Which Is The New Iceland?

When I was growing up in Gimli, Manitoba, that is, the capital of New Iceland, Iceland was a distant and storied place. During the war years, 1939-45, Iceland was an important strategic location, a permanent battle ship and aircraft carrier in the North Sea. Travel there was restricted largely to the military, first the British and then the Americans.

After the war, there were a few Icelanders who came to New Iceland. There were regarded as rather exotic creatures, sort of the way polar bears are when they drift onto land on ice floes.

A lot of people, including many of my relatives, spoke Icelandic. However, the tight, insular world of New Iceland, had started to break down. People who weren’t of Icelandic extraction lived in Gimli, Arborg, Riverton. WWII had brought the air force training base to Gimli and as a child, I was much more used to seeing and hearing pilots from many different countries than I was to seeing Icelanders. When I was in high school, two young airforce men from England taught us ball room dancing. They both had won dance contests in England. We heard French pilots in the bakery. We snuck onto the base so we could go to the rec centre to play basketball, swim in the pool, play badminton and floor hockey. When we became too noticeable, we’d be expelled. We’d wait a week or so, then walk the two miles to the PMQs, go from there through a hole in the perimeter fence, and make good use of the rec centre.

We grew up taking good Cantonese food for granted. Sam Toy provided excellent Cantonese food at prices we could afford.

Our classmates were German, Polish, Ukrainian, Irish, English. My father hired seasonal fishermen. Many of those were aboriginal.

However, there in the background, over coffee at Aunty Vi’s or at Dolly and George’s, at Grandma Bristow’s, there was Icelandic spoken. There were pictures of Iceland, post cards from Iceland, all those names ending in –sson but never –dottir since we’d stopped naming girls after their father’s, Helgisdottir or Ragnarsdottir and, instead, had adopted family names. We’d dropped the Icelandic letters. Valgarðsson had, in two generations, become Valgardson. Gottskalksson had become Olson.  And, perhaps more to the point, Gottskalksdottir had become Bristow and produced thirteen children who now traced their lineage not just to Iceland but to Oxford, England.

The Gimli Lutheran church had ministers from Iceland. The two seemed synonymous, Lutheran and Icelandic, as if all those German, Norwegian, Danish, American Lutherans, didn´t exist. Gradually, though, in Winnipeg and in Gimli, the services changed to English, the relationship between Icelandic and Lutheran faded. Having an Icelandic minister was no longer necessary.

We had some teachers of Icelandic background in elementary school but I don´t remember any difference that it made. In grade four we had Miss Greenberg, in grade five and six, Mr. Roal, in grade seven, Mr. Susky, in grade eight, Johnny Gottfried. None of them were of Icelandic background.

In high school, we had Miss Stefansson. The rest of the  high school teachers were a kaleidoscope of changing ethnicities.

We had the Icelandic Celebration. It was a party. A family party for a long time. A party about us, although I, for one, never learned anything about that Usness beyond seeing the Fjalkona on her podium, hearing some speeches in Icelandic which I didn´t understand. The speeches in English were filled with platitudes, no information. For me the Icelandic Celebration was about relatives swarming in through the door, lots of conversation, lots of food, and the occasional dollar slipped into my hand by happy visitors.

Today, we´ve got a viking statue that everyone loves in spite of his horned helmet, the local museum, the continuing Icelandic Celebration. The Icelandic language has mostly disappeared although a determined group meets at Amma´s Cafe regularly to practice speaking Icelandic. Icelandic desserts continue to be eaten but not baked sheep´s heads or dried cod.  

When a friend of mine went to Iceland some years ago and gave her name at a hotel, a name ending in –sson, which meant she was someone’s son, she got an odd look. Nowadays, no one would bat an eye. As a recent Icelandic visitor said to me, “That’s the way the spell Icelandic words in North America.”

Iceland is the New Iceland, no longer the poorest country in Europe, no longer rural, no longer isolated and New Iceland, well, it’s Canada.