Explorer Eric The Red
established a settlement in Greenland in about 985 AD, and in 986 Bjarni
Herjolfsson made the first known sighting by Europeans of the northeast
coast of Canada. Archaeological excavations at L'Anse Aux Meadows
demonstrate that Norse settled in Newfoundland. Karlsefni's son Snorri
was probably the first European born in what is now Canada.
Iceland, an island settled in the 9th century AD by renegade Norwegian
chieftains and their followers, is warmed by the Gulf Stream and has a
fairly moderate climate. Its uninhabitable interior is a volcanic
mountain plateau of glaciers, lava fields and desert, but the treeless
coast provides grazing land for sheep and cultivation. The Icelandic
Althing (established 930 AD) is the oldest parliament in the world.
Through the centuries Icelanders suffered many natural calamities. By
1800 the national population was reduced to only 47,000 by disease,
starvation and volcanic eruptions. In the 19th century, new disasters,
including sheep epidemics, a deterioration in the climate and more
volcanic eruptions, followed. The Danish government, which controlled
Iceland at the time, offered to relocate the entire population to
Denmark. The Icelanders declined, although small parties immigrated to
Brazil and Wisconsin. The first Icelander to land on Canadian shores
since his Norse ancestors was 22-year-old Sigtryggur Jonasson, who
arrived in Quebec City on 12 September 1872.
In 1873 about 150 more Icelanders arrived in Quebec, encouraged by
Jonasson. They were given free transportation to Ontario by the Canadian
government, as well as offers of free land. Rosseau, in the Muskoka
district, was selected as a site. However, government employment, which
had been promised until the land was cleared, was not adequate, and most
settlers soon left, leaving behind a small permanent settlement.
A second party arrived in 1874, settling in Kinmount, Ont. An
immigration officer from Nova Scotia induced a large number to relocate
at what the Icelanders called Markland, near Halifax, with offers of
land, household appliances and financial aid. The land was not arable,
In 1875, 235 Icelanders travelled north by flatboat on the Red River
from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to the west shore of Lake Winnipeg. There they
had been promised an Icelandic reserve in what was then an unorganized
part of the Northwest Territories. This reserve, established by an
order-in-council, became New Iceland, a unique political structure in
Canadian history. In 1876, 1200 others joined the first group. Fifty
immigrants had remained in Winnipeg the first year, and 200 the second,
creating the basis for the first permanent urban Icelandic settlement in
In New Iceland the settlers created their own laws, maintained their own
schools, and generally managed their own affairs. A series of natural
disasters, including floods and a smallpox epidemic 1876-77, decimated
the population, until in 1878 a general exodus to Winnipeg and North
Dakota began. By 1881 the population of the New Iceland area had
declined to about 250.
In 1881, as well, the provincial boundaries were extended north, and New
Iceland became part of Manitoba, though remaining to this day, heavily
Icelandic. The main settlement in New Iceland was Gimli. Other rural
areas of Manitoba settled by Icelanders include Lundar (on Lake
Manitoba); Glenboro, in the southwestern region of the province;
Selkirk, north of Winnipeg; and Morden to the south.
Icelanders continued to immigrate to Winnipeg throughout the last 20
years of the 19th and 20th centuries. Later settlements were established
in rural Saskatchewan and Alberta, but these were largely settled by
families and individuals moving from Manitoba and from Icelandic
settlements in the US. Descendants of Icelanders now live across Canada.
Between 1978 and 1984, 105 Icelanders immigrated to Canada. In the 2016
Canadian census, 101,795 people reported Icelandic ethnic origins (8630
single responses and 93,165 multiple responses).
Most of the immigrants remained in farming, generally their profession
at home. Agricultural settlement in Ontario and Nova Scotia proved
unsuccessful and conditions in New Iceland were not much better. The
freshwater fishery contributed to the economic viability of New Iceland.
The immigrants sent their children to universities whenever possible,
which may have influenced the pattern of assimilation. Icelanders did
not encounter much prejudice and there was a fairly high rate of
intermarriage between Icelanders and the settled population. Typically,
Icelanders entered the professions, particularly medicine, law and
Social Life and Community
From the time New Iceland was settled, Icelanders have preserved
elements of traditional Icelandic society, culture and language.
