When the Icelandic immigrants came to Canada, they left a country where the soil was only suitable for grazing. Even that grazing land was only about one percent of the total land because the rest of the country was covered in mountains, lava deserts, lava fields and glaciers. To make matters worse, during many years, because of cold weather, the grass didn’t grow. That meant there was no food for sheep or dairy cows and with the die off of cattle, starvation was inevitable. The only alternative food was fish and in particularly cold years , the harbours filled with ice so that inshore fishing with open boats was not possible. There were no other sources of food.

Visitors to Iceland commented on the fact that farm land could be much improved with drainage. However, the return on drainage, given that it had to be dug by hand and because of the land ownership and rental system, was questionable.

There were attempts to grow grain but those failed. In 1772, Governor Thodal planted barley. It grew well but before it could be harvested, a storm destroyed the crop. Governor Finsen tried to grow oats but it was never warm enough for oats to ripen. In the Faroes, the farmers were able to grow and harvest oats.

At the end of the 1700s, the Danish government established model farms in Húnavatn. The farm managers tried to grow oats, barley, and rye. When walls were built to protect the grain from the cold wind, the grain nearly ripened. We think of Quinoe as a new discovery but in 1875 Burton mentions the possibility of it being grown in Iceland because it is grown in the Peruvian Andes at altitudes and temperatures where no other grain can grow.

Hr. Haldorsen introduced the potato to Iceland and by the time that Burton is writing Ultima Thule, the potato is grown all over Iceland. It is small but satisfactory, he says. Burton suggests that people grow turnips. Radishes are grown but are ‘hard, coarse, and woody.” Spinach is a success.

In the north-west the Stranda Sýsla has tried to grow various kales. Broccoli, turnip-cabbage, red cabbage, cauliflower. Lettuces are common; beets both red and yellow, carrots, onions, garlic, and shallots, chevril, black mustard, watercress, horse radish and parsley.

Ultima Thule was published in 1875 so Burton‘s comments are relevant to the experience of our immigrant ancestors. His observations are not that the growing of these various food plants was widespread but, rather, that they were experimented with. The attempted growing of food plants is reported by other travelers at earlier times but those experiments were usually associated with the bishoprics where there was the influence of clerics from Europe.

Therefore, when the Icelanders boarded ships to Ameríka, their wooden traveling chests were not filled with agricultural implements unless it was the short blade from a scythe. Their only crop was hay and their agricultural experience was limited to manuring a home field, cutting, raking and stacking the grass. They brought no seeds, nor garden implements, no ploughs. They came singularly unprepared for farming.

In New Iceland and as they moved Westward toward Brandon, then Argyle, further to Regina and Swift Current, they learned to evaluate land, but often the lessons were costly both in resources and in lives. Graveyards and family stories testify to that cost.
Many Icelanders began their journey westward from New Iceland shortly after they arrived in 1875. In the meantime, across the Rockies much had been happening during the 1800s.

On Vancouver Island, the Hudson Bay Company established a number of farms in Victoria as far as Colwood. Settlers were arriving and they wanted to have their own farms. One of the first independent farms was bought by a Captain Cooper in 1851. It’s interesting that as the land was cleared, it wasn’t just farmed but sheep and cattle were grazed. That meant when the Icelanders arrived, there was already a precedent and experience in grazing animals locally.

The first gold rush that brought American miners and others north was the Fraser Canyon gold rush of 1857. This rush was mostly over in three years but prospectors kept finding new gold areas. Most miners by necessity and by government decree entered the goldfields through Victoria. Business boomed. Then in 1896 to 1899 the Kondike goldrush began. A hundred thousand hopeful gold seekers headed north.
Cattle ranching developed to feed the early gold seekers but spread beyond that goal as ranchers sought markets for their cattle. In 1876, the year the large group of Icelanders arrived in New Iceland, Thaddeur Sarper started a cattle drive to Salt Lake City. His goal was to put his cattle into rail cars and ship them to Chicago. Instead, seeing an opportunity closer at hand, he shipped the cattle to San Francisco.

The ranchers also started fruit farming. Between 1864 and 1880 one rancher planted a huge orchard. In the meantime, on Salt Spring Island, apples had been growing since 1860. The first Salt Spring Island Fall Fair was held in 1896. By 1900 there were 80 official farms.

