Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Icelanders: a second wave

Once again, hardship in the island nation means opportunity for Manitoba

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REYKJAVIK— Here we come again, Manitoba. Hard times have hit Iceland, as they did in 1875. And as they did in 1875, Icelanders are looking to Manitoba for a better life.

Recently, about 500 people attended a seminar in Reykjavik, put on by the Icelandic Directorate of Labour and the Canadian Embassy. The topic was on a recent agreement regarding work opportunities for Icelanders in Manitoba, and on temporary work permits and permanent-resident permits in Canada.

 

"I'll take anything that's on offer," said Ragnheidur Gunnarsdottir, a single mother of three children, who has a degree in commerce. She last worked as a hair stylist, has been unemployed since last fall and hopes she will get a job in Manitoba. "I'm ready to go anytime," she said.

Hrafnhildur Hrund Helgadottir is also the mother of three young children. She is a masseuse by profession and has also studied marketing. Her husband has finished his MA in history. "We are unemployed and would like to work in Manitoba. Canada looks very interesting and my husband would even consider taking his PhD in Winnipeg. We are open to anything."

Iceland, with a population af about 315,000, has been hit hard by the world financial crisis -- harder than any other western nation. About 17,000 people are unemployed in Iceland and the number grows every day. Because of this situation, Icelanders have been looking for jobs elsewhere and Manitoba is becoming more and more attractive.

For one thing, because of the great migration a century and more ago, it looks a lot like home.

Nowhere outside of Iceland are there as many people with Icelandic roots as in Manitoba. It has been estimated that about 80,000 to 100,000 people of Icelandic descent live in the province, although the 2006 census indicates half those numbers. Regardless of which number is correct, it is high in comparison to the population of Iceland, and for an Icelander emigrating to Manitoba, it is just like moving home.

The parallel to the 1870s shouldn't be overstated, though.

Back then, the Icelandic economy was devastated by a volcanic eruption that darkened the sky. Starvation was a clear and present threat, and fully a fifth of Iceland's population left its shores. That was 14,000 to 17,000 people. Most of them moved to North America, particularly Canada, and even more particularly, the shore of Lake Winnipeg just north of the postage-stamp province of Manitoba.

The first group of approximately 270 Icelandic immigrants to Manitoba arrived in Winnipeg on Oct. 11, 1875. Mostly farmers and fishermen, they were rugged and no strangers to hardship. They would need those attributes in their new home. "They are a smart-looking, intelligent and excellent people and a most valuable acquisition to the population," the Manitoba Free Press commented the day after the first wave arrived. The majority of the group (about 50, mainly young women, remained behind because they got jobs in Winnipeg) continued to a colony on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg called New Iceland. They came to Willow Point, just south of present-day Gimli, on October 21. New Iceland became a part of Manitoba in 1881.

Life in Iceland has never been easy, although one could say that during the last few years it appeared that Icelanders were on top of the universe. But the bubble burst last fall. The three biggest Icelandic banks failed. Companies and individuals have increasingly declared bankruptcy and the outlook is not good for many more.

 

Unlike in 1875, though, nobody is starving. There is no lack of food in Iceland, health care is as strong as before and the educational system runs as smoothly as ever. Actually, there are more people seeking further education now than before the crash. Unskilled workers are increasingly going to school to finish their degree to have better job opportunities at home and abroad. Icelanders aren't travelling as much this year, however, most flights are fully booked at upcoming Easter time. In other words, almost everybody has had to take a cut but the majority have not been badly affected by the crash.

According to statistics published in early March, about 12,000 households (15 per cent) in Iceland could not afford their debts and were facing bankruptcy. According to the first preliminary results published a few days later by an Iceland's Central Bank Working Group on the effects of the financial crisis on Icelandic households, about 14,600 households are in negative equity -- their mortgages are more than the house is worth. Five thousand of them are more than five million Icelandic kronur (about $55,000 Cdn) in the red. That's about 18 per cent of Icelandic homes, not quite as bad as the U.S., where estimates range from 20 to 30 per cent, but much worse than Canada, where stricter lending practices have kept negative equity minimal, at least so far.

Atli Asmundsson, the Consul General of Iceland in Manitoba, briefed the Manitoba government on the situation in Iceland in October 2008 and the government immediately expressed its good will to offer employment in Manitoba to skilled Icelandic workers.

"Already on October 24th, I met with Premier Gary Doer to explain the difficult situation in Iceland to him," Asmundsson said. "He said that Iceland could count on Manitoba ¥s friendship and support during this difficult period. I was not surprised . I knew he was a friend to us. Also after five years as Consul in Manitoba I can say that nowhere have I experienced such warmth and hospitality. You certainly are "friendly Manitoba."

Tammy Axelsson, the mayor of Gimli, has the welcome mat out. Her town is the Icelandic capital of Manitoba and, she points out to possible immigrants, an easy commute to Winnipeg.

Birgir Robertsson, a baker, wants to emigrate to Gimli and run a bakery. He spent 12 days there and in Winnipeg last month, looking at possibilities. "I got interested in moving to Canada before the banks collapsed last fall," Robertsson recalls. "Gimli is the town of my dreams and hopefully I can start working there in the very near future."

