Manitoba History: New Iceland: Commemorating 125 Years of Settlement History in Manitoba
by Rick Lair
Number 40, Autumn / Winter 2000-2001
On 21 October 2000 an Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque was unveiled in Gimli. The plaque inscription reads:
Earlier in the day a group of people gathered on the cold windswept beach on Lake Winnipeg where the first group of Icelandic settlers arrived on October 21, 1875. The roar of breaking waves and the northerly expanse of brooding fall sky on the lake horizon provided the perfect setting for the reading of the poem Willow Point by Frank Olson: “On Willow Point, the waters roll, and raise within our raptured soul a faith transcendent as we view, the Old World past into the new.”
The New Iceland “dream” realized is a well know story among the cultural community of Icelandic origin in North America. Frank Olson’s words are readily understood by many of the approximately 100,000 Manitobans of Icelandic descent.
In 1870, the total population of Iceland was 70,000. By 1910, 20,000 Icelanders had immigrated to North America with New Iceland being the destination of many. Although these people fled their cherished but impoverished homeland they have always maintained strong links with Iceland and its cultural traditions. The gap between the “old world and the new” is uniquely close for this cultural group.
The Establishment of New Iceland
Terrible economic and climatic conditions in mid-19th century Iceland drove many Icelanders from their homes in search of a Nyja Island or “New Iceland” where they could use their own language and realize their cultural and material aspirations. Many looked to North America where the first Icelandic immigrant arrived in 1872. Early destinations in Nova Scotia, Ontario, Wisconsin and Nebraska proved unsuitable so the immigrants turned their attention to the Canadian Northwest.
After negotiations with the Canadian government, they moved to an Icelandic reserve along 58 kilometers of the western side of Lake Winnipeg between Boundary Creek and the mouth of the Icelandic River as well as at Hecla Island. The reserve was designated “New Iceland.”
On October 21, 1875, some 235 settlers from Ontario and Wisconsin finished the last leg of their long journey at Willow Point at the south end of the reserve. The next year, a second group of 1,000 immigrants arrived directly from Iceland and settled at Riverton and Sandy Bar on the Icelandic River.
The remoteness of the colony gave the Icelanders virtual autonomy over their own affairs. In 1878 the settlers ratified the new Constitution of New Iceland, a combination of Canadian provincial and municipal law, modified to local conditions. Although never officially sanctioned by the Canadian Parliament, it provided the basis for local government until 1887 when Manitoba municipal government replaced it. The Icelandic Reserve remained exclusive to Icelanders until an 1897 Order-in-Council opened it to non-Icelanders.
The New Iceland Heritage Museum
The strong concentration of Icelandic culture in New Iceland communities is widely recognized throughout North America and in Iceland. Public presentation of this heritage has recently been enhanced by the completion of an Icelandic Canadian Cultural Centre in Gimli, which also houses The New Iceland Heritage Museum. The events of October 21, 2000 included the ribbon cutting ceremony for this new facility.
The museum chronicles the Icelandic roots and emigration and the unique settlement history of New Iceland including the intercultural relationships that developed with Aboriginal inhabitants and other immigrant groups who later settled in the area known as New Iceland. Completed exhibits on display include “the New Iceland Saga,” a travelling exhibit featuring a dramatic video production that relates the New Iceland story. The travelling exhibit, completed in March 1999, premiered in Iceland this past summer and will begin a western Canadian tour in April 2001. The museum includes a 60 seat theatre with an impressive array of multi media functions, A temporary exhibit gallery, a special activities room for programming, large viewable storage display cases, and a satellite waterfront location where the Lake Winnipeg fisheries, transportation and natural history themes are presented.
This new museum project has been under very active development during the past three years and evolved from a small community museum which existed in Gimlet for the past thirty years. The project has been enthusiastically supported by all levels of government, including the Icelandic government and business, and by many individuals and groups dedicated to promoting the heritage themes presented. The museum has been designated by the Province of Manitoba as a “special themes museum,” and receives sustaining funding to help promote this status. The New Iceland Heritage Museum also maintains close ties with two sister museums in Iceland; the Icelandic Emigration Centre at Hofsos, and the Glambaer Folk Museum in Glaumbar where there is much popular interest in North Americans of Icelandic origin.
The Gimli area on Lake Winnipeg’s western shore has become an increasingly popular tourist destination for Manitobans and for national and international travelers. It is hoped that the museum will promote the area as a destination heritage attraction while making visitors aware of the many other heritage features which can be explored in Manitoba’s Interlake region and in the extended North American Icelandic community.
Page revised: 1 April 2016