Special Convocation 1997


(Sept. 4, 1997, Gazette)

Monday, Sept. 1, 1997, 6 p.m.

Address to convocation

by Dr. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir

It is a great honor for me to be here today at your learned institution to accept with pleasure and gratitude the honorary degree you are bestowing on me.

Whenever I come to Newfoundland I have a strong sense of homecoming, because I am following in the footsteps of a famous foremother of mine, Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir. Guðríður arrived here in the New World at the very beginning of the millennium of which we are soon to celebrate the end. She was an Icelandic woman who had first gone to Greenland with her father or perhaps her first husband. Both men intended to settle in Greenland, a new country which had been discovered a few years earlier by Erik the Red. By the time Guðríður arrived in Greenland, Erik's son Leif, nicknamed the Lucky, had also discovered a new country, which he called Vínland. In Greenland, Guðríður was married twice, first to a Norse Greenlander, who died shortly after, and then to an Icelandic merchant by the name of Þorfinnur, with whom she travelled to Vínland and settled for a while.

We Icelanders have always spoken with great confidence and certainty about the discoveries of both Greenland and Vínland. Understandably the events caused a great deal of excitement, and people kept talking about them both in Greenland and also back in Iceland. Some time later, Icelandic authors started to write these stories down, and today we still possess two stories -- or "sagas" as we call them -- which have preserved these tales. One is called "The Saga of Erik the Red" and the other "The Saga of Greenlanders."

Unfortunately, these stories have not always been taken seriously by other people. When Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad made their sensational archaeological discoveries at L'Anse aux Meadows in the 1960s, and when at the same time the famous Vínland map was found and published, the rest of the world finally joined us in our faith and pride in these narratives. L'Anse aux Meadows may not have been the place where Leif landed, but at least the excavations make it clear that the Norse had been here in the early 11th century. Specialists dated the Vínland map to about 1440, a good 50 years before Christopher Columbus landed in the New World. It provides a good outline of Europe, and the name Vínland is placed next to a large island to the east of Greenland. I am sure any one of you here would be able to locate Newfoundland on this, the first map of the New World. The evidence for the Norse in the New World was so impressive that your neighbors to the South in 1965 instigated a Leif Erikson's Day, celebrated yearly on Oct. 9, three days before the date on which Christopher Columbus is honored.

As an Icelander I speak with greater assurance about these matters today than I would have just a year ago. As you well know, doubt was cast on the authenticity of the Vínland map from the beginning; for example, an analysis of the ink considered it to be too clear and the parchment was thought to be too whole -- and in 1974 Yale University, the owner of the map, was forced to admit that it probably was a forgery. Recently, however, faith in the map has been restored through new tests, and last year Yale University Press issued a new edition of its 1965 book, The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, in which the dating of the map to about 1440 is maintained.

John Donne said: "No man is an island, entire of itself," and Icelanders and Newfoundlanders owe their very existence today to the past harvest of the bounty of the sea. It is a natural resource that must be treated with respect and husbanded for the benefit of coming generations.

My country, Iceland, is a land which has been made by the sea, and from the sea, and within the sea. Some 20 million years ago, Iceland arose from the sea like some creature of fable, born of a series of cataclysmic volcanic eruption on the seabed, on what the geologists call the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. In geological terms, 20 million years is a mere blink of an eye in the timeless sweep of eternity. Only 1,100 years ago, Iceland became not just a land but a country, a nation, when man first found this fabled land, this Ultima Thule, far in the North on the very edge of the known world. Since that time, the sea has sustained Iceland and the Icelanders. We have a hymn that we sing in our churches, "Föðdurland vort hálft er hafið..." -- "Half of our land is the sea..." In our native tongue we have more words for the sea in all its moods -- words for every nuance, every billow, every ripple, every wave, every surging surf -- more individual words, I believe, than any other language.

The sea 'round Iceland ever nourished the land and those who lived on it. And it has given rise to a strange Icelandic paradox, a 17th-century riddling rhyme which baffles explanation, but needs no explanation either -- "fiskurinn hefur fögur hljóð"

"The Fish can sing just like a bird,

and grazes in the moorland scree,

While cattle in the lowing herd

Roam the rolling sea."

And that is why, today, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to consider those strange and yet very wise words from Icelandic folklore: "The Fish can sing."

