Iceland is a small, proud island nation rising from the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. Its capital city, Reykjavik, is just a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle, which passes through the country’s northern reaches. Much of Iceland is a barren, volcanic waste, riven with sulfurous hot springs, vast glaciers and primeval rivers barreling toward the craggy coastline.
In other words, Iceland isn’t the most hospitable place in the world.
By any measure, neither is rural south-central Manitoba, where local resident David Janeson supports efforts to create a cultural destination for those interested in the history of the small but eclectic Icelandic diaspora.
Janeson and his wife, Lori, live near the geographic center of the historic region of New Iceland, the focal point for the Icelandic diaspora in Canada and, for a time, one of the largest Icelandic exclaves in the world.
Like many local residents, David Janeson supports the efforts of Hecla-Grindstone Provincial Park, and by extension the provincial government of Manitoba, to preserve and expand the historic Icelandic settlement at Hecla Village, on beautiful Hecla Island. Named for an active volcano that Icelanders learned to respect and fear over many centuries, Hecla Island was once a semi-autonomous community created and operated by and for Icelandic immigrants.
What Is New Iceland?
New Iceland is located in south-central Manitoba, centered on the mainland and major islands along the southwestern shore of Lake Winnipeg. As defined, the region covers thousands of square kilometers, but it’s centered on the lakeside town of Gimli, Manitoba, a popular summer vacation destination.
New Iceland is home to the largest concentration of Icelandic Canadians. Roughly 26,000 Manitobans can directly trace their ancestry back to Iceland. They account for approximately 2 percent of the total population of Manitoba and about 35 percent of the total Icelandic population of Canada. New Iceland isn’t in any danger of annexation by its mother country—but if it were ever reclaimed by the Icelandic government, it would add about 10 percent to the tiny island nation’s total population.
Historically, residents of New Iceland referred to themselves as Vestur-Íslendingar, or “Icelanders in the West.” The first arrivals were members of the Mormon church, a minority faith in Iceland, but families of different persuasions followed in relatively short order.
New Iceland: Born in Catastrophe
Like many emigrations, the outflux that launched New Iceland was born out of catastrophe. In January 1875, formidable Mount Askja awoke from its slumber. A series of increasingly violent eruptions of ash, gas and molten rock culminated that Easter in a tremendously violent explosion that blanketed much of Iceland in a thick coating of volcanic debris.
Iceland’s meager supply of arable land was particularly hard-hit; the eruption essentially ended the planting season before it could begin. Famine, always a threat in hardscrabble Iceland, became a clear and present danger.
“For most people, this was the last straw,” writes historian Brock Arnason in Nya Island I Kanada: The Icelandic Settlement of the Interlake Area of Manitoba, a seminal work on the early history of New Iceland. “With the ash from the eruptions, it would be all but impossible to harvest any crop at all. Conditions in Iceland were now so poor that any place at all would surely be better. Icelanders were quite prepared to pack their bags and leave.”
The question then became: Where would they go?
Canada seemed like a natural choice. A few prominent Icelanders, including future “Father of New Iceland” Sigtryggur Jonasson, had already made the journey across the Atlantic. Jonasson led an expedition to the frontier province of Manitoba, where land was free, untrammeled and ready for the taking. Back then, in fact, the Canadian government was practically begging for help to settle its vast western tracts of forest and prairie.
The search for a suitable slice of the Canadian wilderness soon zeroed in on a fertile, lake-studded region in what was then an unorganized portion of the Keewatin District of the Northwest Territory, north of Manitoba’s northern extreme. (The province would later expand to encompass New Iceland, and eventually reach its present northern extent at the 60th parallel.)
The area that would become New Iceland was everything the settlers could hope for, without the perils of Iceland proper. “The Icelanders wanted New Iceland to be very similar to Iceland but without its drawbacks,” writes Arnason. “They wanted it to have good soil and farm land, and easy access to a lake.”
And they wanted it to be geographically and politically isolated. The former was self-evident, this being a largely depopulated hinterland; the latter was satisfied thanks to the hands-off territorial administration.
The Early Years: Hardship and Triumph
The first wave of Icelandic refugees left the mother island in 1875. Many died of disease during the passage. Most others, weary from the trans-Atlantic journey, settled in Kinmount, Ontario, which was both closer to their destination port and already equipped with housing and food storage facilities. Some dispersed across the eastern half of North America, joining family members in the northern United States and eastern Canada—and abandoning, for the time being, the dream of settling New Iceland.
During the first few months at Kinmount, most of the elders and young children perished in abominable living conditions while able-bodied adults slaved for pennies. It took the concerted efforts of a well-connected missionary and the blessing of Canada’s governor general to arrange their passage to New Iceland.
Those who survived the harrowing journey across the Canadian Shield faced unimaginable struggles on the prairies of the Northwest Territory. Though the land was better-suited to agriculture than Iceland’s acidic soils, and the seemingly endless fresh waterways were stocked with fish and game beyond their wildest dreams, the harsh continental climate was too much even for those hardy Scandinavians. With few livestock, no fresh food and poor shelters, three dozen settlers died of exposure and malnutrition during the first winter in New Iceland.
Two interventions arguably prevented the group’s total annihilation: a generous loan from the Canadian government, which funded the purchase of sorely needed equipment, supplies and materials for a school; and the arrival of the 1,200-strong Stóri Hópurinn, or “large group,” from Iceland.
