Canada boasts the highest number of people with Icelandic roots in the world outside of Iceland, and there is a particular concentration of those with Icelandic descent in the Interlake region of Manitoba. Many generations of Icelandic-Canadians have provided inestimable contributions of leadership, arts, and strength to the diverse culture of their North American home.
Yet fewer than 150 years ago, no Icelanders had even yet settled in Canada.
The first Icelandic native who made Canada a permanent home was Sigtryggur Jónasson, a legendary pioneer and tireless public servant who became known as the “Father of New Iceland” in honor of his lifetime of advocacy and leadership for Icelandic-Canadians. He was also the first elected legislator of Icelandic origin when he became a Member of the Legislative Assemby of Manitoba in 1896.
It was on Sept. 12, 1872 when young Jónasson, only 20 years old, set sail from Glasgow on the ship Saint Andrew, headed for Quebec. Son of a northern Iceland farming family, Jónasson was born Feb. 8, 1852 at Bakkasókn, Öxnadalshreppur to Jónas Sigurðsson and Helga Egilsdóttir. Chroniclers of his life note that he was well-educated at home, and his service as a clerk in a governor’s office soon made the fjords and narrow valleys of Iceland became “too confining” for his adventurous spirit.
After two weeks at sea and traversing through Canada’s waterways, Jónasson arrived in Quebec Sept. 26, 1872. Within two years he had mastered the English tongue and earned a reputation as an entrepreneur. The Ontario government named him as an immigration agent in 1874; in this role he encouraged Icelanders leaving their native land to settle in Canada; previously most of the immigration had been to the United States.
The violent volcanic explosion of Askja, starting in the spring 1875, produced ashfall (also wind-blown to Norway, Sweden, Germany and Poland) heavy enough to poison the land and kill livestock. This disaster triggered a great expansion of people leaving Iceland; it is estimated that 20 percent of the country’s population left. Jónasson’s commitment to Canada brought more than 1,000 of these emigrants to the New Iceland area itself, and a majority of those 20,000 who left Iceland came to Canada as a whole because of his efforts, between 1870 and 1914.
Chosen by his new countrymen to help lead a scouting expedition westward to find new land for an Icelandic settlement. The scouts set up an Icelandic reserve, “New Iceland,” in Keewatin District, Northwest Territory, which included the area around present-day Gimli, Manitoba. The pioneers settled in 1876 on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg. Jónasson set up his homestead near Riverton, and established his legacy in helping create the unique laws and constitution of the Republic of New Iceland.
He later moved to Winnipeg but he continued his efforts to solidify the communities he had helped found. He lobbied Canadian Pacific Railway officials to further the railroad line to Gimli in 1906, Arborg in 1910, and Riverton in 1914, helping these communities continue to thrive over the next several decades. In 1930 he was Canada’s representative to celebrate the millennium of Iceland’s Parliament. The energetic community leader helped found two Icelandic newspapers, Framfari, and later the Winnipeg paper Lögberg, now the Lögberg-Heimskringla and still published bi-monthly in Winnipeg; served as a ship’s captain on Lake Winnipeg, and invested or founded numerous businesses in Manitoba.
When Sigtryggur Jónasson died in Winnipeg in November 26, 1942, he had outlived most of those who directly remembered his contributions and work towards establishing a “New Iceland” in North America. His biographers note that he passed “mostly forgotten” and in a rather diminished state of impecunity. However, he was not completely forgotten. Sixty years later the descendants of those he had helped launch into new lives in Canada celebrated him with a ceremony and statue.
In October 2012, Jónasson was honored by Riverton for his historical contributions and leadership. A bronze statue and footbridge was dedicated by Riverton, and a plaque installed at the site by the Historic Sites and Monuments Advisory Board of Canada, recognizing him as a person of national historic significance.
The ceremony included many accolades to Jónasson, including these remarks by Nelson Gerrard (vice president of the Icelandic River Heritage Sites): “Without Sigtryggur Jónasson, there would have been no New Iceland, and in the great scheme of things, none of us here today would exist. History would have taken a different course and everything would have unfolded differently in both Iceland and Canada.”