The immigrants had left an Iceland plagued by severe weather that brought many of them to the brink of starvation. Their journey had taken some of them to Nova Scotia where poor conditions drove them away. They traveled to Kinmount where tragedy beset them and the land was not suitable for grazing or growing grain. They traveled on to New Iceland to face a dreadful winter and disease. Westward, always westward, looking for good land, for opportunity. When those immigrants who made it to the Coast stepped off a train in Vancouver, after a long and arduous journey, they were greeted with flower gardens, fruit trees, vegetable gardens, wild berries in abundance. They were greeted with cornucopia.

When I was at the Saanich Fair this past weekend, I thought of those Icelanders who came to Vancouver Island in the late 1800s. I gazed at the abundance of vegetables, fruit, and flowers, and when I came across a display of local produce in a basket, I thought Cornucopia, they were greeted by Cornucopia. To me that basket of fresh produce symbolized this new world they had struggled so long and hard to reach. Of course, sadness, hardship, disappointment did not end. Those are all part of life. Tragedy can occur anywhere but for most, the West Coast provided opportunity.

Cornucopia! As I studied the basket on display with its blue ribbon, I thought of those immigrants as I stood there at the Saanich Fair.

(Material for this article from numerous sources including Burton, Ultima Thule. Lutz, Interlude or Industry? Ranching in British Columbia, 1859-1885, British Columbia Historical News, Summer 1980, Vol. 13, No. 4. Sivertz, The Sivertz Family, Book 2, Elinborg. Wickipdia.)

The Saanich Fair

Here in the diaspora on the foggy edge of the world once a year the locals put on a fair. This year is their 148th. That means they started twenty years before the first Icelanders skipped off the ferry and exclaimed, “What have we come to? Is it really summer all year?”
The Saanich Fair is the oldest continuous agricultural fair in Western Canada. It covers so much ground that I didn’t manage to cover it all before I tired out and came home.
Since it is an agricultural fair, there are 4-H sheep judging competitions, a light horse show, rabbit judging, draft horse events, oodles and boodles of llamas and alpacas. There’s a corner market, a farmer’s market, Victoria market gardeners, and a flower arrangement competition. There’s a highland dance competition.
It’s not all just staring at the animals as they stare back at you. If your kids don’t know where t heir milk comes from, there is milking parlour demo that will show them. There’s also a rabbit care and grooming demonstration and a chance to talk to the donkeys and their owners. There are local farm talks and a chance to hear Marilyn: The Backyard Chicken Lady.
For those who like food and are competitive there is a pie eating competition and a spam eating competition. For the kids there are the pedal tractor races and the zucchini car races. If you haven’t filled up on pie, you can enter the cupcake, ice cream or watermelon eating contests.
There are, of course, the rides. The carnival area is so large that the trucks pulling the rides take up acres of space.
For me, the big thing about the Saanich Fair is that people bring their passions to proudly show them, whether that is roosters, ducks, eggs, apples, grapes, pickles, pies, cookies, bread, honey, goats. And more. I get to see the best that the peninsula (and beyond in some cases) provides.
There are flower competitions for every flower you can think of.
To my joy and delight I came across a booth that said Gluten Free Baked Goods. And were they good! I ate a pocket filled with feta and spinach and went back for a pocket filled with peaches and apples. Before I left, I returned only to find the spinach and feta sold out so I bought a pie and a tart. The owner/baker was shaking her head in surprise at the popularity of the spinach-feta pockets. She’ll have more ready tomorrow. It sounds like she’ll be baking all night.
There are booths and booths and displays and displays. There are numerous ethnic food booths, Lebanese, Jewish, Filipino, and many more. It’s a bit like Winnipeg’s Folklorama mixed in with Salish art, fresh vegetables, turkeys and miniature horses.
I ran out of energy before I ran out of things to see. For three days there is entertainment on the main stage. You could go to the fair for three days and just sit and listen. I promise myself that I will do that some year but when I pass through the gates with the surging crowd, I’m caught up with all the things I want to see and experience. I stop at the stage and watch and listen for a bit but there’s the amazing 4-H displays, the art and photography show, the… You get the idea. My feet take on a life of their own. They lead me here and there, willy nilly, into the heritage building filled with items I remember from my childhood, to the blacksmith demonstrations, to youngsters doing tricky manoeuvers on the backs of very large horses.
The line up for food and long. There are signs everywhere saying bring a water bottle with you. There are free fill ups. It’s that kind of Fair. The kind you should plan on attending some time. The kind you should take your kids to, especially if they live in the city. Get them up close to goat or an alpaca. Maybe even have them hold a rabbit.

