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Icelandic festival celebrates 130-year-old “New Iceland” heritage

A look at the four-day festival in Gimli, MB

Imagine having to leave your homeland because of volcano ash that covered the land and destroyed crops.

That’s what happened to Iceland in the 1870s. Needing to immigrate, they chose Canada. After living briefly in Ontario they settled in Manitoba, securing an exclusive 36 mile shoreline along the west bank of Lake Winnipeg.

In 1875, a Hudson Bay Company freighter brought the first group, 200 Icelandic settlers, up the lake from Winnipeg. The lake was so stormy the barge with settlers and their possessions was cut loose to drift ashore.

Unprepared for winter with little livestock or anything else, the settlers lived in tents borrowed from the Hudson Bay Company. About 50 died of scurvy and exposure that winter.

The next year a smallpox epidemic took 100 lives and almost wiped out neighbouring First Nations.

Helped by the First Nations, the new settlers learned to make home-made nets to fish. The farmers struggled but prospered along the lake from Gimli (the Icelandic name for paradise) north to Riverton and Arborg.

Building a school was their first community project. Icelanders believed strongly in education. An early historian observed just about every one of the pioneers had a library of 40 or more books.

The “free state” ended in 1881 when they joined Manitoba. In 1897 the federal government ended the exclusive Icelandic settlement.

Manitoba’s Icelandic population of 20,000 is the largest outside Iceland. The ethnic group’s influence on the province resulted in a university department of Icelandic Language and Literature.

Some settlers moved after a religious controversy between two branches of the Lutheran Church with settlements in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska and North Dakota.

One two-year-old moving to North Dakota was Vihjalmur Stefansson, later a famous Arctic explorer.

One North Dakota group returned to settle in Saskatchewan in the Quill Lakes area – Wadena, Elfros, Foam Lake, Kandahar and Kuroki. About 10,000 Saskatchewan residents are of Icelandic heritage.

Every year Canadians of Icelandic heritage gather at Gimli (paradise) for a celebration of their culture and language.

The 130-year-old festival has transformed into a four-day festival with many non-Icelandic events in this resort town. One senior of Icelandic descent said only the last two days were really about Icelandic culture.

Attractions, besides the museum, include murals on the concrete sea walls protecting the harbour from stormy waters, Icelandic food, music and crafts.

A Viking village depicted ancient weaving, cooking, armoury skills and wooden bowls being carved on a wood lathe.

Mock Viking wars left scars on the combatants. Two armies of about 12 men each charged each other.

Improve the helmets, take away the spears and shields and you have a version of North American football.

Tourism, farming and fishing aren’t the only industries. A gigantic Diageo distillery produces 97 million bottles of whisky a year, mostly Crown Royal.

The RCAF training base, closed in 1971, remains an airport and is an industrial park anchored by a glider school, marine operation, and school division.

The base residential section has become a condominium corporation.

Ron Walter can be reached at

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