nova Scotia and the United States. For the Ukrainians, it was starting for Brazil and ending up in Canada.
In Michael Stashyn’s account, “Our neighbour drove us to Chorkiv, our nearest station, and from there we left by train for the German port of Hamburg.
“It was the first time that my parents rode on a train, and for the first time they saw an ocean liner….In Hamburg we met many Ukrainians who were not going to Brazil as we were, but to some kind of Canada. They started to convince my parents that we should come with them. “
Michael’s parents do change course. They board the ocean liner for Canada. Like the Icelanders before them, they head across the ocean, into the unknown. “On the fourteenth day, we disembarked and found ourselves in the port of Quebec City. There we boarded a train and headed west.”
Will Kristjanson says in his book , The Icelandic People in Manitoba, “About forty persons left for Brazil, 1863-1873. The precipitating factor was the disaster to the sheep industry, 1856-1860, and the hard winter of 1858-59, the second hardest in the century.”
“Einar Asmundsson, of Thingeyjarsysla, in the North, was a person widely read and well-informed. He had been reading much about Brazil and considered that country the most promising for Icelandic emigration…In 1860, Asmundsson promoted the founding of the Brazilian Emigration Association. Thirty-five persons reached Brazil and several  hundreds were prepared to go. However, transportation difficulties blocked this movement.”
The plans to move to Brazil were opposed by local officials and wealthy farmers. Even so, four men left for Brazil in 1863. Their job was to evaluate the possibility of Brazil as a home for Icelanders. By the beginning of 1865, about a 150 people had agreed to go. However, the plan fell through.  In 1873, a group of 500 had agreed to emigrate to Brazil. The Brazilian government, just as with the Ukrainians later, promised to pay the fare but that fare would be from Hamburg to Brazil. The Icelanders had to get from Iceland to Hamburg and were unable to do so. The Brazilian government, at one point, tried to rent a ship to sail to Iceland to collect the prospective immigrants but was unable to do so. Again the plan fell through. Eventually, only 34 people actually emigrated.
Even though the Ukrainian settlers who go to Brazil do so around fifteen years after the Icelanders, we can see from their experience the difficulties that the Icelandic emigrants must have faced.
Two countries distant from Canada, Iceland and Ukraine, where the lot of the common people is one of such hardship that people are willing to risk their lives venturing into the unknown. In both countries, the people are both caught up in medieval systems. There is hunger, injustice and lack of opportunity. They respond the same way: emigrate. Circumstance, randomness, misunderstanding, possibility, all result in these two disparate groups settling in the same area.
Their choice of settlement area, without any intention of doing so, makes them part of each others’ Canadian heritage, and gradually, through necessity, doing business, then some social events and, finally, intermarriage, their stories become inextricably entwined. Today, all across Canada, there are Ukrainian-Icelandic marriages. Yet, the two written histories have remained separate for no one has attempted to show how the two groups came to settle on the same land (not just nearby land but the same to such an extent that Ukrainians took up land abandoned by the early Icelandic settlers) and how the two communities learned to function together.

If the Brazilian immigrations had been successful, they may very well have ended up neighbours in Brazil. Instead, with the failure of the Brazilian ventures, they became neighbours in the wilderness of Manitoba.
(Sources: two books worth reading, if you can find copies. Michael Ewanchuk, Pioneer Profiles Ukrainian Settlers in Manitoba; W. Kristjanson, The Icelandic People in Manitoba A Manitoba Saga)