The Kindest Gift

DSC00595Yesterday, I found an unexpected package at my front door. I’m not used to receiving packages unless it is a book I’ve ordered over the internet.

The return address said it was from Clayton and Doris Bristow.

My finding the package, picking it up, reading the return address, taking the package into the house and setting it out on the dining room table, opening it, is a scene in a long narrative that began before either Clayton or Doris or I were born.

My great grandmother, Fridrikka Gottskalksdottir, came to Canada in 1876. She was three years old. Her parents had left a desperate situation in Iceland and traveled to the UK, changed ships, traveled to Quebec City, then on to a swampy, forested shoreline on Lake Winnipeg. They were part of what was called The Large Group. Earlier, a small, initial group had arrived on the shores of Willow Point after their barges were cut loose by a steamboat captain because a storm had started.

Shortly after my great grandmother and her parents arrived, smallpox broke out. One hundred and three people died. One of those was Fridrikka’s three month old brother. That they all didn’t die was probably due to the fact that some of them had previously had the cow pox, either from working with dairy cattle in Iceland or because they had been inoculated. .

At sixteen, Fridrikka went to Fort Garry to work. There she met William Bristow, a member of the British Army. The Icelanders had come to Canada hoping, like many other groups, to preserve their language, culture and religion. They named the exclusive reserve the government had given them New Iceland. None of the fantasies of cultural purity had much impact on young people and certainly not on Fridrikka. She married William Bristow.

One would expect that he would have stayed in the army, that Fridrikka would have become English. After all, the English dominated Western Canada politically, financially, and socially. Instead, William Bristow left the army and moved to what was now Gimli. Gimli, a small village on the shore of Lake Winnipeg, survived on commercial fishing. William became a fisherman.

William and Fridrikka had thirteen children.

My grandmother, Blanche Bristow, was a sister to Clayton’s grandfather, George Bristow. George and his wife, Dolly, lived across the big field from us. We were on third and they were directly opposite us on second avenue. Times were hard but at Christmas we always exchanged gifts.

Dolly and George had four children. One of those was Clayton’s father,Rudy.  Rudy and I, in spite of our travels,  have always stayed in touch.

Clayton and Doris live in Winnipeg, a three or four day drive from Victoria. I don’t get to see them very often. Usually, if we bump into each other, it is at Gimli’s annual Islendingadagurinnin. This is the way of the world in 2014. When I was growing up, our families all lived close to each other. Nowadays, we are spread across the world.

This journey that culminated on my front porch began when Fridrikka, and her parents Gottskalk Sigfusson and Holmdridur Jonatansdottir, made the decision to leave Akureyri, Iceland. When William Herbert Bristow, the son of a Church of England minister,came to Canada on his own at fifteen.

When I opened the package that Clayton and Doris had sent me, there was a cheerful cookie tin. When I pried open the tin, there was a Christmas card and a vinarterta, the layered prune tort that symbolizes everything about our North American Icelandic culture. The note was from Doris and it said that like me, Clayton has celiac disease, and they knew how much I must be missing having vinartera at Christmas. They’d baked some vinartera as an experiment and were sending me one of the layered cakes.

It’s been a long journey, from Aukreyri and Oxford to decades in Gimli, Manitoba,, from Gimli to Winnipeg, from Gimli on my crooked path through Iowa and Missouri to Victoria, from 1876 to 2014.

I pick up this package and take it inside and put it on the dining room table where the winter sun shines on it and I cut off the padded envelope, then I take off the brown wrapper and open the tin and find within it that special vinarterta and I stand there and think, thank you Clayton and Doris, Rudy and Sig, Dolly and George, William and Fredrikka, Gottskalk and Holmfridur. Thank you. .

Monty Hall Called


The phone rang. A woman said Monty Hall would like to talk to you about your recent blog about a Revue held in Gimli in 1944. Monty Hall! Monty Hall? Holy smokes! Wait until I get a pen, I said. Sure enough, it was Monty Hall calling from Hollywood. He’s now 93 but you’d never know it from talking to him. He’s as pleasant, affable, personable as he was when he was hosting Let’s Make A Deal.

In the 1944 Revue program he is Monte Halparin, the boy from Winnipeg, the part time employee of CKRC. He still lived in Winnipeg’s north end.  He told me that after he graduated from university, he worked full time for CKRC but that ended when his boss called him in one day and said, “You need to quit and go to Toronto. If  you stay here, you’ll end up going nowhere. You’re better than this.” He went home and told his parents, Rose and Maurice Halparin, that he was going to Toronto. It was 1946. They wanted to know if he had a job. He said no but his boss had said he should go and so he was going. He said at first it was a struggle but he succeeded, then went on to New York and started the struggle all over.

He found a niche in hosting game shows. He guest-hosted game shows like Strike It Rich on CBS. He hosted numerous shows but the one I remember best is Let’s Make A Deal. How successful was this Winnipeg boy who remembers Winnipeg Beach and Gimli with great fondness? In 1973, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The Government of Canada gave him the Order of Canada. His awards are many.

He said a number of times that to be successful you must be able to face rejection and you must believe in yourself. When he was performing in Vegas, a comedian came to him, devastated because an agent had told  him to quit trying to make it. He didn’t have what it takes. Monty said to him you are only out when you believe you are out. Not until then.

He has fond memories of the beautiful Icelandic girls of West End Winnipeg. He had a real crush on at least one of them.  He had high praise for the people he worked with on the Revue. It was not just a Gimli revue. Mrs. Zimmerman organized and ran this revue that was performed every weekend with the performers traveling by bus to military bases one to two hundred miles away. They did three performances in a day. One for the officers and two for the enlisted men. Monty acted, sang, performed in skits, MC’d. Great experience for his coming career.

Mom! Mom! I hope you are listening. Monty Hall called. He’s a really nice guy. I got to talk to one of the people we listened to on radio, watched on TV, a Winnipeg boy from the North End. He made my day.



Robbed? Read this.


