Monday, July 25, 2011

Half a world away, grieving Norwegians offer a humble tribute to their dead

Expatriate Norwegians purchased a one-room schoolhouse on Hillside Victoria to be their clubhouse in 1947. It has since been expanded with additions. Last week, the Norwegian flag was lowered to half-mast.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 25, 2011


Jim Hall puttered about on a fine day when an email snapped him to attention. An explosion had rocked government buildings half a world away.

He would spend hours on the computer, day turning to night, as, like so many of us, he sought news about a terrorist attack in a land known for peace.

Mr. Hall, 57, is president of the Eidsvold Lodge of the Victoria chapter of the Sons of Norway, an international fraternal group whose membership includes the largest number of Norwegians outside Scandinavia.

“We feel shock,” he said. “Shock and disbelief. People just can’t believe that would happen in Norway.”

He sent condolences to group members in Oslo and he felt relief when he heard about the wellbeing of a member formerly from Victoria whose workplace was only a block from the explosion.

Like many, he struggled to make sense of the senseless.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “You cannot fathom how anybody who purports to call himself a Christian can murder 80 kids. How can you do that? I can’t see how that fits into anybody’s belief system. It’s unfathomable.”

After he spoke, the death toll among youth at camp held by the ruling Labour party rose to 86. Police have arrested a far-right nationalist and anti-Muslim extremist in the two attacks.

Until their world turned upside down on Friday, the biggest news in the expatriate community featured the stellar performance of a pair of Norwegians — Thor Hushovd and Edvald Boassen Hagen — in the grueling Tour de France bicycle race.

Many other British Columbians have been following the sport, too, especially to track the progress of Victoria’s Ryder Hesjedal.

For his part, the rider took a moment from his rigorous daily grind to Tweet: “Deeply saddened by the horrible events in Norway. Why does this have to happen?”

On Tuesday, the trio ended the day’s racing together, with Hesjedal’s selfless work allowing teammate Hushovd to claim the stage. An English-language news site based in Oslo hailed Hesjedal, a 30-year-old Victorian, as “the third Norwegian cycling hero.” As it turns out, his great-grandparents were immigrants from Norway.
Flowers left by mourners fill an Oslo street.

The Norwegians who found their way westward to British Columbia usually found work in the woods, or on the sea as fisherman and mariners.

The Scandinavian country and a province by the Pacific have much in common — spectacular scenery with fjords and mountains, a bounty provided by the sea and by forests. Even the populations today are roughly equal.

Earlier this year, the British Columbia Viking Ship Project marked the tenth anniversary of the launch of the Munin, a half-size, working replica of the Gokstad Ship, an 80-foot-long vessel found preserved more than a century ago in an ancient burial mound on the Norwegian coast. (The fund-raising campaign had as its motto: “Take a liking to a Viking.”) The Munin (pronounced mew-nin) sails on weekends from a moorage next to the Maritime Museum in Vancouver.

The Sons of Norway have 2,000 members in 20 active lodges in B.C., including four on Vancouver Island. The Victoria lodge was founded in 1946, a year after the homeland was liberated from Nazi occupation, during which the surname of collaborationist leader Vidkun Quisling became a synonym for traitor.

The Victoria lodge purchased a one-room schoolhouse on Hillside Avenue, later adding two small additions, as well as a hall. The 250 local members take language classes, form bowling teams, conduct folk dances, organize a choir, and celebrate Syttende Mai (Norwegian Constitution Day) with a parade on or near May 17. Among the upcoming events are Leif Erikson Night in October and the big lutefisk dinner in November.

It is all so innocent compared to the horrors in Norway.

On a day when parents in a far-off land gathered to reunite with their children, or to identify their dead, Mr. Hall sought a gesture to express the lodge members’ feeling of grief.

At the hall which Norwegians consider a home away from home, Norway’s tricolour flag was lowered to half-mast. Simple, but profound.

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