by Mitchel Gray
Glenn Sigurdson carries Lake Winnipeg with him wherever he goes. He is the fifth generation of one of the pioneering Icelandic fishing families that shaped life on the lake and helped create an industry that is a vital cornerstone of the economic and cultural landscape of Manitoba. Sigurdson is now exploring his deep ties to Lake Winnipeg and his Icelandic immigrant heritage through writing projects that have been a lifetime in the making. To understand his passion for these endeavours, it’s important to discover how the lake inside the man has shaped a life and a career.
Sigurdson is one of North America’s top conflict resolution professionals, but success doesn’t mean his job is easy to define. There are many descriptions that don’t quite fit, like mediation, facilitation, brokering or coaching. Each of these captures only part of the picture. Sigurdson adapts to situations as they unfold. “I work in the space between groups and organizations,” he says, “and I help them have difficult conversations.”
When diverse stakeholders face complex challenges that need a solution, Sigurdson finds a way to gather them together and help make it happen. “I help to create an environment where people with a problem feel safe enough to work toward an outcome,” he says. This sense of safety arises from Sigurdson’s commitment to “leading without owning,” meaning he’s more a guide or coach, a helper not a rule-maker. His approach stems from a healthy scepticism toward reliance on “experts,” who so often take a problem and apply their own particular professional practices, values and processes, shaping it into their image rather than learning from those affected most by the situation. Sigurdson, in contrast, works by “creating process for problems, not forcing problems into process.” What he brings to the table, he says, is “deep experience from settings across Canada in engaging people with diverse and intensely held values – from different organization and groups, companies and governments – into conversations that will lead to outcomes they can all live with.”
It all comes down to understanding different perspectives, solving problems by talking them through, no matter how difficult it might be. Sigurdson’s life prepared him for this right from the start. Reconciling with nature and each other was the essence of life for the people of Lake Winnipeg whose lives and livings depended on its waters and the surrounding land. “A lot of different forces were washing over me for a long time,” Sigurdson says. Most of these forces emanated from the characters of Lake Winnipeg, and their voices remain inside him today.
Few families have been connected to Lake Winnipeg more deeply than the Sigurdsons. Glenn Sigurdson’s great great grandfather Sigurdur was one of the first Icelandic immigrants to the area that became Manitoba, arriving on Lake Winnipeg in 1876 to settle in what was known at the time as the Republic of New Iceland. The Icelandic newcomers were fiercely protective of their culture, and determined not so much to leave Iceland, but rather to take a piece of it somewhere new. Sigurdur and his family did just that, and through their tenacious efforts at fishing, at first just to stay alive, he and his two sons helped found an industry and a community that were key forces in creating the Manitoba we know today.
The Sigurdsons have had Lake Winnipeg and her fisheries in their blood ever since. For decades they ran Sigurdson Fisheries, in all its various guises and offshoots. Over the generations, they’ve owned and operated some of the most famous boats ever to ply the lake, legendary vessels like the Lady of the Lake, the Goldfield and the J.R. Spear.
Sigurdson has been deeply involved with the Icelandic Canadian community throughout his life. He is a former President of the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba, and a leader of the 1989 Centenary Celebrations. He has never missed this festival held in Gimli each August long weekend. From there he heads North, 80 miles, to the narrows of Lake Winnipeg, where he vacations each summer at the family cottage, often passing by the locations of the stations the family first established on the North End of Lake Winnipeg well over a century ago.
When Sigurdson was a boy, he watched and listened as his father juggled the business and production sides of the fishing industry. Stefan Sigurdson was the “Sig Fish” nerve centre, responsible for being everything to everyone, from the big fish traders in New York and Chicago to the independent fishermen who hauled the slippery gold out of the water. In the fish business you had to be in every business. Men and equipment had to be transported one direction, and fish the other. Stores for provisions and outboard motor, Ski-doo, and oil and gas dealerships were all part of the mix. Stefan’s leadership was based on respect, and he kept things running with a statesman’s tools of persuasion, patience and persistence. This was one of young Glenn’s first important lessons, and like most of them, it took place far from any classroom.
The people shaping Sigurdson’s world were of all ages, and one thing that was never in doubt was that everyone had his or her own point of view. Everyone knew each other in the lakeshore village of Riverton, where Sigurdson grew up, and from a young age he was free to go as he pleased, and free to talk to whomever he chose. He couldn’t help but learn quickly that a wealth of perspectives was a central part of the community. He also listened in on countless conversations between his father, grandfather and great uncles. They were partners in Sig Fish, and there was never a shortage of issues to work through. They ran on consensus; no one left the table until everyone was on board. It was on these long afternoons and evenings that Sigurdson learned the profound power of talk.
As a young adult, an important building block of Sigurdson’s worldview started nudging into place, in a crowded town hall. He was there to hear some experts from out of town give their views on the future of school consolidation in the area. As the hot night wore on, the one thing that sank in deeper and deeper for Sigurdson was a budding unease about any type of social engineering imposed on people from the outside.
