This is the second installment of the story of Dr. Sigga Christianson and her medical dynasty.
C. Stuart Houston OC, SOM,DLitt, DCnL, MD, FRCPC
Geir, Sigga’s father, was a failure as a farmer. Geir knew a bit about haying, but nothing about other aspects of farming. Yet he, together with many Icelanders, succumbed in 1905 to the offer of free land in Saskatchewan.
They travelled on the new Canadian Northern Railway to a locality named Wadena. Geir filed for a homestead adjacent to the alkaline shores of Big Quill Lake. The soil was poor, drinking water had to be hauled from five miles away, and it was a 12-mile trip to the aspen woods where Geir went yearly to cut wood for fuel.
Their proudest possession was a large woodpile, illustrated in the Wynyard area history, Reflections by the Quills, published much later in 1981. What little income Geir received came from carpentry; he and his son Bill built a school near Wadena in the winter of 1906-07, which paid for basic farm animals and machinery.
Three of the Christianson children loved living in a tent during their first summer on the farm; Sigga was less enthusiastic since she realized there would be no schooling for at least a year. Baldur Olson, a bachelor, homesteaded three miles distant in 1906, built himself a shack valued at $75 and a shed worth $35, kept one horse but no cattle, and plowed 10 acres that year. Sesselja, Sigga’s mother, baked his bread, darned his socks and fed him Sunday supper.
In 1907, no qualified teacher applied to teach in the newly built Mountain school (named for the Icelandic community in North Dakota). Baldur, a college student in Winnipeg each winter, became the teacher for the summer. Sigga was in grade 7. The next year, 1908, according to
Beth Josephson Johnson, Baldur moved to Sleipner school, taking the four Christiansons with him.
Grade 8 was the last schooling available locally for Sigga. Baldur Olson suggested that Sigga go to Winnipeg to work in his mother’s large boarding house. Portage and Main was reputed to be one of the coldest places in Canada and Sigga had no money to buy a winter coat.
Fortunately Sigga’s uncle, Sesselja’s brother, Gisli Sveinsson, had been the first to emigrate in 1888, and had fortuitously homesteaded at Loni Beach near Gimli; Gisli was well-to-do from renting and sometimes even selling small areas of beachfront to cottagers from Winnipeg. Gisli gave
Sigga ten dollars, sufficient to fit her out in winter clothing and let her move to Winnipeg.
Sigga got up at five each morning in “Aunty Olson’s Boarding House,” and made breakfast for at least twenty men who worked for the nearby Bardal’s Funeral Parlor; some drove the horse-drawn ambulance and hearse. Sigga helped prepare supper and wash the dishes before she could study.
She completed grades 9, 10 and 11 in Winnipeg. Meanwhile, Baldur Olson
was ambitious. He received his BA from the University of
Manitoba in 1910. An excellent student, Baldur gave up his homestead (the homestead file shows that Geir Christianson signed as his witness) and then entered Medicine, graduating in 1915.
Sigga’s grade 11 certificate was sufficient to gain her entry to “Normal School”, Teacher’s College, back in Saskatoon for one winter. She then got a job teaching in Kildrum School, south and west of Bruno, Saskatchewan.
For three years, she boarded with the Reg Harvey family who lived near the school. Reg had homesteaded in 1909 but his Scottish bride, Margaret, had joined him only in 1914. After Sesselja died of pneumonia in 1915, Margaret
Harvey became Sigga’s lifelong friend and correspondent. There were wild ideas abroad in the land. Perhaps women could vote – Icelandic women in Manitoba were among the leaders of the fight for women’s suffrage, achieved first in Manitoba in January 1916 while an Icelander,
T.H. Johnson, was acting premier.
Perhaps a woman could have her own bank account! Increasing numbers of women attended University – perhaps a woman could follow in
Baldur Olson’s footsteps and become a medical doctor.
Sigga knew her father would not be able to help her financially. When Geir saw the potential for a decent crop, he splurged on farm machinery and then was in debt to Massey Harris. So Sigga, just over five feet tall
and weighing in at 98 pounds, scrimped and saved, banking the greater part of every dollar she earned.
Sigga went to the University of Manitoba for a year of premed. She was then accepted into Medicine, along with 13 other women, in a class of 60, the class of 1925. This was a unique class. It was not until 1976, 51 years later, that such a high proportion of women again achieved entry.
Each year while in Medicine, Sigga earned money for her tuition and texts by teaching school all summer. When medical classes ceased in the spring, she got on the weekend train (the rails reached Wynyard only in 1909) and on Monday morning began teaching at Grandy School, north of Wynyard. Sigga put the students through a year’s curriculum in about four months, gave each a final exam on a Friday in September, took the train back to Winnipeg, and began medical classes on the Monday. Nose to the grindstone, the word “holiday” was not in her vocabulary. In her fifth and final year, having used up all her savings, she obtained special permission to be credited for all five months of the medical part of her internship at a tuberculosis sanatorium at Fort Qu’Appelle (Fort San), where they paid $25 per month in addition to room and board. Her classmates, almost all in Winnipeg, worked their 12 months of rotations (medicine, pediatrics, surgery, etc.) for room and board but no pay.
Sigga was bright and personable and part of the first generation of Icelanders to attend University. As with some other minorities, Icelanders knew that education was the path to success; they worked hard and obtained a disproportionate percentage of scholarships.