The Big One Is Coming


It must be a slow day when The Globe and Mail runs an article on the next big earthquake out here in Never Never Land. Usually, their concerns are kept to traffic congestion and Rob Ford’s peccadilloes.

Well, let me say, as I shamble through the honey suckle vines the Oregon grape searching for wind blown trees I can cut up for firewood, always checking over my shoulder, of course, for a cougar that hangs around the place. I think he hopes to turn the ferile peacock into dinner one day. Sorry, I got distracted there so I’ll go back to the first part of that sentence. Let me say that we don’t get too excited when we wake up because the bed is dancing. It reminds me of the days of my passionate youth.

It’s not just the bed, of course. It’s the dresser, side table, the chair and out in the dining room it sounds like a furniture party. Never lasts, of course. When I first moved to the West Coast and there was an earthquake, I’d panic. What else can you expect from a prairie boy? If the furniture started dancing in our house in Manitoba, we’d have hired and exorcist.

The article made it sound like people are prepared. Pshaw! Nonsense. The only person I know who is prepared is my daughter. She’s an accountant. She keeps lists, itemizes, organizes. She’s got blue bins full of canned goods, a can opener, dry foods, water, you name it. Everybody else goes, I’ve got a case of pop and a bottle of whiskey in the garage. That’ll do until the helicopters come. We’re okay. I think there’s stash of potato chips down there as well.

During the time that I was the Chair of a University department in Victoria, I had to attend a number of earthquake preparedness workshops. Everybody smiled and was enthusiastic , academics love meetings, it makes them feel they’re doing something. I kept thinking, we’re doomed. Of course, I’m naturally pessimistic.

Don’t expect any help from outside for a least a week. If we’re done, so will Vancouver and Seattle. Edmonton will be the staging area. The ferry terminals will be gone. No leaving and no getting food supplies. Some years ago when we had the BIG SNOW, the local stores ran out of food in four days. People were already starting to discuss eating the family dog. Lucky it rained otherwise BBQ dog recipes would have been used all over the city.

Realistically, someone asked, how soon before residents of the Island would get help. Two weeks, maybe more. Dogs will be a treasure. Especially big ones. Pekinese, not so much.
Someone asked about water. The lady giving he workshop tried to duck that but some audience members knew about water. There will be no water. The city has known for decades that the very old, concrete pipe that brings water from a lake will break, shatter, disintegrate. The workshop participants went very quiet.

“What,” one of them asked, “will people do drink and pee?”

There was a bit of shuffling as people ruminated on the question. “Don’t use any type of cleaner in the back of your toilet. That water is clean. It’ll keep you going for a few days. Drain the water out of your water tank. That water will be fine.”
“I live on the seventh floor of a high rise,” a woman with green streaks in her hair said.
“You’ll have to buy bottled water.”

Someone else chimed in, “There won’t be any power. No elevator.”

“Are you saying we won’t be able to flush our toilets?”

There was some uneasy shifting.

“Keep a two week supply of water in your closet or under your bed or in your garage.

Figure out what you eat over two weeks and keep a supply of packaged food. Porridge, rice, macaroni, soup.”

“Those require water. Besides, what am supposed to do on the seventh floor to cook?”

“You’ll have to buy take out,” someone suggested. Everyone turned to look at him to see if he was joking or just really stupid.

The speaker rapped on her lectern to get our attention away from the lilkelihood of takeout if there was no power.

“As employees of the university, you are expected to come to the university to help deal the problems here. We have sixteen thousand students we need to feed. There’ll be damage.

There’ll be injured.”

“What about our families?” someone from the back shouted.

