Food for the Soul

salmongears

When the first Icelandic settlers arrived in Victoria, the city already had a substantial history. In Iceland, there was no military. When they came to Victoria, they came to a city that started off as a fort and, as an outpost of the British Empire, was always vulnerable to attack as a result of European conflicts.

Esquimalt Harbour was used by the British Navy in the 1840s. By the 1850s, a fully active naval base had been established. A fort was built at Macaulay Point 1894 to 1897. That Point was armed and rearmed numerous times as more powerful weapons were created to fend off an invasion. While people today often find the idea of an invasion of Vancouver Island amusing, during WWII, a family that had owned the last house I lived in prior to this one, sold it for a pittance and fled inland because they were certain that a Japanese invasion was going to occur at any time. The Japanese army and navy had successfully conquered one area after the other and seemed unstoppable.

Back in the days when there was an Icelandic community on Spring Ridge, the naval base in Victoria was an active, important place and during the years leading up to and during WW1, it became even more important.

Today, the Macaulay Point area incorporates a beach, a greensward, and winding trails that, from time to time, pass the large concrete and stone emplacements built to defend the West Coast. The old bunkers, ammunition houses and a spiderweb of tunnels (one tunnel goes back to 1895 about nine years after those first Icelanders stepped off the local steamer) are fascinating. The view over the Strait of Juan de Fuca is exceptional

However, today I didn’t just go to wander among the historical sites or to take in the thrashing waves but to take in Sculpture Splash.

greensward

Along the ocean walk and on the greensward, out on the granite outcrops, over ninety sculptures were on display. They were worth the trip. The show was, like all good art shows, full of surprises. One of the tasks of an artist or writer is to get the viewer to look at something familiar in a new way. These artists certainly did that.

There were, for example, two large heads of crocodiles at the edge of the sand. It would have been easy to miss them but as a spectator said to me as he put his hand on my shoulder, “Isn’t that amazing!” I agreed. It was amazing. Two crocodiles staring up at us out of the sand and water.

There were the Asian stone heads set on a rocky outcrop. Given the importance of the Chinese in the history of Victoria (I believe we have Canada’s oldest Chinatown), I felt it was a nice bow in the direction of our Asian history. Now, I would like to see an expanded art exhibition in or before the Chinese cemetery at Harling Point.

There was a nearly life-size rhino hiding in the tall grass on the edge of a cliff, looking like he was going to rush at the passersby. There were birds on the beach made of the most inventive items, feathers from dinner knives, for example. Salmon created from metal gears. A wooden man on a bench but a man that looked like an android. People were lined up to get their picture taken with him.

There were demonstrations and classes and a steady stream of people with their dogs. Dogs love this area because they can be off leash. There were nearly as many cameras as dogs. I knew how successful the sculptures were from the array of cameras that were out. The sculptures were fascinating, surprising, delightful and part of that was the choice of having the show outdoors at Macaulay Point with the wind blowing, a few flecks of rain to remind us that we were on the West Coast, the waves breaking on the rocks, two eagles floating overhead. All that was needed was for a pod of Orcas to come by to say hello. They are seen fairly regularly in this area.

I had lots of work to do today but I’m glad I took the time to drive to Sculpture Splash. Our stomach needs to be fed but so does our soul and, sometimes, lost in our busy days, we forget about nourishing our soul.

Ben Sivertz: West Coast Icelander

 

victoria-bc

The Victoria of 1897.

Bob Asgeirson once told me that he was working in Winnipeg when he took the train to Vancouver for a holiday. He left in a blizzard and when he got to Vancouver, a gentle rain was falling and everything was green. He immediately booked a ticket back to Winnipeg, quit his job and moved permanently to the West Coast.

When I first arrived  here (I was living in Missouri,  and the phone rang and an English voice said, “Would  you like to come back to Canada and teach at the University of Victoria?”), it was because a job was proffered and accepted.

Richard Beck had retired here. One of the great promoters of everything Icelandic,  he had taught at the University of North Dakota until his retirement and then moved to Victoria. His wife had relatives here. When he died, he left his house to the University of Victoria to create the Richard and Margaret Beck Trust.

We all came to the West Coast at different times for different reasons, drawn here by weather, by jobs, by family.

When I came to Victoria, I had no idea that it contained an Icelandic history, that, at one time, an Icelandic community with a store and a church existed in Fernwood.  All of this would be revealed by Ben Sivertz, the quintessential Icelandic Canadian.

