The present and the roots |
Winnipeg and New Iceland continued to be the two major centres for Icelandic immigrants. The language prevailed longer in the rural areas, and even today there are still a sizeable number of people who speak Icelandic there. The majority of the first settlers were so poor that they built little huts, "shanties", which for a while formed the neighbourhood Shanty town.
During the first few decades, the immigrants were frowned upon, especially the poor ones. But many prospered and their rise in society was easier than that of many other immigrant groups, in the eyes of Western-Icelandic anthropologist John Matthiasson (1989). He says that Icelanders had a high status in the pecking order of immigrants for various reasons. They were considered to be active participants in the rapid development of Winnipeg at the end of the nineteenth century and were held in high regard because of this. They lived in a particular neighbourhood, called the West End. Although the neighbourhood was not closed to other nationalities, Icelandic language and traditions were maintained within its boundaries. However, Icelanders also played an active part in the community as a whole, almost to the same extent as citizens of Anglo-Saxon origin.
Western Icelandic family on a good day
Reykjavík Museum of Photography
There were enough Icelanders in Winnipeg and New Iceland for substantial cultural activity to flourish, (including book and newspaper publishing) to reach people in other settlement areas. Books by Icelanders were published in North America and works of Western Icelanders also had a market in Iceland.
Settler societies are often characterised as being both conservative and progressive. This was also the case with Icelandic society in North America. They adapted to the Anglo-Saxon culture relatively quickly and became an integrated part of the community while at the same time managing to maintain their cultural identity for several generations.
Americans and Canadians of Icelandic descent still maintain a tight-knit group, despite the fact that the immigration was largely discontinued at the beginning of World War I. The generation in Canada who had a grip on both languages, Icelandic and English, was able to write a detailed history of the migration to the West. In their writings there is an obvious effort to prove the worth of the Icelanders, e.g. highlighting the high percentage of educated Icelanders in comparison to other nationalities.
The Icelandic National League was founded in 1919. It has branches in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, Seattle, Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota. One of their most important campaigns was to establish the teaching of Icelandic language at the University of Manitoba. A successful fundraising campaign was started in 1926 with that purpose in mind. The founding of the department was formally announced on 30 March 1951. Icelandic language and literature are taught within the department, as well as the history and literature of the Western Icelanders.
The Icelandic library forms a unique section within the library of the University of Manitoba and is the second largest Icelandic library in North America, after Cornell University in Ithaca. The library has a large collection of Western Icelandic literature, academic papers and Icelandic literature. The private libraries of Stephan G. Stephansson and Guttormur J. Guttormsson are also stored there. Icelandic is also taught at University of Victoria in British Columbia, and strong connections with Iceland are encouraged.
Baseball team from the Geysir area, 1920
Reykjavík Museum of Photography
The periodicals Heimskringla and Lögberg were amalgamated in 1959, and the paper is still published under the title Lögberg Heimskringla. It features news, educational pieces and editorials. The articles are written in English, but there is also some material in Icelandic. The journal The Icelandic Canadian has been published since 1942, and the first editor was the writer Laura Goodman Salverson. The publication carries a wide variety of information, literature and informative articles concerning Iceland and Western Icelanders.