“They’ll have to manage on their own,’ was the reply.

Right. There’s an earthquake. I had a wife and two small children. The house has mostly fallen down, everything in it is smashed, everybody has bumps, bruises and cuts. They’re scared. I’m scared. There may be a tsunami coming and I’m supposed to say to my wife,

‘Sorry, Ducks, but the Dean and duty calls.” Not.

A local tsunami is likely to be six to twelve feet. Not big, big, not four stories high like some. I live at the top of a ridge, reasonably far inland. A tsunami is unlikely to reach here. If it does, I’ve got a large fir tree to climb. If it is so large that it reaches the top of the ridge, there go my supplies of soft drinks and potato chips.

I was at Parksville once when there was a tsunami warning. The summer cottage units that were created from an old motel was right on the beach. I looked to see where we would go to get to high ground. There was a large cliff. If wave of even a couple of feet roared ashore, we’d all be swept out to sea. When the wave did come, thank goodness it was only a few inches. We were okay, Jack. But for the next few nights, I slept with a flotation device strapped on.

The truth is we’re doomed. A big earthquake will result in airport runway fractures. Buildings falling down. Ferry terminals unusable. No power. No water. Little medical care. Fires caused by broken gas lines. After two weeks no dogs, no squirrels, no cats.
Rich people will have private helicopters fly in to get them, cost no object. The rest of us will go from eating our neighbour’s dog to eating our neighbours.

Toronto the smug will see this as divine justice on the hooligans and hillbillys of the West Coast who never work when the surfs up, when its good scuba weather, when there’s snow on the ski slopes. If it’s a slow news day, someone will type out a column about how HAM (hot Asian money) has had their investment properties reduced to rubble.

The truth is we’re not prepared. If the big one feels like it might happen, I’ll put some cases of canned goods in the garage, buy a hibachi, a small tent, stock up on bottled water, sleep wearing a hard hat and a life vest. Until then when the furniture dancing wakes me up, I’ll just roll over and go back to sleep.

Oh, and add a Porta Potty to my list.

The New Iceland Diaspora

When I first moved to Victoria many years ago, one of my colleagues said, “On the prairies, people live to work. On the West Coast people work to pay for skiing, scuba diving, drinking wine, smoking weed, sailing, surfing and, as soon as they have enough money to live on, they quit their job and buy a few acres so they can raise prize animals, fruit or vegetables and pour their passion into producing the best wines or peacocks. Or plums. Or peaches. Or kiwi fruit. Or sheep. Or llamas. Or they buy a boat and sail.”

People who move west and then further west and then even further west until they can’t go any further west end up on the shores of mainland BC or on the many islands that dot the coast.

In Vesturfarar, Heather Ireland, (from Winnipeg but moved to Vancouver long ago with her husband Bill Ireland) the grand daughter of Guttormur Guttormson, tells us that she said to her uncle that she wished her amma and afi Guttormson had moved to the Coast. Her uncle said, they’d been to the coast a number of times but wouldn’t have moved there because life was just too easy. It was also a world beyond imagining. Think what those early arrivals must have thought of the world represented by this masks like this one by Bill Henderson of the Kwakwaka’wakw?

Bill Henderson,Kwakwaka'wakw

Joan Thorsteinson Linde says that when her parents were on the train to Winnipeg and they arrived, her mother took a look at the city and said, “Let’s keep going.” She said Point Roberts was a wonderful place to grow up and she was grateful her parents stayed on the train.
Jerry McDonald says she is grateful that her grandparents moved to the Coast in 1943. Her grandmother read a poem about the West Coast and insisted on moving there.

Years ago, Bob Asgeirson, told me that he had been working for a radio station in Winnipeg. He had holidays at Christmas. He got on a train during a blizzard and arrived to a light rain and everything green in Vancouver. He immediately bought a ticket back to Winnipeg, quit his job and moved permanently to Vancouver.

Fort Victoria had been first settled in 1843. By the time the first Icelanders started arriving with the railway reaching Vancouver, there were scenes like this.

