Economist extraordinaire


Story by Karen Morrison

When others are hanging their “gone fishin’” sign Leo Kristjanson is contemplating how to save the western economy.

The former president of the University of Saskatchewan retired to Gimli, Manitoba, this past year to try to slow down the advance of Parkinson’s disease. But he hasn’t spent the time idly watching the boats go by in this sleepy resort town.

He renovated a brother’s home and daughter’s basement with his wife Jean, while continuing with fund raising efforts for the University of Saskatchewan’s new agriculture building. Somewhere in between, he found time to create The Western Institute for Public Policy.

He had planned to take a one year’s leave and see if his health improved, but as the Kristjansons conceded they have since decided to move the furniture to Gimli.
The transition has been no less difficult for jean, whose schedule was kept busy raising their four children, and in volunteer activities. Playground equipment in the backyard indicates time is now spent enjoying the next generation of six Kristjanson grandchildren.
Leo credits much of his success to having Jean at home to keep the home fires burning when he was away. In retirement, Leo laments that time away from his family. “He did a lot on the job and did a lot of extra things,” said Jean, a self-proclaimed feminist who chose to give up nursing and raise a family. “In order to do those extra things someone had to be at home.”

“Jean gets very little credit for what I did at university but it would have been impossible for me to act as I did without that understanding and participation,” said Leo, who was quick to point out his family member’s many accomplishments alongside his own.

His latest project, the public policy institute, is comprised of academics, businessmen and lawyers seeking to generate research and challenge fiscal policies of the Bank of Canada and government.

Calling such work good therapy for both the mind and body, the conversation quickly becomes more philosophical as he launches into a long-winded explanation of what the institute’s goals are.

“It emerged because a group talked about the nature of the response to insufficiencies and inadequacies in society,” he said, noting most reactions have been too stereotyped.
“You have people wanting to turn the clock back to solve the problems of the future or turning the clock back to something that didn’t exist,” he said. “They didn’t really have a complete grasp of what’s happening.”

Privatization is espoused as the answer to our current economic woes, but he said letting the market rule doesn’t work any better than the total government involvement of Eastern Europe.

He said the answer is to find what is appropriate to solve particular problems of society, with the main goals of his group being western solutions to western problems.
Leo’s personal goals for individuals to live with dignity, self –respect and equity are also the goals of the institute.

The group produced a research paper examining growth, income, immigration and investment levels over the last decade called the “State of the West Report”.

They have plans to do it annually, commissioning studies on a code of ethics for public officials, on the state of housing in the West, examining ways of creating equal pay for women in the workplace, and on poverty and health care systems.

Downplaying his role in the group Leo said, “I agreed to chair this group for a little while, but we need to let people in with more ideas than I have.”

He encourages that innovativeness because it is a means of helping people feel some control over their own destiny, as opposed to having Main Street Canada impose what it feels best for Canada on the West.

“Instead of asking what we can do, there is a tendency to ask what programs are available for this purpose,” he said. “I think things can be done that are uniquely western and unique to a particular region.”

Lobbying Ottawa to create programs is the traditional approach, but Leo said solutions might be more available through purely local action. “Politicians will try to solve it when it really is more suitably handled at the local level,” he said.

Leo warned against universities fueling this bureaucratic solution to problems by producing people enslaved to systems, citing the dehumanizing effects of assigning student numbers and enrollment quotas.

“A number is unique but if you don’t deal with it as a unique individual, then you lose students with particular characteristic,” he said.

“People look at them as the 30 to 500 who didn’t get in—it’s not 500 people whose careers might be affected,” he said, reiterating his desire to treat people with dignity. He noted he might have been one of those denied education opportunities when he applied to do a PhD in economics with a master’s degree in history.

He felt a greater share of the country’s gross national product should be invested in education in the West to solve current funding crises.

He expressed concern over the urban orientation of the University of Saskatchewan, publicly funded by a largely rural, agricultural tax base. There has to be special effort made in extension services for this rural community, building it into the workload of the staff, he said.