The name Iceland partly traces its source to fishing. We are told that the first would-be settler, a Norwegian adventurer called Flóki-of-the-Ravens, came looking for Iceland in the middle of the ninth century, using three birds to guide him, just as Noah had done in his Ark -- but not doves like Noah: Flóki, as his nickname implies, used ravens. He landed on the welcoming shores of the west coast. It was a fine summer of sunshine and pleasure, and Flóki, who had arrived with a boatload of farm animals, neglected to grow hay for them for the winter. Instead, we are told, he and his men spent all their long summer days cheerfully fishing, for fish were more plentiful than they had ever seen before. Alas for Flóki, the winter turned out to be particularly hard. And because Flóki had failed to make hay while the sun shone, all his livestock died of starvation before the winter snows had gone. Flóki, in disgust and despair, abandoned his attempt to settle in this new land, and named the country, in high dudgeon, Iceland. So we have the abundance of fish in our surrounding seas to thank, or blame, for our inhospitable name. Later settlers fared much better than Flóki, however, because they were both more sensible and more diligent. One of the greatest Icelandic Sagas, Egil's saga, the Saga of Egil Skallagrímsson, the great warrior poet, tells us in marvellous detail how his father, Skallagrímur, went about the business of being a pioneer farmer-fisherman in a virgin land. Let me read you this little passage from the saga, which presents such a vivid picture of settlement life:

"Skallagrímur was a great man for hard work. He always had a lot of men working for him, busy getting in all the available supplies that might be useful for the household; for they had very few livestock to start with, and many mouths to feed... There was no shortage of driftwood to be had, so he built another farm at Álftanes; from there his men went out fishing, and hunting seals, and gathering seabirds' eggs, for there was plenty of everything available there... None of the wildlife was wary, for it was unaccustomed to man."

There, in that one brief passage, we are shown how one vigorous settler planted the seeds of his own prosperity -- and at the same time, the seeds of destruction.

Iceland survived the little ice age of the 1400s, overcame the Black Death, a series of natural disasters, and slowly regained its independence. We began to utilize our own fishing grounds again, to buy our own boats, to put our own courage to the test again.

And as the sea gave us its riches, so we built a nation that could once again afford the normal amenities of civilized life and culture. It allows us to say, to others who have not yet reaped the full benefit of their seas: "It can be done. Have faith."

Like all Icelanders, I feel a special pride in all fishermen; and even more so because I am not just an Icelander -- I am an Icelandic woman. And that is because fishermen have always had a more realistic and reliant attitude to women than most other professions. To the fishermen, their womanfolk are indispensable. Theirs is the kind of work that calls them from their homes for long periods at a time -- and sometimes, indeed, forever. They sail away secure in the knowledge that they are leaving their homes and their families safe in the hands of their women -- and never doubt the fact. They know that if the worst comes to the worst, their families will never be abandoned. Fishing communities forge the strongest bonds of any people I know; and fishermen's wives are made of heroism.

Fishermen are people apart, their lives governed by ungovernable elements. They have always represented, in my mind, the most deeply instinctive qualities of manhood: the willingness to expose themselves to every peril in the search for food to bring back home. There is still in them the instinct of the hunter, who will follow his quarry into whatever thickets of danger may lie ahead.

But despite their strength of character and closeness to nature, there was a serious flaw; fishermen never learned, or indeed needed to learn to treat the ocean like the land. While men fished just to catch enough for their families and a little more, there was no cause to think of the sea as anything but an inexhaustible cornucopia.

And then, things began to go wrong at sea. Gradually fishing developed from being a cottage industry to being a professional entrepreneurial activity for factories afloat. There were large profits to be made from surplus. Larger boats were built, and larger nets, for larger hauls. Whole industries sprang up to service them, whole towns, whole populations, that needed more and more fish to keep them going. When one country had exhausted its own "inexhaustible" stocks in its own fishing grounds, its boats went to work on other waters far away. Only they didn't ever use the word "exhaust." They fell back on legends to explain why the fish had gone away -- like the huge tidal wave that "once upon a time" had driven all the fish from the English Channel. It took a remarkably long time for people to begin to recognize that there could be such a thing as "overfishing." But in the last 100 years or so, it became inescapable fact of life. Ashore man has had thousands of years of experience in effectively cultivating the land, knowing its limits and potential. At sea, however, until recently, there was no such awareness. When catches dropped, it led to even more fierce competition. Boats and their owners began to fish as if there were no tomorrow, because if they didn't catch the fish, someone else would. They were caught in a vicious circle, like the fabled maelstrom off the coast of Norway.

It may have been foolish; it certainly was improvident. But it was all considered fair and above board. The sea and its bounty belonged to anyone -- anyone with the resources and courage to harvest it. But "harvest" implies seeding and cultivation. No one was cultivating the sea, only plundering it.

It is not surprising that it was countries like Iceland which acted to break the vicious circle. We had watched helplessly while foreign trawlers scoured our inland waters clean, sucking up the fish as if with a giant vacuum cleaner, sailing so close to our shores that farmers on the south coast of Iceland used to say the trawlers would be harvesting their potatoes next, as well. We had watched as the fish stocks in the waters 'round Iceland began to dwindle ominously. For that meant our very livelihood, our survival as a country, was at stake. Fish supplied more than 70 per cent of our total export and foreign earnings.