Tea Party at Point Ellice House

Although my wife and I visited my wife’s grandmother in Victoria during the summer of 1967, I’d never thought of moving here. In 1974, I had a job in Missouri, was heading for a better job in Texas, when I was asked if I’d like a job at the University in Victoria. I said I’d come for a year. That was forty years ago. I did try to move back to Winnipeg. However, try as I might, no job was forthcoming. I was following an old pattern created by the Icelandic immigrants. Go where there is work.

Most Icelanders left Iceland because of poverty, hunger, lack of opportunity, bad weather, political oppression. Although the fares were small and, in some cases, subsidized, many could not afford to pay for the trip from Iceland to Scotland, from Scotland to Quebec, from Quebec to their final destination in the United States or Canada. If they could, they sold their land and animals to pay for their trip. It was the bad luck of some that stormy weather delayed the sailing ships and the would-be travelers’ funds were used up paying for room and board at the harbours. Not only did these people not get to go to Ameríka but they now were landless and were going to be poverty stricken farm workers.

However, times were so desperate that it was worth taking risks. Living conditions were poor. Sod and lava huts nowadays are made for museums and tourists so they are constructed to look romantic. Sod and turf huts were not romantic. IN 1845 Madame Pfeiffer says ‘Small and low, built of lava, with the interstices filled with earth…A dark narrow passage about four feet high, leads on one side into the common room, and on the other to a few compartments, some of which are used as storehouses for provisions and the rest as winter stables for the cows and sheep…The rooms of the poorer class have neither wooden walls nor floors, and are just large enough to admit of the inhabitants sleeping, and perhaps turning round in them. …Above the beds are fixed rods, from with depend clothes, shoes, stockings, &c….Stoves are considered unnecessary, for as the space is very confined, and the house densely populated.

Rods are also placed round the fire place, and on these the wet clothes and fishes are hung up in company to dry. The smoke completely fills the room.”

Houses were cold. They was no stove. They were crowded. There was little light because glass was scarce. Laws were passed by the landowners to control all the workers who, by law, were forced to work on a farm. They could only change jobs on one day a year. Marriage was not allowed unless a man had the equivalent of four hundreds. This meant that many men and women had no hope of marriage. With wages appalling low, in some cases a few dollars a year, there was little opportunity for a man to save enough money to put down on a piece of land and some animals. It might take a careful, tight fisted man twenty years working as a farm hand to save enough for a down payment on a farm. When he did he also had to rent the sheep or cows from a wealthy landowner at exorbitant rates. What land was available for men who wanted to become independent farmers in the years of good weather was marginal land.

Good land had long ago been taken. The land that became available was usually on the edge of lava deserts. With a cold summer that same land quickly became uninhabitable. A cold summer meant the grass didn’t grow. No grass, the sheep and cows didn’t survive. Without them, there was starvation. People farming marginal land could with one or two cold summers lose everything and become paupers with family members sold off to whoever would keep them for the smallest amount of money. A volcanic eruption that destroyed hay land was a disaster.

Even when the weather was decent, farming alone was not enough to sustain most people so the men walked to the coastal fishing areas. Fishing conditions on the North Sea were dangerous. Boats frequently sank, taking ten or fifteen men with them.

Richard Burton, 1875, says that “The storekeeper must advance goods to the farmer, and the latter refunds him when he can, especially in June and July, September and October, when wool is pulled (Icelanders did not shear sheep. The wool was pulled as it became loose.)and wethers (castrated male sheep)killed. A few of the farmers have money at the merchants, who do not, however, pay interest; many are in debt, and the two classes hardly balance each other. Prices are generally high.” That is the prices of goods available at the store are high.

Those people who chose to make two dangerous sea voyages, first to Scotland or England, then to the North America, were people prepared to take risks and endure hardship. Sailing ships were at the mercy of the weather. Conditions on board the ships for steerage passengers were appalling. Narratives of those voyages often record burials at sea.

Icelandic emigrants tried Nova Scotia.The good land was taken. They tried Kinmount, Ontario. The Pennsylvania Dutch (Germans) already had taken up the good farmland in Ontario. The land in Kinmount was not suitable for farming. The immigrants then made a long and hard journey that ended on the beach at Willow Point with winter closing in and no milk cows because hay had not been put up to feed them. The land was mostly swamp and higher ground was heavily forested. Icelanders were not farmers. When an Icelander answered bondur to the question about his employment on his immigration paper, he was not describing himself as a farmer but as a herder of sheep and milk cows.