The insurance agent sells you a policy. Years go by and it gets renewed. If you’re like me, you don’t really pay much attention to it. It’s not exciting reading. Not much plot. No interesting characters. It only becomes relevant when something goes wrong. In my case, that something was my car window being smashed and my beloved camera (SonyA33 plus a new zoom lens) were stolen. It was a smash and grab in an area in which I felt my car and belongings were safe. I lived in Winnipeg for a number of years and worked there sporadically for two years recently. I knew the area around Portage and Main was dangerous even though it is politically incorrect to say so. I didn’t know that that danger had spread all along Portage west until it reached past my alma mater, University of Winnipeg. When I worked as editor of the Icelandic paper, Logberg-Heimskringla, which has offices at Smith and Portage, I was told that, under no circumstances was I to stay in the office past 5:30. There was physical danger in doing so. That risk has now spread the length of Portage, past the Hudson Bay which is where I parked.

When I returned to my car at 10:00 p.m., the window was broken and my photography equipment stolen. I’ve never had anything like this happen before. There is shock. Disbelief. It seems impossible. It takes a while to sink in. I had to decide what to do. I thought I should report to the police but didn’t know where the closest police station was or whether, with a broken window, it was safe to park on the street. Luckily, although it was chilly, it wasn’t raining. I had no way of sealing the broken window. One doesn’t carry duct tape and plastic just in case one’s car has a window smashed.

I drove sixty miles to Gimli, Manitoba, because that is where I am staying for the summer. The next morning, I asked if I could make a report to the local RCMP. They would not make out a report on a crime committed outside their jurisdiction. I checked on line and discovered I could make a report via the internet. Except that the website didn’t work. I wrote down the phone number from non-emergency numbers. I called and waited and waited and waited. Property theft is so prevalent that after an hour I still hadn’t been able to talk to anyone. I called again. The same thing happened. Later in the day I called again. This time I reached a woman who said their lines for reporting non-emergency crimes are so busy that I had to stay on the line no matter how long it took. I was on for over an hour.

I finally contacted a constable. He took down my information but I didn’t have the serial numbers for the camera body and the lens that was in the camera. I had the serial number for the zoom lens because I had just bought it. I did have the serial numbers but they were back home in Victoria, BC. After some cogitating, I thought to call The Camera Store in Calgary. That’s where I had bought the camera three years earlier. Sure enough, they had the serial numbers and sent them to me by email. I called the Winnipeg police and gave them the numbers.

I called my insurance agent in Victoria. HUB. Discovered, to my chagrin that I didn’t understand my coverage. I thought that I was covered by ICBC for theft from my car. Nope. Theft is covered by my house insurance with its $500.00 deductible. That was a surprise. My ICBC deductible was $300.00. That insurance covered replacing the damaged window.

I called the local Ford dealership because I have a Ford Escape. They were pleasant and helpful but they refuse to deal with Manitoba car insurance, AutoPac. They sent me to Geisbrecht’s garage. I made an appointment with Geisbrecht’s.

In the meantime I’d talked to a couple of people regarding the theft insurance. At one point I got a call from a man with a thick East Indian accent. I could not understand what he was saying. He tried. I tried. Finally, I realized, he just wanted me to confirm that I was the person who had his photography equipment stolen. Normally, this would not bother me but when a person has been involved in a smash and grab, lost something that really matters to them, is feeling violated, is angry and upset, having to deal with anyone other than a Canadian is unnecessarily stressful. I finally got an adjuster in Naniamo, BC. He is Canadian. He spoke English clearly. It was a great relief.

I was told to start checking Kijijji, something I knew nothing about. I checked for two nights in a row and, sure enough, there was my camera bag, camera and zoom lens still in its box. The seller wanted $300.00. I phoned Winnipeg. After waiting some time, I got to speak to a constable. He explained that just because I thought the equipment was mine, they could not kick down the person’s door and demand to see the equipment. Nor would he try to buy the equipment back for me. I said that I’d try to buy back the equipment. He didn’t think that would be a good idea. He said I should come into Winnipeg and talk to a detective who might be willing to do something to get a look at the serial numbers.

I had got the car back with the window replaced. I drove to Winnipeg the next morning. I waited (they’re really busy with property crime reporting) but got to see a constable at the desk. He went on Kijijji and found the items I claimed were mine. He printed out pictures of them. In one, the hand holding the box with the lens had a clear tattoo on the inner wrist. I expect that person is known to the police and easily identifiable. The constable said there was a chance I’d get my equipment back.

I’ve had no call from the Winnipeg police. I expect that even though I provided serial numbers that they just filed a report and forgot about it. Property crimes are so low on their list, I’ve been told, that all they do is take reports and file them. They are more concerned with crimes where people get hurt. They leave the settling of property crimes to the insurance companies. People have said that when they’ve had equipment stolen from a vehicle, nothing was done beyond providing a number for an insurance claim. It’s like this is a low level business that involves, petty thieves, the police, the insurance company, and the victim. The thieves steal, the police write reports, the insurance companies pay out claims above deductible, and the victim is hapless and forgotten. Nobody represents the victim.

Given that no one is going to try to solve a crime, no one is going to try to retrieve stolen goods, I think that insurance policy holders should get a list that the selling agent should go over with the policy buyer.

  1. It is your house policy that covers theft from your vehicle. A deductible that seems reasonable for your house may not be reasonable for theft from your vehicle. Think about what might be stolen from your vehicle and set your deductible on that basis.
  2. Do not leave items in your vehicle where they can be seen. A thief doesn’t care if it costs you five hundred dollars to replace a window so he can steal an item that is worth fifty dollars on the street. It cost him nothing. The amount he gets is all profit.
  3. Try to find out what the crime rate is like in an area where you going. I knew that the area around Portage and Main were high crime areas. I did not know that this high crime rate had extended to areas much further south along Portage Avenue.
  4. Do not park on parking lots that do not have attendants. Place emphasis for parking on security rather than convenience. If you are going to be in an area try to find out local knowledge about when it is safe and not safe to park. Often, parking is safe during the day but not once the working day is over.
  5. If your vehicle is broken into, you must make a report to the police. Non emergency crime events are so common that some police departments accept reports over the internet. They will give you a report number to give to your insurance company.
  6. You can report a crime by telephone. Get a report number, you will need it.
  7. Police, RCMP, will not make out reports for areas outside their jurisdiction.
  8. Have the your insurance company’s name and phone numbers with you. Call them.
  9. Your agent will help direct your next phone calls. Damage to your car goes to your provincial insurer. In BC that is ICBC. Theft goes to the provider of your home insurance.
  10. You will not be dealing with the person who sold you the insurance. He works for the agent that represents a number of insurance companies. You will end up dealing with a number of people before you are assigned an adjuster who is working for the insurance company that actually insured you. When you get to this stage is when you’ll want to have receipts that show what you paid for the items stolen. When you buy things, keep receipts.
  11. The adjuster will make an offer based on the original cost, the discount because of age, etc.
  12. Don’t waste your time worrying about whether the police will get your belongings back. They won’t. They’re busy with crimes against people. Robbery, home invasion, assault, rape, murder, arson, etc. You’re losing a bunch of items, even if they are important to you, isn’t at the top of their list. In the time that my camera was stolen and I was reporting and hoping I might get it back, there were a number of people attacked in violent crimes.
  13. Items are stolen to be sold. My equipment appeared on Kijijii. I might have got it back for the three hundred dollar asking price if I’d moved quickly enough. I needed to know someone I could pay to buy back the equipment. In Victoria, my home city, I’d have known who to call. In Winnipeg, I didn’t. By the time I figured out who to ask to make a phone call and arrange a buy, the equipment had disappeared from the site.
  14. The thief’s job. Steal your belongings. The police’s job. Make a report. The insurance company’s job. Pay for the stolen equipment. It’s nobody’s job to try to catch the thief or to get back your belongings. You are on your own.

