The 35th annual “Walk to the Rock”, held in lovely weather, attracted 50 students and 10 adults, mostly members of the Gimli Icelandic Canadian Society.
The Grade Six class from the Gimli Middle Years School joined the group and were welcomed by Lorna Tergesen, President of the Gimli Icelandic Canadian Society.
Connie Magnusson gave a short overview of the settlers landing at Willow Point in 1875. The students, directed by their teacher, Pam Einarson, read the poem “Arrival at Willow Point” by Don Martin. This received resounding applause. Carly Welham, a fifth generation descendant of the mother who gave birth to the first child in New Iceland, placed a rose at the rock in memory of the pioneers.
From here the group gathered at the New Iceland Museum for hot chocolate and cookies. Executive Director of the Museum, Tammy Axelsson, welcomed everyone and introduced a film Skaftáreldar about the devastating 1783 eruption in Iceland. The day proved to be not only a memorial to the pioneers but also an educational experience for all who attended.
“We in Iceland have a lot to answer for,” said geologist and volcano specialist, Kristinn Guðjónsson, during a two-week North American tour sponsored by the Icelandic National League of North America International Visits Program.
Kristinn explained that one of the results of the eruption of the Laki volcano was the French Revolution. The volcano was active from June 8, 1783 to February 7, 1784, though most of the damage was done in the first five months.
It was known as “sand summer” because of the fallout. “It drastically affected the climate year. There were crop failures and famine. Two million people died. And that was one of the causes of the French Revolution,” Kristinn said. Between September 30 and October 23, Kristinn travelled from Keflavík to Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Arborg, Mountain, Minneapolis, Vatnabyggð, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Blaine, Seattle, and back to Keflavík.
During his tour, he met families whose ancestors had to leave Iceland because of volcanic action in 1875. It was the explosion of the Askja volcano on March 29, 1875 that led directly to the movement of Icelanders to North America, he said. “The ash fall poisoned the land and killed all the livestock. The people were starving.”Between April 15 and 21, 2010, when Eyjafallajökull became active and all European flights were cancelled, 10 million passengers were stranded, 313 airports closed, $1.7 billion lost by the airlines and $5 billion lost by related industries. An unusual wind pattern blew heavy clouds of ash across Europe and, said Kristinn, volcanic ash is composed of small glass shards.
“If it is sucked into jet engines, into the air intakes, the engine dies. It’s not a good thing.” Airlines, Kristinn said, took a “zero tolerance” approach. “We don’t know the safety limits. There is now safety limit testing because, next time it happens, they want to know.”In Iceland, 400 local people were evacuated as were animals. Glacial floods damaged roads and fields. Ash covered large areas.
“Ash storms will cause problems for years. Mud floods, which will continue for the next two years, are a constant threat.” said Kristinn who has videotaped moonscape images of an area covered by a mud flood. The final cost for Iceland, he said, will be billions of krónur.The IVP tour was a model for ingenuity, effective partnerships, volunteerism and co-operation. The International Visits Program selected Kristinn, worked with him to develop a manageable schedule, and provided support, including gas money, for participating clubs.
The clubs worked together to ensure that Kristinn’s travel was as smooth as possible. Venues ranged from community halls to churches, universities, and cultural centres.The Toronto event was held at Innis Town Hall, co-sponsored by the Icelandic Canadian Club of Toronto and and Andy Orchare, Provost of University of Toronto’s Trinity College. Ottawa was organized by Friends of Iceland, the INL of NA club in Ottawa, and hosted at the Embassy of Iceland Residence by Ambassador Sigríður Anna Þordardóttir and her husband Jon Þorsteinsson.
The Winnipeg venue was the Scandinavian Culture Centre. The Arborg talk, held at the Ardal-Geysir Lutheran Church, attracted people from Gimli and Riverton, as well as a number of non-members and was enhanced by a short article in the local paper. Kristinn was relayed from Winnipeg to Minneapolis – Garry Oddleifson to the Canada/USA border, Consul Loretta Bernhoft to Mountain and the next day to Fargo, and Lyle Hillman to Minnesota.
The ICA (Icelandic Communities Association) and the INL of NA jointly hosted the lecture at the Icelandic State Park in the Northeast North Dakota Heritage Center at Cavalier, ND. One Minneapolis presentation became part of the Leif Eiriksson celebration dinner on October 9.
The second was held at the Bell Museum of Natural History, U of M Campus. Christie Dalman did the driving to and from Saskatoon for the Vatnabyggð talk which was held in Wynyard’s local heritage site, the Unitarian church, also known as The Icelandic Church.Kristinn was the first guest presenter for the Leif Eiriksson Icelandic Club’s Speaker Series.