Having endured living in ratty tents, then packed into roughly made log cabins because there could only be as many cabins as there were stoves, they endured more hardship. The settlers must have wondered when their suffering would be over. If ever.

Gimli may mean the home of the gods but these people were not gods. They were farm folk who had made a heroic journey from Iceland to Canada only to suffer from lack of food, from poor shelter, from diseases such as smallpox and scurvy. It is no wonder that nearly all of them abandoned New Iceland. They’d already made the decision to leave Iceland to search for a better life. For many, New Iceland was not providing a better life. It was cut off from trade. Except for some work provided by the government, jobs were non-existent. In breakup and freezeup, it was impossible to travel over the lake. There was work in Winnipeg. There was work, at least at harvest time, further west where farms were already established. Many walked west.

Will Kristjanson, in The Icelandic People in Manitoba, says, because of the exodus from 1878 to 1881, the colony was reduced to 250 people. It would be replenished as more Icelandic immigrants arrived. However, a pattern of arrival and departure was established that continues to this day.

They went to Brandon. They went to Argyle. Always looking for good land. They went to North Dakota. The good land in North Dakota filled up quickly so those who didn’t get some of it, went back to Manitoba and settled in the Arborg area. The immigrants traveled for years, making a living where they could. Magnús Jónsson with his wife, Margét, and two daughters, settled in New Iceland in 1887. In 1891, they homesteaded in the Argyle district. In 1902 they moved to Blaine, WA.

Metúsalem Vigfússon moved to New Iceland in 1876. He moved to Winnipeg and worked around Manitoba wherever he could find work. He and his wife, Borghildur bought 80 acres southeast of Mountain, North Dakota. After seven years they moved to Roseau, Minn. They lived there eleven years. In 1917, they moved to Yakima, WA.

Many settlers went to Swift Current when the railway line ended there. From there they went by horse and wagon north. They went to Alberta and settled in places like Markerville.

Good land. A place where they might prosper, where they might have a Canadian farm, grow grain, raise animals and, when they got over the mountains into the Okanagan, as unlikely as it seems for Icelanders, create orchards.

The railways opened up land, made it possible to ship produce and to receive necessities. In New Iceland the railway, first stopping at Winnipeg Beach and then Gimli and, finally, Riverton, created the cordwood economy. While those people in New Iceland were struggling in the second poorest part of Canada, only ahead of Newfoundland economically, their brethren, the original settlers and their children, were moving west. Some of those found jobs, land, possibilities. Many stayed in Winnipeg, the new Chicago, a dynamic city, for a time, but then the Panama Canal was built and the boom began to fade. Others gathered in places like Wynyard and Foam Lake, Regina, Moosejaw, Calgary, Edmonton, eddied around the base of the mountains, but with Olafur Norman arriving in Victoria in 1883, the path to the coast was established.

Gerri McDonald says that a survey in the 1930s showed that only 5% of people of Icelandic descent lived in BC. In 2011 25% of people of Icelandic descent lived in BC.

That is not surprising. Although there was no organized group movement to the West Coast, many people during the Depression moved from the Gimli-Riverton area to Steveston to fish, work in the canneries and build boats. A group did settle Osland on Hunter Island in the mouth of the Skeena.

But most were like me or Robert Asgeirson, moving west to take or find a job. My contact with the West Coast wasn’t Icelandic. My wife’s grandmother and grandfather were English. The Oak Bay neighbourhood was still referred to as behind the Tweed Curtain. I knew of no one in Victoria of Icelandic background before I arrived. I’d come to take a good job. There were tea houses, not coffee houses. Doormen in historic English outfits stood outside tourist establishments. The accents on the streets and in the stores were not Icelandic or Ukrainian. They were English, Irish and Scots.

It took a while to discover other people of Icelandic background. Halli Johnson, Mattie Gislason, then a meeting organized by Alphonse Hansen at a restaurant in the country to discuss forming an Icelandic club, the Icelanders of Victoria. Fred Bjarnason was there. We did form a club. We went on to have Thorrablots. We do celebrate June 17.

