When someone thinks of “New Iceland” they probably immediately think of Gimli. The Interlake town’s storefronts dawn Icelandic names, a viking stands watch over the town, and the fast approaching Islendingadagurinn (The Icelandic Festival) is one of the longest running heritage festivals in North America, drawing summer tourists by the hundreds annually. This year’s festival takes place Friday, August 3 to 6, 2012. http://www.icelandicfestival.com/default.asp
But what many probably don’t realize is that Winnipeg plays a central part in New Iceland as well. The corner of what is now Victor Street and Sargent Avenue actually housed one of the largest populations of Icelanders outside of Iceland itself.
In 1875, a series of natural disasters struck Iceland. Volcanic eruptions and a bitterly cold winter resulted in the deaths of a large percentage of their livestock, and the harbours were so full of ice they could not fish. Starving and impoverished, many Icelanders jumped ship to seek a better life in Manitoba.
The first winter the settlers spent in Manitoba was one of the coldest on record. The clothing and shoes they had brought with them were insufficient for the cold. This and a smallpox epidemic caused many of the original settlers to die.
However, the remaining settlers learned to adapt quickly. Although their first attempts to fish in Lake Winnipeg were unsuccessful, as they didn’t have the proper equipment to fish through the thick ice, they learned how to use the tools they did have. They established a colony near Gimli called New Iceland, and the federal government allowed them to maintain their own laws, schools and affairs.
Smallpox and floods washed through New Iceland, and many of the settlers moved further south to Winnipeg to escape. The settlers established a “Little Iceland” in the West End, concentrated mostly around Nena Street (now Victor Street) and Sargent Avenue.
The Icelanders were regarded as foreign looking and a bit “brutish” by other Winnipeggers, but they built up their own community quickly and established many important cultural institutions that are still relevant in Manitoba today.
The First Lutheran Church was built in 1878 and by the 1950s the congregation had reached over 2,000 people – the largest Lutheran congregation in western Canada. The church is still operational today on Victor Street.
The Icelandic Athletic Club was established in 1898 and the Winnipeg Falcons, with an entire roster made up of Icelandic-Canadians, represented Canada at the 1920 Olympic games in Belgium, where they won the first ever Canadian Olympic gold medal for hockey.
The Lögberg-Heimskringla, originally two weekly newspapers [the Lögberg (The Law Rock) and the Heimskringla (Circle of the World or Our World)] were established between 1886 and 1888 and distributed throughout New Iceland and Winnipeg. The two papers were in opposition politically but they amalgamated in 1959. The paper is still printed and distributed weekly out of Winnipeg.
The Icelandic National League (INL) of North America was formed in 1918 in Winnipeg, with the sole intent of preserving Icelandic heritage outside of Iceland. The INL is still active and people are still seeking membership.
The very first Islendingadagurinn wasn’t held in Gimli but actually in Winnipeg. Icelandic-Canadians marched down Victor Street (then Nena Street) singing and wearing Icelandic costumes and holding flags. Islendingadagurinn was held in Winnipeg until it was moved to Gimli in 1932.
And the department of Icelandic Language and Literature at the University of Manitoba was established in 1951 with the intention of preserving the Icelandic language. Today, the Icelandic library has over 27,000 Icelandic books, making it the second largest collection of Icelandic books in North America.