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Icelandic Introduction

For the young Icelandic mother, desperately trying to keep her children warm as bitter cold seeped into their tiny lakeside shanty, the poverty and destitution of her homeland may have seemed preferable to the bleakness and brutality of early homesteading life on the shores of wild Lake Winnipeg. Before that first winter of 1875-76 had ended, 35 of New Iceland's 235 settlers would be dead. A year later, smallpox would claim another 100 of the additional 1200 settlers who joined their countrymen on the Manitoba frontier.

But within 3 years, the independent colony of "Vatnsthing" (Lake Region), 80 kilometres north of the city of Winnipeg would also have established a provincial government, built a church, founded a school, started a newspaper, cleared the land, and mastered the art of ice fishing. Within a decade, New Iceland, forerunner of the modern-day town of Gimli, and one of North America's most important centres of Icelandic culture and heritage, had gained a firm foothold n the Manitoba heartland.

The Independent Republic of New Iceland
By today's Canadian standards of centralized government and municipal amalgamation, the notion of an Icelandic republic in the heart of Manitoba seems particularly exotic. But from 1875 to 1887, the Icelandic immigrants who settled Lake Winnipeg's western shore were part of an independent province, sanctioned by the Canadian government, governed by an elected council and regulated by a provincial constitution. The democratic New Iceland colony, known as "Vatnsthing," was divided into 4 districts according to the ancient quarter-section model of 10th century Iceland. Each district elected its own council of 5 members by popular vote, with a reeve and deputy reeve chosen by the elected council. A regional council of 6 members administered the general affairs of the colony as a whole, overseen by a President and Vice-President elected annually by all eligible voters. The colony council was responsible for all relations with the Canadian government. This governing system remained in effect until 1881, when the boundaries of Manitoba were extended and New Iceland became part of the Province of Manitoba. In 1887, the transformation from independent state to a municipal form of government was officially completed.

West to Winnipeg: The first Icelandic setters to arrive on Lake Winnipeg had come by way of Ontario, where they had landed in 1873 and 1874 in search of a new North American colony. The settlers were part of a larger wave of Icelandic emigrants who were fleeing harsh weather, Danish trade restrictions, land shortages, livestock epidemics and economic despair in their homeland. While some headed to the United States and Brazil, a small group found their way to Canada. From their temporary base in Kinmount, Ontario, the group sent a delegation west to survey the territory north of Winnipeg. Their emissaries, impressed by the natural resources they encountered along the western shore of Lake Winnipeg, selected a land grant area that extended 57.9 kilometres from present-day Winnipeg Beach to the Icelandic River, and included Hecla Island.

The Icelanders arrived in Winnipeg in mid-October of 1875 via Sarnia (Ontario), Duluth and Fisher's Landing (Minnesota). At the steamboat landing, they were greeted with great fanfare and excitement. A few stayed behind to work, but most of the group kept going, crowding into flat-bottomed York boats towed by a Hudson's Bay Company steamer. As they glided north along the western shore of Lake Winnipeg, the air grew colder and the skies darker.

Fearing disaster if they proceeded to their intended Icelandic River destination, the settlers cut their journey short at a bay just north of Willow Point. As they hurriedly pitched tents, upturned their boats, and threw up 30 rudimentary shanties, the hope and optimism of the settlers faded. The former deep-sea fishermen were stumped by the ever-thickening ice of the Lake. Wild game appeared elusive, supplies were woefully inadequate, and clothing and shelters were no match for the cold. The young and the old began to die. When summer came, hay crops failed due to heavy rains, forests loomed large, and the fishermen were still trying to adapt their unsuitable nets to the unfamiliar fish of Lake Winnipeg.

Spirits rose when a larger group of 1200 settlers arrived in the fall of 1876. Devastating volcanic eruptions of the Dyngja Mountains had driven even more Icelanders away from their country, and the new wave of Manitoba pioneers was grateful to find a Canadian refuge. The immigrants spread out along the Winnipeg shore, up to Icelandic River and across Hecla Island. But there was more tragedy in store: a deadly smallpox epidemic that winter sickened one-third of New Iceland's population, and claimed 100 lives. The desperate colonists turned for help to the Manitoba government, who rushed to set up a makeshift hospital in Gimli and a quarantine station at Netley Creek.

Scenes From a Fishing Village
Visitors to Hecla Island/Grindstone Park, 140 kilometres north of Winnipeg, can tour several restored buildings in Hecla Village, home of many 19th-century Icelandic immigrants. A church, community hall, period home, one-room school and fish station recall the life of the Icelandic fishing families who adapted their old country skills to the new challenges of commercial fishing on Lake Winnipeg.

Gimli Grit: Overwhelmed by illness and hardship, frustrated by the rocky, unproductive land, and unable to resolve ongoing religious differences, many of the Icelandic settlers moved on to North Dakota. But those who stayed began to prosper. Farms were cleared, fish were harvested, and a rich cultural and social life developed. A sawmill was established on Hecla Island in 1878, businesses opened in Gimli, and in 1879, 2 Icelandic entrepreneurs began operating a steamship on Lake Winnipeg. More immigrants arrived from the home country, and by 1885, over 1500 people had now settled permanently in the colony. In 1905, the arrival of the railway in Gimli transformed the community into an important Lake Winnipeg commercial centre and summer holiday destination.

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