In the hot summer time, festivals rule in Manitoba, and the province happens to host some of the best in North America and the world for that matter. Three of the better known and most attended multicultural festivals get underway this weekend. On August 1, 2 and 3 is Canada’s National Ukrainian Festival in Dauphin, the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba in Gimli is running from August 1 to 4, while Folklorama in Winnipeg will be held from August 3 to 16.
Folklorama features 43 pavilions at various venues throughout the city. Since it began in 1970, Folklorama has become the largest and longest-running multicultural festival of its kind in the world, according to the International Council of Organizations of Folklore Festivals and Folk Arts.
This year is the 45th anniversary of Folklorama, which actually started out as a one-time event during Manitoba’s centennial year, but was so popular that it was decided to make it an annual affair.
But the granddaddy of Manitoba’s festivals is the one with a tongue-twister of a name — Islendingadagurinn (translated into English, it means the Icelanders’ Day). The Icelandic Festival is the second oldest continuous ethnic festival in North America, and is this year celebrating its 125th anniversary. An annual Irish festival in Montreal is regarded as the oldest on the continent and was held a few years before the initial festival honouring the Icelandic presence in North America.
The first party of Icelanders came to Manitoba in 1875, landing at Willow Island near Gimli. While the Interlake community along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg has been the site of the annual Icelandic Festival of Manitoba since 1932, it was not the location for the first celebration honouring Manitoba’s Icelandic immigrants. By 1890, the people of Icelandic descent then living in Winnipeg decided to hold a celebration, choosing August 2 as the date for their festival, which commemorates the day in 1874 that Iceland obtained home rule from Denmark.
A trip back in time to that first celebration reveals just how much the present-day festival has evolved, although some aspects of that day in 1890 have been retained.
“It will probably astonish most readers to be told that in Winnipeg alone there are about 3,000 Icelanders. In Manitoba and the N.W.T (North West Territories, which then included much of Manitoba and the area that became the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1905), upwards of 10,000, and in the United States probably 2,500,” reported the August 1, 1890, Winnipeg Tribune.
But despite their numbers and being the largest group of non-English-speaking immigrants, the Icelanders were struggling to maintain a sense of identity in the New World and overcome a lack of voice in the affairs of the province. The new festival was one way for their voice to be heard, according to Jon Olafsson, the editor of the Icelandic-language weekly, Logberg.
Eggert Johannsson, the editor of the Icelandic-language weekly, Heimskringla, thought Winnipeg was the ideal place to hold the celebration because Manitoba had the largest number of Icelandic immigrants in North America.
“The committee chose Victoria Gardens as the location for the celebration and mapped a parade route from the First Lutheran Church. Sports events, such as track-and-field competitions and Icelandic Wrestling, were organized and prizes purchased for the winners. The Icelandic Choir volunteered to sing at the park and the Infantry School Band was hired” (Islendingadagurinn: An Illustrated History, by Jonas Thor, illustrated by Terry Tergesen).
Among those invited to attend were Premier Thomas Greenway, members of his cabinet and Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor John Schultz. Also in attendance as invited guests were U.S. Consul James Wicks Taylor, German Consul William Hespeler (he was instrumental in bringing the first Mennonite settlers to Manitoba in 1874), and MP William Bain Scarth.
“The program was to include toasts to Iceland, to North America, to guests of honour, and to Icelandic immigrants,” wrote Jonas Thor in his book, Icelanders in North America: The First Settlers. “This program, which in many ways was based on the 1874 Milwaukee celebration, set a high standard for future celebrations. Both Icelandic weeklies in Manitoba repeatedly encouraged people to attend ...”
On the day before the celebration , heavy rainfall turned the city’s streets into seas of mud and it looked like the first such event to be held in Canada would have to be cancelled, but on Saturday morning, the clouds parted and the sun shone forth.
At Nena Street (now Victor), south of First Lutheran Church, the Icelanders gathered, and at 10:30 p.m., the parade commenced led by The Infantry School Band, followed by four men in traditional Icelandic costume, carrying flags, and other men, women and children, many of whom rode in carriages because of the terrible street conditions. The parade wound its way east on Ross Street, south on Isabel, east on Notre Dame, north on Main Street, and then east on Rupert Avenue to Victoria Gardens.
“With regard to size,” reported the Tribune on August 4, “it was one of the most considerable that has yet paraded the streets of Winnipeg, and we cannot recollect any similar gathering in this country which has equalled it with general appearance in thrift, intelligence and good order.”
Once the parade arrived at Victory Gardens Park, the games and sports event got underway.
In the afternoon, the Infantry School Band began the ceremony by playing what became the Icelandic national anthem, The God of Our Land. The Icelandic Choir then sang traditional songs.
Speeches followed by Gestur Palsson, Rev. Hafsteinn Pjetursson, and Rev. Fridrik Bergmann, as well as poetry readings, a literary tradition brought over from Iceland. The various toasts were then made, but the entire program was not to be finished since rain begin to fall and no indoor facilities were available. Some sports events were not completed and an outdoor dance scheduled for the evening had to be cancelled.
Following the festival, local dailies praised the contributions of the Icelanders to the province.
“We in the Northwest have no better immigrant,” declared the Manitoba Free Press. “They have a remarkable aptitude for adapting themselves to changing conditions ...,” added the Tribune. “The rapidity with which they acquire a fluency in the use of the English language is simply marvelous. This is no doubt largely due to the fact in the vast majority of cases the Icelanders ... are a highly educated people.”
Today, a traditional program similar to that of 1890 remains a important part of the Icelandic Festival, but the number of other activities for all ages has been significantly expanded in scope to fill four full days. No one living in 1890 would recognize beach volleyball or Fris-Nok, among many other present-day activities.