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Activist Hörður Torfason Speaks at Concordia

He’s a man of the people! Following Iceland’s biggest organized protest ever, Hörður Torfason, a known activist, brought about the resignation of Iceland’s government on January 26th 2009. The next day the country’s financial supervisorial authority stepped down, and a month later the board of the national bank followed.  So many resignations, but how did this happen and why? Not very many people have paid attention to the seemingly isolated Iceland.

Last Wednesday, February 12th, it was at Concordia University that Torfason revealed the details of Iceland’s Cutlery Revolution for the first time in English without an interpreter. There’s nothing wrong with his English… Most of the audience at Concordia was composed of individuals with much in common; a lefty atmosphere dominated the room. Many, if not most of the people present, wore an item on their bag, their hat or their chest; some wore a feather, red; others wore a square, red. The talk began with statements against neo-liberalism. The revolution was an Icelandic response to the 2008 economic crisis.

Five days after the financial crash, Torfason explained, he was standing in front of Parliament in Reykjavik. His initial action was to question the people on the street and ask them two things: What has happened in Iceland? How can we solve the problem? He gathered three demands; they called for the resignation of all politicians and officials involved.

The events eventually led to the drafting of a new, crowdsourced, constitution. Via social media or in person one could submit recommendations to the project. Out of 500 citizens, 25 were elected to a council responsible for the drafting of the document. A referendum on the constitution, held on 20 October 2012, demonstrated support from two thirds of the population. Voter turnout was 49 percent of the 235 000 eligible to vote. Although all of this amounts to an incredible act of direct democracy, the referendum was not legally binding. Parliament has yet to adopt the constitution and many things may still change as the country races toward its April 2013 elections.

To understand Torfason’s role, there’s a history to the man that explains the activist he has become. As he dived into the matter, much of the talk was spent explaining the evolution of Iceland’s gay rights movement. Samtökin 78 was the Icelandic Gay Organization he established successfully. The number refers to the year.

In his younger years, Torfason was a rising Icelandic star, being a professional actor as well as a known musician. One day, in 1975, he revealed his sexual orientation to the public during an interview. His life changed overnight. He became persona non-grata, and was forced into exile.

Torfason learned to fight the hard way, facing murder attempts and much danger.  Nevertheless, his persistent effort to defend gay rights gave the man some momentum. It was through his experience of connecting people and bringing them together for the sake of a common cause that he engaged in the financial situation in his home country. He made sure that all elected and unelected officials heard the people loud and clear.

Today, in recent headlines Iceland’s frustration can still be felt. The country’s longest serving President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, at the World Economic Forum In Davos, verbally attacked the actions of Britain’s former government: “Gordon Brown will be long remembered in my country for centuries to come, long after he has been completely forgotten in Britain.” During the 2008 financial crisis, Britain’s former Prime Minister invoked anti-terrorism laws in order to impose financial sanctions on Iceland after the collapse of the Icelandic bank Icesave. Iceland refused to refund UK deposits. The damage from the crisis can still be felt. It is worth mentioning that Iceland has now suspended negotiations regarding EU membership.

The talk ended with Torfason offering a flag of the Cutlery Revolution to Concordia, red. So much symbolism, still he said calmly, looking like a scruffy version of Daniel Craig: “This is not political.”

– Mathieu Paul Dumont


(Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works  Fotomovimiento, Creative Commons, Flickr)

About Mathieu Paul Dumont

Student of Political Science and Philosophy at Concordia University. Mathieu now resides in Montreal but is originally from Sherbrooke, Quebec. His interests include conflict resolution, political philosophy and he follows such arts as fashion and music closely. His focus is primarily set on the Middle-East, but also towards other conflicted regions. He joined The Political Bouillon for the pleasure of writing and hopes to see the journal grow to include students from all four of Montreal’s universities.

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