The Heartbeat of Reconciliation: “Your Dad and Auntie were such good friends”

My dad, Stefan Sigurdson, passed away in 2012. Our close collaboration in the years prior to his death was invaluable to me in writing Vikings On a Prairie Ocean, published in 2014. It enabled me to ground the book confident in its detail and authenticity. In opening this edition of Icelandic Connection’s journal focusing on the relationship between indigenous people and the Icelanders since their arrival in 1875, I believe there’s much to learn from my Dad’s life and way of being that provides a deep insight into that relationship. In the Preface to the book I shared these thoughts about him:

“Stefan Sigurdson was a special man with a quiet way. He was born into an Icelandic-Canadian fishing family in Hnausa, Manitoba on the shores of Lake Winnipeg on November 21, 1921. He spent the first seventy years of his life in the village of Riverton, the family home and headquarters of Sigurdson Fisheries Ltd., with its own legacy of more than a century on Lake Winnipeg. Dad was known as a statesman within the Lake Winnipeg fishery. His gentle wisdom and charisma were felt in the communities around the lake, in Winnipeg doing business or selling fish into the markets of Chicago. He formed deep relationships with the indigenous people, always mindful that they had lived around the lake and off the lake and the mighty rivers that enter and leave it, long before the arrival of any Icelanders. Dad gave strong leadership by giving strength to others without ego, and always with respect.”

Berens River
Berens River –
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF GLENN SIGURDSON

The night of his funeral, my brother Eric and I were reminiscing about all our memories growing up on Lake Winnipeg as boys and young men, playing and working alongside him. Suddenly it struck me, “Eric, we should give Tom Bittern a call.” Eric was quick to agree. I told him that Johnny Sigurdson had stayed in close touch with Tom over the years and had recently told me that he was living in Poplar River. This was a community on the north-east shore of Lake Winnipeg some 20 or 30 miles from Berens River where the Sigurdson family established one of their first fishing operations on the north end of the lake in 1895. It didn’t take long to track down a number for Tom.

When I asked for Tom the answer was quick, “He’s at the fish station.” It was probably close to 10 PM in Manitoba but on those long beautiful summer evenings the fish station would still be alive with action. Tom was the station manager. But I was not surprised when I was told that he was out on the “gut boat” and would be back soon.

It was like nothing had changed in half a century. Tom and I were boys growing up together at the Berens River Station. One of our jobs as boys was to load onto a whitefish boat drums of fish entrails – the “guts” of the fish as they were cleaned and dressed for weighing and packing and at the end of the day, take them to a small island about a half a mile. Within moments of dropping the contents of the barrels into the water alongside the banks of the island, millions of birds, seagulls and pelicans, would’ve gobbled it up with an energy that no garburator could ever match.

Tom had been with Dad since he was a boy. He had worked in the sheds, chipping ice from the mountain of ice harvested each winter and stored in the massive icehouse before he graduated to packing fish. By the time he was eighteen he was already the weigh man and shed boss over whose scale every ounce of fish passed. Here he would sort and weigh the different species presented by each fisherman and provide them a receipt for product delivered. Then the fish were packed into boxes, iced, tagged and put into the freezer awaiting the next boat out.

Tom called back when he got to the station. After a few words of excitement at reconnecting after all these years, and telling him of Dad’s passing, he was kind enough to say: “I often think about you guys and those days.” I asked whether Dollie had also passed and as he said yes. He added: “Your Dad and Auntie were such good friends.”

That’s struck a deep chord in my heart. They surely were good friends. If Dad was the king of that small island at the mouth of the Berens River, Dollie was the queen. For four to five months every year Sigurdson Island turned into Grand Central Station of the fishing world. Dad and Dollie’s day would begin together at 7:30 AM. Dad had been up an hour earlier but spent the first hour on the two-way radio, the days of hourly calls with all the stations and our fish freighter. The fishermen and the shore hands had already had breakfast. Dollie would have eggs and toast ready for Dad. While he ate they sat together to plan the menu for the day, they would discuss the gossip of the day and the goings on, in and about the community and the station.

