The Railway Tracks



I walked the tracks yesterday . When I was a teenager, I often walked the tracks, sometimes stepping from railway tie to railway tie, sometimes balancing on the steel rails, sometimes standing at the side of the tracks as a train rumbled past. Canada had a railway system in those days. It was that railway system that joined Canadians from coast to coast.

I had a sense of pride about the railways because my grandfather worked for The Great Northern Railway at the roundhouse in Winnipeg.

As a child, I’d ridden the train with my parents. There was train service twice a day in summer, once a day during the rest of the year. One unforgettable time when my father was taking me to Winnipeg because I had a bad ear infection (no antibiotics in those days), we missed the train. It was pulling out as we got to the top of Centre and the highway. My father, who had stopped to talk to various people as we walked to the station, ran over to a taxi (yes, Gimli had taxis in those days. The war was on and Gimli had lots of single air force men who hired taxis.) and shouted “Catch that train.”

Highway nine was gravel, rutted, we bounced about in the back seat as the taxi driver did his best to get to the Winnipeg Beach before the train. It was like being in a movie. The taxi driver hunched over his steering wheel. My father with his head out the window yelling “Faster. Faster.” There were no seat belts in those days, the gravel surface of the road and the ruts meant slipping and sliding sideways, bouncing up and down. “Faster. Faster,” my father yelled.

I remember the moment we passed the train. We screeched to a halt at the Winnipeg Beach stop. My father said I’ll pay you when I get back, grabbed me and bounded onto the platform. My father hoped my mother wouldn’t hear what had happened but, alas, Gimli was a small town, nearly everyone was related, and hardly before the taxi had raced out of sight someone had stopped at the house and said, “Rae, Dempsey missed the train.”

Traveling by train was comfortable. The click click of the wheels on the rails.. The magic of the passing landscape. Few people owned cars so there were always people on the train that my parents knew so every trip was a chance for a leisurely visit and my thoughtful mother always packed a sandwich along with home made lemonade in a glass sealer.

When I was twelve, I started delivering The Winnipeg Free Press. That meant going to the train station each day to meet the train, to hang around with the other carriers, collect our bundles of newspapers that were thrown onto the wagons that had been pulled up beside the freight car. We filled our canvas bags and off we went, young entrepreneurs at the end of the line of railways that had spread out across Canada.

The railways nearly didn’t come to Gimli. Marshy land and Willow Creek were barriers. It made more financial sense for the railway to be built west of town where the land rose up and formed gravel ridges. This was very serious. There are numerous stories of towns being built on what was expected to be the railway line only to have the railway line built miles away. Entire towns made of frame buildings were moved to where the railway line existed. Goods had to be sent to market. Goods were needed in the towns and farms. Transportation was everything.

The Icelanders of Gimli always had good political connections. It was those connections that got them the only known transportation grant for immigrants within Canada. Faced with no railway, they formed a committee and went to Winnipeg. After a lot of lobbying, they got the railway line extended from Winnipeg Beach to Gimli. Winnipeg Beach had been the terminal point for the cordwood economy that kept Winnipeg houses and businesses warm in winter. Now, cordwood, farm produce, fish, everything that country people might produce and city people, buy, could be sent directly to Winnipeg.

The railway brought people to the village, people who needed hotel accommodation. Some people liked the town so much that they built cottages. Without the CPR line I wouldn’t have been born. My grandparents came to visit friends who had a cottage. They liked Gimli so much that they built a cottage. While my father was helping his father build my mother’s parents’ cottage, my father and mother saw each other through a window and we all know how that worked out.

You could say that I was a CPR kid.

That’s why my walk along the railway tracks yesterday was filled with sadness. Canada used to have a strong, powerful railway system. It was our railway system. It has been allowed to fall into disuse.Clean, cheap, efficient transportation for people and goods has been replaced by the car economy. The profits from making cars, building highways for them, producing oil to fuel them are so great that common sense and the environment have been brushed aside and, in many cases, bribed aside.

Between the ties there are now weeds. The ties are rotten, falling apart. The tracks are being torn up and sold to other countries. The railways made Canada. It wasn’t enough to save them.

Laxness as a client


Chapter 11

“You! A farmer!” Connor laughed uproariously. He nearly fell off his chair. We were at my parents’. When we are at my parents’, he immediately reverts to his adolescent self.

Connor is my older brother. He is big. He tried out for the Blue Bombers but didn’t make it. He bashes into things. Ever since I can remember, he’s bashed into me. When we were little, say two and four or four and six, I’d be standing in the yard and he’d make a run for me and send me flying. He thought how-far-can-I-knock-Tom was a game.

“It wasn’t my idea. I didn’t suggest it.”

“The old guy’s getting Alzheimer’s,” Connor said. He was rocking around in his chair with hilarity. “That place of his must be worth over a million dollars. Even if you knew the difference between wheat and barley, you wouldn’t have a down payment. You want to buy big stuff, you’ve got to get a real job, make real money.” Connor was a stock broker. His specialty seemed to be putting lipstick on pigs and making them fly. He was always trying to get me interested in some penny mining stock no one else had ever heard of. Flow through shares of gold companies in places I’d never heard of seemed to come up regularly. He leased a Lexus ES 350. Before he’d become a stock broker, he’d sold used cars. He’s always on the edge of making a fortune. He should have been the fiction writer.

“Are you going to see Valdi today,” my mother asked. She was making cinnamon buns. Connor loved cinnamon buns. He could eat a dozen without pausing. His stomach hung over his belt.

“They’re in lockdown,” I said. The flu had got worse. The staff were run off their feet feeding people in their rooms, cleaning up after people threw up, taking temperatures. I’d gone to the front door and the dreaded sign was up. “Quarantine. Do not enter.” I backed away and went to Tergesen’s book store to see if they had any new self-published books or new local histories. You could find things there you couldn’t find anywhere else. There was a book on commercial fishing. I thumbed through it, noted the information on fishing stations, amounts of fish caught over the years and paid for it at the front counter where there was a stack of plastic Viking helmets with horns.

