THE PHILOSOPHICAL FISHERMEN OF GIMLI
Seventy-seven years ago a handful of fishermen quit their native Iceland and founded Canada’s only independent republic on a swampy windswept strip of Lake Winnipeg shore. Now Gimli sends its sons to university chairs and supreme court benches while the home folk go on hauling the whitefish and writing poems to their Viking ancestors
IT WAS five o'clock and the day was breaking over Lake Winnipeg. In the awful stillness of dawn there was no sound hut the endless
chuck-chuck of a huge grey windmill turning slowly against the black clouds of disappearing night and towering over the sleeping town of Gimli and the white fish boats hugging its long wooden pier.
Posted on the net house by the pier, the marine forecast said there would be scattered showers and cool moist air covering the lake.
Weather would be important today. Before the sun had set the big lake freighter Goldfield, now moored heavily at the pier, would load fishermen and gear and head out north. The fall fishing was starting and throughout the town, nets used during the summer were strewn over fences and spread out to dry in back yards.
Now the lake was smooth and quiet and a host of long-legged gulls paddled in the still water along the shore. Farther along, a stone breakwater stretched to the edge of the town to protect it from the waves that smash at it in heavy weather.
Along the wide gravel streets doors were shut tight on the white stucco and clapboard shops of Thorkelson, jeweler and watchmaker, Dr. Igimundson, the dentist and Arnason, the dairy man. Soon Gimli would be astir and some sleepy fellow would walk down past the little houses and the hedges and wire fences with a pail in either hand to an artesian well at the corner of Centre Street.
The little Manitoba fishing town fifty-seven miles north of Winnipeg boasts only fifteen hundred inhabitants but it is the beloved focal point of forty thousand people of Icelandic descent in North America. It was windswept marsh and woods until seventy-seven years ago when a party of Icelandic immigrant fishermen and freehold farmers camped there in buffalo-hide tents one October evening and saw it as the capital of a New Iceland that would make up for years of poverty, volcanic eruptions and political struggle at home. Wistfully they called it Gimli after the highest hall of heaven—the abode of light—in Viking myths.
On a government land claim stretching for
thirty-six miles in unorganized territory along the west shore of the lake they set up a self-governing republic with the blessing of the Canadian government and, for twelve years during which they were buffeted by untold hardships in poverty, fatal smallpox epidemics and flood, ruled themselves according to their own sound constitution until they were absorbed by the expanding border of Manitoba. New Iceland is still the home of Icelandic fishermen and farmers living in villages with names like Lundar, Védir, Arnes, Geysir, Hnausa, Siglunes, Reykjavik. To all Icelanders it is the mother of Icelandic settlements in North America.
Icelanders are not easy to know. They are a reserved, independent, self-possessed people with no trace of any inferiority complex. Like the Scots many of them have Celtic blood. They establish no visible social scale and the fisherman walks with ease with the member of parliament, his wife with the school principal or the lawyer’s wife. Often they have two or three sons who are doctors or
lawyers. All are
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bound together in a common interest and respect for education. The extent of a man’s learning is the social criterion.
In Winnipeg where fifteen thousand of them live—the largest concentration of Icelanders outside the capital of Iceland, Reykjavik—there has been much intermarriage with other groups, largely Scots and English, and the Icelandic tongue and customs are dropping away. In the villages along Lake Winnipeg isolation binds them more closely together and the old ways and language persist to a greater extent although here, too, they are gradually dying out.
At Gimli in Nyja-Island—as they call New Iceland—they live simply, sometimes making ends meet only with the greatest difficulty. The town has not grown much since the early days. It saw the beginning of the lucrative goldeye trade—and its end when the fish disappeared a few years ago in Lake Winnipeg. In recent years business and real-estate values have flourished since the wartime establishment of a huge air training station on the edge of town, now operating under the Atlantic Pact. The whitefish trade has always been the main source of income.
They get their water from constantly flowing artesian wells, supplement this supply in the winter with melted snow and in the summer from rain barrels and the lake. The roads are dusty and, except for the two short main streets for which plans are afoot, likely won’t be paved. The fishermen who were poverty-stricken during the depression have still the habits of penury. They cook mostly on wood stoves and use outdoor privies. But they have books in their homes and send their children to university. In a small building housing about fifteen hundred books, mostly novels and history, they have an all-Icelandic library.