When Dollie, as wide as she was tall, not overweight but short and sturdy, stood along the big windows at the back of the cook house she would have a panoramic view of the mouth of the river with the community just beyond. Magically she seemed to know every bit of information about what was up and who was up to it on the island and in the settlement. She had a particularly eagle eye on any drunks or booze coming onto the island. She had been known to take her broom to some of them on the dock before any trouble got going. Let’s just say she knew “who was who in the zoo”, and so did Dad. Billy Goosehead had showed up with that woman over from Jackhead yesterday, the troublemaker. And Dad would add that so and so was up to his tricks yesterday in the shed trying to pass some spoiled fish over the scales having not lifted for four days!
Tom was anxious to tell Eric and me that it was he who had been asked by the community to tear down the old station and make way for a new one – on the same location – just like your Dad always knew was the right place. Dad always believed that the best place for a fish station was on that small island about a half mile from the entrance to the river just up from the mouth, for here the focus was on getting out to your nets first thing in the morning and then back in early and away from nightly shenanigans. That granite rock with the winds always blowing had the further advantage that there were a fewer flies and mosquitoes to torment. There has always been the lingering view amongst some within the community that the fish station should more properly have been built on the mainland.

A couple of weeks ago on Facebook I had a moment of great nostalgia when Baldi Johannesen, from Riverton, now fishing out of Gimli, with the long family legacy of fishing on Lake Winnipeg, posted a picture of whitefish livers sputtering beautifully browned in a frying pan. On the station as a boy, that was often my job. I would stand around the men cutting and cleaning the fish and with each flash of the knife they pushed the entrails toward me so that I could pull out a big fat whitefish liver and drop it into a pail where I would take them up to Dollie to cook for the evening meal. Whitefish livers are exemplary. Their only problem is that they are delicate and cannot be frozen so you had best eat them fresh, and there was nothing more of a delicacy. I would stand in the large shed and walked amongst the tables. Five or six men stood around each “table” – a piece of white plywood with a diamond hole in the middle planted on top of the 45 gallon drum in which the top had been peeled off like a can of salmon. Here the Icelanders and the Indians, as they were known and called themselves in those days, together would laugh and talk as they worked. They would do so in both Icelandic and Ojibway and together in English.

It was no big deal. It was all just part of living and working together. But it appears in hindsight that it was, and remarkably for many remains so.

Glenn SigurdsonNow, finally, the Canadian public has awoken to the reality that indigenous life on this continent has been here likely for fifteen to twenty thousand years. In the early years of contact with Europeans the young men crossed the ocean from England, Scotland and the Hebrides to begin work for the ‘Company of Adventurers Trading into Hudson’s Bay’. Since the formation of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670 their relationship, especially in western Canada, had been characterized by a mutual interdependence where the beaver pelt was the currency of the day. They may have once dreamed of going home as wealthy men, but for most, this land became their home and their blood and their names became part of this land and its people.

It was when Canada was formed that significant change in that relationship occurred. The Government of Canada adopted a policy of what was in effect forced integration and cultural dislocation with the brutal instrument of residential schools. Children were ripped from the arms of their parents, under threat of jail and their language and culture, history and identify was taken from them. And this environment became the hunting grounds for pedophiles. It took generations to wreak this social havoc, and it may take many generations to fully move beyond this legacy.

Let’s push the pause button for a moment. Think of our Icelandic forebears when they arrived. Most of them were peasant sheepherders. They were impoverished. They lived on the land, a rugged and unforgiving land. Some had fished on the sea. In their own right they were indigenous to that land. It had been unoccupied by anyone before their Viking ancestors had arrived ten centuries before. They had endured brutal hardships. Most could not speak English. The taste of a long and overbearing Danish colonial rule was still very bitter in their mouths. They were given an “Icelandic Reserve”, like the Indians, within a month of the signing of Treaty 5 in September 1875, in which none but Icelanders could own land. The people to whom they were most proximate were the indigenous people, and soon that relationship extended to the indigenous settlements along the lake as fishing became their economic life line. The Icelanders struggled just to survive. And with their indigenous neighbors they were felled by smallpox, and together quarantined. When one casts one’s mind back to those times it is not difficult to imagine that the Icelanders and as they were then known, the Indians, would not build good relationships.