Dumb and Dumber

I had my camera and new zoom lens stolen, my car window smashed but at least I didn’t have three dimwitted teenagers pump me full of bullets like the armored car employee in Toronto. There is not a large gap between breaking into cars and stealing or knocking over the local corner store or going for a big score with an armored car. These actions don’t usually come without a history, although the police say the three alleged culprits had no previous record. That may simply be that one of them was just smart enough to observe the obvious.

As a teacher of forty years, high school, college, university, I don’t like to diss the dolts but dolts there are. Dolts are people who can’t make connections between acts and consequences. You know, the Victoria police are taking down a street corner drug dealer and half a block away another dealer is collecting money and handing over drugs and standing on tip toe to watch what is going down. I’ve heard of people like this as having a flat line learning curve. The words “likely consequences” simply don’t mean anything. Questions such as “What do you think might happen if you do that?”, that being taking a rifle stolen in a B&E and holding up a local bakery, gets a shrug of the shoulders. The shrug of the shoulders is because the person being questioned is thinking, “I’ve got a rifle, I want some money to go partying, buy booze, drugs, the bakery has money, I’ll hold them up, they’ll give me their money, and I’ll go out and have a good time.”

“You will probably get caught,” comes as a suggestion that seems quite impossible and can be mitigated with a paper bag with eye holes pulled over the perp’s head. The linear thinking doesn’t allow for analyzing past experiences of bakery-holder-uppers. Doesn’t mean researching the fate of bank-holder-uppers as being caught within fifteen minutes of a robbery. Doesn’t mean finding out how much money is in a bakery till on a Friday night and matching the proceeds against the consequences of armed robbery, or attempted murder if the baker decides to fight back.

I use the example of the bakery hold up because many years ago, the bright lights in one of my classes decided they were going to finance a hot weekend this way.

Knocking over an armored car is a step up. There’s a lot of money. The guards are armed. They can communicate with the police. Frankly, the risks are so great that I can only vaguely remember an armored car being knocked over somewhere in the distant past. It’s more the stuff of movies from the nineteen thirtees and forties. Maybe the alleged perps watched a lot of black and white movies and said, “Yeah, that’s the way to go.” I wonder if they searched through thrift shops to find old fashioned felt hats, had cigarettes in the corner of their mouths as they lurked about. Obviously, they must have cased the joint, does anyone say “cased the joint” anymore?

A defense lawyer may plead desperation, the overwhelming need for a pair of three hundred dollar running shoes, the psychological devastation wrought by not being able to shop for name brands, the need for status driving away common sense. Don’t believe a word of it. It’s simply the inability to connect cause and effect. You know: if I try to hold up an armored car, the guard is armed and will likely shoot at me, I’ll shoot back, the moment I do, I’ll be guilty of attempted murder, or worse, murder, I’m eighteen, I’m facing a life sentence, I’ll spend from eighteen to forty-three years in prison with a bunch of people who aren’t socially desirable companions. Nope. The armored car guys have bags of money, I want bags of money, they, the selfish bastards won’t give me the bags of money, I’ve got a pistol, I’ll make them give me the bags of money and then I’ll have lots of money and can shop all I want. I remember wanting to shout into the ears of dolts like this, “There isn’t much classy shopping done in prison.”

Of the three alleged perps, one must have been smarter than the other two. That’s usually how it works. The smarter guy (I didn’t say smart) will have concocted a plan, explained how it would work, the bountiful rewards, will be the leader. If the guard hadn’t been shot, if the charges weren’t so serious, if the likely sentence wasn’t so long and the brains behind the operation was back out on the street, I know exactly what he’d be telling his potential gang. Bad luck, it was all bad luck in an unreasonable world. We’ll do it again and we’ll be luckier this time. The ability to think cause and effect won’t have been improved.

They would have been better to stick to property crimes. There are so many of them, that trying to report one to the Winnipeg police on the phone means waiting for an hour or so to get one’s turn. There are so many property crimes that the police force has resorted to having victims report on line. The police do their best but they’re like King Canute trying to drive back the ocean waves by beating them with a chain. Manitobans need to pay more taxes, need to hire more police, give them more equipment and while they do their best to hold back the tsunami of lower level criminality, pay yet more taxes to remedy the social ills that foster crime.

Of course, this is theft at its most basic level. Maybe I am being unfair. Maybe the perps are well read. Maybe they’ve read of all the theft at the top of the financial chain, millions and millions, if not billions, with no consequences, white collar crime, and thought they should get some of the loot before it all disappears.




The Moveable Feast


After I was born, my father and mother and I took the bus to Winnipeg every December for Christmas. Then, when I was four, my brother joined us and the four of us made this perilous journey. We went to my mother’s parents’ house. At first we took the street car down Osborne then struggled through the snow along Walker to the small bungalow with the glassed in front porch. They sold that house and, briefly, bought a brick house on Stafford. My grandparents stayed there for only a couple of years while they had a house built a short distance away on Fleet.