They drink coffee morning, noon, afternoon and evening and they call it molakaffi, or more loosely molasopi. Molakaffi is coffee with a lump of sugar; molasopi, a sip with a lump. Their way to drink is to pop the sugar between their teeth and sip the coffee through it. They have their own way of making it, using a bag of cotton boiled in baking soda and pouring the boiling water through it, letting it steep for ten minutes. They make it in the kitchen, sometimes in a teapot, then take it out to the dining-room table for visitors. A pot is usually warming on the stove and there is a cup or two with a piece of vinaterta (Vienna tart), iced cookies or some ponnukokur, a thin pancake rolled up and sprinkled inside with a brown or white sugar, jelly or whipped cream.
They eat pie in the North American way. They also eat mysuostur, a cheese made by boiling down whey for a long time until it is solid and brown and ready to spread on bread. And they eat lifrarpylsa, a liver sausage made with rye flour and rolled oats; kaefa, a potted-meat loaf cut in thin slices and spread on buttered bread; rullupylsa, a meat sausage of lamb flank and spices, eaten the same way; and skyr, a soft curdlike junket for dessert or a whole meal. Often they eat lummur, much like the common pancake, and a great deal of fish baked or broiled.
It took me a year to know them a little, to be let in on their peculiar habit of laughing at themselves, on their persistent argumentativeness and their love of it, until even the tears run down their cheeks as they sit
around the table drinking yet another cup of molakoffi. To see, too, the gentleness and formal respect with which they treat each other. It would be almost true to say all Icelanders write. Certainly they revere those of theirs who do.
At Gimli there is an old recluse called Thorsteinn Th. Thorsteinsson, a sturdy hard-faced old man with a shock of thick white hair, who has written in Icelandic two volumes of poetry, three volumes of a history of Icelandic colonization in North America, the story of Icelandic emigration to Brazil and has now in manuscript form enough stories to fill two volumes and enough poetry for three.
The day I met him, a handsome old man in dark trousers and blue sports shirt buttoned at the neck and tieless, I was told I was privileged to have him come out of his lair. We were sitting around the dining-room table at a white tablecloth, in the afternoon, and an oddly assorted party we were. Thorsteinsson was growling over his coffee cup at Miss Sigurbjorg Stefansson, assistant principal of Gimli High School, that school children were not learning Icelandic. This is a sore point today among some of the older Icelanders although this language is taught at special Saturday-morning classes in church basements.
Miss Stefansson, flushed and bending her head slightly sidewise, admitted regretfully that “we teach only the things that are useful for making money.” It was found that one language was quite enough. “The dollar sign,” muttered Thorsteinsson, “has ruined Icelandic culture in North America.”
Oli Kardal, a big bull-necked fellow who was a fisherman until two years ago when he went down to Minneapolis and started to study singing, was sitting hugely at the end of the table in his navy-blue suit, sipping coffee through a lump of sugar. “It’s not so muclf they don’t get a chance to learn Icelandic,” he said, “but they have no interest.”
The conversation turned to the funds which were being collected for the Icelandic chair recently set up at the University of Manitoba. Oli’s motherin-law, Kristin Thorsteinsson, a fragile woman in her early sixties with a tired gentle face, said the townspeople had giver nearly fifteen hundred dollars and this made Gimli a founder.
Later Oli was telling me about his singing. He got his start two years ago when a retired Minnesota judge of Icelandic descent was spending a summer at Gimli and Oli had gone one day after fishing to sing at his birthday party. The judge and his wife thought Oli had a line voice and they guaranteed him lodging at Minneapolis if He wanted to study. The Icelandic Canadian Club and Icelandic National League started collecting and money rolled in. “I didn’t know I had so many friends,” said Oli, looking down at his heavy strong workworn hands with the rough nails.
At Gimli they call him the “singing fisherman” and every time he returns on holidays he goes to Betel Old Folks’ Home by the lakeshore, where the old Icelandic men are playing chess and in the morning room the old women knit while one of them reads out the old Icelandic sagas. There Oli gives them the sound of his high sweet tenor voice as he closes his eyes, folds his big fists in front of him and sings in Icelandic of the swans calling out their wild songs over the geysers and mountains of Iceland.