In 1876, New Iceland faced its biggest challenge yet: a smallpox epidemic that severely weakened the colony and, through newly established trading relationships, decimated the local Cree population. For nearly a year, New Iceland remained under government quarantine, severely limiting its contact with the outside world and hampering its ability to resupply its stores.
By late 1877, when the epidemic finally eased, an estimated 500 New Icelanders had succumbed to the disease. (Due to poor recordkeeping and limited communication with isolated Icelandic settlements, the exact total will never be known.) Were most adult residents of the colony not already vaccinated against the disease, the total would likely have been far worse.
New Iceland Through the 20th Century
Against all odds, New Iceland survived and even prospered. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the towns of Gimli and Riverton emerged as the colony’s principal settlements. They helped bind the lives of the residents of numerous rural communities strung along Lake Winnipeg and its inland tributaries, including the appropriately named Icelandic River.
Contrary to popular belief, New Iceland was never a politically autonomous community. Though self-governing, New Iceland’s leaders answered to the representatives of the Crown government in Ottawa and, once Manitoba’s borders extended northward, its local representatives in Winnipeg.
That didn’t stop New Iceland from living up to the ideal envisioned by its founders. Hecla Village, a refurbished settlement on Hecla Island in Hecla-Grindstone Provincial Park, is representative of early 20th-century Icelandic Canadian life: a church, fishing station, community hall and school all attest to the daily rhythms and cultural priorities of New Iceland’s second and third generation. If you’re ever in the area, take the 7-kilometer Hecla Village Scenic Drive and see it up close for yourself.
New Iceland Today
New Iceland is no longer a lonely frontier community. It’s just one more enclave in an ever more diverse Manitoba.
But the memory of New Iceland lives on, strong as ever—and not just in protected restorations like Hecla Village. The New Iceland Heritage Museum, a free tourist attraction in Gimli, gives first-time visitors an introduction to the region’s history and culture. Kid-friendly activities, many focusing on New Iceland’s prominent fishing culture, make this a must-stop for families.
Summer visitors can’t miss the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba, Canada’s premier celebration of Icelandic culture and heritage. As New Iceland’s profile rises, the festival continues to expand—it’s worth a repeat trip, even if you think you’ve seen everything there is to see about Icelanders in Canada.
And while you’re at the festival, pick up a copy of Lögberg-Heimskringla, a twice-monthly Icelandic-language newspaper printed in Winnipeg. Yes, you read that right: Winnipeg has its very own Icelandic-language periodical.
David Janeson Is Drawing Tourists to New Iceland
New Iceland is beloved by locals from all backgrounds—including those who can’t directly trace their heritage back to the mother island.
As co-owner and proprietor of Gull Harbour Marina, a marina and resort property at the northeastern tip of Hecla Island, David Janeson has a vested interest in raising awareness of the existence of New Iceland—and drawing curious visitors to its shores.
In addition to his appreciation for the preservation and education missions of Hecla-Grindstone Provincial Park, Janeson is making a slew of improvements at Gull Harbour. Since taking over management of the property in 2016, he’s upgraded the guest rooms, expanded the Harbour Dock Restaurant’s menu (and upped the quality of its food), added a dinner cruise option, modernized the marina facilities and has introduced an inflatable Zodiac speedboat for excursions around the lake.
David Janeson’s goal is simple: to turn Gull Harbour Marina into a all season destination for outdoorsy vacationers interested in an authentic experience of southern Manitoba. With some of the most important cultural sites in New Iceland just a short drive (or leisurely boat ride) from Gull Harbour’s doorstep, he’s looking forward to educating first-timers and repeat guests alike about this cultural hidden gem in the midst of the Manitoban northwoods.
New Iceland Tomorrow
David Janeson’s vision is just one small part of the wider vision for New Iceland’s future. As awareness of this unique part of the world rises, it’s a virtual certainty that more tourists—including many from the mother country itself—will make their way to south-central Manitoba.
They’ll find a growing menu of opportunities to experience New Iceland for themselves. One of the most exciting of these is Viking Park, an effort by the organizers of the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba to create a permanent tribute to the cultural and economic contributions of Manitoba’s Icelandic community. Arrayed around the formidable Gimli Viking, a statue erected during an earlier burst of Icelandic patriotism in 1967, the park has four main objectives (per the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba):
- Pay tribute to the tenacious spirit of the Icelandic settlers
- Enable a universally accessible journey that everyone can take together
- Embed interactive information into the landscape and generate a greater understanding of the history of Gimli and of Icelandic culture
- Create an intergenerational ‘nature/culture/play’ environment for kids of all ages
Complete with elf and troll gardens, Viking Park finally opened to the public in August 2017, just in time for Canada’s 150th anniversary year. Every donation over $125 received a named space somewhere in the park: a plaque, stone etching, monument, bench.
It’s hard to imagine a more fitting homage to New Iceland’s Viking heritage than Viking Park. In the coming years, New Iceland could see a less tangible but far more consequential change: a modern-day influx of Icelandic people, an echo of the late 19th-century wave that gave the region its shape.
A previous worker exchange initiative, devised in the throes of the global financial crisis, didn’t pan out for New Iceland. But Iceland’s cyclical, tourism-dependent economy leaves it vulnerable to global downturns. Future Icelandic and Manitoban governments may well apply the lessons learned from last decade’s attempt and establish a more sustainable exchange program.
That would undoubtedly be a good thing for the economy of New Iceland, the fiscal fortunes of Icelanders who choose to make the journey and the cultural heritage of Manitoba writ large.