Asmundsson said Labour Minister Nancy Allan and Education Minister Peter Bjornson -- one of those thousands of Manitoba with Icelandic blood -- contacted him in November regarding the possibility of skilled labour from Iceland coming to Manitoba. "Now we have decided to work together on this matter," Asmundsson said. "I think this might benefit us both. People in Manitoba should know that every Icelander knows about Winnipeg and Gimli. Icelanders have always been very fond of Manitoba and every year hundreds of Icelanders visit this wonderful province. We really appreciate your friendship."

Iceland's Minister of Social Affairs, Asta R. Johannesdottir, said her ministry, The Icelandic Directorate of Labour, the Embassy of Canada in Iceland and Asmundsson, have received hundreds of enquiries regarding work opportunities in Manitoba since the economic crisis hit Iceland last fall. In the beginning of March, Allan and Johannesdottir signed a memorandum of understanding which creates work opportunities for Icelanders in Manitoba. "This ... commits our governments to working together to allow unemployed Icelandic workers who meet the skilled labour shortage needs of Manitoba to take advantage of labour market opportunities in our province," Allan said after the signing in the Culture House in Reykjavik.

As in 1875, the next Icelandic wave is just what the doctor ordered for Manitoba. Then, the province needed hardy pioneers who would not shrink from cruel weather or hard work. That's who arrived from Iceland. Now, the province needs skilled and educated workers. Once again, that's what Iceland has on offer.

A sign of the newest Icelandic wave in Manitoba rose just after the collapse of the Icelandic banks last fall, when an architectural firm in Manitoba made it known in Iceland that it wanted to hire Icelandic architects. Two of three partners of Batteriid Ltd., a conculting architectural firm, responded and went to Manitoba in December. They travelled to Manitoba again in January along with an engineer from the engineering firm Almenna Verkfraedistofan Ltd. for further discussions and are planning the third trip soon.

Batteriid is one of the fifth largest architectural consultant firm in Iceland, according to partner Jon Olafur Olafsson. He says that they have visited and been in touch with about 10 architectural consultant firms in Winnipeg in the hope of landing an agreement on a contract. Olafsson adds that the hospitality is the main reason for their emphasis on Manitoba. "The friendship there does not go unnoticed and obviously Iceland and Icelanders are highly thought of in the province. We have not experienced such an atmosphere elsewhere."

Olafsson said Batteriid aims to keep working in Iceland although they might get contracts in Winnipeg. "That is what we are aiming at but if needed we are ready to stay and work in Manitoba for a shorter or longer period of time."

Other Icelandic architectural consultant firms have thought of getting contracts in Canada but Olafsson has advised them to wait and see what happens to Batteriid. "There is no certainty that we will get a contract and it is not wise for other companies to jump on the same market until we have a contract. It makes no sense for many to fight over small bites of the cake," he said. "That would only create competition between Icelandic firms abroad and that does not help anybody as the situation is now."

Olafsson said Batteriid is not going into the Manitoba market on its own but rather hoping to get projects in association with companies in Manitoba. "Things look promising in Manitoba and hopefully we can be part of the development as a joint venture," he says.

Almenna Consulting Engineers (Almenna verkfrædistofan Ltd.) is a well established Icelandic engineering firm and has been involved in some of the largest projects undertaken in Iceland. Egill Vidarsson, Civil Engineer of Almenna, a partner and acting Managing Director, went with the architects to Manitoba in January. He said that his purpose was to find out if a collaboration between Almenna and Canadian consulting engineers firms in Manitoba was possible.

Vidarsson points out that Almenna has employees from Canada, as well as those who have studied and worked in Canada. "The market in Canada is huge and I believe that we should concentrate on it rather than the market in Scandinavia," he says. Having said that, he adds he does not know of any other interested Icelandic engineering firms getting into the Canadian market. "I have received one response from Winnipeg regarding a possibility of a collaboration of a project where we would provide three or four men for two and a half months. Nothing has though been decided."

Kjartan Sigurdsson, manager of the the Icelandic construction company Byggjandi Ltd., and his partner Gudmundur Karl Karlsson toured Calgary, Edmonton, Gimli and Winnipeg in December looking for jobs. "We were in a good gear when everything collapsed and all of a sudden the future looked dark in Iceland," Sigurdsson says. Asked why they went to Canada he replied: "I've always been fond of Canada and went there when the opportunity arose."

Sigurdsson says that he prefers to work in Canada rather than in Europe and is certain that his skills in construction will be useful in Manitoba. "During our visit we met many in the construction business and eventually agreed to an offer, given that we fulfill all requirements. That is now going through the system and hopefully four of us will be working in Winnipeg soon. After a few months we can look at our position and I have the feeling that we'll emigrate with our families to Manitoba if the possibility arises."

All the Icelanders who checked out Manitoba were full of praise for Asmundsson and Neil Bardal, the former consul of Iceland in the province. They all have the same story to tell: Asmundsson organizes the trip and arranges for interviews and Bardal takes them there. "We are not used to being treated like kings but now we know how that is," Sigurdur Hardarson, partner of Batteriid said.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2009 A1

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