The town of Gimli was a mistake. It was settled in eighteen seventy-five because a bunch of Icelandic immigrants were being towed north on Lake Winnipeg on barges to the Whitemud River. A storm came up, the captain of the steam ship cut the barges loose and left the immigrants to fend for themselves. They landed on a sandbar that was exposed to winds from Hudson Bay, where the forest was scruffy and scabby and anyone with a lick of sense would have immediately left and moved onto higher ground with thick forest, preferably sheltered by spruce trees that kept the drifting snow back. Unfortunately, these people had been raised on the story of the settlement of Iceland.  Ingolfur Arnarson, the first Icelandic settler, chucked his high seat pillars overboard, let the gods of wind and wave take them, and when they were found, settled there. The immigrants to Canada, like the high seat pillars, were cast off, drifted ashore and they assumed, since settling where things drifted ashore worked for Ingolfur, it would work for them.

The land was lousy. What looked like hay meadows were actually swamps but they thought they were hay fields because it was a dry year. The next year wasn’t dry. The water came back. There were only two kinds of ground in the local area: swampy and more swampy. The immigrants knew how to raise sheep and dairy cows and how to fish in the North Atlantic. Swamps are lousy places to try to raise sheep and dairy cows and the ocean fishing equipment didn’t work in a fresh water lake. The following summer a large group of Icelandic immigrants arrived to share the misery of the first arrivals. To make matters worse, there was a smallpox epidemic. Entire families died. Nobody likes to talk about the cause of the deaths, but when you are researching a book you keep coming across embarrassing facts. One hundred and three people died. Nobody should have died. Small pox inoculations had been known for a long time in Iceland. English explorers had brought cowpox scabs and taught the local priests how to inoculate people. The problem was that the majority of the immigrants were dreadfully poor indentured servants and the local well-to-do farmers couldn’t be bothered to have them innoculated. There were, after all, way too many poor people living on a kind of welfare system that required rich people to pay a poor tax. It was cheaper to bury poor people than to feed them.

To give Laxness his due with regard to his short story, “New Iceland”, that had so infuriated people that they had chased him through the night in an attempt to tar and feather him, the Icelandic immigrants’ story from the time they left Iceland until Laxness turned up in the late 1920s, was pretty bad. The earliest ships to the UK were transporting horses for the mines. Icelandic horses are small so they fit into the mine shafts. The ship owners from England and Scotland, not seeing much difference in the horses and the would-be immigrants, simply ran a partition down the centre of the ship’s hold. Horses, horse piss and shit on one side, men, women and children on the other. Actions speak louder than words and the action in this case made it clear the immigrants were beasts of burden. It wasn’t just the Ukrainian’s under Polish and Russian rule who were considered nothing but expendable animals.

The Industrial Revolution never came to Iceland. When other countries had roads and railways, Iceland still had horse trails and horses. There were no wheeled vehicles. The invention of steam ships meant regular scheduled travel replaced the inconsistency of sailing ships and those poverty stricken Icelandic peasants who could manage to pay the fare, could take a ship to England or Scotland and, from there, another ship to Quebec City. The poor people that the rich farmers never quit bitching about having to feed and clothe started leaving and the farmers, seeing their cheap labor disappear went on a rampage to stop them. Unlike the English slave owners and the Russian serf owners, the land owning farmers in Iceland weren’t going to get compensated for losing their indentured servants and share croppers.

Although the rich farmers treated the Icelandic un-landed peasants as disposable and valueless, once they started to crowd down to the harbors to get onto ships, the landed farmers thought this scruff was so valuable that they hired men to disrupt information meetings being held for the potential emigrants. The disrupters made so much noise that the emigration agents couldn’t be heard. That, in itself, was an acknowledgement that it was the share croppers who, by paying outrageous mortgages on their farms, paying outrageous interest on their leased sheep and cattle, provided the rich farmers with their wealth. The indentured servants who were paid as little as two dollars a year plus room and board and a piece of clothing a year, the fishermen who went to sea with nothing to eat from morning to night, who lived in stone huts often with no fuel for cooking, who drowned in vast numbers in terrible weather and poor boats, it was these people who created the rich farmers’ wealth. No rich farmer could take care of his own dairy cows, his own sheep or go fishing by himself. The game was rigged. The rich made laws that benefited the rich and then believed they were rich because they were superior to the serfs living in squalor.

My brother, Connor, aspired to be the modern equivalent of one of those wealthy landowners. He wanted minions to do his bidding. He made life hell for people who worked under him and kissed the ass of anyone above him. It was, he said, the natural order of things. Life was competitive, survival of the fittest, eat or be eaten, kill or be killed, the cream rose to the top. His cream didn’t rise to the top when he was trying out for the Blue Bombers. It was more like he was skim milk. He made the most of it, though. He got as many autographed photographs as possible with him in his uniform standing beside Blue Bomber stars. He papered his office wall with them. He let prospective clients assume that he had been on the team. He even had a replica Grey Cup on one shelf but if you looked closely it was a popcorn popper.

When we were kids, he used to beat me at Monopoly but he cheated. Cheating was fair, he claimed, it was just adding creativity to games. The point was to out cheat each other. He developed a philosophy about cheating. The rich got rich because they were the experts at cheating. Politicians spent most of their time figuring out ways to cheat. He was always pointing out articles in the paper about politicians cheating to get a nomination, cheating at raising money, cheating at the ballot box, cheating on expenses. There wasn’t anything they did that they didn’t cheat at. When Connor was playing midget hockey for the provincial title, he went so far as to slip into the visiting team’s dressing room and run a sharpening stone along their star player’s skates. Except he wasn’t sharpening the skates, he was dulling the edges. In spite of that effort, Connor’s team lost. He shrugged and said, “I did my best. You can’t win them all.”