We came with a few gifts, never anything extravagant, and under the Christmas tree with its bright lights and brightly colored decorations, there were gifts for us. Usually, hand knitted sweaters, vests, for my grandmother was a talented knitter and seamstress, maybe toy for each of us. One Christmas when we made this journey over the frozen countryside, the Winnipeg weather was bitterly cold with a sharp wind. We had to stand in the open waiting for a streetcar and nothing my parents did could keep us warm. My father and mother held us close, tried to protect us from the wind but our hands and feet became so cold, we cried. When we got to our stop, we still had a distance to go over sidewalks piled high with drifts.

My mother said to her parents, we can’t do this again with two little kids. You’ve got to come to Gimli. And, dutiful parents that they were, they gave up the tradition of Christmas dinner at their home.

Christmas to us, was more about people than it was about gifts. Like all children we enjoyed getting gifts but it was the decorating of the house, the smell of the prepatory baking, the cookies and cakes and pies, and then, on Christmas Eve, my grandparents arriving on the bus. My brother and I were glued to the window, kneeling on the couch, looking into the darkness for our grandfather in his wool overcoat and my grandmother in her Persian lamb. “They’re here. They’re here,” we’d announce and rush to the door. There is no feeling so great as the arrival of someone whom you know loves you and whom you love in return.

On Christmas day there would be all the preparations. Sometimes, other relatives would also have arrived on Christmas Eve and since we lived in a very small house with three tiny bedrooms, we gave over the bedrooms to the adults and thought it a great adventure to be able to sleep on the living room floor.

The transition to Christmas at my parents’ house went smoothly, although, I expect that it wasn’t without some regret that my grandmother no longer set her table and planned the most important meal of the year.

In their final years, my grandparents moved in with my parents. During those years, I had moved away, taking jobs, going to graduate school so Christmas was too far away for winter travel. Eventually, I got a job in Victoria, British Columbia and, once again, Christmas shifted, now with my parents coming to Victoria, with my sister in law and her children joining us, with neighbours from next door filling out our table. My nephew moved to Victoria and my niece moved Abbotsford and, when she retired, my sister-in-law moved to Victoria. My parents came for twenty-six Christmases.

During those years, it was my turn to host our Christmas Eve of gift giving and to have Christmas dinner. But then that changed as marriages took place, family members had to divide their time between our Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner and those of their spouses. Times have changed again. My children have children. I’m in my seventies, just as my grandparents were and just as my parents were when our Christmases changed location. Christmas now is at my daughter’s house. She and her husband make the Christmas meal, set out the table, greet us at the door. My son and his wife and two children come from Bellingham to join us.

Four generations of Christmas, in Winnipeg, Gimli, Victoria and Victoria again, four homes. We suffer from the modern disease, move-itis, not out of frivolity but because modern life demands we move to where we can find work. I found work at the University of Victoria. My children came with me. My niece and nephew and sister-in-law followed.

I would have preferred to have stayed in the town where I grew up but there were few jobs there. All across Canada, young people were faced with a similar situation. Leave because there are so few jobs, get an education, then find you can’t return home because the jobs you are qualified for don’t exist in the town from which you came.

In 1957 I did not want to be a barber and fisherman like my father, I didn’t want to work in the fish processing plant. The airport that had provided so many jobs was beginning a long decline. Graduate school led me to Iowa, then Missouri and, finally, Victoria. I was one of the tens of thousands of the working class who were getting an education and moving away from rural Manitoba. We got good salaries, benefits, working conditions, interesting work but, at most, we could return home for our summer vacation. Christmas (and Thanksgiving and Easter and New Years) would be in a distant place.

We celebrated with neighbours, with John and Joan and Tina Economides in Iowa, with Al and Connie Fenske and their sons in Missouri, with our next door neighbours, the Kendricks, and their three daughters in Victoria and reveled in the connection of the Kendricks to our family, for Graham had worked with and knew my favorite uncle in the air force and Graham’s wife, Betty, came from Manitoba. We take what pleasures we can from circumstance. Gene and Agnes Kline and their family became part of our celebrations. Wherever we went we gathered around us people with whom it was a pleasure to share Christmas.

In Victoria, I had that most important of all things, a good job. Even an excellent job. In a good place because Victoria is regarded as the garden capital of Canada and the first flowers bloom in my garden in January.

However, there is a cost to the opportunity created by urban life, by the massive migration to cities and the abandoning of rural Canada. In the Globe and Mail, Elizabeth Renzetti says “Loneliness has been linked to depression, anxiety, interpersonal hostility, increased vulnerability to health problems, and even to suicide.”

When I grew up, I was surrounded by relatives, uncles and aunts, cousins of every description. They gave us a rich life. Loneliness hardly existed. No one sat alone at Christmas. The problem, if it was a problem, was how to fit everyone at the table, in the bedrooms, in our lives. My father visited relatives every Sunday, stopping briefly at the homes of his aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, all contained within one small town.

However, we are now scattered like seeds on a winter wind. Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, the United States, distant foreign countries.
Now, with Christmas approaching, I rake the stiff, bronze leaves of the Garry Oaks. There is no winter here to speak of. In the mornings, there is sometimes a hard frost that is gone by early afternoon. The rhododendrons stay green all winter but as Christmas approaches, I my thoughts turn to Gimli, to the gravel road that runs north from town, a fragment of the original pioneer road on which my great grandparents traveled in the late 1800s. The ruts will be frozen solid, immovable until those early spring thaws. As I walk along it, snow will be drifting through the poplar bush, across the road, and I’ll hold out my tongue to catch a few flakes. The clouds will be grey, low hanging and the light will be weak. I’ll walk past snow covered hay bales, past old farm equipment, houses with lit windows even though it is still day. I’ll walk as far as the graveyard and climb over the chain link fence, pick my way through the headstones until I find my grandparents’ graves, my parents’, my brothers’. There they lie together in frozen ground. I’ll stand there in the fading light and think about those many Christmases, the laughter, the conversation, the warmth, the friendships, the love, my grandmother bending down to kiss me Merry Christmas, my grandfather picking me up so he could hold me tight. The memories will warm me in the fading light.

The Persimmon Tree

Interesting idea, culture.

We defend it, promote it, sometimes have riots over it, pass laws about, even go to war over it.

Our culture is, of course, superior to everyone else’s. Even though, in truth, most ethnic groups that have been in Canada any length of time usually know very little about the culture of the country they came from, often don’t speak the language except for a few pet words, know no more of their history than what they see in movies or see in travel brochures. That’s not to criticize anyone. It’s a normal process to become like the culture of the country in which you live. The past is past. And memories of the past are often not even accurate.

