This Week in History


The Republic of New Iceland

This story was initially published in 2000

On October 8, 1875, an order-in-council defined and granted an Icelandic reserve stretching along the shores of Lake Winnipeg. A few weeks later, 285 Icelandic immigrants landed at Willow Point at its south end, near present-day Gimli, Manitoba. They named their reserve Nyja Island or New Iceland.

Icelanders on their Way to the Shores of Lake Manitoba

Icelanders on their Way to the Shores
of Lake Manitoba

© Library and Archives Canada

In the 1870s, faced with the challenge of settling the Canadian west, the Dominion government began to grant ethnically based reserves. Among the first to come were the Icelanders. Escaping severe economic conditions in Iceland, they emigrated in search of a new home where they could better their lot and maintain their cultural identity. The site they chose, on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, was remote enough to provide for both autonomy and future growth. Within just two years, the Icelanders had devised their own government (by constitution), established schools, initiated religious services and begun publishing an Icelandic newspaper. For 12 years, the new colony was self-governing and, for 22 years, it was officially open only to Icelanders.

Sandy Bar (excerpt). Every hope shall have fruition/ In each mind that has ambition/ To take up the uncompleted/ Exodus from Sandy Bar/ To pursue forever onward/ Aims that grew at Sandy Bar. -G. Guttormsson

The cultural legacy of New Iceland has been considerable. Today, many Canadians of Icelandic descent still live in the area of the former reserve and they define themselves both in relation to the old country and to the long gone "New Iceland."

The arrival at Willow Point, 1875

The arrival at Willow Point, 1875
© LAC / PA-041785

Festivals, literature, and business and cultural organizations dating back to the early settlement remain. A highly literate and literary people, Icelandic Canadians have produced many poets and novelists, writing in both English and Icelandic, including Guttormer J. Guttormsson, born in New Iceland in 1878. He is best known for his poem Sandy Bar, which illustrates the ongoing emotional link between the original pioneers of New Iceland and their Canadian descendants. Islendingadagurinn, a celebration of Icelandic culture, which began in Winnipeg and later moved to Gimli, has been held annually over the August long weekend for 110 years. 

The establishment of New Iceland was designated an event of National Historic Significance by the Minister of Canadian Heritage.

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