My mother was very proud of him because he dressed well and he was good at greeting all her friends with hugs and handshakes. He made them feel special. Fortunately, for most of them, they didn’t have enough money for him to put his hand in their pockets. When the boom was on in Iceland, he suddenly became interested in his Icelandic heritage. When the Icelandic bankers turned up, he was all over them. He wanted a piece of the action. They weren’t interested in anyone who didn’t have a million dollars to invest. He wanted to show them opportunities in penny mining stocks that were going to go to dollars. They weren’t interested because they already had their own scam.

He had his Lexus, a house, a wife and two kids and a mega mortgage and line of credit. I had the beginning of a pension and ten thousand in a TFSA. I was fortunate that Jasmine had worked and saved before she went to university and, while there, had obtained scholarships. The split didn’t cost me anything but aggravation. The only thing I had that was worth anything was my van. I’d bought my van second hand, a hundred and thirty thousand kilometers on it. I had a complete set of the sagas and my laptop.

At the moment, I had a precious roaster full of hollopchi. Connor, if he knew they existed, wouldn’t have been able to keep his hands off them. I’d slipped my hollopchi into the house without anyone noticing and put them in the freezer downstairs under eight packages of waffles. My father liked store bought waffles he could pop into the toaster. Otherwise, Connor would have eaten the hollopchi at one sitting. He wouldn’t even have said thank you or expressed remorse. He’d have belched and rubbed his gut.

“How’s the Bookster doing?” Connor asked. He’d started calling me the Bookster back in high school because I read books from beginning to end. I don’t think he’d actually ever read any of the English course books. He’d got summary notes for them, read the summaries and after he’d passed the course said, see, there’s efficient and there’s inefficient. Get the grades and have time for other things. “You still working on that tome?”

I don’t think he hated me. I’d just always been there to torment. When he wasn’t calling me The Bookster, he called me Commie Tom. That was because I occasionally expressed concern about homeless people, the mentally ill, the treatment of military personnel, those sorts of people. “If they have to buy their toilet paper at Walmart, you don’t want to know them,” he said. “Don’t waste your time thinking about people who can’t afford to buy their sardines at Sobey’s for full price.” I wasn’t impressed. He and his wife dumped the kids on my folks last Christmas and used a HELOC to go to Mexico. This year my folks beat him to the punch. They were going on a Christmas cruise. It was booked, paid for and couldn’t be canceled.

“Yeah,” I said, “I’m still working on that tome.”

“You figure you’ll get a million dollar advance? I read in the paper someone got a million bucks for scribbling something. There’s always somebody getting a million bucks for doing nothing. You make big money, I’ll manage it for you. One percent a year.”

“Tom’s working hard at that book,” my mother said. “He’s interviewing lots of people. I’m sure it’ll be a success.”

“The bloom is off the rose,” Connor said. He never thought negative thoughts so I was surprised. “People are putting too much money into buying houses. They haven’t got money for stocks. However, all is not lost. I noticed at church last week a lot of grey hair and bald heads. Those people need financial advice. I’ve decided to change my speciality to financial advisor for the elderly. You have to move with the times. You hear that Bookster? You have to adapt or die. Just like the birds and reptiles. Except you’ve got to do it faster.”

Connor didn’t believe in God. He thought Jesus was a fraud. He thought church was a social club that could be mined for prospects. He claimed that church was a way to get people to trust you. You were in church, you must be good, you must be trustworthy, you shared the same values, you got to talk to people who wouldn’t have let you into their house if you’d just knocked at their door. In every pew there were opportunities. The problem was that most of the parishioners were older women who weren’t interested in speculative mining stocks. They were, however, in need of someone to look after the insurance their dead husbands had left them.

“You, Bookster, are another possible source. You’re going around interviewing all these people for this book. You’ve got the key to their front door. You could introduce me. If I get a contract to manage their account, you get a finder’s fee. Some of these farmers must be worth a bundle. What’s the name of this guy you’ve been researching lately?”

“Laxness. He’s dead. He lived in Iceland. He’s not a prospect.”

“Icelanders,” he said and took two cinnamon buns out of the pan my mother had just pulled out of the oven. He flipped them from one hand to the other because the sugar was hot. He kept saying ow, ow, ow but he wouldn’t put them down.

“They’re still hot inside,” my mother said. “Wait for a couple of minutes. Get a cold glass of milk just in case you burn yourself.”

Connor went to the fridge for milk. “Icelanders,” he repeated. “They had it all. The world was their oyster. Their timing was off. When the bankers were here, I tried to tell them, buy Canadian, do it through a trust in the Bahamas, shelter your profits. Bury it and if everything goes toes up, it doesn’t matter.” He had the two cinnamon buns in his right hand and the glass of cold milk in his left. He was ripping off chunks of the cinnamon buns with his teeth. Ripping things with his teeth was a genetic thing except his Viking ancestors would have been ripping meat off a leg of mutton. When he finished the buns, he sucked on his fingers to get all the sugar and cinnamon off them. I could see Laxness’s Vikings licking and sucking the lamb fat off their hands. Connor took another two cinnamon buns. My mother took that as a compliment.

“You got a girlfriend yet?” he asked. I didn’t bother to reply. He had an inordinate interest in my sex life. It was probably because he’d been married since he was twenty. He saw me as a bachelor and then married to Jasmine the Hot Number as he called her and, now, as a divorced guy free to hump anything available. There was a touch of envy in his voice.

“How’s Trudy,” I replied. He’d found Trudy in a pool room. She had big tits, blonde hair to her ass, cowboy boots and an attitude. He challenged her to a game and she beat his balls around the table and took five dollars off him. He’d been trying to get even ever since. Two kids and too much watching soap opera and she’d expanded to plus plus sizes.