My Mom, Sylvia Brynjolfson, who left us in 2015 was the daughter of an iconic fishermen on Lake Winnipeg, Marus Brynjolfson from Hecla and then Riverton. She was deeply embedded in her Icelandic culture as a Hecla girl, speaking, reading and writing the language impeccably. She was herself a writer and shared with me many wonderful stories that found their way into the book. She was the perfect partner for my Dad. She understood the fishing way of life and his world like few others. She was no less a part of this book than he was. And her Dad, my Afi, stirred the passions in my young mind. I write this of him in Vikings on a Prairie Ocean:

“Nothing raised Afi’s ire more than this “goddamn government bullshit” that Indians couldn’t go into the beer parlor. He ate, worked and slept with Indians all his life in camps and boats, but they couldn’t go for a drink together – equals on the water, but not in the beer parlor. When Afi’s fury was particularly aroused, he punctuated his forceful advocacy with a reddened face and bulging veins. Mom recalls the poignant moment when his long partner and close friend, Roy Murdock, an Indian, was about to join the gang “for a few.” Afi was aching for a chance to put his rhetorical skills to work, making it clear that “he would take care of any trouble.” Roy’s wife was not as confident, and quietly urged, “Now, Roy, you know you’re not allowed to go.” Roy listened. Afi calmed down and backed off. Men like Roy could go to war and fight for the country (not to mention drink while on leave during the war), but couldn’t take a drink at a local Lake Winnipeg pub. Soon, at least, some Legions opened up for the veterans and Roy could head in there to down a few. Wherever there was no Legion though, it was some years until the Indian fishermen would enter a beer parlour without being in peril. The currents of social justice were starting to swirl in the country, and Afi’s thunder was an early ‘wake up call.’”

Fast forward to 1972. The lake had been closed for two years as a result of mercury contamination from a pulp mile a couple of hundred miles away in NE Ontario. The decision to reopen was made in the spring of that year. Many fishermen had stopped fishing in the intervening years. The government decreed that unless you were fishing that opening season you would forever lose your license. Afi and Amma had been given a trip of a lifetime to Iceland for their 50th wedding anniversary by the family. All the plans were in place for their leaving in June. In light of the circumstances the request was made to exempt the old man from this rule. But the government was not to be deterred and persisted in the position that unless he was on the water that season he would never get a license. Many intervened on his behalf including “friends in high places”, with names ending in “son”! Finally, sanity prevailed. The boat would be run by the men he had fished with for 25 years, Roy Mason and Lloyd Sinclair from Fisher River. When Afi came down the escalator in the airport two beaming men were waiting for him to tell him with great excitement that it had been the best season ever. They had caught their limit within days. If you look at the silhouette picture on the album Lake Winnipeg Fishermen, a picture taken by my brother, you will see he three of them lifting nets together. That was how it was then, for those people in those times.

Peter and Glenn - Berens River 1954
Peter and Glenn – Berens River 1954

Now, as a national community in Canada we are having to come to grips with how we are going to remake the relationship with indigenous Canadians across the length and breadth of the country. It is not an easy task on an easy road. Men like Dad and Afi and women like my Mom and Dollie are no longer around to impart their wisdom. But there are many in many ways and places giving leadership on the pathways to reconciliation. For me, I am blessed for I can drill deeply into my memories to know the essential elements of what “it will take”. I learned this from the life I grew into as a boy on Lake Winnipeg. Today the watchword is reconciliation: Dad and Mom, my Ammas and Afis never heard that word in their days; they lived it.

