A new society of Western Icelanders |
It is often said that Western Icelanders established a new republic in the northern parts of Canada, with their own laws and constitution. They were probably influenced by the settlement of Iceland. For instance, they even registered their own settlement books as time went on. However, in 1881 the borders of Manitoba were extended and New Iceland became part of the province The right to settle the area was reserved solely for Icelanders until 1897. From that time onwards, other immigrant groups settled in Manitoba, notably Ukrainians. They were called Gallar and various conflicts arose between the groups, but with the passage of time various ethnic groups integrated well.
In the early years, the region was mostly Icelandic. It was therefore easier to maintain Icelandic identity. On the other hand, Icelanders adapted to government institutions, transport systems, schools and so on. In the 1880s the land became almost deserted in the wake of floods, forest fires and other disasters. People moved to North Dakota and to the more fertile grain-growing regions in Argyle, southwest Manitoba. At the end of the 19th century, Manitoba was widely settled, particularly at Lundar, and a few other places. Settlement also occurred in Saskatchewan, Red Deer and Markerville (north of Calgary) in Alberta, Vancouver, various parts of British Columbia, and Minneota in Minnesota. Many settled in Selkirk, just north of Winnipeg. However the majority of Icelanders lived in Winnipeg. In urban areas, people adjusted more quickly to Canadian society. The Icelandic language was also more influenced by English in urban areas than in rural areas.
Ice Fishing on Lake Winnipeg in the early part of the 20th century
Reykjavik Museum of Photography
The deeply rooted Icelandic literary culture strengthened Western-Icelandic patriotic feelings in North America. A thirst for knowledge enticed many to study, which paved their way to high positions in Canadian society. The first proof of this was the journal i>Framfari, which is said to hold a special place in the history of North-American journalism. However, the paper quickly went bankrupt. The next newspaper was Leifur, which didn't last long either. However Heimskringla and Lögberg were established in 1886 and 1888. They are still published today, even though they have since merged into one publication. The religious journal "Sameiningin" was established in 1886. Before the turn of the century over 20 newspapers and magazines had been printed, with runs of various lengths of time. Book publishing also flourished more per capita than in Iceland.There was also a greater proportion of poetry published in newspapers.
Haying at Víđimýri, Riverton, around 1915
Reykjavik Museum of Photography
Religion was another factor that both united and divided Icelanders in North America. In its own way, the Church was a social institution that people brought with them to North America. It had an important function as a support system for the young community. Later, people founded societies of various sorts, including temperance societies, women's societies, progressive societies, and trade unions. Icelandic women in Winnipeg were at the forefront of the Canadian women's rights movement. Their most important leader was Margrét J. Benedictson. Churches were built quickly, including at Gimli. In Winnipeg, faithful congregations were established quickly. A large church was erected in Winnipeg in 1885. Because of the importance of the Church to the settlers, church work often became a way to rise to prestige and power. Elenóra (1894), by Gunnsteinn Eyjólfsson is satirical account of such a climb to high positions within the Church. Another comic Western Icelandic writer was Kristján Níels Júlíus Jónsson, better known under the pen name Káinn (KN). Many of his verses were very popular, both in North America and in Iceland.
However, from the beginning there was a real split between various groups in the Church. Disputes usually arose between the Liberal and Orthodox members, although struggles were often rooted in personal conflicts. The first split was between the ministers Jón Bjarnason, a Liberal, and Páll Ţorláksson, an Orthodox. Páll's followers moved to North Dakota. Later, Jón became Orthodox and contended fiercely against the Liberals in religious matters; one of his targets was the poet Stephan G. Stephansson. Stephan had established a liberal progressive society in North Dakota and later ceased involvement with the Church altogether. The publications Lögberg and Heimskringla were often used as a forum for such disputes. The papers sometimes published furious outbreaks of personal insults. It was in fact ironic that Heimskringla was conservative in terms of politics but liberal when it came to religion. The opposite held true for Lögberg, which was conservative in terms of religion but liberal in political matters.