He talked about fishing and how he was once trapped out in front of Gimli in a boat that caught fire. “We were coming home in the fall, towing boats
on a very dark stormy night. We saw we had lost a boat and next morning went out to look for it from Gimli harbor. We were three miles out when the engines gave trouble. The engineer and the captain finally started it and then it backfired. They jumped into the icy water and drowned. We two who were left took to the lifeboats and tried to save them. But it was no use.” Most drownings on the lake are caused by such accidents and not by rough weather.
Oli’s brother, Steini, until his death last spring, had worked hard to get the fishermen to sell on a co-operative basis but they were afraid and suspicious. This went hack to their one experience with a fish pool in the Thirties which lasted a few months and went broke after they had shipped in a season’s catch. It nearly ruined them. They never got a cent for their fish and they never knew what hanpened.
Their association was organized six years ago by Adam Borsk, then Manitoba field representative of the United Packinghouse Workers of America. The companies, the fishermen say, told them Borsk was a Communist and the fishermen got scared. It wasn’t until Steini took over that they got anywhere. They said he never asked for anything that wasn’t fair and square. At the time of his death he was trying to get a union going and the British Columbia co-ops were ready to help. Steini tried to get fire Gimli fishermen to work in small co-ops but they continued to bid or to sell against each other. This was keeping the price of fish down. The fishermen didn’t know
just what they would do now that Steini was dead.
Their lives have never been easy. What they haven’t suffered from low prices they’ve got from treacherous weather. Winters are particularly tough—but so are they. Then they cut holes in the ice, lower their nets and draw them up in temperatures often of twenty or thirty below zero. They have to use about ten pairs of mitts a day for steady fishing, discarding each pair as it stiffens with thickly coated ice. They wear woolen parkas with wolf - fur hoods, home- knitted socks, moccasins or low rubbers and they eat and sleep either in small shacks in sheltered nooks, at the big fishing stations or in frame huts hauled out on sleighs on the ice if the fishing ground is too far from shore.
Sudden gales have robbed them of their nets, early spring thaws have stranded their winter’s catch at remote lake stations beyond the reach of either tractor trains or boats, ice floes have carried them out to dangerous dark waters as they hauled in their fish. But this has not been all.
In 1933 a five-man commission of enquiiy headed by Dr. H. C. Grant, then a professor of economics at the University of Manitoba, was appointed by the Bracken Government to investigate the province’s fishing industry. There had been strange rumors about the marketing of Lake Winnipeg whitefish and the fishermen were complaining bitterly that the big fishdistributing companies were gypping them.
The commission after seventeen sit-
tings between June and November that year found that a combine of four Ameiican-controlled distributing companies operating out of Winnipeg had almost complete control of the frozenwhitefish market. This had been arranged in part by a hands-off agreement with the two large fresh-fish distributors in the province.
For two years the fishermen, who were almost to a man dependent on the combine for gear, marketing and lake transportation facilities, had been compelled to sell to the companies often at less than operating cost and were getting progressively deeper and deeper into debt to them for advances for nets and repairs. They were getting three cent« a pound for fish retailing in Winnipeg at fourteen to sixteen cents and for half as much again in the United States.
The combine was exposed by the provincial commission but the big shareholders, being American residents, were beyond Canadian jurisdiction. The provincial government, however, got the companies to raise the prevailing rate for whitefish to the fishermen and regulations were set down to control the number of licenses issued on the lake. The commission had recommended a permanent fishermen’s association and out of that grew the present - day Manitoba Fishermen’s Association, which is largely an advisory hody on licensing.
Again, in March 1949, the Gimli fishermen were nearly ruined when they were unable to find a market for hundreds of tons of frozen fish taken during the winter. Many were without money and storekeepers finally stopped advancing them credit. At Steini Kardal’s instigation the federal government stepped in with a subsidy for the catch.
A few streets away from Thorsteinsson’s home lives Kristine Kristofferson, a vivacious young mother of three sons, whose first novel, Tanya, was recently published by Ryerson Press. She has now wiitten a second, to be called Jorunn. She wiites at the dining-room table, in pencil on the stationery of an implement dealer.
