My aunt Solveig and Canada’s History magazine have partnered to make Vikings on a Prairie Ocean available to over 300 schools in Manitoba to make this important piece of the country’s history known. We hope to engage with the students at these schools on this platform (you can register here) and encourage them to tell their own stories as an equally important part of our heritage.
My aunt, Solveig Riddell and I take great pleasure in our association with Canada’s History, and with the support of Great Plains Publications, to share with you Vikings on A Prairie Ocean: the Saga of a Lake, a People, a Family, and a Man. Solveig and I hope you and your students enjoy the book, and find it an interesting resource in bringing to life Canada and its history.
There are many stories within this story but at its heart it is the saga of the Icelanders in Canada. It traces their departure from Northern Iceland over a long and difficult journey to Lake Winnipeg. They were sheep farmers driven by volcanic ash from their already marginal pastureland. What they faced when they arrived in October 1875 was a brutal assault of snow and ice, near starvation in makeshift shacks, and smallpox, and with the next summer mosquitoes!
You will walk with them in their shoes through the diary of my great great grandfather Sigurdur Erlendson. You will learn how they built a life and a living here in Canada, and a deep sense of place. You will learn how their centuries old legacy of literacy, and their values, powered them through dark days and years as they built a New Iceland in a new land. The farmers would become fishermen to survive and fishing would become the foundation for self-sufficiency. They would build governance structures to sustain their lives together as communities. You will be introduced to many surprising events and people in this little known corner of Canadian history. You will learn of their relationships with the people indigenous to these lands and those from many other lands, as they contributed to writing the story of Canada.
Solveig Brynjolfson grew up in Hecla, a unique island community on Lake Winnipeg about 100 miles North of Winnipeg. Her father, my Afi (grandfather) Malli was an iconic Lake Winnipeg fishermen who you will see brought back to life in these pages, along with many other great characters, In 1939, after grade 11, she went to Winnipeg to seek a job. There was no job to be had, except teaching in the country. She began her career as a teacher that fall in a one room school in the farming hamlet of Framness in the Interlake. A young man in her class walked to school every day before she arrived to throw wood in the stove so the schoolhouse was warm when she and the other students arrived. Subsequently she would complete high school, enter Normal School as teachers college was then known and later her University degree. Her long teaching career would then begin in earnest, first in Riverton, then Winnipeg, and after 1962 in Vancouver where she has lived with her husband Norman until his recent death.
Solveig has been a great supporter of my efforts throughout and wanted to make this gift to honor those in the book, including many near and dear to her who play such important roles within it and to contribute to making this story known, especially in the schools of Manitoba which were such an important part of her life.
This book was born out of nostalgia. The rich memories I had from growing up in a fishing family on Lake Winnipeg was like comfort food after a stressful day. Soon my thumbs were buzzing on my blackberry (my “crack berry” as my wife called it) on long flights breathing life back into the incredible people and places I had known as a boy, often eliciting spontaneous laughter or welling tears. I didn’t know it then, but like Bilbo in The Hobbit I was beginning a great journey over several years that would culminate in Vikings on A Prairie Ocean, the Saga of a Lake a people, a family, and a man.
My mission slowly broadened to include the context in which they and others before them worked and lived. I involved my Dad, and Mom, Stefan and Sylvia Sigurdson, to whom this book is dedicated. Dad died recently at age 90; Mom at 93 is very much alive in every sense of that word. No two people better epitomize life on Lake Winnipeg then they do; the lake defines them; it is inside them.
I was then encouraged to write my own story as part of this story. I work in the space where big problems meet big organizations with many diverse players all connected in one way or another to a problem, and because of the problems, to each other. Here, interests, value, and power collide, often in the vortex where the economy, the environment, and society intersect. I am the man-in-the middle helping them reach difficult decisions and resolve deeply embedded differences.
I weave elements of my complex career into this story from recent history, including specific chapters on my involvement as the lawyer for the Cree people affected by Hydro developments on the Nelson River, the only river flowing out of Lake Winnipeg, and the Ojibway people affected by mercury on the Winnipeg river flowing into Lake Winnipeg, both of which events rebounded back to Lake Winnipeg and my own family. Through my lens you will learn about life in Northern settlements more than a half century ago, and the residential school experience and all of what has come to light about its impact upon First Nations people in recent years.
To complement the book I have developed a website www.vikingsonaprairieocean.com, and sites on both Facebook (facebook.com/vikingsonaprairieocean) and Twitter (@glennsigurdson) which you may find of interest. These will continue to evolve over time. So that this letter is readily accessible to your students, we have posted it on this website; you will also see a short piece on the book in the next edition of Canada’s History magazine.
We hope to build a community of people who have been inspired to think of their own experiences as Canadians whether as a people whose roots are indigenous to this land or from beyond when reading this book. Our intention in the months ahead will be to invite people to contribute their own posts, whether in the form of written contributions, pictures or videos. If you and your students would like to be part of this community, we invite you to register at www.vikingsonapraireocean.com.
Photo: Solveig and her niece Maureen Sigurdson sharing a special moment