Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hecla history still controversial

Local historian says stories of expulsions were seriously overblown

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HECLA ISLAND - Stories about the expulsion of Icelandic people from Hecla Island in the early 1970s were overhyped, a local historian says.

"There was some initial bitterness over the low price the provincial government offered for land and houses," says Binnie Sigurgeirson.

"But in the end, most people negotiated reasonable settlements for their properties," Sigurgeirson says, adding that only a handful of people were asked to leave because their homes were slated for destruction.

"I can't name one family that was actually kicked off the island," he adds.

Sigurgeirson, 74, has lived most of his life on the Big Island, or Mikley as it is called in Icelandic.

When an argument concerning the island's history breaks out, locals say Sigurgeirson is the first person consulted for a resolution.

"Binnie is like a professor emeritus of Hecla history," says Ellert Johannson, who was born on the island and recently returned to build a retirement home here.

Johannson's family was asked to leave in 1972 because their home was blocking the construction of a new road the government was building through the Hecla townsite.

"We hadn't lived permanently on the island since 1953; the family home was being used as a cottage.

"Still, it was upsetting and left a bitter taste in our mouths when we were told to give up the homestead," Johannson says.

But Sigurgeirson says many of the families that were placed under expropriation refused to leave. And after a few years, the expropriation notices were lifted by the provincial government.

Young couples left

"Another thing you have to realise is that many of the young married couples with children had already left Hecla because they couldn't make a living when the fishery declined in the 1950s and 60s," Sigurgeirson says.

In 1966, he says the Hecla School was shut down because there were not enough students to keep it open.

Fours years later, Lake Winnipeg was closed to commercial fishing by the government because the lake was fished out.

These events, Sigurgeirson says, combined to ring the death knell of the once thriving community, which in the 1930s and 1940s boasted 500 people, two schools, two grocery stores and scores of commercial fishermen.

Sigurgeirson says it is a little publicized fact that in the late 1960s the people remaining on Hecla invited the then NDP government to develop the island into a provincial park.

"It was our only chance for survival. There wasn't enough industry on Hecla to support a handful of people."

In 1968, Hecla Island was officially designated a provincial park and the government unveiled plans to build a golf course, marina, campgrounds, and hotel/conference centre on the island.

"Four families who owned property where the new development was to be constructed were offered a cash buyout by the government," says Sigurgeirson.

At that time, he says land prices were at an all time low and the government took advantage by offering the least amount of money possible for the properties.

"That's where most of the hard feelings stem from," Sigurgeirson says.

The government, he says, should have offered higher prices to all the landowners, even though the island was going downhill.

"This would have given the people a chance to resettle somewhere else with enough money to be comfortable."

To be fair to the government, however, Sigurgeirson says every islander was given an opportunity to accept a verbal lease back and remain in their homes after selling their properties to the provincial parks department.

"As long as the properties weren't required for the new development or for historical restoration sites in Hecla Heritage Village, people were given a lease back option," he says.

Sigurgeirson's father took the option; the home he built in the village in 1930 remains inhabited by his offspring to this day.

People who chose to move out were paid a lump sum for their properties and homes, as well as a disturbance fee of $1000 per household head, $400 per partner, and $400 per child living at home, he says.

The four families whose properties were expropriated to build the Gull Harbour Resort and Conference Centre hired lawyers who eventually persuaded the government to pony up more for the land.

"All in all, I think the government's Parks Branch did as well and continues to do as well by the islanders as possible," Sigurgeirson says.

Island's history explained

In summer, park interpreters are hired to explain to visitors the island's history, as well as its diverse flora and fauna. Interpreters hold special events such as an Icelandic food day in the old school house, or perform outdoor plays about how the island was settled.

Natalie Tucker, Monique Dube and Dana Neumann are young women hired by the Parks Department as interpreters.

On one recent weekend, they prepared an Icelandic feast for tourists including slatur, rullupylsa, ponnukokur and vinarterta. On the Saturday evening, they presented a play about the early Icelanders of Hecla Island at the amphitheatre, an outdoor theatre constructed for this purpose.

Aside from developing a major recreational facility that provides jobs, the Parks Branch also constructed the causeway at Grassy Narrows that connects the island to the mainland in 1972.

Before that, Sigurgeirson says, people had to walk across the ice in winter, or take a ferry when the water was not frozen.

In co-operation with the federal government's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation was inaugurated in 1972 to regulate the Lake Winnipeg fishery.

"When the commercial fishery was reopened that year, a quota system was established to limit the number of fishermen and the number of fish they could net in a season," says Sigurgeirson, who fished on Lake Winnipeg for 49 years.

Sigurgeirson says the quota system is the single best thing that ever happened to the fishery.

"Without it, the lake would be dead today. In the 1950s and 60s when there was no quota, there were hundreds of fishing boats taking as many fish as they could in a single season. The lake is a viable fishery today because of quotas."

Although he retired from fishing years ago, Sigurgeirson keeps himself busy with a number of projects, including his Tool Museum just across the road from his house.

The museum is housed in a building that was used in part as the family's ice house in the days before refrigeration.

Large blocks of ice were sawn out of the frozen lake, then hauled by rope and pulley up long slides that led to openings near the roof of the ice house.

"We put up about 80 tons of ice each winter to keep the catch fresh during the fishing season," says Sigurgeirson, who will appear on CBC's On the Road this winter.

His museum contains examples of ice saws, chisels and tongs, as well as gas generators that provided electricity for lights until Hydro reached the island.

One of his favourite exhibits is a 1938 Allis Chalmers Model M bulldozer equipped with "grousers", pieces of metal that stick up from the bulldozer's treads to grip the ice as the machine pulls a load across the lake.

One of Sigurgeirson's fondest memories is of winter trips he made from Hecla to Pine Falls hauling loads of poplar pulpwood to the paper mill.

"With the Allis Chalmers I could pull four sleds loaded with four and a half cords each, as well as a "caboose" with my food and my sleeping quarters.

It took several days to make the return trip as the bulldozer only went a few miles an hour, he says. "It was a hard life, no one had any money, but it was a good life."

$5,000 leases offered

Although Hecla will likely never support a full-time population of more than 500 people as it once did, there has been renewed interest in the Big Island in recent years.

In November of 1998, descendants of the original settlers were given the opportunity to acquire five-acre parcels of land on the island for $5,000 for a 21-year lease, renewable at no charge for a further 21 years.

To date, all 50 lots have been snapped up and summer residences are springing up like mushrooms after a rain storm.

People such as the Johannsons, who lived in Winnipeg for years, have resettled permanently on Hecla, building magnificent residences that will be passed on to their children in the future.

"My kids love it here so much they have strictly forbidden my wife and me from selling the house, ever." Johannson says.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 25, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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