There was the sound of someone at the fiddle as I walked up the steps to call at the Kristjansson’s wide-verandaed home facing the lake. There was old Hannes to be seen through the window sitting on the piano bench in white flannels and with braces over his shirt, his curved pipe in his mouth and his spectacles down a bit on his nose, playing his violin. He started fishing at fourteen and a few years ago ended a long active career as owner of the Lakeside Trading Co. at Gimli. His five eldest sons are in the United States teaching or studying agricultural economics.
I sat down in the living room and Hannes, a wiry little man with a lined face full of humor and his navy-blue tie a riotous pattern of champagne glasses, chorus lines, saxes and drum with a miniature fiddle pinned to one side of it, was sitting with us and his son, Albert, a slim blond youth home on holidays from the North Dakota Agricultural College. Hannes picked up an old-time accordion from the floor and gave its carved sides an affectionate squeeze.
Albert was talking about Dad’s old-time orchestra. “They used to practice here on the porch and we kids danced in the sitting room and got so excited until one day our friend Valgardson went right through the window.” It was the best in New Iceland, Hannes’ Orchestra, and Albert’s oldest brother, Baldur, eventually played the violin in it alongside his dad.
Debate-or argument—is one of the chief joys of the Icelander; religion and
philosophy are major topics. Miss Stefansson had extended herself far in taking me to the Lutheran church that day. She belongs to no church. We were talking about it the next day with Gudmundur Fjelsted, an old retired farmer and once an MLA for Gimli, who also belongs to no church. Sitting in the small living room of his home, the kettle humming on the wood stove through the open kitchen door behind him, in slippers, drill shirt and suspenders holding up his blue serge trousers, he recalled the heated religious debates of the eaily days of the settlement. They had centred on the proper interpretation of Lutheranism and there had been wide differences of opinion. There were those who held strict views and those whose views were broader. The debates in the end resolved in an open quarrel which split the community into two opposing camps and culminated in a large exodus to North Dakota. Today Icelanders on this continent belong to the Lutheran church, the Unitarian church, or to no church.
Gimli, the Icelandic immigrants’ starting point, was the birthplace of a collection of settlements now stretching from Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba south into Winnipeg and the rich farming municipalities of Argyle and South Cypress, a hundred miles to the southwest, down from there into Pembina County, North Dakota, and to Minnesota and west to Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Eveiy August five thousand of them from as far south as Milwaukee go back to Gimli for a festival called I si endi ngadagurinn.
Outside the homeland capital, Gimli’s festival is the largest celebration of Iceland’s first step toward complete independence from Denmark. Among those who have returned for the festival are Hon. J. T. Thorson, president of the Exchequer Court of Canada; Dr. Paul H. T. Thorlakson, head of the largest medical clinic in Winnipeg; and Prof. Skuli Johnson, chairman of the department of classics at the University of Manitoba, who like Judge Thorson was once a Rhodes scholar. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, world-famous Arctic explorer and anthropologist, another native son, was born in the hamlet of Arnes in the first struggling years of the settlement. There have also been an attorney-general of Manitoba and of North Dakota, a treasurer of Minnesota and a justice of the North Dakota supreme court.
Most famous of their many local poets is a farmer with a few acres on the banks of the Icelandic River within New Iceland at Riverton. Guttormur J. Guttormsson, who was born in the settlement in 1878 of a pioneering family. He has published four volumes of poetry and one of plays, together with a volume of collected works. In 1949 he was appointed grand commander of the Order of the Falcon - Iceland’s highest award to a civilian —which he values more highly than a Nobel Prize. Sandy Bar, which is his most widely known poem, immortalizes the defeats and victories of the pioneers.
In the early years of their struggle to get a foothold in Canada one of the young Gimli women, earning money as a domestic in Winnipeg for the settlement, wrote a letter home. It was applicable to them as Icelanders and, I believe, fits well into their beliefs today as Canadians:
“Do not discard your own culture, only what proves to be unworthy of it. Cultivate peace and concord. Do not forget the word of God, nor good behavior. Make your laws as clear as you can—short, effective and righteous and then obey them yourselves.” ★