Salmon farming, skiing and Santa Lucia: Swedish traditions live on

Linnea Petersson as Lucia. | Photo courtesy of Ellen Petersson

Linnea Petersson as Lucia. | Photo courtesy of Ellen Petersson

Elinor Barr, a researcher on Scandinavian immigration to Canada, launched last month a comprehensive new historical book at Vancouver’s Scandinavian Community Centre. Swedes in Canada: Invisible Immigrants is the first comprehensive overview of Swedish-Canadian history.

Born in Ignace, Ontario to Swedish parents, Barr, 82, lived in Port Arthur and Fort William, where she worked as a registered nurse. After attending Lakehead University, Ontario, as a mature student, she became a research associate of LU’s Lakehead Social History Institute.

Barr’s research took 13 years and draws on a lifetime of experience. Her book describes the many facets and aspects that make up immigrants’ lives.

“I spent much time at [the University of British Columbia’s] Special Collections. They have the largest collection on Swedes in Canada. Did you know that Rudolph Verne brought skiing to Vancouver? They built Hollyburn Lodge in 1926, and it took 19 men to bring a piano over the rough trail. Now it’s part of the Cypress Ski area,” says Barr.

Cultural and economic influences

In a talk she recently gave at the Scandinavian Community Centre, Barr mentioned how assimilation and “Anglo conformity” were the accepted goals for early Scandinavian immigrants to B.C. The school system, in particular, was designed so children could one day “be like the English,” which was the stated ideal.

The integration process has always been one of mutual influences, says Barr, most visibly manifested in commerce and physically demanding work. Local Scandinavian endeavours included the first European expansion of the salmon fishery by Icelandic fishermen.

“The Thulin brothers founded the Swedish community of Lund [B.C.] in 1889 and Campbell River in 1904. They built a wharf and sold fresh water, salted salmon, repaired boats, opened a sawmill and then built hotels like [Campbell River’s] Willows Hotel,” she explains.

In 1872 Sweden’s Eric Anderson jumped ship into the Salish Sea, walked ashore, cleared the forest and built a cabin that stands preserved today as Surrey’s oldest remaining pioneer-era home, right next to the Surrey Museum.

Ever since the first European contact, the Scandinavian community has been an integral part of B.C.’s cultural fabric, and today Scandinavian traditions are alive and thriving in Vancouver.

Trolls, wild beings and Santa Lucia

According to Barr, the Canadian woods are home to all things extramundane such as trolls, which have long been on the Canadian conscience. They have always been responsible for all sorts of inexplicable shenanigans in our surroundings.

“Santa Claus is a troll. The Swedish-American Haddon Sundblom was quite familiar with trolls. Our modern version of Santa Claus derived from his annual paintings from 1931 to 1986 advertising Coca-Cola,” she says.

According to Barr, the popular Santa Lucia pageant is a good example of how customs can evolve over time. Matt Lindfors organized Canada’s first public Santa Lucia function in Vancouver in 1936, with 14-year-old Ruby Arnesson as Lucia. She wore a long white gown with a red sash around her waist and was crowned with a wreath of lit candles to symbolize the return of light.

This year’s Lucia at the Scandinavian Community Centre’s public festivity on Dec. 12 will be Linnéa Petersson, the granddaughter of Stig Petersson, who immigrated to Canada in 1956.

“Representing Lucia this year is a dream come true, that I have had since I was seven years old. I love traditions and I find them to be so important – to then have the opportunity to help carry them on here in Vancouver is a privilege and honour,” she says.

Petersson, 22, finds the experience of walking around with the candles on her head interesting, yet peaceful, as she has to do so slowly and with focus.

“The role of Lucia definitely connects me to my Swedish heritage,” says Petersson.

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