The first group of 285 Icelandic settlers arrived near present-day Gimli, Manitoba, in October 1875. Exhausted from the journey across the Great Lakes and then up the Red River, they carried all their personal possessions and enough supplies to establish a new community and see them through the winter. During their first night, they were greeted by a gentle snowfall, an ominous warning of the winter and struggles ahead.
As we stared out at the tranquil waters of Lake Winnipeg in the summer, it was hard to imagine the conditions the newcomers from Iceland faced that first winter. To help us understand, we stopped at the New Icelandic Heritage Museum in Gimli.
The exhibits carefully document travel from Iceland via Scotland and England to Canada. Personal narratives bring out the deep dedication to establishing Icelandic culture in North America, religious differences which divided the early colony, and the struggle of everyday life in the settlement.
Islendingadagurinn, the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba, takes over Gimli every August long weekend. One of the largest and longest-running cultural celebrations in Canada, the festival treats guests to Icelandic food, poetry, singing, and dancing. “Viking battle re-enactments with traditional costumes,” are the highlights of the weekend, according to Shelley Narfasson, executive director of the festival.
Pulling ourselves away from the excitement of Gimli, we headed north to explore the life of the early Icelanders. The community they founded — the fledgling Republic of New Iceland — was an autonomous region, outside of Manitoba’s early boundaries. The colony adopted its own provisional constitution and held elections.