“Doing good,” he said but his happy face had gone a little grimmer. There were, I expected, temptations at the office. There were opportunities for dalliances with his female clients, although as fat had replaced his stomach muscle those were likely fading. The Blue Bomber photos were with players whose names no one remembered.

I imagined Connor looking for new victims after church services were over, chatting up the widows, inquiring after their health, their interests, never asking about their money,  that would scare them. He’d feel them out, not up, to see if their husbands had left them well off, might mention the threat of inflation, of the importance of having their affairs in safe hands, little things, asking if they had a financial advisor, dropping a hint, nothing direct, just an oh, I see, and looking uncomfortable, making them concerned about that person, taking a stone to the edge of the advisor’s skates as it were, offering, at no cost, to take a look at their investments at some time in the future, raising the danger of another Nortel.

Laxness had used women to finance his writing. His mother knitted to make money to support him, she sold off land and mailed him the proceeds. If it had been possible in those days, she’d probably have sold a kidney to raise money for him. He borrowed money from women and never paid it back. He let them support him. He was an equal opportunity borrower. He didn’t just get money from priests and monks and businessmen. It was all justified because he won the Nobel Prize. I wondered, though, watching Connor gobbling down the fourth cinnamon bun, would it have been justified if he hadn’t won the prize.

“You doing anything for Christmas?” Connor asked and I knew better than to think he and Trudy might be planning on inviting me for Christmas dinner. If I said no, I didn’t have any plans, they’d want me to move into their place and take care of their kids for a week while they lay on the beach in Acapulco.

“Yeah,” I lied, “I’ve got a ticket for Cuba. Veradero.” Connor hated that, giving money to the commies, commies who refused to give the mafia back their property that had been confiscated by Castro, he didn’t differentiate between honest and dishonest capitalists. There was no such thing to him as a dishonest capitalist, just those who got caught and those who didn’t get caught. To him they were all the same. He’d eaten four cinnamon buns and was eyeing the last six. I expected him to lunge toward the pan, grab the buns and stuff them into his mouth. So did my mother. She said, “Leave one for Tom and one for your father.” He pulled another two free. His belly, I noticed, hung further over his belt since the last time I’d seen him.



The Things We Care About

saga book image
Strange, the things we care about. Some people care about the fate of the timber wolf or the prairie gopher or the red legged wombat. Others care about historic events, are fixated on Napoleon and the battle of Waterloo. Others are passionate about Mediterranean frescoes. There’s no accounting for taste.

Me, I care about Iceland. If someone asked me why, I’d have a difficult time explaining the reason.

My mother was born of northern Irish parents. That makes me half Irish. And the family tree goes back to Scotland. If family lore is accurate, two brothers came with Cromwell. One stayed, one went back to Scotland and disappeared in the fog and heather. The one who stayed is an ancestor of mine.

My father, in spite of his Icelandic name, was a quarter English. One of his grandfathers was a Bristow. There are in and around Oxford, lots of graves with stones that say Bristow.

So, that leaves me three eighths Icelandic. That’s not much to hang a passion on. Of course, there’s genetic folding in. Icelanders have a lot of Celtic background. The people who settled Iceland weren’t just Norwegians or Danes. However, that strengthens the Irish background, not the Norwegian.

A big part of that involvement in things Icelandic came from growing up in Gimli, Manitoba. Gimli was the centre for Icelandic immigration to Canada in the 1870s on. A lot of people came, stayed for a while among people who spoke the same language, who were relatives and friends, then moved on to places with better land and more opportunities. However, a core remained in Gimli and the neighbouring villages of New Iceland. There was Hnausa, Arnes, Ness, Riverton, Arborg, and, although it fell slightly outside the New Iceland boundary, Lundar. To the south there was Selkirk and, of course, Winnipeg, with its concentration in the West End that was known affectionately as Gooli town.

In the 1940s Gimli was still very Icelandic. People spoke the language at home and in conducting business. Church services were in Icelandic. However, my mother didn’t speak Icelandic so my father didn’t speak it at home and when I was an adult, I was surprised when I heard him talk to someone in Icelandic. So, it wasn’t the language that made me interested in all things Icelandic. It’s not like I knew the secret code. I couldn’t smugly talk to some of my friends and classmates in a language others couldn’t understand. I did learn pig latin but it didn’t make me identify with pigs or latin.

The defining event in Gimli every year was Islendingadagurinn, the annual Icelandic Celebration. There were official events. A woman was chosen Fjallkona, the Maid of the Mountains, dressed in regal robes, laid a wreath at the foot of a memorial cairn that, at that time, was across the street from our house. An elegant car would turn up, there’d be a bit of a cortege behind. The Maid would be led to the cairn, people from the cars would descend and gather. The Maid would dedicate the wreath to the pioneers, get back in her car and go to the Gimli Park. There, she would be led to a stage where she would preside over a toast to Iceland, a toast to Canada, numerous speeches, many of which were in Icelandic and were listened to raptly by an older crowd.

We’d have run the two blocks to the park to watch the formalities, then leave for the far corner of the park to compete in foot races in hope of winning enough for a hot dog and coke. From a kid’s perspective, the day was mostly about hotdogs slathered in mustard and relish. In the evening, we’d go with our parents to the park pavilion to watch adults dance to old time music. The Icelandic part of the day was eating Icelandic pancakes, prune tort, donuts, pickled lamb flank on brown bread.

There were a lot of Icelandic flags. Mostly, however, we hung around our parents’ house because relatives dropped by from far and near. There was a lot of eating, drinking and talking. The talking sometimes went on all night.

The town was very Lutheran and, at one time, services were in Icelandic. However, I don’t remember that. I’d have been at the Sunday School which was in English. We did have some ministers from Iceland. I don’t remember that having any effect on us.

When I was in grade three, Icelandic lessons were offered after school or on Saturdays. However, the first thing we were told was that in order to learn Icelandic you had to be exceptionally intelligent. I didn’t have any reason to believe I was exceptionally intelligent so I didn’t go back.

