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New Iceland

by Steinunn J. Sommerville

Manitoba Pageant, Volume 9, Number 3, April 1964

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.

An excerpt from an article entitled “Early Icelandic Settlements in Canada” in Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, Series III, 1945.


The first families from Iceland reached Ontario in 1873 in a party of one hundred persons. Half of these went on to Wisconsin, but the remainder made a fruitless attempt to found a colony at Russeau, Muskoka.

The lot of these earlier arrivals was by no means a happy one. A still larger group, three hundred and sixty-five in all, which entered Ontario in 1874, found only intermittent and underpaid work at railroad grading, and fared so badly that first winter spent at Kinmount, that all babies under two died.

This party had originally intended to settle in the United States, but were persuaded by an agent of the Dominion government to give Canada a try-out under the promise of special privileges. These were: a grant of sufficient suitable land on which to set up a colony; the same rights as other Canadians as soon as they had complied with residential requirements; and freedom to retain their language, customs and way of life for as long as they wished. Families from this group formed the majority of those who founded the colony at Gimli, while single persons from among them began the Icelandic invasion of Winnipeg.

The colony-site, eventually chosen for them by their own representatives, was north of the Manitoba boundary (as it was at that time) and formed a strip along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg, six townships in length and extending 12 miles inland. It also included the whole of Big Island. The area was then part of the Northwest Territories, but later became known as the District of Keewatin. The land was covered with trees and shrubs, with natural clearings and marshes between. It had been selected because it offered building materials, fish and game to augment the food supply, together with a navigable waterway. That it was heavy land to work and offered only subsistence living because of distance from markets, does not seem to have been considered.

The settlers bound for this terrain reached Winnipeg on 11 October 1875. There were two hundred and eighty-five persons in the party - eighty men, one hundred and thirty-six women and sixty-nine children. These were the people who founded the first permanent Icelandic colony on Canadian soil. Their colony has another distinction which gives it a unique place in the pioneer history of Manitoba, in that it governed itself in all respects after the manner of a republic during the first twelve years of its existence.

Thirty-five single persons from the party remained in Winnipeg to find work and were the first Icelanders to take up residence in this city. The rest stayed only long enough to purchase supplies from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and to load them on the house-boats on which they were travelling down the Red River and Lake Winnipeg to their destination.

The fact that they had credit with which to buy, they owed to the intervention of two men - John Taylor, an Easterner interested in their fortunes, and Lord Dufferin, the Governor-General who had visited Iceland and liked its people. When Taylor failed to convince Ministers of the Crown that it was sound economy to help the Icelanders to get their colony started, His Excellency came to the rescue with a measure of success. Taylor was then appointed by the Government to accompany the colonists as their business agent.

The party was composed almost entirely of young people. The supplies they took to the colony included their personal belongings, boxes of books, quite a bit of scrap metal, a modest store of food, cooking utensil, tools, seed, and twine for nets. Livestock, for which they had saved the bulk of their credit, would have to wait until spring owing to the lateness of the season. In fact, when they reached the tarn on the south side of Gimli Harbor on the “last day of summer,” winter was setting in with a vengeance.

There was no time to spread out on their farms as first intended. The men went ashore, felled trees and built thirty cabins within three weeks to house most of the party. Also a log warehouse to hold the extra supplies. A few families settled on farms in the immediate neighborhood.

The colonists called their new village “Gimli,” and their settlement “New Iceland.” The winter was severe, the houses over-crowded; there was sickness but there was also good hope and cheerfulness.

Addendum:

Nelson Gerrard writes: “New Iceland was never a republic, in the sense of an autonomous state, though this term has been used in some pamphlets and articles, starting in the 1940s. The exact nature of the understanding between the Icelandic settlers (who fully acknowledged their new loyalties and responsibilities) and the Canadian federal government (which was a partner in the venture) is made very clear in speeches made at Gimli in 1877 on the occasion of Lord Dufferin’s visit. The constitution of New Iceland, while a remarkable example of local—even regional—government, is in fact merely a set of by-laws for local government, not unlike those drafted by any organization, but of course relatively comprehensive as the settlement was beyond the boundaries of Manitoba until 1881 when the province was enlarged. Until that time, New Iceland was within Canada’s Northwest Territory, District of Keewatin, and under direct jurisdiction of the Dominion Government. It was never in effect or concept an autonomous state. The use of the word “republic” is entirely inappropriate.” (20 February 2010)

Page revised: 26 April 2014

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