The venue was the Calgary Scandinavian Centre. Following a tour of the Rockies with Ron and Helene Goodman, Kristinn spoke in Edmonton at the Nordic Room, Dutch Canadian Centre. In Vancouver, where Oli Leifson and Kristjana Helgason handled the driving, the presentation was at the Scandinavian Community Centre. Seattle’s venue was the University of Washington where Kristinn was taken to lunch by students and later met with some of the professors.
While In Blaine, Kristinn spoke at the University of Western Washington in Bellingham, where he was met by a group from the Blaine Icelandic Society. Rob Olafson, Henry Bjornsson and Anna Hauksdottir handled the Washington state driving. In Vancouver, when Kristjana took Kristinn touring in her Mustang with the top down, he was able to photograph the Vancouver skyline right from the car.
In North Dakota, Pam Olafson Furstenau and her husband, Jeff, provided an opportunity for a 4-wheeling trip through the woods on their farm. Kristinn also shared a beer in the Thingvalla cemetery with Kristján Níels Jónsson Júlíus (1859-1936), known as K.N., a satirical poet born in Akureyri, who immigrated to North America in 1878, spending his first few years in Canada before he moved to North Dakota.
His drinking songs and poems may have contributed to his reputation as a heavy drinker. He dug many of the graves in Thingvalla cemetery.“I thoroughly enjoyed the trip,” said Kristinn during a post-tour phone interview. “It was exciting to tell people about the eruption. And I lived for seven years in Canada. I was able to see places I had wanted to visit. I was fascinated by the contrasts – it was like riding a rollercoaster at times, from the prairies to the Rockies.
There were many highlights on many different levels – being able to see the geology of the Rockies, getting to know the history of Icelanders in so many different places. There were also personal meetings with old friends I knew from Toronto.” Kristinn had lived in the same town in Iceland as his Vancouver driver, Oli, and had worked with Oli’s wife, Maggí, at the weather stations in Keflavík. In Calgary, Kristinn met Esther Wheatley, a club member and a cousin of his wife, Helga.After earning his B.Sc. in Iceland, Kristinn obtained his Masters degree at the University of Toronto, Mississauga campus. His thesis won him an award from the Canadian Association of Geographers, as the best geography thesis
in Canada for that year.
Kristinn then remained at University of Toronto, working on his doctorate. While living in Mississauga, Kristinn and Helga became active members of the Icelandic Canadian Club of Toronto. Kristinn was the editor of the club’s newsletter, Falkinn, and is credited with bringing a professional format to the newsletter.
Helga was also involved with the club, his daughter Rosa once performed a trumpet solo at club event, and their son, Guðjon, was born in Mississauga.Back in Iceland, Kristinn is Head of the Natural Science Dept. at Borgarholtskóla, an upper level secondary school. He teaches geology, geography, and physics.
In addition, he instructs and leads field work courses at the University of Iceland as well as the University of Bodö in Spitsbergen, Norway. Kristinn has also worked as a field guide for researchers and study groups including the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institute.
He told his North American audiences that, historically, volcanic eruptions have occurred in Iceland on the average of every four years. In millions of years Iceland could become the largest continent in the world, he said, then admitted that would not happen because the margins would sink. He enhanced his talk with his own videos – vivid closeup shots of the recent eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, the ash plume and the flooding by glacial melting.Attendance for his talks, said Kristinn, was very positive. He noticed that the largest crowds were at the university settings where most of the audience was professors and students. “There were also people whom I had guided who heard about the talk and came out. They have no connection to Iceland,” he said.
Reactions to Kristinn as a choice as an IVP visitor were uniformly enthusiastic. “Kristinn was absolutely fantastic. As I was told, it was not to be missed.” “All the efforts of the INLs of Iceland and North America are worth it as all of the participants in the IVP have been outstanding.” “He updated me on what is going on in Iceland. He was the perfect guest.” “The auditorium was packed.
The audience was very appreciative. Kristinn is funny and entertaining.” “Although the subject matter was serious, Kristinn enlivened it by moments of humour.” “The technical aspects of volcanic action in Iceland were professionally presented with easy-to-follow diagrams and text, using a computer generated model.” “The Chapter congratulates the International Visits Program which allowed us to attend, listen and learn together. Thanks to Icelandair for their sponsorship of airline tickets from Iceland and return.”
Joy raced in from school, her eyes sparkling. “Look,” she exclaimed, opening her hand.
In her palm was a little wooden reindeer, two clothes pegs, a shiny nose, jiggly eyes, a silly grin.
He made me smile. When I smiled at him, his eyes jiggled faster and he laughed back. “He’s wonderful, Joy,” I said.
“Take him?” she asked.
I spent 20 years as a front line child care worker in Montreal, employed in a residence for socially maladaptive preteens. Our director, of course a very wise and learned man, insisted that we must keep our lives absolutely separate from those of the children in our care. We were not to share any part of our family story with them.
How, in those circumstances, we were supposed to show them any example of a normal family life was never part of the monologue.
I knew the rules.
