ICELANDERS REACH THE HOME
OF THE GODS AT GIMLI, MANITOBA
By George Siamandas
On October 11, 1875, Icelandic immigrants began to arrive in Winnipeg on the way to their new home called New Iceland at Gimli. The Icelanders had begun to arrive in North America as early as 1856, settling in Utah. The first group to Canada was actually on their way to Wisconsin but they were convinced to stay in Roseau and Kinmount, Ontario by Canadian officials. But the land in Ontario was not supportive of farming and the original colonies looked for better places elsewhere in Canada and the US. They sent exploration parties to Nebraska, Alaska and also to the Red River Valley and in particular the west coast of Lake Winnipeg. They were pleased with what they saw in Lake Winnipeg, in both the lake which was full of fish, and the stretches of open prairie full of grasses. There was lots of lumber, moose, ducks and berries.
Sigtryggur Jonasson was the first Icelander to come to Canada in September 1872. Iceland was facing difficult times in the 1860s and 1870s and the word got around (through Jonasson's letters home) that there were better places to live. And in fact Icelandic people were starting to leave for Brazil and the US. Jonasson was appointed an immigration agent by Canada to help 350 settlers arrive in October 1875. He was assisted by a Scottish missionary called John Taylor. Taylor became a Canadian government immigration agent and negotiated on behalf of the Icelanders who wanted to have their language rights preserved.
The land in southern Manitoba was already taken and they were not used to prairie and saw the ravage of grass hoppers the year the came. And being sea faring people they were attracted to the as yet unsurveyed shores of Lake Winnipeg which was beyond Manitoba 's official boundaries at the time. Manitoba was called the postage stamp province. They made an agreement with the Canadian government for a reserve of land stretching 90 kilometres, and they called it Nyja Island or New Iceland. Like all immigrants they were trying to hold on to their culture within this new British country. The way to do this was establishing a separate colony.
They reached Winnipeg on October 11, 1875 by the International Steamboat. While en route they decided that their new home would be known as Gimli or the place gods would be taken at the end of the world where there would be eternal peace and happiness. Winnipeggers turned out to see these Icelanders expecting to see short Eskimo-like people and where surprised to see they were white skinned, smart-looking and excellent people that were expect to become good settlers.
One book calls it a harsh utopia. Their first winter was very bleak. They were inexperienced at fishing with the right nets and particularly after the lake froze over. It didn't work out for many of them. They abandoned plans to bring in cattle, they did not have enough provisions, and in that first bitter winter nearly all the young and the elderly died from scurvy. In the spring another 1,200 came, but again by fall a smallpox epidemic (brought in at immigration facilities in Quebec, 102 more were lost. These people were leaving Iceland at a time when volcanoes were destroying parts of their country. Small pox decimated the near-by Sandy Bay reserve.
The Icelanders are very independent people and they became unhappy with their new home. Lake Winnipeg water rose flooding low lying settlements and by 1880 the Icelanders started to trickle south into North dakota leaving just a few in Manitoba. Enough stayed to make Gimli a thriving community by 1900.
Jonasson helped set up a system of government complete with all of today's ideas about democracy and local control. He established an Icelandic newspaper and a steamship line and moved first to Selkirk and then to Winnipeg were he sold real estate and insurance. In 1896 he became and MLA, and thus the first Icelander to be elected to political office in Canada.