Keeping Our Dream Alive

How do you keep a dream alive? A dream that is impossible, that is guaranteed to shatter against hard reality?

When the Iceland emigrants left for North America, they had little knowledge of the continent and what they thought they knew was often wrong. This was no different from any of the other ethnic groups streaming across the Atlantic.

In Michael Ewanchuk’s book,Pioneer Profiles he says that when the first Ukrainian settlers came to the New Iceland region, they went west where there was still land available, waded in swamps up to t heir waists, and when they came back to their wives and families, they cried. The information enticing emigrants exaggerated the benefits, the quality of the land, and living conditions.

The Icelanders came earlier, arriving in New Iceland in 1875, and instead of finding streets paved with gold, or even decent farm land, found bush and swamp. The marginal land in New Iceland defeated the dream of an exclusive Icelandic community. Faced with harsh conditions many left for Winnipeg or land further to the west.

In spite of this turn of events, they survived and for a hundred and forty years the Icelandic North American community has found ways to preserve its identity.

Although religion divided the community, the various churches provided a community where people could hear a service in Icelandic, could speak Icelandic and could receive help in dealing with the problems of being new immigrants. During my childhood and teenage years, the church still had a lot of authority. It taught religion and morals, a bit of history and provided solace in times of tragedy.

Few people today understand how religious the original immigrants were.The Icelandic immigrants who arrived in Manitoba were devout, intolerant, argumentative and wasted energy and resources in arguments which had little actual purpose. As usual, the religion was a vessel for containing differing views on social behaviour. Should the settlers isolate themselves, create a society that was exclusively Icelandic, that would exclude non-Icelanders, or should they attempt to integrate as quickly as possible? That question split the community.

The church services, once in Icelandic, gradually changed to English. Language is the centre of identity and it was being lost. The church, always a conservative institution loyal to the past, held on as long as it could but, finally, had to face the fact that many of its parishioners only understood English. At the same time, urbanization meant rural communities died, leaving behind graveyards and empty church buildings. The conservative forces of rural life and rural religion largely disappeared.

The Icelanders in Winnipeg created the Jon Bjarnason Academy. It was to be a Lutheran and Icelandic school. Icelandic was taught.
At first, it drew students with Icelandic backgrounds. Over time, the school drew non-Icelandic students because it was allowed to teach the equivalent of first year university. When that right was extended to other schools, the need for people to pay for their children’s education disappeared and the school closed.

Not one but two Icelandic papers were created: Logberg and Heimskringla. One Lutheran and liberal and the other Unitarian and conservative. Once again, time, resources, money were wasted in fierce, bitter battles. Looking back at things that were written by Icelanders about other Icelanders, one is tempted to say shame on them.

When the Icelandic immigrants left Iceland, their leaving was often regarded as treason. Iceland was on the cusp of getting its independence from Denmark. Some people felt that people were leaving who were needed in the struggle for independence. Others, the wealthy farmers, for example, were opposed to emigration because they were losing cheap labour. Ordinary farm workers had been exploited, some so badly that they thought that black slaves in America were better off. The leaving created a lot of hard feelings on both sides.

Somehow, even though lack of experience and knowledge meant that the immigrants went to areas where there was little or no opportunity such as Nova Scotia where all the good land was already taken, to Kinmount, where the land was not suitable for farming, to New Iceland in Manitoba where the land was so marginal that it guaranteed poverty for most people, they survived. Not just survived, but over time, prospered and with absolute determination, kept hold of their Icelandic heritage.

It took time for society to become secular and more tolerant. In the interim, the churches did provide cohesion, education, and direction. Bringing people together for services and various celebrations and events, helped to create community, helped to provide assistance to those in need, helped people deal with all too frequent tragedies. They were a stabilizing force in a changing society. First formally, then informally, they helped preserve the Icelandic language.

Although the Jon Bjarnason Academy closed, the department of Icelandic was created at the University of Manitoba. It became one of the pillars of the community, providing instruction in Icelandic and in Icelandic literature and culture. The Icelandic library became a repository for historical documents and literature.