One of six boys and two girls born to Hannes and Elin Kristjanson, Leo’s support for the grass roots approach and the co-operative movement and his sense of responsibility towards community and family came from his Unitarian upbringing. His parents brought the family as children to Manitoba from Iceland.

Today the Kristjanson siblings continue to gravitate there to t heir summer and year-round homes and to the original two-story homestead, in which Leo and Jean now live. “It’s where we belong,” said Leo simply.

While his sisters Maria and Alda chose careers traditional for the time, in business and nursing, Leo and his brothers all pursued doctoral degrees. Baldur was an agricultural economics professor, Larry, assistant chief commissioner of the Canadian Wheat Board, and Kris was chairman of Manitoba Hydro and Great-West Life Insurance Company. Albert worked as a sociology professor and Burbank was once the agricultural advisor to the Shah of Iran. They were raised to challenge world issues, but also to help one another and their fellow man.

Leo’s goal while university vice-president and president was to enhance the agricultural component, by establishing the centre for agricultural medicine and a new $75 million agriculture building now nearly completion.

For the immediate future, he looks to upgrading the sprawling 1914 retirement cottage on the lake in which he was born and raised, taking time off only to accept such prestigious recent honors as being named to the Saskatchewan Agricultural Hall of Fame and Order of Canada.

Published on WDValgardsonKaffiHus with permission from The Western Producer and Western People magazine, Nov. 1, 1990.

Boys Pretending to be Vikings


viking landing

At the end of Thorgerdur Einarsdóttir’s (professor of Gender Studies, University of Iceland) Beck lecture on the Viking Banksters, she included a poem by Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttur (1983).


When all has been said

When the problems of the world

Have been weighed gauged and settled

When eyes have met

And hands been pressed

In the sobriety of the moment

–some woman always comes

To clear the table

Sweep the floor and open the windows

To let out the cigar smoke.

It never fails.

Many centuries before, the role of the Icelandic housewife had been described by a German trader, Gories Peerse, who had gone to Iceland between 1554 and 1586. Peerse wrote a long poem about his stay in Iceland. This poem was translated by David Koester from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

And there no one stands up from the table [lit. dishes]

who needs to pass water, believe me about that.

The lady of the house must pass him the chamber pot,

and she doesn’t turn away,

and must take it back from him.

They are not ashamed of that.

She must then get rid of it,

that is the manner and custom of this land.

By 1983 the women aren’t passing the pot, but they’re still cleaning up after the men who indulge themselves and leave a mess. By 2008 the mess made by men is greater than it has ever been. Never before has the ability to borrow money at so little cost been possible. Now, the men can borrow recklessly, and borrowing vast sums, can buy recklessly, buy grocery chains, clothing stores, football teams, A Landsbanki employee in Gimli, Manitoba, for Íslendingadagurinn, was heard shouting into his cell phone, buy, buy, buy.

How much brains does it take to borrow money and then spend it? It works all right if it is someone else’s credit card and after paying themselves handsomely for having borrowed as much as possible and spent it by overbidding everyone else, when the bills came due and couldn‘t be paid, they then said, “Hey, this isn’t my credit card. It’s yours.” And walked away with the money they had given ourselves.

What the banksters did or tried to do was privatize profits and socialize debts. Nifty. They made the deals, they paid themselves, they gave themselves vast bonuses, they raked in the money. Woops. It all crashed. Not their problem. Let the tax payer pick up the bill. What a great system for the elite group who have been running an old boy network. Favours for favours. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. We were good friends in high school and college and we know each other. Never mind merit. Never mind competence. Let’s you and me do a deal.

Bonuses are given for exceptional competence. Or that’s what they are supposed to be for. Nobody is competent who causes a financial crash. Ergo. All those bonuses should be paid back with interest. They were obtained under false pretenses.

