Speech given by
Halldór Ásgrímsson, Minister for Foreign Affairs and External Trade,
Unveiling of a memorial in Kinmount, Ontario,
July 31, 2000.
The Icelandic emigrants who left for North America 125 years ago did so for various reasons. Natural disasters have mainly been blamed for this emigration: volcanic eruptions, drift ice, etc. This is undoubtedly correct, but it does not tell the whole story. An equally valid reason was the shortage of fertile farmland and hopelessness of ever being able to acquire land on which to support their families in Iceland.
For many the prospect of acquiring their own land for cultivation here in Canada was undoubtedly a major reason for the decision to leave. Another important factor was the slow progress in the struggle for independence from the Danes. As a result some sought to find another country in which to strengthen their freedom.
One additional reason for emigrating was clearly the desire for adventure, and finally there were those who left because they felt that Vesturheimur "the West World" in North America offered better living-standards than Iceland could offer, even though they were not experiencing hardship in the home country.
It was important to the settlers to stay together in order to preserve their cultural heritage. Their preference was to establish another Iceland, Nýja Ísland, in Canada or the U.S.A. This was such a central idea that one of the leaders of the Icelanders even expressed the idea of obtaining land in Alaska. There he envisioned an Icelandic state with tens of thousands of people.
Once they arrived, few of the settlers knew what to expect. People were not exactly sure where they were going, and they were completely unaware of what kind of life awaited them. People were so unfamiliar with the market society, which was coming into being, that they were surprised when they were asked to pay for some glasses of milk, of which they drank heartily shortly after their arrival on North American soil. They considered this hospitality to be common courtesy with guests and travellers, as had been the practice in Iceland for ages.
When the first group of settlers arrived in Kinmount after a long and difficult journey, they realised that little or no work was to be had and that no housing was available. Shabbily built huts were erected. These buildings were unsanitary and contributed to many deaths. The winter passed with extreme hardship, and then a three-man team was sent our to look for more promising area for settlement. The men went west to the Prairies where they found land which they later named "Nýja Ísland", on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg. As soon as word was received of the new land allotted to them, the settlers left Kinmount: people walked away from their farms, they sold their live-stock for half price, those who owned some; and sold the hay they had struggled to harvest over summer for next to nothing. The group left in a rush by barges up the Great Lakes, then by train, and again by barges. When they reached Lake Winnipeg they soon faced bad weather and cold winds. The barges carrying the Icelanders were brought to shore at Willow Point and people disembarked in the chilly October wind, and walked six kilometres to the place they named Gimli. They actually named the place before they got there.
It is safe to say that the story of the Kinmount settlers, their first three to four years in Canada, was a story of continuous difficulties. By the time most of this hardship ended, people began leaving Nýja Ísland for other places. It was not until much later that people began flocking to Nýja Ísland again, and Gimli is now becoming the "throne of the gods", where the world's largest Icelandic Celebration is held every year, with between 50 to 80 thousand people attending.
However, in the midst of this story of hardships we catch glimpses of many interesting facts, for example in the field of culture and literature. One of these involves books. A young man had begun copying all the Icelandic Sagas in Iceland. He completed this work in some hut in Kinmount. His manuscript, written in beautiful, precise handwriting, is kept at the Icelandic Collection of the University of Manitoba, a literary gem which brings home to us once again how intimately involved the Icelanders were with the Sagas. Tomorrow, at a special ceremony in Toronto, I will present precisely these Icelandic Sagas in an English translation to Sigrid Johnson of the Icelandic National League in North America.
Secondly, when we take a look at the pioneer years, it is noticeable that some books were available in every home. This, for example, caught lord Dufferin's attention when he visited Nýja Ísland, during his tenure as Governor General of Canada, that every hut had a library containing from 10 to 15 books of the most unlikely sort.
Thirdly we should mention here the demand for schools. Everywhere the settlers wanted to establish schools for their children. Even when they had no cows, no stoves, or hay; no food or bows and arrows, they still wanted schools for their children.
When the Icelandic settlers left Kinmount to settle in Gimli, 125 years ago, they intended to establish an Icelandic colony. The main reason for going to Gimli was receiving land over which they would have control - a kind of a colony - which they called Nýja Ísland. Thus they did not only take books with them but also a longing for freedom, as I mentioned before, which they sought to gain in North America, and thus show their countrymen at home and the Danes that - here - the centuries of independence struggle could bear fruit well.
Some will find this story partly romantic; but these people were carried forward by ideals, over many an obstacle, some seemingly insurmountable. Of course they suffered disappointments during the first years, which they found difficult to admit to themselves, but especially to those left behind in Iceland. We Icelanders have received our share of pride, sometimes a generous amount. It was difficult to admit that anything had failed.
However, when all is said and done, one thing is clear: Those who left Iceland for Kinmount, and from there to Nýja Ísland, actually never left Iceland. They always carried Iceland within them, no matter what happened; wherever they went.
And the amazing thing is that you still have Iceland within you; your love for Iceland is still a central force in everything you do.
The Leifur Eiríksson Millennium Commission of Iceland, the consulate in Winnipeg and others have in partnership with hundreds of people of Icelandic decent in Canada organised about 200 events in Canada alone this year. That agenda is most impressive. I myself recently took part in festivities when the Viking ship, Íslendingur, landed at L'Anse aux Meadows. That event as well is also based on your participation, Canadians of Icelandic decent, throughout Canada.
Many memorials will be erected and unveiled, two in Nova Scotia, one here. In Vancouver a flowergarden is dedicated to the memory of the pioneers, and in Manitoba whole buildings are built to safeguard the cultural heritage. A renovated space for the Icelandic Collection and a New Icelandic Heritage Museum will be opened in Gimli. Iceland is a partner in all this with you and takes a leading role in many events.
These celebrations are held in honour of three historic events. First the thousandth anniversary of the Vinland discovery. Secondly that 125 years have passed from the time Icelanders settled in Gimli. Thirdly because Iceland is preparing a further settlement in Canada by establishing an Embassy in Ottawa as well as a special Culture and Trade Office in Manitoba. Thus we prepare for strengthening further the foundation for future relations between Iceland and Canada.
Ladies and Gentlemen. We know that Canadians of Icelandic descent overcame unbelievable difficulties in the pioneer years, more than a century ago. The memorial, which will be unveiled here, later today, honours the people who overcame the difficulties. It is an expression of gratitude to them and to all of you at the same time. The memorial and the ceremony here today confirm what is most important: that you have never left Iceland - Iceland is still within you.
"Þó þú langförull legðir,
sérhvert land undir fót,
bera hugur og hjarta,
samt þíns heimalands mót,"
said Stephan G. Stephansson.
"Though you wide journeying place
Every country under foot,
Your mind and heart bear,
Your homeland's resemblance,"
(Kristjana Gunnarsons's translation)
I want to thank the Icelandic club in Ontario for this beautiful event here today. I congratulate the artist on the monument and I thank you all for making it possible for me and my wife to share this day with you.
Here in Canada we can measure Icelandic culture in comparison to other cultural entities, and here we can observe how it develops in the Canadian multicultural society. That comparison confirms that Icelandic culture is not only durable, it can and will thrive well in co-habitation with other nations, other cultural entities, wherever it is and whatever it is. Experience tells us that we need not fear involvement with other nations. To the contrary, experience here shows us that Icelandic culture is durable and strong, that opening it up strengthens it, whereas isolation would weaken it.