When I lived in Southern Missouri for four years, I lived in a world that had little connection to Gimli, Manitoba or Winnipeg or even Manitoba. It was for me and my family an exotic place filled with both pleasures and dangers.

There was no vinarterta but there were pecan pies. The pecans were grown locally and the pie makers usually shelled their own nuts.Pecans and pecan trees and pecan tree rustling were a big part of local lore.

We had watermelon picnics. Big watermelons. Huge watermelons. One cent a pound if I remember correctly. We stopped one afternoon at a zinc lined tank that held water, ice and watermelons and bought a watermelon that was sixty pounds. In Manitoba, my mother bought pieces of watermelon and divided it up amongst us. With sixty pounds of watermelon and four people there was no need to skimp and since the temperature was over a hundred and the humidity so high it felt like we were breathing water and sweat ran down our legs into our sandals, when we got home we dug right in. We knew it would be sweet because the farmer in overalls and a wide brimmed hat had a little device he had plunged into the watermelon and taken out a plug so we could taste it. No chance of getting a watermelon that tasted like a cucumber.

We were invited to parties where we all took turns cranking the handle to make home-made ice cream to eat with a variety of home baked cakes.

We arrived one hot, humid evening, having pulled a trailer all the way from Winnipeg. It took us three days and two nights and we were so tired we just threw blankets on the floor of our rented house and fell asleep.

We woke to the sound of a Manitoba blizzard racing through the hydro wires and the knocking of a lady neighbour with a apple pie she had made for us. Turned out there was no wind, it was as hot and humid as ever, with the heavy sweet smell of Rose of Sharon that grew as a hedge along the back lane. The intense humming were cicadas, millions of them in the grass, in the trees, hard bodied insects, the males of which were “singing” to attract a mate.

Mrs. Berry, she who brought us a pie, gave me a piece of local culture, immediately. She said that the caragana hedge that ran along the sidewalk needed to be cleaned out. The house had been empty for a number of months and paper and plastic and leaves had been caught at ground level. I’ll do that as soon as I can, I said and she replied, not with your hands, which was exactly what I would have done. Use a rake or a long stick. Rattle snakes like to lie in places like that. She also added that when we got up in the morning, I was to check that there were no snakes on the patio before I let the children out onto it. And to keep the screen door shut. Otherwise, we might have an unwelcome visitor. Snake lore. Sort of like knowing not to leave food on the picnic table at the fish camp on Lake Winnipeg. Otherwise, you might have a large, black unwelcome visitor. Lake Winnipeg bear lore.

We’d had to find Missouri on a map. We didn’t know anything about its history. Had to learn from the locals that it had been a border state in the civil war, that the city had been burned to the ground by union soldiers enraged by bushwhackers ambushing some of their compatriots. We had to learn that every family in town knew what side their great grandparents had supported, South or North.

We had to learn that even though it was the 1970s, this was a sundowner city. What’s that? I asked. “Blacks are okay in city limits during the day. Not after sundown,“ I was told. I was shocked but then I thought about how native people in Manitoba have often been treated.

There were small things. The most popular drink was Cherry Coke. I’d never heard of it. And I couldn’t ask for potato chips if I wanted French fries.

Although it sounds like stereotyping, there were dogs, coons, guns and mules. And coal towns where miners and their families lived until strip mining ripped out all the coal and left great gaping gashes in the land. Then, with no work, people moved and since most of the buildings were made of brick, the buildings sat in the Missouri heat until at least one town we regularly visited was bought by a single person who turned it into a furniture shopping mecca.

In the Icelandic Canadian community of Manitoba, poverty and the role of the fishing industry, the large American companies who exploited the fishermen, are all part of our culture. In Missouri it was the companies who came to strip away the coal, then leave wreckage behind.

There were, we found, talented musical instrument makers, local musicians and just as we often read and write about Riverton and the various groups who began there, there was local music.

There were revival meeting, especially in the spring. Hellfire and damnation preachers scaring the not-so-wicked into repenting and becoming reborn—at least for a few weeks.

There were the slow drawls and women in the local stores calling me “Honey”. There were wild persimmon trees. That’s what caused me to write this reminiscence. In Manitoba we searched out wild plums, raspberries, wild strawberries whose smell was the sweetest smell of summer, saskatoons and chokecherries.
persimmon tree Japan

In Missouri in the fall heat we saw trees covered in fruit that looked like small yellow tomatoes and when we asked were told these were persimmon trees. We did not know what to do with them so we left them on the trees. I regret not having asked because persimmons are eaten raw, are also cooked and used in baking. They are part of the local cooking and history and culture.

Today, these many years later, I ate a persimmon I’d bought at the local Chinese store. It was sweet, delicious and it made me think about my four years in a culture I loved but barely got to know. I canoed on one of the Ozark rivers, I taught for free in the basement of a bar in Kansas City, Mo., I saw a water moccasin on the road, I ate more pecan pie than is good for anyone’s blood sugar, I learned to shoot a pistol (badly) and I traveled through the night to a barn in the middle of nowhere to eat the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten.

Most of these are small things. They are only connected by place. But that is the way culture is. It is a way of life much of which is governed by the landscape, by local resources, by history. It contains with it the good and the bad created by time and circumstance. The locals live it from the day they are born and they know a thousand thousand things. Those of us who come to it later never fully know the complexities of local culture but we can still be intrigued, interested, and do our best to understand.

The Last of the Pioneers

Once, they were myriad. You found them everywhere. Icelanders having kaffi and kleinar, passionately discussing politics or religion, reciting poetry, the state of the crops, the weather. All of it, of course, in Icelandic. That sing song language was heard in stores, on streets, in homes.

At first, of course, it was the original settlers who began to disappear into places like Brookside cemetery. Go to the cemetery and you will find gravestones with Icelandic names. My father’s great grandparents, for example. Lutheran ministers, business people, housewives with names like Ingimundson, Johnson, Thidriksson, Albertson.

Over the decades, their children grew up, then joined them, carried away from Lutheran and Unitarian churches to small plots of ground. Tears and prayers marked their passing. And kaffi and ponokokkur . We have given up Viking funerals and burning boats floating from the shore, replaced it with quiet conversations, the clanking of coffee cups, the eating of sandwiches and sweets. The Icelandic service is now in English. The conversation in the reception room is nearly all in English. Here and there a small group talks Icelandic.