Factionalism, however, permeated almost all of the Icelanders'
endeavours, and this is reflected in their many voluntary associations,
most of which, in New Iceland, were organized around religious themes
The most important association historically, the Icelandic National
League of North America, was founded in 1919 to assist Icelanders to
adapt to Canada and to preserve elements of Icelandic heritage. Chapters
of the league were established in almost every traditional Icelandic
settlement and in the cities to which children of the immigrants had
relocated. In 1942 the Icelandic Canadian Club began publishing the
first English-language Icelandic publication in North America, the
Icelandic Canadian magazine.
The Icelandic associations have traditionally hosted events for social
and educational reasons, the most important being the Icelandic Festival
(Islendingadagurinn), first held in Winnipeg in 1890, and now held
annually since 1932 in Gimli on August 2. Originally, the purpose was to
commemorate the granting of a constitution to Iceland in 1874, but in
time it has also become an event to honour the Icelandic pioneers in
Religion and Cultural Life
The Lutheran Church (the state church in Iceland) has been the most
prominent, and the Icelandic Evangelical Lutheran Synod of America held
its first conference in Winnipeg in 1885. The Unitarian Church was the
second-largest church among Icelanders, although it is not clear how
this situation developed. The first Unitarian Church opened in 1892.
Considerable political and theological rivalry existed between members
of the two denominations in Winnipeg and this carried over into many of
the smaller, rural communities. The United Church is now the
second-largest denomination among Icelanders.
The first Icelandic newspaper in North America was Framfari (The
Progress), published in New Iceland between 1877 and 1880. Between 1879
and 1910, eight other publications originated in Gimli. In 1886 the
Icelandic newspaper Heimskringla (The World) was founded. Lögberg (The
Tribune) was founded in 1887, partly in opposition to Heimskringla. Both
were published in Icelandic. They were amalgamated in 1959 into
Lögberg-Heimskringla, published in English ( see Newspapers in Canada.)
Literature dating the sagas and the settlement of Iceland is probably
the most unifying theme in Icelandic culture. The Icelanders in Canada
have produced many poets and novelists writing in both English and
Icelandic. Stephán G.Stephansson is considered by many critics to be the
foremost Icelandic poet of this century. Stephansson's contemporary,
Guttormur J. Guttormsson, was born in New Iceland in 1878 and did not
visit Iceland until 1939. He was best known, perhaps, for the poem Sandy
Bar, a tribute to the Icelandic pioneers in New Iceland. Vilhjalmur
Stefansson, the arctic explorer and anthropologist, wrote extensively on
the Inuit. Contemporary Icelandic writers include the late Laura Goodman
Salverson, winner of the Governor General's Literary Award and the first
editor of the Icelandic Canadian magazine and author of The Viking Heart
and Confessions of an Immigrant's Daughter, William Valgardson, author
of Bloodflowers and other works, David Arnason, playwright and author of
collections of poetry, short stories and a novel, and Kristjana Gunnars,
author of several books of poetry.
In Iceland literacy has long been a requirement for marriage and
everyone was expected to have an intimate knowledge of the early sagas.
In New Iceland a request was made for provision of a school even before
homes had been built. In Winnipeg, Icelandic was first taught at Wesley
College (now University of Winnipeg) in 1901. In that same year the
Manitoba Department of Education approved the teaching of Icelandic in
provincial schools (when requested by parents) and the University of
Manitoba accepted it as a second language for incoming students. The Jon
Bjarnson Academy, sponsored by the Lutheran Church, held secondary
school classes in Winnipeg between 1913 and 1940. In 1951 the chair in
Icelandic Language and Literature was established at the University of
Manitoba. The Icelandic collection in the U of Man library now has a
full-time curator and over 14 000 volumes. The 2016 census recorded 1440
people whose mother tongue (first language learned) was Icelandic.
Icelanders are not identifiable with any particular political ideology
or Canadian political party, although many have distinguished themselves
in political service. In 1898 Sigtryggur Jonasson was elected to the
Manitoba legislature to represent St Andrews. Margaret J. Benedictsson,
editor of the women's magazine Freyja from 1898 to 1910, formed the
first women's suffrage society in Winnipeg in 1908. Thomas H. Johnson
was appointed attorney general and minister of public works for Manitoba
in 1915, becoming the first Icelandic Cabinet minister in Canada. Dr.
George Johnson was Minister of Health for Manitoba befor lieutenant
governor of the province in his later years.
The Icelandic Canadian
A regular publication for this community.
Canadian Initiative for Nordic Studies (CINS) was established in
1987 to promote multidisciplinary academic and cultural interest in the
Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden,
including the Faeroe Islands and Greenland.
Festival in Gimli - Manitoba, Canada
The Emigration from
Iceland to USA & Canada - Part 1/10
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