The two papers, Logberg and Heimskringla, faced with the reality of people moving away from New Iceland and Winnipeg, with fewer people reading Icelandic, joined and became a single paper. Survival required that differences had to be set aside. The compromise created the rules that there would be no sex, no politics, and no religion. No sex was so as not to offend the ammas and aunties, no choosing sides in politics to get over the divide between the Liberal and Conservative ranting and raving, and no religion to stop the feuding between the Lutherans and Unitarians.

The paper, in spite of complaints about it not being just what any individual wants, is essential to the continuing survival of the Icelandic North American community. It is the second pillar of the community. Just saying North American is controversial. When I was editor, I had people threaten to cancel their subscription because I used North American instead of Canadian. As if all those people of Icelandic descent in Minnesota, North Dakota, Washington State, etc. don’t exist or don’t matter. We are a small group. Gathered together, we would hardly be noticed in the population in most major cities. We need every one of us. LH needs every subscription it can get.

LH is critical to the community because it tells us, or should tell us, about each other. It should entertain us but it should also inform and educate us. Without it, I wouldn’t have known about the descendants of the Icelanders in Nova Scotia. I wouldn’t have known about the descendants in Washington State. Our greatest danger is that we will lose touch with each other. We will stop knowing who we are. Outposts that are forgotten die.

In support and recognition of our ethnic identity, an Islendingadagurinn was created in Winnipeg in 1890. It was moved to Gimli in 1932. This celebration is the third pillar of our identity.

This Icelandic Celebration has helped to give the community cohesiveness. Once a year on the first weekend in August, people travel from all over North America and from Iceland to join together. VIPs from Iceland, including the Prime Minister, the President, have come to join the party. Women put on traditional dresses from the time of emigration. Plastic Viking helmets are ubiquitous. There are speeches extolling our virtues and the virtues of our visitors. There is Icelandic Canadian food. There are displays of Icelandic goods and Icelandic Canadian memorabilia. What is important, though, is that the community congregates, renews friendships, re-enforces its ethnic identity.

Sometimes in the not too distant past, some say 1971, others say, 1975, there was a rapprochement between the Icelanders in Iceland and the descendants of the settlers. My great grandfather had so little use for the Iceland he left behind at the age of eighteen that he wouldn’t even walk half a block to the site of the annual celebration. He wasn’t alone. The emigration left a lot of bitterness on both sides of the Atlantic. The schools in Iceland taught that the people who emigrated were traitors, running away when they were needed. The people who left often harboured dark memories. A lot of people on both sides of the Atlantic have worked hard at changing that and turning old enmity into friendship.

Air travel has meant that people could go to Iceland and Icelanders could come to North America. As usual, when people get to know each other, they find their prejudices against others don’t have much foundation. Now, with a tremendous effort by people like Pam Furstenau with her Icelandic Roots project, families are re-uniting. The Icelandic government has also made tremendous efforts to help the community rediscover its Icelandic identity.

We, as a community, need to provide support for Logberg-Heimskringla, the Icelandic Department at the  U. of Manitoba and Islendingadagurinn. We have a history in North America and in Iceland that is worth preserving and celebrating.

Who Am I?

My grandfather came to Winnipeg from Ireland before WWI. He already had three sisters in Winnipeg, all three married to Scotsmen. His Winnipeg world was very Anglo-Saxon. He and my grandmother lived on a street with an English family on one side, a Scots family on the other, and an Irish family across the way.

From the time I was very young, I was shipped on the bus from Gimli to Winnipeg. My mother would take me to the bus, explain to the bus driver that my grandmother would meet the bus at the station in Winnipeg and off I’d go. My grandmother, always faithful, would be waiting at the spot where the bus pulled in, standing on her tip toes to try to see into the bus windows.

The bus trips, especially in winter, weren’t without some anxiety. Dark came early and with it the landscape, especially the long stretches of highway without any farm houses or roadside stores, disappeared. There was just the fragments of highway, the odd sign, the occasional passing car, outside the tunnel of the bus’s lights.

Even when I was too young for school, as I sat in my plush bus seat that was too big for me, too high for me, I worried about what would happen if I got off at the wrong stop, if the bus broke down, if it went to some place unfamiliar, if my grandmother wasn’t there to greet me. How would I find my way back home? How would I find my way to my grandparent’s house in a distant part of the city?