However, as amazing as it seems, some of that second generation have lived, are still live, among us. A few days ago, one of them, born GUDLAUG ADALHEIDUR OLAFSSON but affectionately called Lauga, died in the nursing home at Selkirk. She was just about 99. Born in 1914, the year WWI started, she was born on a grain and cattle farm in the small Icelandic settlers community near Sinclair, Manitoba, the daughter of Thorgrimur Olafsson from Borganes, Iceland and Gudrun Rosa Thorsteinsdottir from Leira, Iceland. The farm actually straddled the Manitoba/Saskatchewan border.

Lauga had a phenomenal memory. She was the Wicki of West End Winnipeg. Mention an Icelandic name and she could tell you their genealogy plus their life stories.

She also remembered her childhood clearly. She described going to town, collecting the cheque for the cream, threshing, the rituals of funerals, much of it nine decades gone. Every afternoon at four o’clock, she had coffee and chocolate and it was during this time, at the kitchen table that I heard her stories.

It was she who, having worked as a mother’s helper after her father could no longer afford to send her to the Jon Bjarnason Academy in Winnipeg, explained to me that there was an error in my children’s picture book, Sarah and the People of Sand River. In the book Sarah had her own bedroom. Lauga said that wouldn’t have happened. Every bedroom would have been in use. As a servant girl, Sarah would have slept on a cot in the kitchen.

Times were hard when she was growing up. There were times of prosperity but those were followed by recessions and even depressions. She lived through the Great Depression. She proudly told of how the local Icelandic community held bridge evenings to raise money for people who could not afford to buy coal. In Winnipeg, in winter, fuel is necessary for survival. She also liked to tell about how individuals who were better off took clothes and food to those who were having a difficult time.

Lauga was a repository of Icelandic literature and lore. She and I quickly discovered we shared a belief in fylgjas. Fylgjas are spirits that are part of a person and often precede them on their journeys. Her husband, Agnar, had one. My father had one. My father, I told her at coffee one day, would be up at the fish camp. No cell phones in those days. No phones. My mother and I and my brother would be at home by ourselves for long stretches of time. Then my mother would start baking as if for a guest. When I’d inquire who was coming, she’d say, “Your father will be here shortly.” His fylgja had arrived. And he followed. After a while, I got so that I recognized his fylgja and would say to my mother, “I think Dad is going to turn up.”

Lauga was, without doubt, one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. I liked her enormously. The greatest compliment I can give her is that I wish I’d met her earlier, known her longer. I’d have heard more stories, learned more of the details of what it was like being part of a pioneering Icelandic family in rural Manitoba. When she told her story of her shoes being burned fighting a prairie fire and having to wrap her feet in rags until there was enough money to pay for a new pair (money from a bounty on gopher tails), you knew you were listening to reality.

In the writing of fiction, we call those clincher details. Lauga was a fount of clincher details. Listening to her over coffee, I would think to myself, I couldn’t have made that up.

As a community, we are proud of the fact that some of our members still speak Icelandic. Lauga and her husband, Agnar, both spoke Icelandic. Agnar taught at the fabled Jon Bjarnason Academy, a private academy in Winnipeg that taught Icelandic among its other subjects. Agnar died in 1996. He was a gold medalist in Mathematics and Latin. He was a chess champion. He had lots of choices for a wife. He chose Lauga.

Because of illness and because of the Depression, she wasn’t able to complete her formal education but she had learned to read Icelandic at the age of three. She read widely and well in both Icelandic and English. She loved literature. It was her copy of Independent People that I first started reading. She was a good match for a gold medalist and chess champion.

She, like many who lived through the 30s and 40s, knew hard times. They didn’t stop her from having dreams. She reminded me in many ways of my Irish grandmother who lived in Winnipeg. She, too, had gone through the Great Depression with all its privations. These two women both discovered how to dress well with limited budgets. Sales at Holt Renfew meant the best of clothes without the highest of prices. Bargain hunting was a survival skill.

Luaga loved shoes. Her collection of shoes meant nothing until I heard about the prairie fire and her having no shoes. Then I understood the importance of that closet full of shoes.

She loved the West End of Winnipeg. At one time it was an Icelandic enclave. Over the decades she lived there, it gradually lost its Icelandic character as people moved away. However, she stuck with Garfield Street, with her memories of all the people in all the houses where Icelanders had lived.

I’ll fly to Winnipeg so I can be at her funeral. During the service, I won’t think lofty thoughts. I’ll think about how a girl from a dirt poor farm in the southwest of Manitoba made a life for herself, raised a family of four daughters, was an intellectual match for a chess champion and was a strong bridge partner, went from sleeping in someone else’s kitchen to her own five bedroom home filled with Icelandic artifacts. I’ll think of fylgjas and white horses that come galloping out of the north presaging blizzards.



When our Icelandic ancestors were faced with starving to death or risking their lives immigrating to North America, they had little idea of what they were getting into. An entire continent covered in endless forest. Just the size of North America was beyond comprehension. In place of valleys and mountains, there were days of traveling through dense forest. Winter, in Iceland, could be bitter, but not with the temperatures of the prairies.

The immigration agents came. There were brochures. There even may have been some letters from people who left early. But nothing prepared them for what was to come. The Canadian government was not soliciting immigrants for the benefit of the immigrants. They wanted immigrants to produce goods and order goods that would be transported on the railways. Politicians and businessmen wanted immigrants because they could make money on them.

There were no preparatory classes. No one said “We want immigrants to come to Canada. How can we help assure that they are successful?” No one bothered to look at the country of origin, learn about the immigrants and create a program to prepare them for what they would face. It would have taken very little to provide classes. Those could have been held in the harbours as the emigrants waited for their ships or they could have been held on the ships that went from Iceland to Scotland and from Scotland to Montreal.

How intelligent did someone have to be to look at Iceland and say, “No trees. They live in rock and sod huts. We’d better have a class on cutting down trees, preparing the logs for building, chinking the logs. Using an axe. There are no large wild animals in Iceland. We’d better teach them to use rifles and shotguns and how to hunt and trap. How to fish. The kinds of nets to use. The best way to clear land. The preparation of Canadian food. All of this, and more, could have been done on board the ships.

Local natives could have been hired for next to nothing to instruct the settlers how to best prepare for a winter in Canada.