Richard Beck, that great champion of all things Icelandic, retired to Victoria. He died, then his wife, Margaret, died and their joint will left the University of Victoria their house to sell and create a foundation for the dissemination of Icelandic literature, language and culture. The Beck lectures began in 1988. Since then the Richard and Margret Beck Trust, under the direction of Dr. John Tucker, has funded around two hundred lectures by Icelandic experts.

This is how a diaspora is created. Travelers settling somewhere, meeting each other, forming a cultural club, or a church group, or an educational group. Point Roberts, Bellingham, Blaine, outposts held together by memories, evidence found in photo albums, club records, graveyards. Outposts like Osland on Smith Island, now nearly abandoned, its existence attested to by the book, Memories of Osland. The Jonassons, Haldorsons, Johnsons, Philippsons, Freemans, Oddsons, Grimsons, Kristmanssons, Longs, Snidals, Bjornsons, Einarssons, Laurassons, Erlendsons, Emmersons.

Think on it. The people who have gone west. My uncle Earl (Gimli) went to Edmonton. My uncle Alan (Gimli) ended up in Calgary. My sister in law (Riverton) moved to Victoria. My nephew and niece (Gimli) are here. My cousin, Rudy (Gimli), is on the mainland. His wife, Sig (Riverton) just died. His daughter (Winnipeg) is with him.  Keith Sigmundson (Gimli) has a place here. Dennis Oleson (Riverton) is in Victoria. Glenn Sigurdsson (Riverton) in Vancouver. His mother. (Riverton) His father died here not too long ago. Ruth and Randi Jonasson (Riverton). Christine Anderson (Riverton).

The list seems endless. Linda Bjarnason (Gimli) in Naniamo. Carol Bjarnason (Gimli) Whiterock. Margaret Bjarnason (Gimli) Vancouver. If I tried to list all the people of Icelandic descent in Vancouver, it would fill pages. It far outnumbers the people of Icelandic descent now living within the boundaries of New Iceland. If all these people had stayed in New Iceland, what would they do? They are teachers, architects, lawyers, stock brokers, art gallery owners, veterinarians, chefs, secretaries, professors, city planners. They are myriad.

The Icelanders were not alone in their experience. The Finns came to the coast of BC. They created a village called Sointula on Malcolm Island in 1901. It was to be the new Finland, led by a charismatic leader Matti Kurikka. They came as a group, rowing their way north from Naniamo.

In 1908, led by Verigin, 6,000 members of the Doukhobor sect migrated to BC. Neither of these communities survived in their ideal form. This was the fate of most immigrant groups. They left the mother country, Finland and Russia, in these cases, formed communities in Canada bound by ethnicity, religion and isolation, and these communities could not remain cohesive. Even isolation is not enough to keep the community together. So, there was the original diaspora and then the diaspora from the original settlements. All such cases can be looked at as failed dreams, failed ideal images. On the other hand, they can be looked at as successes because the original communities provided a place for its members to prepare to enter Canadian society.

New Iceland lost many of its original settlers. However, others came, settled in an area where they knew some of the earlier settlers, where people spoke Icelandic, where the harshness of immigration could be softened a bit as people adjusted to a new life. They moved to take up greater opportunities, that often meant leaving the mother colony. That is they stayed true to their original purpose in emigrating, to create a better life for themselves, their children, and future generations.

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 Saanich Fair

I love the Saanich Fair. There’s not much that will draw me back to Victoria from Gimli, Manitoba before the long weekend in September but the Saanich Fair will. I would like to take all sorts of people I know to the Fair and say, see this, look at that, isn’t that amazing?

This year was the 145th Annual Saanich Fair. It’s the oldest continuous agricultural fair in Western Canada. For $10 a day on Saturday and Sunday and $9 on Monday, you can lose yourself in the incredible world of agriculture on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.