These were the days before parents worried about abductions of children by strangers, of pedophiles prowling bus and train stations, or would be pimps lurking around transit points. My fellow passengers were young airmen. There was an airbase outside of Gimli and there was such a shortage of transport that the buses often had stools with metal legs and canvas tops that could be lined up along the aisle.

In those cases where an airman would push me out of my paid for seat, the bus driver rather than getting into a fist fight with some young, aggressive and often drunk passenger, would get me to come to the front and sit beside him on the flat hump between him and the stairwell of the front door. I could sprawl on it and no one had thought yet of seat belts or the danger of flying bodies or suitcases.

My life with my Irish grandparents was uneventful. They left Ireland for opportunity, peace and tranquility. They did not carry the conflict from Northern Ireland with them. In their house there was little to identify their ethnicity. My grandmother listened to the singing of John McOrmack. My grandfather listened to the BBC news on the radio. When I was little, he sat me on his knee and recited “Master McGrath”. Once a year, he pulled his Orangmen’s sash out of a box, put it on and marched down Portage Avenue to drums and bagpipes. We watched the parade and didn’t know about the Troubles in Ireland because neither my grandmother nor grandfather talked about them. After the parade, we went to some nearby community for a picnic. Off in the distance there would be a stage and people made speeches. We ate ham and potato salad and the men had a beer. The only anti-Catholic thing I ever heard my grandfather say was “Down with the Pope.” That was after about three beer. He never said it after tea or coffee.

We tried to make them more Irish by giving them gifts made in Ireland. My brother and I both gave my grandmother a Belleek teapot and cups. They never got used. They sat on knick knack shelves, too precious to risk at tea time. We gave my grandmother an Irish towel but it was for Southern Ireland. No one had bothered to teach us any Irish geography or history.
When I was six or so, I remember my grandfather taking me to watch some soccer matches. It was cold and uncomfortable and didn’t make any sense.

I’m half Irish, that is both my grandparents came from Ireland. My mother was one hundred percent Irish. I guess I could go to Ireland and apply for Irish citizenship. I’m not sure what the point would be. Although she often told me that she was going to take me back to Ireland to visit, my grandmother never did. She never returned to Ireland. My grandfather returned to Ireland when he was on leave during WWI. That’s when he met my grandmother.

When he came back to Canada on a hospital ship in 1918, he was very ill from a shrapnel wound. It was a long time before he was able to leave the hospital. The war to end all wars was over. He didn’t choose to return to Ireland to farm.

He wrote my grandmother to ask her to come to Canada and marry him. She did that. As she said, there was nothing in Ireland for her. The land was entailed and she’d have spent her life being a servant for her brother’s wife, raising her brother’s children. In Canada, she had her own husband and children and her own house.

I miss them, I miss their accents.

A Northern Irish accent is wonderful. It is like being washed in warm water. I sometimes wish that my grandmother had kept her promise to take me with her to Ireland when I was in grade school. I’d have met some relatives, visited some castles and seen Loch Neagh and where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

Who knows, I might have developed a passion for Irish literature instead of the literature of the American South.

They didn’t ask for their ashes to be sent back to Ireland. Their bodies are buried in a small Manitoba graveyard that is inclined to flood in the spring. They are within hearing distance of the waves of Lake Winnipeg on a windy day. They’d lived out their lives in Winnipeg with its fierce winters and muggy summers. They had a cottage at Gimli, the centre of Icelandic immigration to Canada. It was to Gimli that they moved when they could no longer manage on their own in Winnipeg.

They lived with my parents until they died. They couldn’t bring much with them for it was a tiny house, even for two people, never mind four. My grandmother kept her Belleek and my grandfather kept his black thorn walking stick. They kept their accents but not much more. Maybe that was appropriate because they’d left Ireland a long time in the past.

And me? Who am I? Are fragmented memories three generations on enough to claim one is anything? That essential Canadian question in a country that does little or nothing to help us define ourselves and saying we’re not American isn’t an answer.