This thought was still very much on his mind when he began studying economics at the University of Manitoba. He learned voraciously, and became ever more certain that the path for his life was to work with people, not to build theories about them, while apart from them. “I was never big on people telling other people how to live their lives,” he says. “If people don’t own their own problems they will never own the solutions. Without that, they’ll never be in control of their own lives. They’ll never be independent.”
Sigurdson knew his future wouldn’t be found in economics, and made the move to Osgoode Hall Law School in 1969. Around the same time, he began working as a social scientist, researching the involvement of the Indigenous people in economic development initiatives in the North for the University of Manitoba’s Center for Settlement Studies, drawing him irresistibly northward and creating a lifelong passion for working with and understanding Northern communities. As a student in the first course in environmental law in Canada, his major paper examined mercury pollution that had affected communities in northwestern Ontario and shut down the family business on Lake Winnipeg for over two years. Sigurdson knew without a doubt at that point that Lake Winnipeg and the North would be the settings for him to make his mark in the world.
Not long after law school was finished, Sigurdson found himself in the middle of an intense and high-profile controversy involving Manitoba Hydro, the federal and provincial governments, and more than 12,000 people in six Cree communities (whom he represented). “Essentially,” Sigurdson says, “the lands and rivers and lakes of Manitoba’s Northern Cree, whose spine was Lake Winnipeg and the mighty Nelson River, were being turned into a vast hydrological playpen by hydro engineers to supply power to the south.” Through the 1978 Northern Flood Agreement, Sigurdson was plunged into the world of big league negotiations and quickly hooked on fascinatingly complex issues. His path soon looped back to the devastating Lake Winnipeg mercury pollution he studied in law school, and he negotiated a landmark settlement for the Ojibway people affected by the contamination. He continued on this track as a founding partner of the Winnipeg law firm Taylor McCaffrey in 1979.
Most of Sigurdson’s current work focuses on resource, land and environmental issues, or, as he says, “the vortex where the environment, the economy and society meet.” Not surprisingly, he’s working on a number of big cases with fish at their core. He is the founder (1990) of the Vancouver-based CSE Group of independent practitioners dedicated to achieving sustainable outcomes and organizations by building sustainable relationships. Sigurdson works within and among groups and organizations (often including First Nations) in the public and private sectors, building partnerships and resolving seemingly intractable disputes across a wide and diverse spectrum. Sigurdson thrives on helping turn talk about sustainability and corporate social responsibility into action, and his work has taken him throughout Canada and to many other parts of the world.
His consensus-building successes in complex multi-party environments have gained him an international reputation. He is a former president (1996) of the Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution – now known as the Association for Conflict Resolution. He is also one of the practitioners profiled in a publication of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School (2000): Public Dispute Mediators: Profiles of 15 Distinguished Careers. Teaching has been an important part of Sigurdson’s life. He is closely associated with Simon Fraser University, in the Faculty of Business and as Senior Dialogue Associate of the Wosk Center for Dialogue. What he imparts to others is enriched by the wisdom of his experience, and his effectiveness as a practitioner honed by his reflections as a teacher.
Sigurdson’s first book, Vikings On A Prairie Ocean, is the story of the Icelanders and fishermen of Lake Winnipeg, seen through the lens of what Sigurdson knows best, his family and the countless characters with whom they shared life on the lake. The non-fiction story travels through a century, from the arrival of Sigurdson’s great great grandfather on the lake in 1876, to the 100-year anniversary of New Iceland. As Sigurdson says, “It’s a peephole into a piece of Canadian history that remains in the shadows.” Previous books on the topic have been purely anecdotal or dryly historical. Sigurdson’s saga finds the middle ground, bringing history to life through the eyes of those who lived it and their quest to build better lives for themselves and their children.
Like the Vikings who founded Iceland, Sigurdson says, the Icelandic immigrants to Lake Winnipeg were driven by a desire to “be who they wanted to be.” They wouldn’t settle for disappearing into a growing Canada. They sought to build something of their own, and they did, in New Iceland. Their settlement was absorbed into Manitoba twelve years later, but still shapes the character of the province. In their struggle to survive and then prosper, the Icelanders looked to the lake and her bounty. They turned fish from food into prosperity, an economy, and independence. All along, fish were everything, and they have a privileged position in A Prairie Ocean Saga.
But it’s characters like the regal Valgerdur, who suffered the loss of seven of her eight children; her charismatic, rags-to-riches husband Stefan Sigurdson (Sigurdson’s great grandfather); the ill-fated and reclusive mechanic and drinker Dodi Benjaminson; the irrepressible Afi Malli, Sigurdson’s charismatic grandfather and the Lake Winnipeg incarnation of “the old man and the sea”; the pioneering Sigurdur; the Icelanders’ benefactor Governor General Lord Dufferin and countless more that make this an enduring story. It’s a family memoir at heart, but stretches well beyond to bring a century of challenge, heartache, passion and triumph on Lake Winnipeg alive like never before. The story arches across the universal themes of identity and independence, probing the paradox embedded in the Canadian soul of becoming one while remaining unique.