There was the Sunrise Lutheran camp. I went there a couple of summers. The only thing Icelandic I remember about it is the sago pudding. Icelanders consumed a lot of sago pudding. Someone said it was frog’s eggs and, after that, none of us would eat it.

There was, of course, the visible existence that the town was Icelandic. There was Tergesen’s general store with a drugstore and soda bar on the south side. Nowadays, it is mostly clothes, many of which are Icelandic and a bookstore. It’s the one place where you can go to get books by Icelanders and Icelandic North American writers.

There was Bjarnason’s store that was a mainstay of the town. It was half grocery store and half dry goods. There was Arnason’s dairy bar. Arnason’s had a dairy and delivered milk that was so rich that, in winter, the milk froze, popped the cardboard lids off and the cylinder that rose up was pure cream. We ate it. You could hear Icelandic being spoken in any of those places.

I don’t remember Gimli as being particularly Icelandic. I never heard of rotted shark or brenevin, nothing of Iceland’s history except that, at one time, there were Vikings there and not much was made of that. I never heard rimur, no toneless, tuneless chanting of rhymed verses. I don’t remember anyone quoting Havamal to me to get me to behave myself.

I was a voracious reader but I read the Hardy Boys and Robin Hood, not the sagas.

When I went to university, I met some students my age who were from the West End of Winnipeg. I don’t remember them talking Icelandic or any discussions we had being about Icelandic subjects. However, a process began to draw us into the Icelandic community. There were coffees at Walter Lindal’s and, if I remember correctly, I found myself discussing the Icelandic Canadian Magazine. Somehow, I got involved in the local Icelandic club. There may have been meetings at Will Kristjanson’s. Caroline Gunnarson became part of my life. These were stalwarts, promoters of all things Icelandic. Walter and Will both wrote important books about the Icelandic communities. Caroline was an editor.

Somewhere in there was Professor Besseson, the head of the Icelandic department at the University of Manitoba. He was offering a non-credit course in the evenings. It was the sagas in translation. My wife and I took it. The Icelandic department and the Icelandic library had begun to play their part.

Terry and Lorna Tergesen drew me into creating a literary event at the Icelandic Celebration.

And there is where it all starts to break down. You see, my Gimli experience wasn’t all that Icelandic. I loved perogis fried with onions and served with sour cream, hollopchi baked in tomato sauce, bowls of bright red borscht made with beets straight from the garden, turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, pickerel fillets, sweet and sour pickerel, Cantonese food from Sam Toy’s café.

I loved going to Ukrainian weddings and dancing the polka and the butterfly. Add to that, the airport two miles from town with air force personnel from all over Canada and, eventually, from all over the world meant I was used to hearing French being spoken in Olsen’s bakery or Bjarnason’s general store.

There were, of course, Icelandic elements. Local women knitted sweaters made from Icelandic wool. There was Betel, the Icelandic old folk’s home. Tergesen’s store was an anchor for all things Icelandic. There were women who, on special occasions, wore the Icelandic dresses that women wore during the time of immigration. There were a lot of Icelandic books around because Icelanders are great readers and writers. However, if any of my classmates could read Icelandic, I didn’t know about it.

But the Gimli experience was skating and hockey, curling, eating pickerel fillets, stuffed whitefish, smoked goldeye, not cod, fresh or dried, although some people did still make hardfish. We didn’t practice glima, Icelandic wrestling. Instead, we played soccer on snow covered fields. We hunted rabbits and deer, geese and ducks. Some of us had trap lines for rabbits and muskrats.

In Iceland, the Little Ice Age put an end to growing grain because the fall in temperature meant that grain would not ripen. Icelanders did not farm. They grazed sheep and milk cows.

In Gimli the settlers had to become farmers and fresh water fishermen. Farmers broke land, learned to plow, to seed, to harvest grain, rye, oats, wheat, barley. I grew up with my father fishing through four to six feet of ice with nets created for Lake Winnipeg.

In Iceland there were no forests. Gimli was surrounded by forests. Wood in Iceland was rare and expensive. In Gimli, we built with wood, heated our houses with wood, cooked our food with wood. One of my childhood tasks was throwing stove wood into the basement in the fall. We lived in a wood economy.

In Iceland there was a homogeneous population. In one of the travel books I’ve read, an Icelandic farmer says to a visiting Englishman that he is the only foreigner he’s ever seen in his lifetime and he expects that he will never see another. In Gimli, we dealt with “foreigners” every day. My mother and her parents were foreigners, so were all the Ukrainians, Germans, and Poles. There were the summer cottagers, many originally from the UK but many Jewish immigrants from Europe. There were the local aboriginals.

There were few “real” Icelanders, that is Icelanders who came from Iceland during the time that I was a child. There were a couple of ministers and a fellow called Ragnar.

The only person I knew who went to Iceland to visit was my great aunt, Stina. She was going to come back and tell us about all the bishops and poets and rich farmers who were our ancestors. When she came back, she never said a word about her trip. Our ancestors were indentured servants, farm laborers and, in some cases, had children out of wedlock or were married numerous times because their wives died in childbirth. Her dream of a past filled with prestige and glory died like the grass in a cold Icelandic summer. We can’t claim to be related to Snorri Sturluson or any Viking heroes.

Stina’s belief in a golden past when our ancestors weren’t poverty stricken share croppers or indentured servants wasn’t so strange. A characteristic of Icelanders is an abiding belief in a glorious, golden past during the Viking age.

The fact that hundreds upon hundreds of years of poverty, of domination first by Norway, then Denmark, makes no difference. Icelanders, in their heart of hearts, know that not too long ago their ancestors were raiding and pillaging, driving their foes before them, risking everything on endurance, bravery and good luck. Never mind all those hundreds of years of sheep farmers.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like Icelanders. They are, on the surface, restrained. So much so that there are discussions and speeches about whether or not Icelanders actually have a sense of humour. However, scratch the surface or have a couple of drinks with them and a romantic streak is revealed. They don’t see themselves as bus drivers, fishermen, dentists, caretakers, stock brokers. No siree, beneath those daily facades, they are Vikings. That suit, white coat, overalls, covers up a Viking heart ready on a moment’s notice to row a longship into the North Sea in search of wealth and fame.