Thorgerdur Einarsdóttir, in her lecture ‚“Finance Vikings,Masculinities, and the Economic Collapse in Iceland“, had an interesting thesis. The banking mess was created by a bunch of hyperactive, testosterone driven, vain, self-important men (MEN). Women such as Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, were elected to clean up the mess. Thorgerdur’s thesis includes the idea that if the exclusive little private group of men were forced to include women some of the juvenile “We’re Vikings and we know more than anyone else, we know more than the credit rating agencies, more than the Norwegian, Danish, Swedish bankers. The Vikings raided the known world and brought home loot and we’re Vikings,” would have some limits put on it. The banksters and businessmen conveniently left out the fact that most Vikings were Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish. They left out the fact that Iceland’s population during Viking times and during the present is too small to have any real impact. Yup, we’re such hotshots that we’re going to sail into Hong Kong and conquer China next.

From the repeated references to the Vikings and how the banksters and businessmen were like Vikings, and the overwhelming sense of self-importance, one wonders that they didn’t take on the names of the pagan gods. I’m Thor. I’m Odin. I’m Loki. If they ran out of avatars, they could have started including fictional characters. I’m Conan. I’m Xena. Oh, wait, no. Well, maybe some of them. It’s hard to say.

Of course, some of them could have taken names from the sagas. Hmm, they probably already had names from the sagas. Maybe that’s why they had juvenile fantasies about being Vikings. When I was a boy and went to see movies (cowboy, pirate, Viking, army), I and my friends played at being cowboys, pirates, Vikings, and soldiers but we had adults around to keep us in touch with reality. “No, you may not borrow your father’s rifle and bullets to play army.” If we’d been to a movie about bankers and wanted to play at being bankers for a few days, my mother would have said, “No, you may not borrow your father’s wallet to play banker.”

Thorgerdur’s recommendations include more gender equality. No more relegating Icelandic women to holding the piss pot. No more relegating Icelandic women to cleaning up after the men make a mess.

Insist on quotas on the number of women on boards of companies.

Monitor big and important companies to keep the old boy network from packing the boards with their friends.

Demand that women be part of state administration, that information and decision making be public.

Insist on breaking down gender stereotypes in rural areas.

Given the juvenile behavior of the banksters and the business boys, it might be a good idea to place women in charge who could give them time out for bad behaviour, send them to their rooms, and take away their salaries and bonuses.

The problem, of course, is that this behaviour has been going on in Icelandic society since Gories Peerse’s time. Let’s say from 1500 to the present. That’s 513 years. The self-important group with the big egos have family histories of cosy relationships, privilege and the absolute belief they have the right to be privileged. The strange idea that North Americans of Icelandic background have had that there were no social classes in Iceland and everyone was equal left out who owned the keys to the food cupboard, who owned the land, who did the hiring. Just because the boss is poor, doesn’t mean he isn’t the boss. He still decides whether you are employed, what and how much you eat, what clothes you get to wear, how much work you have to do, how much you get paid.

Icelanders make a big thing out of genealogy. Hey, hey, my lineage leads to a bishop (got his privileged position by appointment from the Danes), a public official (got his appointment from the Danes), had a business (probably in partnership with or funded by the Danes). My ancestors were privileged and that makes us an important family and I, therefore, have the right to be privileged and the rest of you whose ancestors weren’t as important (your ancestors weren’t as good at sucking up to the Danes) as mine, have no right to make decisions, no right to all this money, no right to trophy wives.

Thorgerdur’s right, of course. Get women into the decision making process and some of the I’m- a-Viking fantasy will be shrunk. Break up and refuse to allow the old boy network to function and when it starts, have laws in place to stop it. No more attitude such as we were so impressed by these really, really important people we were supposed to be supervising that we really, really couldn’t bring ourselves to pick up the phone and insist that we have a meeting and find out what they were doing. After all, they were important.

For a long time in Iceland, people who weren’t large farm owners endured dreadful treatment. Many came to see the elite who ruled did so by a kind of divine right. The church supported the elite. It knew on which side its dried cod was buttered. That kind of situation creates an attitude among some people that says those people really are more important than us. We don’t deserve the things they deserve. They do have the right to take what they want and, if we’re lucky, they’ll throw a few dried cod heads our way. It’s the trickle-down-dried-cod-head effect.

God, if only we could bring Laxness back from the grave.