The result was that the situation of the Icelanders became so desperate that they had to have help for internal relocation. They were the only group to receive such help. That help came from the sheer good luck of having Lord Dufferin as a powerful friend in Ottawa. Even with that help, there were desperate times.
What help and advice there was had to come from the Icelandic agents who helped recruit them. However, they did not have the resources to arrange for teachers on the ships who would over a period of two weeks or more teach the immigrants the basic skills they would need. The government and the railways had all the resources necessary.

The callous treatment of the immigrants wasn’t because the government didn’t have any money. They were spending millions on building railways. Graft was rife. To make matters worse the government, unless they were completely incompetent, knew that the immigrants were highly vulnerable. Many Icelanders didn’t speak English. They didn’t understand the Canadian legal system. They were dealing with corporations that cheated them on prices while providing poor equipment and food. All this could have been remedied by providing someone to represent them in business matters.

We often talk about the hardship of our pioneer ancestors but hardship can often be alleviated and alleviated at minimal cost. The hardship of the immigrants was, in large part, caused by dishonesty, corruption and callousness. Immigrants were seen as an opportunity for exploitation.

I’d add racism for many times I’ve heard about how Icelanders were not treated as equals by the British population in Winnipeg. Most people know the story of the Falcons and their struggle to be treated as equals in hockey. Or Icelanders killed at work sites simply being dismissed as Icelanders rather than as individuals.

Except, if you read Barry Broadfoot, you discover that even though the government preferred English, Irish and Scots settlers, they didn’t treat them any better. The immigration brochure at the top of this article makes no bones about how British subjects were preferred. Yet, the clerks and bakers and bookbinders from London, England who believed the propaganda about the glories of Canada and found themselves in sod huts on the prairies, miles from help and support, faced with trying to clear and break land, received less help than the Icelanders. The casualties were high. Suicide was common. Disease widespread. Despair everywhere.

And the agents that hung around the train terminals were no more honest with the English settlers than the Icelandic. Many cheated and stole at every opportunity.

Some decisions made by the government were just acts of gross stupidity. When people emigrated, they needed mutual support, they needed neighbours nearby. They couldn’t get that on 160 acres. The breaking of the land into quarter sections and, to make matters worse, often making intervening sections unavailable, isolated the settlers, deprived them of family, friends and community. How smart do you have to be to say this is not in the best interest of the settlers? We should organize the land in ways that made it easier for people to support each other. Instead, the land was divided up in a way that would maximize profit for the railways and the government.

However, the politicians and powerful businessmen, particularly those on the railways, weren’t interested in the welfare of the settlers, the Icelandic ones, the English ones, the German ones, none of them. Fortunes were being made by people closely connected with the power brokers in Ottawa. Your people and mine were cannon fodder. That they survived and, finally, prospered, is a miracle that needs to be recorded, honored, remembered.

When I look at old newspapers and magazines from Winnipeg and see advertisements for Icelandic businesses, I am amazed. The fishermen and farmers carved a living out of forest and lake and the Icelandic businessmen elbowed their way onto the streets of Winnipeg and made a living in a hostile environment.

To deny the callousness, the corruption, the exploitation, the dishonesty that existed is to take away credit from our people.

Putting food on the table, establishing a business, getting an education, making a place in society wasn’t made easy. It wasn’t just the land and the weather that our people had to overcome.

But people like my great grandfather, coming to Canada with nothing, created a dairy, bought a farm, partnered in a general store. I don’t think the establishment reached out a helping hand. For that, he needed the Icelandic community.

I think as we celebrate Islendingadagurinn, we need to pause and look around at what we have accomplished, as a community, in Canada, in the USA, and say, “The lives we lead, our place in society, was built on sacrifice and hardship, bravery and determination. We need to stop at the pioneer graveyards and say, “Bless you. Bless you.”

Who Were The West Coast Icelanders?


Some of the Icelanders who came to the West Coast went logging. They came from a country where trees were scrub birch a few feet high. What do you think they thought and felt when they saw scenes like this?


From a country with no trees to a country covered in vast forests. This forest is outside Prince Rupert.

Who are these BC Icelanders and where did they come from?

“Gisli and Jonina Jonsson and their baby daughter, Kristjana, came to Canada from Iceland in 1902 to settle in Selkirk, Manitoba. While there Gisli worked as a carpenter and in the fish cold storage plant. In 1914 he came to British Columbia on an exploratory trip. He was looking for a place to settle where weather conditions were more temperate and working conditions more to his liking.”

Gudmundur “George” Snidal,  his wife Ingunn “Inga” and their three children came to Olsand in the early spring of 1919. They came from Graham Island, B.C. George Snidal was born in Iceland in 1879 and came to Canada at an early age. Inga Sigurddottir was also born in Ielandin 18886. She came to Canaa in the spring of 1910. Bhey were married in Winnipeg in late 1911.

Olafur ‘Oly’ Olafson was born in Iceland in February 1904 to Halvardur and Sigridur. In 1910 the Olafson family – three children, Oly (six), Hilda (three), and Swana (two), and Halvardur, who was 38 and Sigridur, 35, emigrated fro mt heir home country to Canada. They speont one winter in Winnpeg, then headed west to the Queen Charlotte Islands wehre othe rIcleandic famileis had gone to live.

In 1918 Benecikt Steffan Hohnson, with his wife Sigurlina Valgerthur Johanesdottir, moved from Manitoba to the northwest coast of British Columbia. Ben and Sigurlina were both born in Iceland – he in 1864, and she in 1862 – and were married in that country before immigrating to Canada in 1888 on the ship  “Cirdasia”. The had four children. Lutehr, their son, was born in Winnipeg April 26, 1894. He was married, before the family moved to B.C, to Thurihur (Thura) Oddson, the daughter of Gudni and Gudrithur Jonsdottir. Thura was born in Reykjavik, Iceland December 121, 1900 and came to Canada in 1901 with her parents and Grandparents.

And how did these Icelanders, braving the trip to England or Scotland, from there to Canada, across the country to Winnipeg, picking up and moving still further west, creating for themselves a small Icelandic colony on Smith Island, live?