Even those of us who have only three eighths Icelandic blood share those distant dreams and memories. That belief in a golden age survived centuries of oppression, dire poverty, devastating epidemics, starvation, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, fjords filled with ice. Generation after generation said, well, things are pretty bad right now but there was a time when we ruled the seas, when we were honored guests at the king’s table, when no one spun greater stories than us.

That attitude served us well during the time of emigration. Faced with starvation and oppression people emigrated to North America. In the early years New World hardship replaced Old World hardship. People went hungry, died from everything it was possible to die from, struggled to survive, sometimes failed, but they still had those memories of the ancient past to comfort them.

Maybe part of my interest in all things Icelandic is that I’m linked to this difficult past. We celebrate and honour the people who died and those who survived the trip from Iceland to the New World, who survived Kinmount, who survived the cold and poor food and small pox at New Iceland. Hardship and overcoming it shapes people, determines what they believe, how they behave, creates an identity separate from those who did not share the experience.

So, who am I? Where did I come from? How can anyone know who they are without knowing their past? Without kings and queens, without wealth, without great cathedrals or mansions, Icelanders chose to determine their worth on their behaviour.

Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, —
fair fame of one who has earned. –from Havamal

Not everyone lived by the advice in Havamal. Not everyone lived like a proud Viking warrior but there, in the background, was an understanding of what behaviour should be like. The sagas, those replacements for the great cathedrals, the castles, the elegance of Europe, gave everyone a history of the golden age.

Much of this was lost by the time a fourth generation, that’s me, appeared. There was intermarriage, the desire to integrate so that better jobs, greater opportunities existed. Yet, there was enough retained to hold firm to an identity. The Icelandic Department at the University of Manitoba was funded, the Icelandic library, for a time, the Jon Bjarnason Academy, the Icelandic Canadian magazine, the newspapers, Logberg and Heimskringla, the various clubs that were formed, the INL. A lot of it is based on nostalgia for a past that is romanticized, not just that distant Viking past but the past of immigration, but it doesn’t matter. What immigrant past isn’t romanticized and idealized?

With the internet, publications and documents that before were hidden away in distant libraries have become available at little or no cost. It is possible, today, to read about what life was like for our great grandparents and great great grandparents, to read back, to the times beyond them, to know ourselves.

Maybe that’s why I identify with Iceland and Icelanders. The dream of a golden age infuses everything, is always there, Gunnar and Njal and dozens of other characters, so that while I’m caught up in the mundane, cutting the grass, washing dishes, buying groceries, there is the world beyond that, the world of bravery, excitement, daring, strength, adventure. It rises closer to the surface during the Thorrablots, the INL conference, the club events, the Icelandic Celebration, the Beck lectures, August the Deuce, Icelandic summer camp, the Snorri program.

What causes me to identify with Icelanders and Iceland is not just a personal question. It is a critical question for the continuing relationship between people of Icelandic descent in North America and the people of Iceland. Canada is a multi-cultural society. Intermarriage is the norm. History appears to have been abandoned by the educational system. I’m three eighths Icelandic. My children are three sixteenth. My grandchildren are three thirty seconds. How will we infuse them with a belief in the Golden Age, make them proud of their Icelandic history, make them feel it is their history?

Icelandic population, 1861-1870


Our lang lang and lang lang lang ammas and afis lived through these times. 1871 and 1872 were yet to come. Take a look at the relationship between births and deaths. In 1862 in Iceland there are more deaths than births and the population falls slightly. 1864 and 1865 must have been good years because there is a major increase in the population.However,in 1866 the population falls again but it is still well above 1861. More people are surviving. In 1867 there is a large increase, nearly a thousand more births than deaths. And by 1870 the population has climbed to 70,084.

Year Births Deaths Computed pop Percentage
1861 2525 2391 66,973 +0.20
1862 2693 2874 66,797 +0.27
1863 2648 2115 67,325 +0.80
1864 2760 2001 68,084 +1.13
1865 2757 2100 68,741 +0.96
1866 2662 3122 68,281 +0.67
1867 2743 1770 69,254 +1.42
1868 2449 1970 69,733 +O.69
1869 2177 2404 69,506 +O.33
1870 2276 1698 70,084 +0.83

There was the belief–I’ve run across it in a number of places– that Iceland could not sustain more than 60,000 people. If the population rose over that number, then starvation or disease would cut the number back.

When Icelanders were locked into a medieval system of land owner and serf or indentured servant with a severely limited supply of land and that land useful for nothing but grazing, the relationship between population and productivity was pretty predictable. You can only graze so many sheep or cows per acre.

There were no grain crops because there were not enough frost free nights for grain to ripen. The highly variable factor was the weather. Get three or four good years in a row and marginal land could be farmed. That led to families being established and families meant children being born. The population increased. But bad weather was inevitable and when that happened, snow and frozen ground in summer, harbours filled with ice, bitter cold winds, and the hay crop failed, sheep and cows died. People farming on the margins soon followed. In really bad years, it wasn’t just people on the margins.

However, even though it took a long time to break the hold of the land owning farmers over the right to fish, fishing was gradually increasing. Farmers wanted to keep the system going because it provided lots of cheap labour. Indentured servants don’t get much, if any, say in their pay or working conditions. The problem was that what existed was a system with predictable and limited means of production. Only fishing could increase wealth so that a temporary increase in population could be sustained.

From our historic hindsight we know what is coming after 1870. There will be volcanic eruptions and with them the destruction of grazing land, the destruction of livestock and the relationship of people to land, hay, and cattle, will be thrown out of whack.

