In Conversation with Glenn Sigurdson

Glenn Sigurdson started out his life in a Lake Winnipeg fishing family — for decades, the family ran Sigurdson Fisheries. Now, he’s a conflict-resolution professional who travels the world. Sigurdson’s latest book, Vikings on a Prairie Ocean, is about the lake’s people and places and how they shaped his life. He is the fifth generation of one of the pioneering Icelandic families and the book draws on the diary of his great-great-grandfather Sigurdur Erlendson. He recently spoke with reporter Oliver Sachgau.

FP: There are a lot of characters in your book, from yourself to your parents, to ancestors and to Lake Winnipeg itself. Who is this book about?

SIGURDSON: I guess the book is best explained as an evolution. It started very much focused on the lake, its history, but it started in a very down-to-earth kind of way. Essentially I travel a lot. And I started to breathe life back into these characters I’d known from my time on the lake as kind of a pastime on longer plane rides. Then I realized I was starting to paint them as characters because they were that. They were important people, so I had to build a context around them, and as I (did that), I got deeper and deeper into the origins of fishing as a way of life here on the lake, and how it came to be. Out of that I grew this story with the help of my dad, who is part of a family that has a very long and deep history on the lake from its very beginnings.

FP: How important is the area in your book, around Lake Winnipeg, to Canada and Manitoba’s history?

SIGURDSON: In its biggest sense, Canada is made up of people who each see it through their own lens. And that lens is enriched by having come from many parts of the world. For the history of the Icelanders particularly, they were here at a very early stage in the origins of the province. The province had only been in confederation a few years at that point, in 1875, and the (Sir John A.) Macdonald government was busy trying to secure its hold over the Western territories, concerned over American expansionism. They were bringing in treaties that were starting to happen on the east and north of Lake Winnipeg, and they were creating opportunities for new immigrants, for people like the Mennonites and Icelanders. When we’re talking about the history of Icelanders in Canada, we’re talking about a critical point in the shaping of our country. These folks were moving into areas that only had been occupied by the fur trade for all intents and purposes.

FP: You have said your experiences in a fishing family shaped who you are and what you’ve done since, as a lawyer and mediator. How so?

SIGURDSON: … I’ve been washed over by many different influences, and I’m trying to take people into a place where they can see a mutuality of interest and better understanding of their differences, and trying to figure out if there’s a better option than fighting…

Living on Lake Winnipeg taught me many life skills: the complexity of running a family business where work comes to home and home comes to work; the strong personalities that were there; working with aboriginal communities with whom I’ve been closely tied; and working with complex issues around the natural world, because fishing is a bit like a canary in a mine shaft. You learn a lot about the state of the environment by understanding and working with fish. So many things, both directly and indirectly, have shaped that, and I’ve increasingly recognized they’ve flowed out of my experiences as a boy on the lake, and having to live in that complex set of influences that were swirling around me without me being conscious of them.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2014 D2