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Icelandic People in Manitoba

by W. Kristjanson

Manitoba Pageant, January 1957

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Icelandic Day is celebrated at Gimli, Manitoba, as close to August 2nd as the date of civic holiday permits. People of Icelandic origin from Winnipeg and elsewhere gather there on this occasion, to hear the traditional greetings from the FJALLKONA, or the Maid of the Mountains, symbolic of Iceland as Britannia is of England, a toast and an original poem to Iceland, in Icelandic, and a toast and an original poem to Canada, in English, and choral music. They visit with friends and acquaintances, and enjoy a cup of coffee and some traditional Icelandic dishes, including skyr, vinarterta and pancakes. Traditional also are the track and field events, where in former years the cream of the athletes from the Icelandic communities in Manitoba competed.

The first Icelandic Day celebration was held in Victoria Park, in Winnipeg, in 1890. At that time the pattern was set which has since been followed, with some innovations. The Maid of the Mountains was introduced in 1924. In 1932, the celebration was transferred from Winnipeg to Gimli.

The first Icelandic settler arrived in Canada in 1872. Small groups settled in Ontario and Nova Scotia, in 1873 and 1874. In 1875 the movement to the West began and in that year a group of the Ontario settlers and a few from Wisconsin, 285 in all, arrived in Winnipeg. The great majority, over two hundred, proceeded to the region on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg that had been set aside for their settlement. On October 21, 1875, they arrived at the site which they named Gimli, after the home of the Gods, in Norse Mythology. Fewer than fifty remained in Winnipeg, where they formed the nucleus of the Icelandic settlement there. The following year, 1876, a group of some 1200 arrived, direct from Iceland.

Manitoba at this time was a postage stamp province, with a population in 1870, of about 11,405, although by 1875 the population of Winnipeg had grown to some 5,000. The Icelandic colony, named by the settlers New Iceland, was north of the provincial boundary, with which Boundary Creek in present day Winnipeg Beach is associated. There was no other white settlement at this time north of Netley Creek.

The newly arrived colonists were imbued with a thousand year tradition of parliamentary government, for the Icelandic Althing had been founded in 930, and they proceeded to establish their own colony government, which was responsible to the Canadian Government at Ottawa. After the New Year, 1876, the Gimli settlers formed their own local government and established a school, and by February, 1877, four district councils and a Colony Council were formed. The duties of the Colony Council, among other things, pertained to road building, sanitation, fire protection, and social welfare. In 1881, the Manitoba boundary was extended northward and New Iceland became a part of Manitoba. but a municipal government did not supplant the old Colony government until 1887.

September, 1877, brought a distinguished and welcome visitor to the colony, in the person of Lord Dufferin, Governor-General of Canada Lord Dufferin had visited Iceland in 1856, and he had been instrumental in aiding the settlers of 1875 in the founding of their Colony. He showed a warm and kindly interest in the settlers, visiting several of their homes and speaking words of good cheer. His address given on the occasion is quoted in FRAMFARI (Progress), the colony paper, printed at Lundi (now Riverton) and in his own SPEECHES AND ADDRESSES. It reads, in part:

"I trust you will continue to cherish for all time the heart-stirring literature of your nation, and that from generation to generation your little ones will continue to learn in your ancient sagas that industry, energy, fortitude, perseverance and stubborn endurance have ever been the characteristics of the noble Icelandic race. I have pledged my personal credit to my Canadian friends on the successful development of your settlement. My warmest and most affectionate sympathies attend you ..."

Not far from the site of the platform from which Lord Dufferin spoke in 1877 is the site where the descendants of these early Icelandic settlers annually commemorate the Icelandic heritage of which Lord Dufferin spoke, and to laud their Canadian homeland.

Page revised: 14 June 2009

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