Iceland wasn’t like Canada. There were no great frontier areas to farm. The pressure on what could be produced was huge. It was compounded by the fact that from 1861 to 1870 the population had gone from 66,973 to 70,084.

The people who left for Amerika because there was land, lots of it, vast amounts of it, did what was necessary for their own survival given these two factors: the increase in the size of the population and the destruction of grazing land. They also did everyone who stayed in Iceland a tremendous favour because their leaving brought the relationship of land to population back into balance.

Iceland missed the Industrial Revolution. The new technology wasn’t going to save it. When the emigrants left, there were still no roads. A Medieval system of land ownership and crofts and indentured servants still existed. There were no factories. No banks. If there was a wheeled vehicle, it was a wheelbarrow.

Iceland had not embraced the change sweeping through Europe. It’s salvation would be when the large land owners removed the restrictions on fishing. Icelanders had been fishing with one hook to a line while just offshore the Portuguese were laying fishing lines that were miles long and had thousands of hooks.

In Gimli, in my childhood, I heard of men crying because they felt they’d betrayed Iceland by leaving. Poetry books from that time and earlier, written in Icelandic, are filled with poems praising Iceland’s beauty. They are poems filled with regret and guilt. There is no reason for either. The emigrants betrayed no one. Their leaving left more food for those left behind and, indirectly, improved the lot of the indentured and wage workers, by removing some cheap labour and forcing up wages.

My great grandfather, Ketill, who, in Iceland, would have had nothing because he would have been paid so little, came to Canada in 1878 with nothing. He worked as a labourer, then he had a dairy, then a general store. He had a fine home. He owed no one anything. He kept his coffin in the basement because like many who started out with nothing, he didn’t want to be buried a pauper. He died with money in the bank.

As this table shows, the population had grown to what was considered unsustainable. Then there was volcanic disaster. The choice was stark. To die of hunger on a mountain path or leave for the unknown.

In Independent People, Laxness makes fun of the romantic movement created and populated by the well-to-do, the privileged in Iceland. They come to Bjartur’s farm, Summer Houses, to extoll the virtues of the peasant farmer. They are ridiculous, self-indulgent, dishonest for they know nothing of the real hardships of being a small holder.The emigrants knew reality.

Many in Iceland had a strong belief in the need to stay in Iceland to fight for its Independence. They saw Iceland rising toward its golden, glorious past. Others saw enough opportunity to satisfy them. Others would have left but didn’t have the means.

Eventually, it sorted itself out. One can write nostalgic poetry or make nostalgic speeches but, eventually, our lives are consumed by earning a living, raising a family, being part of our local community. Enough to eat, clothes, a place to live, necessities, some luxuries, for a few, wealth. But when I stand in the graveyard in Gimli and the wind is blowing in from the lake and I look at the graves of my great grandparents, my grandparents and my parents, I think, you did fine. Over three generations,you made a life.

Ruckle Park Farm Day


On Sunday, I slipped away from a lot of hard physical labour, to spend an hour or so at Ruckle Heritage Farm Day. Sure glad I did. Because I couldn’t stay for more of the day, I missed some interesting events. However, beggars can’t be choosers as my Irish grandmother used to say and since I was beggared for time, I packed in as much visiting and seeing as possible.


Ruckle Farm was started by Henry Ruckle in 1872. Eventually, 1000 acres were donated to the province to create a provincial park. I’ve been to the park and it is a great place to spend a day or to camp. However, 200 acres were kept so the farm could continue. It is the oldest working farm in BC still owned by the original family, the farm’s website says.

The day is made up of entertainment and demonstrations.

There were spinning and weaving demonstrations but what intrigued me the most was watching older weavers showing young people how to spin and weave.


There also were logs set up so children could use a two person cross cut saw.

The flock of wild turkeys was a show stopper. This flock wanders about the property but its eggs get collected and used.

There was a demonstration of blacksmithing. Anyone who has read about Iceland’s history up until the modern age knows that every farm had to have a blacksmith. Blacksmiths were important members of every community. Horses had to be shod and implements made. The same was true in Canada.

There are apple, pear and nut trees on the property and some of these are around 100 years old. They’re still producing. Gives me hope for myself, although I’m not sure whether I’m an apple, pear or nut tree.

It was as fine a day as anyone could wish. A clear blue sky, not too hot, not too cold, just right.

A lot of families brought picnic lunches and had their picnic under the trees. There were a lot of children. In the Icelandic community, we often lament the lack of young children coming to events.

What I saw at Ruckle park was a successful attempt at having events in which children could participate. For centuries, Iceland depended upon sheep, wool, knitted goods, weaving, to survive. Perhaps we could look at the tasks that were required for our ancestors, in Iceland and in New Iceland, to survive, and set up events where younger people try their hand at these tasks.

However, of all the events, the one that touched my heart the most was one that reminded me of fond memories of childhood in Gimli. When we had a local fair in the community hall, there was always a fish pond. It seemed quite magical to throw my hook and line over a screen and feel something being tugged on it and then to reel in my catch. There were two fish ponds at Ruckle Park. One for kids and one for really little kids. The difference was in the height of the screen over which a line had to be cast.


It was the perfect day. Not just the weather or the beauty of the place, but because of the people. There were a lot of families with parents doing things with their kids. Having a million million dollars wouldn’t have made the day one bit better than what it was.

Thanksgiving hunger

Have you ever really been hungry? I don’t mean peckish as in, “I think I could use a cup of coffee and a kleinur to tide me over until supper time.”

I mean hungry, with nothing to eat for the last day or so, the kind of hunger that means a constant headache, a pain in your stomach, so hungry that you’d eat things you normally wouldn’t? Hungry enough to eat out of a dumpster? Hungry enough to steal, to beg? To stand on the divider between the traffic lines with a piece of cardboard saying, “Hungry.”?

