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.

A Fond Farewell


There are goodbyes that are hard. These are the kind where it is likely that you will never see someone again. Such goodbyes were frequent in days past. I’ve heard about them in reminiscences of Icelandic people. Most emigrants getting onto a boat knew that they would never return to Iceland, the last glimpse of a mother, father, brother, sister, friend, would be the last glimpse they would ever have.

I’ve heard the same story on the train station in Liviv. The tearful goodbyes as a train left the station and their relatives and friends followed along for a few steps for one last look at the person who was leaving for America.

We have in Winnipeg the opposite situation now. Atli Asmundsson, the consul  general, and his wife, Þrúður Helgadóttir, after spending years among us, will be leaving Canada and returning to Iceland.

It is normal for diplomats to be constantly on the move. Like people in the military, they get posted from Vancouver to some place in Africa. From Africa to China.  From here to there, filling a position, doing a necessary job, then being moved for some unfathomable reason.

What is unique about Atli and Þrúður  is the length of time they’ve stayed in Winnipeg and how, during that time, they have become so much a part of the community that it seems impossible that they would not continue to be part of it.

When I briefly took over as editor of Lögberg-Heimskingla, I had no experience as a reporter or newspaper editor. I had lived the quiet life of an academic and writer, analyzing and writing manuscripts. Newspapers, I quickly found out, even quite small ones such as LH, attract a lot of passion and conflict.

One of the first conflicts I faced, I was completely unprepared for. However, Atli bought me lunch (it should have been the other way around) and discussed the problem with me and the diplomatic way of handling it. I followed his advice and diplomacy triumphed. It was interesting because in conflict situations, I was inclined to go in with both guns blazing. That wouldn’t have worked too well with board members, subscribers, advertisers, writers, readers and staff.

Some of Atli´s wise counsel was an echo of my mother who always said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Atli rephrased that in diplomatic terms but during my tenure, I did my best to practice it. I didn’t say I did it, I said, I did my best to do it. It takes discipline to govern one’s temper and one’s tongue.

We, that is those of us in Victoria, have had two receptions to honour Atli and ­­þrúður, the Icelander’s of Victoria (that’s our club), the Beck Trust (that’s John Tucker and Patricia Baer and Uvic), and a number of people from the Icelandic Canadian community. We schmoozed, we ate, we had a little to drink, and Atli sat in the big leather chair and charmed us with his story about barely escaping with his life from an exploding Icelandic volcano and about his courting of Þrúður. He survived the volcano and he managed to woo Þrúður even though he says, “At first, she wasn’t impressed.”

It is hard to explain the impact of Atli and Þrúður. He has said about the Icelandic people he has dealt with over the years, “We love you.” And, truly, they do.

JO says that Atli and Þrúður are like royalty for us western Icelanders. Not royalty like the Tudors. More like Good King Wenceslas, full of strength, warmth, and love.

On both occasions of hosting them in my home, JO insisted that we clean and prepare my house as if the Queen were coming for tea. Crowds of Victorian Icelanders came out to see them. JO reminds me when Atli, on one of  his visits to Victoria, addressed Iceland’s financial situation and asked us to love Iceland, in its difficulties, we could not but agree.   Atli and Þrúður have done so much to strengthen the Icelandic diaspora in these modern times.  We know Atli and Þrúður would not like to be called regal, but they likely understand that many Icelandic-Canadians, who are accustomed to the reign of Queen Elizabeth and her ancestors, who pledge allegiance to the British monarch in their work and service to their country, have always longed for stronger ties with our own mother country, Iceland. And through Atli and Þrúður, we have had this.

I have a friend, Lauga, whom I value dearly.  Her parents were from Iceland. She married Agnar R. Magnússon, his people also from Iceland. He taught at the Jon Bjarnason academy, and in the public schools in Riverton and Winnipeg. Agnar died some years ago.

Lauga, at ninety seven, had to move into a nursing home recently. She has lived some 83 years in the west end, 57 years in their Garfield Street home. JO is their youngest daughter, and as the family got ready to sell the storied house, she was making sure that no documents of historic significance were lost. She invited me and Atli and Þrúður over to see the family treasures. We looked at the spinning wheel, old poems, chess games, books, books, and more books, and photographs from as far back as 1917 when Agnar first came to Winnipeg as a teenage student.

Among the photographs were those Agnar had taken on Empire Day 1939, of Icelandic Canadians, crowds of Icelandic-Canadians, dressed to the nines, heading for Sherbrook near Sargent, waiting for King George and his Queen Elizabeth. (I was there, a babe in my mother’s arms, seventy three years ago. )

After viewing these photos, we stepped out onto the streets of Goolietown, JO as our tour guide.  Down Alverstone, up Sargent, up Home Street. Past the houses, the theatres, the Wevel Cafe, the woodlots, the publishers and printers, the J.B. Academy. And JO will tell you this. There were a lot of ghosts. Crowds of ghosts.  All the old Icelanders came out, dressed in their finest. Old Arinbjorn Bardal in his bowler hat, Rev. B.B. Johnson in his morning coat, Loa Davidson in her Fjalkona dress. Salome Halldorson, M.L.A. The Jonssons from Borgafjord. The Longs, the Becks, the Bjerrings and all the other Goodtemplars. The Stephansons, the Sigurdsons, the Olafsons, the Kristjansons, the Swansons, the Eyjolfsons.  Ragnar and his choir. The Unitarians, the Lutherans.  Hjartur Leo and the chess club. The Icelandic-whist and bridge players. Finnur, the Book Binder. Olafur, the Almanak publisher. The Wevel waitresses. Woodlot Kelley and his brother. The fellows working at Columbia press and the Viking Press. Sig the Barber. Principal Marteinsson and his students.  Lulli the poet-plasterer. They were all there, waiting to see our Icelandic royalty, Atli and Þrúður. And the crowds were not disappointed. Atli and Þrúður graced the streets and charmed the ghosts of Goolietown with their wit, love, and devotion.

And then Atli said, let’s go have supper and he and þrúður took us to a restaurant just off Corydon. The food was good, as one would expect since Atli likes good food and knows where to find it, the conversation was lively and interesting because Atli and þrúður are lively and interesting people but what is always most memorable about occasions is when something happens that is unexpected, spontaneous, and it happened as we were eating dessert.

What happened is that the discussion turned toward music and an Icelandic song  was mentioned. þrúður started humming the tune and JO joined her. They sang what they remembered of it and the song was wonderful. There we were in a public restaurant and both JO and þrúður, both of whom have low, strong voices, were having a great time singing together about hope for Iceland’s future.

To me this typifies Atli and þrúður, natural, modest rather than self-important, open and involved, able to turn a meal into a memorable occasion without trying. It is easy to have a good time when you are with them.

Logberg-Heimskringla is having a ljósanótt (an evening of light) to honour them. They deserve to be honoured for all they have done for our community but also for the way that they have embraced the community.

I wish them well. It is hard to think of them not being with us but, today, unlike when our ancestors came to Canada, travel is easy, there are frequent flights to Iceland and from Iceland, goodbye isn’t necessarily for a life time nowadays. So, perhaps instead of saying goodbye, we should say, “Until we meet again.”

(Thanks to JO Magnusson for her help with writing this tribute to Atli and þrúður.)