Author: Stefan Jonasson
Svavar Gestsson, former Consul General of Iceland in Winnipeg, died on January 18, 2021, at the National University Hospital in Reykjavík, Iceland. He was the first professional diplomat to represent Iceland in Canada and, during his tenure here, he laid the groundwork for the memorable celebration of the millennium of the Vinland voyages by Leifur Eiríksson and other Icelandic explorers.
Svavar was born in Guðnabakki in Stafholtstungur on June 26, 1944 – just nine days after the Republic of Iceland was established – the son of Guðrún Valdimarsdóttir and Gestur Sveinsson. He was the oldest of eight siblings. He graduated from Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík in 1964 and subsequently enrolled in law at the University of Iceland and proceeded to study in Berlin.
Prior to entering Iceland’s Foreign Service, Svavar was a journalist, member of Alþingi, and cabinet minister. He was editor of the newspaper Þjóðviljinn (The People’s Will) from 1971 to 1978, sat in parliament for the People's Alliance from 1978 until 1999, and was a cabinet minister in three governments: Minister of Commerce (1978-1979), Minister of Social Affairs, Health and Social Security (1980-1983), and Minister of Education (1988-1991). From 1995 until 1999, he was parliamentary chair of the People’s Alliance. Svavar resigned from Alþingi in 1999 and spent the next decade as an ambassador, serving in Winnipeg (1999-2001), Stockholm (2001-2005), and Copenhagen (2005-2010).
“Svavar was an expressive politician and orator, but at the same time controversial,” reported Kolbeinn Tumi Daðason in Vísir. “In recent years, he has been accepted as a great spokesman for the Left-Green Movement” and consequently as “a staunch supporter of the current government.” Kolbeinn noted that, “his personal and political story … is intertwined with the history of Iceland for more than half a century” as “a left-leaning man who burned with a sense of justice.”
In retirement, Svavar edited the magazine Breiðfirðingur from 2015 to 2019. He also wrote two books, Sjónarrönd: Jafnaðarstefnan-viðhorf (a volume about socialism) in 1995 and an autobiography, Hreint út sagt, in 2012, as well as countless articles in newspapers and magazines, mostly about politics.
Svavar was a champion of the relationship between Iceland and the Icelandic community in North America. “Icelandic government officials have to pay attention and give encouragement to the Western Icelanders,” Svavar told Hulda Karen Daníelsdóttir in 1989, when he was Iceland’s minister of culture and education. “We must do something to show that their ongoing contributions are of great value.” Reflecting on his visit to North America that year, when he accompanied former president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir on her presidential tour, he added: “This visit has helped me gain a fuller and more complete understanding of the history of Iceland itself.” Returning to Winnipeg a decade later as consul general, he continued to build relationships between Icelandic communities in the heart of North America and the people of Iceland. After returning to Iceland at the end of his diplomatic career, he was active in Þjóðræknisfélag Íslendinga (Icelandic National League of Iceland), serving on its board from 2010 to 2018, and continued to nurture relationships across the sea while encouraging awareness of the Western Icelanders at home.
“Svavar had an inexhaustible interest in politics but especially people,” observed Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, who added that he will be remembered as “a man who left deep impressions on the minds of those of us who knew him and who approached life with interest and passion until the end.”
In extending condolences on behalf of the Icelandic National League of North America, its president, Stefan Jonasson, said: “Svavar will be long remembered by his many friends in North America and forever respected for his significant contributions to Icelandic heritage and culture.” Hulda Karen Daníelsdóttir, president of Þjóðræknisfélag Íslendinga, eulogized Svavar saying, “He was a unique man in so many ways.”
Guy Stewart, a former resident of Winnipeg who now lives in Iceland, said: “He transformed everything he touched for the better. A high, noble character with his feet on the ground – a good match for Guðrún. Who was more of a class act than Svavar Gestsson? Nobody.”
Svavar is survived by his wife, Guðrún Ágústsdóttir, former president of the Reykjavík City Council, and his children: Svandís (who is Iceland's Minister of Health), Benedikt, and Gestur; and also Guðrún’s children: Ragnheiður, Árni, and Gunnhildur. “We will remember him with warmth and gratitude,” said a statement from his family following his death.
Svavar was one of his country’s greatest advocates for socialist values, but his interests and concerns transcended partisanship. He was a champion of democracy, labour, human rights, gender equality, Icelandic language and culture, social inclusiveness, and environmental stewardship. Cultured and refined, Svavar brought dignity to all of his pursuits. He will be greatly missed but fondly remembered, and the stamp he made on public life will be a perpetual memorial to his virtue.