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Westward ho!
Mar 06, 2009

What’s the difference between the years 1875 and 2009 in Manitoba? If you’re discussing Icelandic immigration to the province, there’s not really that much difference.

In 1875 and now in 2009 the potential for immigration to Manitoba by Icelanders is due to the economic conditions in their homeland. The Icelandic economy in 1875 was quite dismal as is the case this year.

In 1875, it was the Canadian government that helped mostly destitute Icelanders settle in this province. In 2009, it’s the Manitoba government seeking out Icelanders wanting to embark upon a new life in the “Promised Land.”

After Manitoba joined the Canadian Confederation in 1870, Icelanders were one of the first major overseas groups to settle in  the province. They were preceded only by Mennonites in 1874.

What drove the Icelanders from their homeland was a series of volcanic eruptions ending during the winter of 1874-75 in a great cataclysm. The Times of London reported the presence of famine brought on by the eruption, which was “in character and extent almost identical to an eruption that had occurred two years earlier and killed 14,000 (out of a population of 150,000) people ...

“A large number of the most prosperous country districts in the island were laid waste in the course of four hours ... by being covered with ... pumice and volcanic ashes. The inhabitants have had to fly for life, with their stock, into districts not yet affected.”

Eirik Magnusson, the author of The Times article, who was a sub-librarian at University College, Cambridge, said he received letters from his homeland saying that thousands of square kilometres of pasture had been destroyed and sheep, cattle and horses, which relied upon this fodder, began to starve.

The Manitoba Free Press wrote: “Every humane feeling and every hearty sympathy should be aroused among us, to assist to remove (them) speedily from their now overcrowded island, and a hearty welcome should be extended to them to settle among us ...”

Following the calamities, the Icelandic settlers of 1875 and the years immediately following were so hopeful that they would find a better life in Manitoba that they named their first community Gimli, which has been translated into English as “home of the gods” or “paradise.”

The residents of what was then known as New Iceland — an area along Lake Winnipeg from Boundary Creek near Winnipeg Beach to Hecla Island — eventually thrived and spread out to other communities across Manitoba and North America.

Although there has been no loss of life, the calamity of 2008 has tested the mettle of Icelanders and cast them into a perilous situation with some affinities to 1875. Manitoba Labour Minister Nancy Allan is now in Iceland on a trip to the island to recruit workers from among the 11,000 unemployed, but highly-skilled people, affected by the collapse of the nation’s economy and its three national banks. The unemployment figure may seem miniscule by North American standards, but the tiny North Atlantic island has a population of only 320,000 people and a labour force of just 150,000.

“As long as the system was working right and there were no bumps or slacking or loss of confidence. They (the banks) were doing fine,” Michael Corgan, an associate professor of international relations specializing in Iceland told the Boston University newspaper BU.  “But ... things went bad. The mortgage meltdown in the United States was like a volcanic eruption under the water, and there was a tsunami.”

It’s a good analogy since Iceland was formed as a result of volcanic activity, and what happened in the space of just 10 days was volcanic in its intensity. The Icelandic central bank issued a statement that jobs had “disappeared virtually in the blink of an eye ...”

The Krona, the national currency, lost half its value against other currencies and trading on the Krona was stopped.

It was 1875 all over again for the volcanic island of Iceland and its people.

Atli Asmundsson, Iceland’s consul general in Manitoba, told the media the North Atlantic nation’s unemployment rate up to the point of the economic eruption had been only one per cent. “Now after the economic collapse, there is massive unemployment,” he added in a Canadian Press report.

Iceland established a consulate in Manitoba due to the significant number of people who can claim Icelandic heritage. In the RM of Gimli alone, there are about 80,000 people of Icelandic descent. 

For that reason, Allen said it was a “no-brainer” to attempt to attract Icelandic workers to Manitoba.

Last month, the Manitoba government sent a letter to Asmundsson expressing its interest in working with the Icelandic government to secure skilled workers for the province. 

“We are in the process of going to Iceland to see of they can match what we need in Manitoba,” said Allen.

In January, Manitoba’s unemployment rate reported by Statistics Canada was just 4.6 per cent, the third lowest in Canada after Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The Manitoba Ministry of Labour is now processing and pre-screening employers who have demonstrated an interest in Icelandic workers. The employers must prove they have a labour shortage in a specific trade.

The Icelandic Directorate of Labour is identifying and pre-screening prospective candidates. Allen said the workers will be brought to the province as temporary foreign workers.

“But once they are here and working, they can also move to the PNP (Provincial Nominee Program) after six months. They can stay as landed immigrants, if they have a permanent job offer.”

If the Icelanders do come, it will probably not be in the same numbers as 1875 and the succeeding years, but it could be a reinforcement of the Icelandic presence in Manitoba — 1875 meets 2009.