What surprises me is that the first agricultural fair here took place in 1867. The Icelandic emigrants wouldn’t arrive in Gimli until 1875, eight years later. The first ship load of settlers arrived on Salt Spring in 1859. People who pre-empted land ended up paying a dollar an acre. (Salt Spring, Charles Kahn) By the time Icelandic immigrants were trying to farm hopelessly rocky land in Nova Scotia and Kinmount, 1874, 1875, good land and a good climate meant that settlers on Salt Spring had already developed orchards and were raising sheep. One islander, “a graduate of the University of Heidelberg” already had an orchard with 1800 trees. His partner rowed strawberries and other fruit to Victoria. (Salt Spring, CK)

Although Scandinavians had settled in British Columbia, they’d had to travel far and, often, circuitously, either around the Horn or, more likely, to the East Coast of the USA, then across the continent to California, then by ship up the Pacific Coast. The Finns started arriving on Vancouver Island and area in 1882. However, once the CPR had completed its rail line to Port Moody, then Vancouver, the Icelanders started to arrive. In the Icelanders of Victoria display it says that Thorkell (Kelly) Johnson and his wife, Maria, arrived in Vancouver on the first train in 1886. Others soon followed and in an article in Heimskringla, 1953, Arni S. Myrdal says that “In the autumn of 1887 we moved into our new home.” and, later, that “We had been in Victoria but a short while when letters began to pour in; most of them were from friends and acquaintances seeking information about the city.”

If Kelly Johnson was the first Icelandic settler to arrive in 1886, then only eleven years had passed from the settlement of New Iceland. A thriving Icelandic community developed in Victoria with a distinct culture, at least one store, a church. However, a recession started and, once again, many Icelanders picked up stakes to move to Pt. Roberts.

The Icelanders who came were not farmers in any sense of the term as we use it today. In Iceland, they could not grow grain. The cultivated no market gardens or orchards. In Victoria, they entered a surreal world where there was little that could not be grown. However, they seem, in large part, to have chosen the trades for that’s where the jobs were, or government work, or education.

It’s all about the climate. Pretty hard to grow figs in Manitoba or walnuts or cultivate vineyards for creating prize winning wines. No slander on Manitoba. I love Manitoba strawberries, raspberries, hazel nuts, blueberries but on Vancouver Island we live in a world of micro climates. Find the right southern slope and walnuts and figs prosper, grapes thrive, peaches turn ripe and succulent, kiwi hang from vines.


Maybe it has something to do with the kind of people who migrate here but people dedicate their lives to emus and llamas, to miniature horses and Clydesdales, to more varieties of chickens than I ever had any idea existed. They’re product proud whether it is local honey or heritage beets. It’s not just profit that brings them to the local markets with their produce but pride.

The 4H section of the fair is large. There are entries of every kind from vegetable art to scarecrows. There are animals competitions, the best goat, sheep, horse, pig, rabbit, chicken. Ribbons abound.

For years it was impossible to buy any of the products. The public demanded the right to buy the produce on display and now the farmers and market gardeners have booths laden with freshly picked produce. You can buy heritage fruits and vegetables you never see in the store.

There are demonstrations of using draft horses, of blacksmithing, of milking goats. There are pie, muffin, watermelon, ice cream eating contests. There’s dressage and a continuous horse show.You can even gaze at the stars.

Vancouver Island is all about flowers and there are flower displays and competitions.

They’ve combined the food booths of a Folklorama with the agricultural fair. The Hungarian booth has people lined up for a block but all the booths are busy.

On the main stage, musicians entertain the crowd that wants to sit down for a while.

Somewhere in all this is a chance to learn how to get involved. You can learn about raising chickens in the backyard, how to quilt, how to spin wool, grow Dahlias, milk a goat, have a farm in your backyard, make halters, raise bees.

I’ve always gardened, never farmed, never raised animals, but once a year over the long weekend in September, I return to my Irish roots, to a heritage of owning farms in Northern Ireland, of raising both crops and animals, of an Icelandic great grandfather who was a dairyman and farmer, of an Irish grandmother who loved gardening with a passion, who could grow anything, even on a city lot in Winnipeg.

Everything in our stores come from here, from the earth. Every child should visit the Saanich Fair, should see and smell and hear and touch live animals, should see the machinery, should meet the people who work the earth, raise the animals to feed us.

It may not be the Saanich Fair you are close enough to visit but there are others like the Brandon Fair, like Fairs spread across Western Canada, teaching us about both the present and the past.