According to Elin (Einarsson) Vaccher in Memories of Osland “At times during the winter months we would be locked in by the ice that came down the river. Before winter set in my father would go to Prince Rupert for supplies – sacks of flour and sugar, butter in 14 pound boxes and a quarter of beef. Then men would hunt deer for extra meat during the winter. My dad made a good root cellar with a cement floor below our house. We stored vegetables from my mother’s garden there. Potatoes in large bins and carrots and beets in barrels of sand. Durnig the summer my mother was kept busy tending the gardens and the animals while the men were fishing. She would salt fish and preserve salmon and fruit in jars for the winter. As child I remember my mother baking sugar cookies with half an almond or a raisin on top. She also baked jelly rolls to have on hand for company. Every weekend she baked a layer cake spread with jam filling for the family. Vinatarta was special and only baked at Christmas and Easter.”

How Icelandic is that?  There they are, probably about seventy people, living on an island on the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by forest, trees beyond imagining, in a community connected by a wooden sidewalk that wound its way through the forest and at Christmas and Easter the mothers and grandmothers make vinatarta. And I remember my mother in Gimli making those sugar cookies with half an almond on top and jelly rolls. To me, sugar cookies and jelly rolls are childhood, Gimli, Icelandic, Lutheran, but they’re obviously also Osland, BC, Icelandic, childhood, there over the vast prairies, across the Rocky Mountains, beyond the mainland, there’s vinatarta on a plate with a mug of strong coffee, and jelly roll and sugar cookies. There in the fog and rain, in the vast forests, on the edge of the world. Icelandic.

The Winnipeg Icelander


Over my lifetime, I’ve read thousands of poems, as a student, as a teacher and as a reader who loves the well-wrought word.

Keats and Shelley and Donne and Yeats and Plath and Wakoski and Bly and Eliott and Frost and Berryman and Shakespeare and….the list seems endless.  I call it the anthology of my mind.

There is in that anthology a poem that I often think about it, and that is “The Winnipeg Icelander” by Guttormur Guttormsson from Riverton.

It’s a fun poem. Some might call it verse. I call it the mark of a society in transition. Here is the first verse.

Eg fór on’ í Main street með fimm dala cheque
Og forty eight riffil mér kaupti
Og ride út á Country með farmara fékk,
Svo fresh út í brushin eg hlaupti.
En þá sá eg moose, út í marshi það lá,
O my- eina sticku eg brjótti!
Þá fór það á gallop, not good anyhow,
Var gone þegar loksins eg skjótti.

It is a satirical look at how the Icelanders in Winnipeg spoke Icelandic.

It encapsulates, perhaps better than anything else, the internal conflict among the immigrants over whether they should assimilate as quickly as possible or whether they should isolate themselves from Canadian society in their New Iceland and remain as Icelandic as possible.

This conflict existed from the very beginning of the emigration. There were those who believed that the emigrants should go to various locations, hire out to established Norwegian and Swedish farmers and learn how to live and farm in North America. Photographs from the time show well-established farms, buildings, equipment and cultivated land. On the other side were those who wanted to create a New Iceland where everything would remain Icelandic, where it would be just like Iceland except in location.

The language, that secret code, that privileged communication, that way of identifying us from them, was the marker of identity.

It was also the evidence of how impossible was the dream of isolation. As Guttormur’s poem makes clear, this was a new land, it contained within it things that did not exist in Iceland. E.g. moose

The immigrants, during the first years, in Nova Scotia, in Kinmount, in New Iceland, struggled to stay alive. Many didn’t make it. They died on board ship, as they travelled across the continent, in various locations across North America. Graveyards tell their story.

Not to adapt was to die. Only a fool, and a short-lived one, at that, would have insisted against all evidence, on keeping fishing with the nets brought from Iceland. Only a fool would not have learned how to cut down large trees safely and how to build with them. Only a fool would have insisted that he, or she, would only do things just as they were done in Iceland, never mind the -40 below, the summer heat, the mosquitoes, the forests, the vast distances.

Why would language be any different? Only a fool would insist that no object be talked about if it didn’t exist in Iceland.

When people are going hunting in a Manitoba winter, trying to learn how to hunt animals that they had never before heard of, and returning empty handed, when they were trying to figure out how to get through four to six feet of ice to set nets and had to invent the tools to do it, when they had to plant crops they’d never planted (in Iceland, they’d planted no crops) in land that first had to be cleared, they didn’t have time for effete intellectual exercises in creating a new Icelandic word for the  thousands of things with which they were confronted on a daily basis.

When they had a chance to buy bif (something they weren’t able to buy in Iceland), or bins or kabits and karats to cure scurvy, there wasn’t time to have a discussion about how these new items should be properly described in Icelandic. The people they were buying from didn’t have time, either. They, too, were living on the edge of survival.

In Winnipeg the situation was less dire. There was work, at least for the women, sometimes for the men. However, Winnipeg was a city of immigrants. Survival required communication. Getting work from bosses from other ethnic groups required that Icelanders learn, as quickly as possible, to communicate, to learn a new vocabulary, one that described the world they woke up to every day. There was no time to write to Iceland to ask if the academic authorities would please tell them what to call a bonkhús. If these authorities had any idea of what a bunkhouse was. And then wait for a reply.

A lot is made of the fact that Icelanders today can still read the sagas. Some would claim that means that Icelandic doesn´t change. Hogwash! In my reading about Iceland in the 19th C. I come across words that even Icelandic historians do not recognize or they disagree about the meaning. Language exists to communicate not to ex-communicate, although some would have it that way. Purity of language, enforced by official purifiers, is an exercise conducted in a society with resources to spend, where hunger doesn’t greet you every morning and go to bed with you every night.

My grandfather built a bunkhús, he told his Icelandic relatives that he´d built a bunkhús, and since he went to Winnipeg buying supplies, he learned to go to the hólsíl. When the Icelandic emigrants were leaving Iceland, there were few fences, there were, however, lots of stone walls because there was little wood and lots of stone. Stone walls are walls, not fences and, in Canada there was lots of wood and it was necessary to fence land, and the Icelandic immigrant learned to build a fens. They learned to build a fens on a hómsteð. There were no hómsteðs in Iceland. The very idea was foreign, beyond imagining for most people in Iceland. It required a new way of thinking.

None of this change, physical, mental, spiritual, was done without sacrifice, without pain, without suffering, without conflict.

Guttormur’s poem, “The Winnipeg Icelander,” nicely encapsulates a society in transition, moving from the past into the present. He was able to do it in a clever, amusing way. GG left us a poem to enjoy but more than that, he left us a picture, through language, of the transition our Icelandic ancestors underwent as they struggled to survive and prosper.