You all, I am sure, know about the long and protracted struggle for exclusive economic jurisdiction over coastal waters that Iceland had to wage. This year we remember that it is 20 years since the end of the last so-called "cod wars" with Britain. Happily we can all now celebrate the fact that the whole world today accepts 200 miles as a sensible delineation of coastal waters where fishing rights are concerned. We have all come to realize that the sort of control needed to protect and encourage fish stocks in the sea -- to cultivate the sea, in effect -- can only be exercised by the country that stands to lose most from uncontrolled overfishing. And the case has been proved beyond doubt by the fact that only a few years after the new law of the seas was promulgated, the threatened fish species, notably herring and cod, are now showing signs of significant recovery.

The approaching dawn of the 21st century has great psychological significance for mankind. People always like to think in terms of milestones, even if they are merely numerical: when one century ends and another begins -- to say nothing of a millennium -- we cannot resist looking back to check off the assets against the liabilities on the balance sheet of human achievement, and also take a look down the road to try to see what may lie ahead. For much of the world's population, this has been a century of astonishing economic and social improvement. There is widespread access to education and health care; and working conditions and wages have improved enormously. Discrimination on the grounds of sex or race or color or social background, although still not eradicated, is by no means as intense and systematic as it was a hundred years ago, and has been largely abolished in legislation if not in practice; at least the mechanisms are in place which have made a better society and will improve it still further.

Today the challenges of the future are more immediately identifiable than ever before. The world's media inform us, or misinform us, instantly about famine, about war, about human rights infringements, about catastrophes all around the world. We are fed full of horrors about pollution, about environmental disasters, about the nuclear threat, about the trend towards personal and impersonal violence.

However, we tend to see all this as warnings by experts, and therefore not really related to us as people. We see them as negative trends, as abstractions, not as something as immediate as social injustice at home which we can agree to tackle at once at source. The challenges we face are challenges to the whole world -- so where do we start?

I suspect that we all feel a little helpless because, as individuals, as people, we cannot control developments directly, neither the positive nor the negative ones. What we can do, however, is to cultivate awareness, to encourage a sense of individual responsibility, and from that a sense of collective responsibility through our own involvement.

But frankly what is needed above all is not words but deeds. Mr. President, before I close, I want to look ahead to the future. For we are faced with tremendous opportunities, and tremendous threats. Now that the problem of overfishing has been recognized and action taken, a new and equally dangerous problem is with us, that of pollution. In the years to come, it will be essential for mankind to find a solution to this problem, which represents such a potent threat to the livelihood of all of us, on land and sea.

Consider some of the facts that have been emerging: of all pollution at sea, only 20 per cent is the result of activities at sea -- the other 80 per cent derives from activities on land. There are many causes and sources of this land-based pollution, and overpopulation is one of the main underlying factors, with the local pressure on the environment from rural-urban migration. Iceland has for a long time been outspoken in its call for measures to protect the marine environment, and Canada is of a similar mind, as shown by the recent Ocean Act. At the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) Annual Science Conference last year, the Icelandic minister of fisheries, Þorsteinn Pálsson, stressed the need for the commercial sector to be more efficient in the way it harvests so as to ensure "better preservation of biological resources worldwide."

"As a result of the ITQ fisheries management system now followed, actual catches have followed the prescribed limits much better than we experienced before. The condition of major fish stocks has improved and profitability in the fishing industry has increased, despite sizeable reductions in the catch of important species, such as cod. And although I expect that many of you here feel that the preservation of the biosphere should be given far more priority than the objectives of productivity of fishing enterprises, I feel it is right to include this in the discussion as well. In the case of Iceland these two objectives go hand in hand, due to the fact that the economic importance of fisheries leaves us no choice but to ensure the profitability of the sector.

In addition, the Icelandic Ministry of Environment has frequently highlighted at international level such issues as the damage done to the environment far beyond national borders and called for international action to address these. In the words of Mr. Jóhannesson, secretary general of the Icelandic Ministry of Environment, we cannot idly sit by and wait for others to take action, because then nobody will until it is too late.

New global challenges are appearing, such as the frightening increases in levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) detected thousands of sea miles away from the source. To counteract this will require concentrated international action, involving everybody, as it is a general threat to mankind. But let us conclude on an optimistic note. For centuries, the coat of arms of Iceland, as bestowed by Denmark -- whose colony we once were -- was a split cod, surmounted by a crown. Yes, a crowned cod. Many people thought it rather infra dignitatis, rather degrading even, to have a codfish for a coat of arms. But now it's not something to be ashamed of. The cod is coming back to his kingdom.

Our aim now must be to restore the cod to its kingdom, so that the Icelandic riddle will ring true again: "The fish can sing, just like a bird, and the music it makes, is for all mankind." Ladies and gentlemen, it is now our responsibility to follow up on the recommendation of UNCED plus 5, which says: "Governments should take full advantage of the challenge and opportunity presented by the International Year of the Ocean - 1998."

Thank you.