Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Raised Icelandic

Don Icelandic sweater and sing a Lutheran liturgy while making vnarterta

  • Print

Twenty-five per cent of Iceland's population left the island in the late 1800s. Acidic volcanic ash had poisoned the land and water, killed the livestock, and ruined much of the arable land leaving these fiercely nationalistic people with the choice of starve or leave.

Promised land in the Interlake, even though indigenous people also believed this land had been reserved for them under the recently signed Treaty 1, Icelanders came hoping to make a living by fishing and livestock farming.

Life in New Iceland was not easy. The people faced smallpox, frigid temperatures, grasshoppers, mosquitos and floods. Some Icelanders were treated as second-class citizens. One family changed their name from Eirikson to Steinberg to avoid discrimination.

All of my maternal great-grandparents came to Manitoba. Growing up in Lundar ("puffins" in Icelandic) my mother spoke only Icelandic until she started school. But like most of her generation she lost fluency after moving to Winnipeg as a teenager. The sound of Icelandic and Icelandic-inflected English is as familiar and comforting to me as the scent of my Amma's hand lotion, the clacking of knitting needles and the aroma of fresh ground coffee.

When volcanic activity disrupted air traffic for weeks in 2010, Eyjafjallajkull skipped off my tongue. But my understanding of Icelandic is limited to expressions such as "já, já, já" (yes or good) and nouns such as elskan (darling), amma (grandmother), Gimli (home of the gods), huldufólk (hidden people) and, of course, vnarterta.

My great-grandparents and most of their offspring married other Canadians of Icelandic descent. My mother and all but one of her cousins "inter-married." Few in my generation have Icelandic first names although some have anglicized versions. I am named after my grandmother Karitas.

Religious schisms tore the Icelandic community internally early on, but those differences were quickly forgotten and families reconciled. First Lutheran Church, established in 1878 in Winnipeg's West End, was an important spiritual home for many of Icelandic descent including my family. I left the church long ago in protest against its institutionalized sexism although I still feel at home when I return for a funeral or a confirmation.

So without language, name or religious community and as a fourth-generation Icelandic descendant, why do I take pride in my Icelandic heritage?

The easy answer is that an association with Iceland has positive connotations, at least until the 2008 financial crisis or the havoc wreaked by Eyjafjallajkull. It is a neutral country with a tiny population and a beautiful location. Everyone is curious about Vikings and the old Norse religion. In fact, many would say that Norse mythology is part of our daily life. Four days of the week were named after the Norse gods Tyr, Oden, Thor and Freyja. Ian Fleming's hero, James Bond, is modelled on William Stephenson, and Charlie Thorson is the artist behind Disney's Snow White. He drew this character in the likeness of a young Icelandic woman.

Icelanders have one of the oldest written European languages. Literacy was once a requirement for marriage and all knew the sagas. This love of learning and of storytelling migrated with Icelanders and thrived in the new world. Growing up, my mother expected us to read a book a week and the Canadian-Icelandic newspapers and magazines were always available for browsing. Canadians of Icelandic descent, including David Arnason (Baldur's Song: A Saga), W.D. Valgardson (What the Bear Said: Skald Tales from New Iceland) and Christina Sunley (The Tricking of Freya) continue this literary tradition, retelling the ancient tales with a modern twist. We were steeped in Icelandic-ness.

Icelanders and Canadians of Icelandic descent want to know each other's genealogy and where they are from. Until recently, I suspected there was a deeply embedded class implication to these questions and, not knowing the code, I was leery of answering. On my last two trips to Iceland, I came to understand that these questions are not about class but rather are about connection, specifically, how I am connected to you. Everyone is related to everyone else and therefore obliged to take care of each other. Social problems such as addiction, poverty, and crime are almost unknown in Iceland. Icelanders and North Americans of Icelandic descent seem hard-wired not to let go of each other.

The simple saga line "fair is the slope" expresses the nationalistic sentiment that true Icelanders would never abandon their homeland. (Some modern Icelanders still hold this sentiment and thus regard those who emigrated as traitors. But that is another story.)

When my great-grandparents left their homeland, they went into exile. Return was impossible. They lived out their days under the melancholy spell of heimthrá, of being in thrall of home.

My mother and I went to Iceland years ago to fulfil her unspoken promise to return to each of their birthplaces. Once there, we experienced the land's powerful draw. Every fjall and fjord has a tale. The island is alive with spewing geysers, steaming hot springs, fierce winds, fiery volcanos, massive waterfalls, melting glaciers and daily earthquakes. Treacherous lava fields cover about 20 per cent of the land mass and 7,000-year-old fields hardly look different from those formed 30 years ago. The land's elegant austerity is almost unspoilt by human hands. I understood the power of heimthrá.

I have an Icelandic wool sweater and can sing a Lutheran liturgy while making vnarterta. These things along with my love of a good book, dedication to learning and research, commitment to social justice, and respect for the spirit of a place all find their genesis in being raised Icelandic.

Karen Busby is a professor of law and director of the Centre for Human Rights Research at the University of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 J11

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Lawless in the Morning (March 30): Jets believe they belong

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A young goose   reaches for long strands of grass Friday night near McGillvary Blvd-See Bryksa 30 Day goose challenge- Day 19 - May 23, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • A female Mallard duck leads a group of duckings on a morning swim through the reflections in the Assiniboine River at The Forks Monday.     (WAYNE GLOWACKI/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Winnipeg Free Press  June 18 2012

View More Gallery Photos

  • Africa edition

    Africa is one complex and gloriously unmanageable 'theme' to choose to kick off our 2012 series, Our City Our World, which is why it took up the whole newspaper on Jan. 18.

  • China edition

    Hard-working Chinese immigrants, once banned, have risen to the highest echelons of Manitoba.

  • Germany edition

    German immigrants have played a surprisingly large role in the development of the province.

  • Iceland edition

    Arriving in Manitoba in the 1870s unprepared for a brutal winter, Icelandic settlers and their descendants have left their mark on our province.

  • Italy edition

    Industrious Italians rose from peasant roots and adapted to Canadian society by mastering L’art d’arrangiarsi (the art of getting by).

  • Latin America edition

    It used to be the only time Prairie folks met Spanish-speaking people was when they vacationed down south. More often now, they're the people next door.

  • Middle East edition

    When the first Middle East families immigrated to Manitoba, mosques were unheard of and even yogurt was exotic. But now all that has changed.

  • Philippines edition

    A booming Filipino community nearly 60,000 strong has transformed Manitoba.

  • South Asian edition

    As the city's Indo-Canadian population experiences dramatic growth, its pioneers recall their warm Winnipeg welcome.

  • Ukraine edition

    Scarred by Holodomor, the Ukrainian community helped shape Winnipeg's cultural mosaic.

  • United Kingdom edition

    Manitoba's history is built on a foundation provided by settlers from the U.K., who came here seeking better lives.

Related Items


Are you planning to go visit the new polar bear, Humphrey, at the Assiniboine Park Zoo?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google