I met Ben at the University of Victoria at a Richard and Margaret Beck lecture. Ben was short, slightly built, had a white goatee and was one of the most accomplished and modest individuals I have ever met. A lot of people respect, even worship money, and if someone is lucky enough or smart enough to accumulate a lot of money, a lot of people worship them. Ben wanted none of that. He took no credit for his wealth. He once said to me, “I don’t know how it happened but everything I touched, turned to money.” He was the only person I’ve ever known who owned an original Van Gogh. That kind of money.

However, it wasn’t his money that made Ben impressive. It was his Icelandic-ness.

220px-William_Irving_(sternwheeler)_and_Geo_E_Starr_in_Victoria_BC_1880s_a_00154

William Irving, sidewheeler, Victoria, 1880

His parents were Christian Sivertz and Elinborg Samuelsdottir. They emigrated, separately, from Iceland to Manitoba in the late 1880s. They met in Victoria in 1890. Christian and Elinborg married in 1893 and eventually had six sons.

Ben says in his autobiography “The Life of Bent Gestur Sivertz A Seaman, A Teacher and a Worker in the Canadian Arctic” “The Icelandic families of Victoria were not numerous, perhaps twenty in all, settled mostly around Spring Ridge, the district now called Fernwood. This group of about 100 people spoke the language of their birth and were lively, friendly, and immensely helpful to each other as they sought social, economic, and intellectual orientation in the new land. There were Sunday gatherings in different homes where the house would fill with people in an atmosphere of story and song, coffee and cake and poems—always poems. Recent compositions would be read and met with universal applause.”

Ben’s father, Christian, had spent four summers as a fireman and second engineer on Lake Winnipeg. He also spent twenty-seven months working at the Winnipeg Gas and Electric plant, twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for $1.50 a day. The CPR had started carrying passengers to the Pacific Coast in 1886 and in 1890, Christian took the train west. His parents, three brothers and a sister followed him to Victoria from Winnipeg.

There were other Icelanders, of course, settling not just in Victoria but in various parts of British Columbia and, even if the distances were large and the travel not easy, blood bound people together. The Thorlakssons, for example, were operating a cattle ranch eight miles south of Vernon. They wanted to send their daughters to Victoria for further education and appealed to Elinborg to give them room and board.

One fine summer day some years ago, Ben took Mattie Gislason and me on a walk-about through Spring Ridge. He showed us all the houses in which Icelanders had lived, named the occupants, told us their history and showed us the house where he and his brothers were born.

He didn’t brag about how much money he had, or how he had served in the Royal Canadian Navy, had run a school for navigation, retired with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and been awarded the Order of the British Empire. He never mentioned that he’d had a career as a foreign service officer in the department of External affairs and chief of the Arctic division in the department of Northern Affairs or was the Commissioner of the NWT. It was only with a bit of prompting from Mattie that he mentioned that the Hay River arena is named after him.

Christian’s parents and Elinborg’s parents left Iceland, not to have a great adventure, but because conditions in Iceland were dire. Political oppression, life threatening weather,  hunger, lack of opportunity for a better life, caused them to move to Canada. Once in Canada, they played an important role within the Icelandic community on the West Coast. One of their sons gave his life in the war.

The Icelandic community does not end at the boundaries of New Iceland. Many came there first because, as with all immigrant groups, individuals need a place where a transformation can take place: where English can be learned, where new skills can be mastered, where a new system can be assimilated. New Iceland and Winnipeg provided that resting place, that place of learning for many of the immigrants.

However, opportunity in New Iceland was severely limited. The Interlake of Manitoba was, when I was growing up, the second poorest part of Canada, after Newfoundland. The journey could not be over for many of those seeking a better life. They moved out, to Winnipeg, to the Argyle area, to Saskatchewan, to Alberta, to British Columbia, Washington State, down to California.

As the community fanned out seeking opportunity, each part became smaller, more a part of the larger, multi-ethnic community of North America. However, some traditions still exist, even if they only occur from time to time. When Viðar Hreinson was in Victoria, I held a reception for him in my home. He gave a reading from his biography of Stephan G. Stephanson, Wakeful Nights. He also read poetry. I remembered what Ben had written about those early Sundays that ‘the house would fill with people in an atmosphere of story and song, coffee and cake and poems—always poems. Recent compositions would be read and met with universal applause.” And I invited them back, those who had come before us, to join us for an evening, to listen, once again, to poetry being read in Icelandic. I made them welcome and I know they accepted the invitation for the house felt full, not just from those of us who live In the present but also with those who created both us and our past.

(Information for this article came from two of Ben’s books: The Life of Bent Gestur Sivertz (available on Amazon) and  The Sivertz Family Book 1 Christian Sivertz)