Reconciliation is a fancy word for living and working together, respecting each other and our differences. It is about being together and doing things together and getting to know each other as human beings and as friends. There is no more powerful elixir than respect each for the other. That is what it’s going to take.
I have lived much of my life helping others to build relationships between a range of people and organizations on the land and on the water, with different values and interests across this big robust country. And to resolve differences, for inevitably in any relationship there are differences. But differences are bigger than that. We are each different. Differences is what gives life its energy. Differences give us our identity. Differences is who we are. Much of my work has inevitably involved first nation peoples. I came to understand, in writing Vikings On a Prairie Ocean that my boyhood experiences guided and grounded me for the work I do today.
Although I now live in Vancouver, I return each year to my cottage on Lake Winnipeg at the Narrows between Pine Dock and Matheson Island. This summer I had a special visit with a very old friend, Peter Boushie. He was a little boy the same age as I was at Berens River. His Mom and Dad always came to set up their tent and live for the summer on the island during fishing season. His brothers, Gestur and Charlie who were deckhands then on the JR Spear, were so good to me, often teasing me that my Berens girlfriends had waited for the year on the dock awaiting my return. When we were three, Peter and I would spend hours together putting nails into the little porch in front of the small camp we called home right next to the tent. Then later, we would nail boxes together.

Glenn and Peter
Glenn and Peter

Another summer friend of mine, Bernard Selkirk from Pine Dock came up to the cottage and told me that Peter was coming to Matheson Island the next day. He said he would pick me up would take me up to meet him. Then after all those years Peter came in to his yawl to pick up a number of supplies needed for the rock crusher that was finishing off the road into Berens River. I walked up to the boat and said, “Peter, Glenn Sigurdson here. Long time no see!” He looks bewildered for a moment and then said, “Glenn, I never thought I would see you again.” We had a good reunion and he offered to come next summer to get me and take me for a visit to the community.

The world is small. One afternoon this fall I was in Winnipeg for some work. After a downtown meeting I decided to walk along the walkways along the Assiniboine River past the Legislative buildings and beyond. I came upon three indigenous guys near the end of the trail. They had a few big Pepsi bottles and looked to be in a pretty happy mood. I said to the guys with a smile, “You guys taking a little holiday time away from the big city?” and they smiled back at me. The first thing they said is, ”Sir you should be careful walking with those shoes on as it is slippery down here.” It had been raining earlier and I responded: “I’ve been pretty careful and I was OK.” One of the guys seemed like a real character so I asked him: “What’s your name?” He responded: “Randy.” and the other guy said: “Oh yeah, Randy’s a real smart guy. If he is at a party he asks everyone their birthdays and he never forgets them and your ‘sign’ if you meet him a year later.” I said: “That’s really something. How do you do that Randy?” The same guy turned me and said: “He told you his name what’s your name?” I replied: “My name is Glenn Sigurdson.” The third guy looked at me and said: “I know that name.” “What’s your name?” I asked him. It was Boushie. “You’re from Berens River, aren’t you?” “Yes, you knew my dad, Albert Boushie.” I said I remembered him. The other guy then turned to me and said he was a Monkman. “Are you from Loon Streets or Mathieson Island?” “No, my mom took us to Vogar. Her name was Esther, she used to work with you people on the lake.” And the guy from Berens said, “How’s Kevin doing?” a reference to my cousin still in the net and fish business. “He seemed good this summer. Said they had a good season up at Dauphin River where he was managing the station.” They were happy to oblige with a picture, all smiles like any holidayers. And I was off, turning up the trail within a moment or two walking amongst the old mansions of Middlegate just below the Misericordia Hospital.

I told a few friends that story. I showed them the picture of the guys. They were amazed by the coincidence of the connection that I made there on the riverbank. But to them what was more amazing was the ease with which I had engaged those guys in conversation; they said that most people would have uneasily scurried around them, face down. I never thought about it. To me it was no big deal.

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