We were also absolutely forbidden to accept anything from the children. We, the child care givers, were to be the only givers. The children were to be strictly receivers.
Rules or not, the kids at the residence knew that Christmas was my favourite time of year, that in my own house money was not a necessary ingredient for Christmas but tradition was, that we made our decorations and candles, that there was joy and much laughter around our Christmas tree.
I looked down at the reindeer in Joy’s hand. My rebellious lips were having a hard time forming the proper words: “No, Joy, of course you have to keep the reindeer. You made him.”
I lifted my head, looked at Joy, and, as she locked eyes with me, I read a truth in hers, a truth that at 10, she should not have learned. And now I had a bigger problem. Joy was aware that I was privy to information that must never be spoken aloud. Joy could not take her reindeer home. She might be home for an hour or two on Christmas day. She might not. And she knew what would happen to her reindeer if she hung it on the agency tree. Some other young client, mad at the world, would take out his anger on that laughing reindeer and tear it to pieces. If, by some Christmas miracle, it survived to January, one of the staff would, in keeping with our institutional tradition, strip the tree, scoop up all the ornaments, and throw them out.
Deep in Joy’s eyes, I saw the reflection of our tree at home, where decorations that the kids had made in nursery school still hung and where tradition decreed that nothing was ever discarded.
“He’s entirely beautiful, Joy,” I said honestly. “I’d love to have him. You know that. Would you really give him to me?”
Faces can, indeed, light up. “Yes,” Joy said. She handed him over, quickly, not in case she might regret her decision but just in case I changed my mind.
I held the silly, happy, laughing reindeer. “He’ll be on our tree every year,” I told her.
“I know,” she said simply. “Forever.”
I’ve lost track of Joy. She’s in her mid-30s now, and, as I often do, I wonder what kind of life she and the other kids I knew at the residence managed to make for themselves as adults.
And every Christmas, forever, the laughing reindeer finds his place of honour on my Christmas tree.
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.
They are 10 middle-aged women from Foam Lake, Saskatchewan, part of the Vatnabyggð area. None of them had any previous experience in writing professionally or publishing.
Their third and fourth cookbooks were national best sellers on pre-sales before they were printed. They are the Breast Friends, and from the profits from their cookbooks, they have donated more than a million dollars to front-line cancer needs, everything from patient information to medical equipment to a full contingent of new beds for the Cancer Patients’ Lodge in Saskatoon, the refuge for rural patients receiving treatment.
The Breast Friends will be featured on CBC TV’s Dragons’ Den on December 8, following a successful pitch in Regina and a taping in Toronto. They entered a charity cookbook competition which will be staged in Paris next spring.
Three days later, they were contacted by the international magazine, Gourmand, and were featured in a two-page spread in the November issue.Their project started when a friend, Linda Helgason, needed to raise $3000 so she could ride with the Prairie Women on Snowmobiles, an event designed to raise money for breast cancer.
The group decided to hold a gourmet dinner and the results were so positive that they were bombarded with requests for the recipes. The initial idea – a little cookbook – got away on them and they launched a 380-page best-seller cookbook in 2004.
Although most of them were still working full time, and some were also part of a farming operation, they were emboldened to try the second book, and the project took on a life of its own.The initial concentration on breast cancer ended when one of the members lost her 47-year-old husband to skin cancer.
The first cookbook was “For the Breasts of Friends,” the second, after Kevin died, was “For the Breasts and the Rest of Friends.” The third one was “Breast Wishes from Breast Friends.” They have just launched a Christmas edition, “Breast Wishes for Christmas.”
The local library board hosted their first book launch, organizing it for them because they had no idea what a launch was. They have learned. They have also had to learn to handle media interviews, to serve as speakers, and to promote the cause as well as the books.
When they decided to supply specialty beds for the Cancer Lodge in Saskatoon, they travelled to the city, took away all the old box springs and mattresses and remade all the beds.They aren’t all Icelandic, but, they say, they get close.
The 10 women are Charlene Bildfell Rokochy, Linda Helgason, Val Helgason, Jeannie Johnson, Patti Hack, Cecile Halyk, Nat Dunlop, Anne Reynolds, Darlene Cooper and Jacquie Klebeck. Charlene is Icelandic, Linda, Val and Jeannie are married to Icelanders, and, says Patti, both her daughters married Icelanders.
Cecile also has an Icelandic daughter-in-law. Besides, Cecile says, “know how to make vínerterta and my husband and I always attend þorrablót.”Over the past six years, the Breast Friends have supported shuttle services between hospices and treatment centres, action and advocacy groups, chemotherapy infusion pumps that enable people to receive treatment closer to home, a mobile mammogram machine that will serve Canada’s far north, and Third World cancer clinics.
Their success, and their ability to remain a solid working group, they say, comes from accepting each other’s differences and collectively allowing each member to bring her own unique talents to the group.