So hungry that you cried? So hungry that you’d beg? Please give me something to eat.”

As hungry as the Icelanders in 1783 after the Laki eruption? In Iceland to steal food was the worst sin imaginable but when three out of four animals die because of ash and sulfur dioxide and there’s no meat and milk, stealing food becomes a matter of survival. Ten thousand people died, that’s one out of every five people.

Or, how about the potato famine in Iceland between 1862 and 1864? Icelanders, unable to grow grain because of the Little Ice Age, had started to grow potatoes. The potatoes suffered from blight. This time only five percent of the people died.

Or how about the volcanic eruption in 1875? The one that made a situation with political repression, dreadful weather, worse. That meant people, particularly in the North East, desperate.

Desperate. Like, I’m desperate because I can’t afford to go to a concert? Desperate because I can’t afford to buy a new couch? Or desperate as in if we can’t get to North America, we’re going to die of hunger.

Desperate for food. Desperate to eat.

There were no Pilgrim Fathers in our background. Thanksgiving came to Canada with American settlers (refugees?). Doesn’t matter. There was reason for Thanksgiving. If we hadn’t imported Thanksgiving, we’d have invented it. Food on a plate. Enough food stored to last the winter. One Ukrainian settler in the Gimli area said, “We came to eat.” So did the Icelanders. We spread out all over North America finding good places to eat. Not five star hotels but good land, good fishing, good cattle ranching, good jobs, good housing. Good everything.

Look how hard we searched. Nova Scotia, Kinmount, New Iceland, Winnipeg, The Dakotas, Argyle, Swift Current, Foam Lake, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria, Point Roberts, Boundary Bay. Even Alaska. Looking for a place where we could feed ourselves.

Look at what our families found, what they created, what they can put on their plates today. From private meals at Thanksgiving to fowl suppers, we honor the people who sailed to North America, who took trains, who took boats across the Great Lakes, who walked, who rode horses, who kept moving, always looking for a place where they could produce enough food to feed their families, where no one would die of starvation.

To my Icelandic ancestors, to my Irish ancestors, to my English ancestors, my thanks, my thanks for the food on my plate. Bless, bless.


The side of the road


July 02 V959872 $1,348,888 $-350,112 -21%

“Will you live in a box by the side of the road? Will you live in a tent? Or in your car, if it hasn’t been repossessed? Will you sleep on the WalMart parking lot? Will you, will you?”

To hear some “experts” this will be the fate of those who have large mortgages. The fate of people who will be bankrupted by interest rates climbing even a percent or two. The fate of people who, when their mortgage has to be renewed, can’t come up with the difference between what is owed on the mortgage and the new, lower assessed value.

The Norns

The doomsayers say that house prices will drop 25%, 40%, 70%. All equity will be lost. Foreclosures will happen. It will be slow  but relentless, just like when the bank foreclosed on my grandfather’s house. The furniture will go out on the street. Or to the auction. Or sold off for whatever you can get at a garage sale.

The doomsayers, rubbing their hands with glee, are selling their properties, hoarding cash, waiting for when the banks and credit unions, desperate to unload properties they’ve foreclosed on, put up wall dividers, pin hundreds of pictures of houses and condos on them. Just like they did in the 1980s. I remember those wall dividers and pictures. If you had cash, you could bargain for 50% of the mortgage. Mortgage of 300,000? Buy it out for 150,000. The person foreclosed on may have paid off 200,000. Doesn’t matter. They couldn’t come up with the difference, they couldn’t make the payments, they couldn’t keep their job, they couldn’t stop getting sick, they couldn’t keep their marriage intact, they couldn’t. They couldn’t.

Tent city, New Jersey, USA Photo by Robert Johnson

Of course, there are the flippers, the ones who have been buying condos before they are built, get in early, get in cheap and when the condos are built, sell and make a big profit. Make a really big profit by buying five with as little down as possible. Now caught with prices falling. There goes the Ferrari.

And the builders. You’d think the builders, being in the business, would be the first to avoid disaster. Never. They never see it coming. They’re building houses for which they want twice the assessed value. Except the doomsayers say that soon assessed value will mean nothing. In the Vancouver area, in Victoria, in the Okanagan, the unheard of, the unbelievable is  happening. Houses are selling below assessed value. Even more unbelievable in these places where the only direction for prices is up, asking prices below assessment aren’t bringing in sellers, aren’t even bringing in viewers.

That, of course, is the doomsayers point of view. But the real estate agents are saying nonsense, the bankers are saying nonsense, the mortgage brokers are saying nonsense, they’re not making land anymore, immigration creates constant demand, rich Chinese will pay any price to have a haven.

Will we, like the Americans, have tent cities of those foreclosed on, tossed out into the street? Will we have people who, over campfires, reminisce fondly about when they had granite counter tops? Solid maple cabinets, Molteni Range Cookers, with  a Combination Oven, the Blast Chiller, the Precision Vacuum Sealer, and even a Stand Mixer. Will some men weep with memories of a lost P.D. Part Cooker? Will the dispossessed as they spoon beans out of tin, despair over their lost Perlick Outdoor Fridge and Beer Dispenser? Will there be one upmanship as someone mentions the Kalamazoo 900 Series Hybrid Grill? Will someone lie awake at night, tossing and turning, as she remembers her Cal Spa Outdoor Super Sports Cabana (35,000) at the edge of her swimming pool, now someone else’s at half the price or less?

If you listen to the doomsayers, all this will come to pass. The Lexus will be lost. A shower at KOA will be a treat.

Not here, mortgage holders scoff, not here. It’s different here, in Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg. The real estate agents, the bankers, the mortgage brokers say, that’s right. Calgary is booming, Saskatoon is booming, Winnipeg never felt the recession. Here, we will get to keep our granite counter tops, our Kaos lamp fixture by Orazio, our Vividus mattress.

Take your pick. Place your bets. Ask the Norns for guidance.