by Bruce Cherney
Sometimes the turn of an ill-advised phrase can have a detrimental impact on the historical record if it is picked up and repeated over and over again.
One such phrase was uttered a few decades ago and though a myth has become part of the history of New Iceland, the Manitoba colony created by the Canadian government and settled by Icelanders in 1875. Writer Steina Sommerville (nee Stefansson) came up with the phrase “The 12-year Republic” to describe the colony’s experiment in democratic government.
“The absolutely erroneous and often-repeated claim that New Iceland was a ‘republic’ is not only entirely without basis in fact, it is a flagrant misrepresentation of both the intent of those involved and of the historical context of these events,” wrote writer Nelson Gerrard in the August 1, 2007, Lögberg-Heimskringla article New Iceland: The Cradle of Canadian Multiculturalism.
“Try to imagine, for a moment, the Canadian government allowing — let alone facilitating and financially supporting — the formation of a foreign national (Icelandic) state (i.e. ‘republic’) within the very bosom of Canada just a few years after the violent 1869 insurrection when Louis Riel had declared a ‘New Nation’ in what subsequently became the province of Manitoba,” Gerrard added in the Winnipeg-based publication.
Gerrard is the author of several books on New Iceland, including the Icelandic River Saga.
I have been guilty in the past of
repeating the “republic” phrase, though I have also correctly pointed out Canadian documents from the 1870s only referred to New Iceland, Keewatin District, North West Territories, Canada; thus, there can be no illusion that the settlement was not within the jurisdiction of the Canadian nation.
When founded in 1875, New Iceland, which is historically also called the “Icelandic Reserve,” was outside the then borders of the province and did not become part of Manitoba until 1881 when the provincial boundaries were expanded by the Canadian government.
While it can be easily argued that using the word “violent” to describe the Red River resistance of 1869-70 is a misnomer — though the Metis and opposition Canadian Party were armed, the violence was minimal — there can be no such argument in support of the claim of republic status for New Iceland.
A September 29, 1877, a Manitoba Free Press report on a federal government inspection tour of the Icelandic colony pointed out that the settlers “are thoroughly — aye, enthusiastically — loyal, and already truly Canadian in all their thoughts and aspirations.”
The Icelanders had no intention of setting up a “republic.” Instead, they sought a better life for themselves in the New World after fleeing Iceland to escape natural disaster (volcanic eruptions) and grinding poverty. The first Icelanders had originally come to Kinmount, Ontario, but the land was poor so a decision was reached to investigate the potential for a new colony in the West.
Icelandic colonization in Canada was supported by Lord Dufferin, Frederick Temple Blackwood, the governor general of Canada from 1872 to 1878, who had, in 1856, with his wife Ava, visited Iceland. He wrote about his visit in Letters from High Latitudes, published in Canada in 1873.
Through his efforts, the Canadian government gave the Icelanders
financial support for the establishment of an “Icelandic Reserve” along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg. This was a continuation of Ottawa’s policy for Western settlement first used in 1874 to bring Mennonites to southern Manitoba — individual groups (religious like the Mennonites or national like the Icelanders) received large tracts of land “reserved” specifically for their use.
John Taylor, an Ontarian, also
deserves to be mentioned as a promoter of the Icelandic settlement in the West. In recognition of his efforts on behalf of the Icelanders, Taylor was appointed by Ottawa to be its business agent in New Iceland.
A delegation from Kinmount had come to Manitoba in the summer of 1875 to investigate the prospects for a settlement. They subsequently published the report N´ya Ísland í Kanada (New Iceland in Canada), promoting a colony along Lake Winnipeg which was printed in Ottawa and later circulated in Iceland by the Canadian government.
As the central location of the new settlement, the delegates had actually selected a spot along the Icelandic River (then White Mud River), but poor weather intervened and they were forced to end their northward journey short of their original goal.
On October 21, 1875, the first colonists arrived at Willow Point to establish the new settlement. Shortly after their arrival, the settlers relocated to the present site of Gimli, a couple of kilometres to the north and translated from Icelandic as “Home of the Gods” or “Heavenly Abode.” Gimli became the central Icelandic community in Manitoba.
While New Iceland was solely to be settled by Icelanders, this in itself did not necessitate the establishment of a republic.
The only self-proclaimed “republic” created in Manitoba history was by Thomas Spence in 1868 at Portage la Prairie in protest against the powers of the Hudson’s Bay Company which then controlled the vast northwest. The “Republic of Manitobah” ended in gunfire during a so-called treason trial when Spence uttered: “For God’s sake men, don’t fire. I have a wife and family.” The brief “republic” had come to an inglorious end.
What has perhaps confused writers who use the phrase the “12-year Republic” is the “constitution” established to govern New Iceland.
“Its ‘constitution’ — though a remarkable document in the annals of Canadian history — was in actuality a set of bylaws for local government, similar to those of a municipality or LGD (local government district),” wrote Gerrard.
Even the Free Press report on the government officials’ visit in 1877, said the settler had a “municipal system” of government. Such a municipal system would have been familiar to the Icelanders as a result of their stay in Ontario. In fact, the overall municipal system used in Manitoba resulted from a massive influx of settlers from Ontario in the 1870s who imposed their views of local government formation.
“New Iceland was a state with
its own constitution, laws, and
government, even its own language and distinct nationality,” wrote Knut Gjersett in his book History of Iceland. “No other people than Icelanders were supposed to settle within its borders. But in all except local matters it remained under the authority of the Canadian government.”
The constitution of New Iceland is indeed a remarkable document and deserves special mention when writing about the settlement, though not in the context of forming a republic on Canadian soil.
Two public meetings were held in 1877 — one in Riverton and the other in Gimli — where two committees of five men were chosen to draw up a set of bylaws to govern the colony. Each committee drew up its own bylaws which were then consolidated into one set of regulations to form a constitution.
The constitution came into effect when it appeared in the Framfari (Progress) on January 14, 1878, which Sommerville erroneously claimed “made the colony virtually a republic” (Manitoba Historical Society article Early Icelandic Settlements in Canada, 1945).
Framfari was the settlement’s first newspaper with the first issue appearing on September 10, 1877.
Writing about the newspaper, the Free Press said it was “devoted to the dissemination of information respecting Canada in old Iceland, and of news respecting the old land in New Iceland ... It is a paper, the typographical appearance of which is nothing short of wonder, considering the circumstances under which it is produced, and which no doubt does credit to the high reputation of the Icelandic race in a literacy respect ...”
New Iceland was divided into four districts: Vídinesbygd (Willow Point District, now Gimli area), Árnesbygd (Arnes District), Fljótsbygd (Icelandic River Ditrict, now Riverton area), and Mikleyjarbygd (Big
Island District, now Hecla Island).
The New Island assembly was called Vatnsthing.
Any man 18 years old and over was entitled to vote, while office could only be held by those who “have an unblemished reputation” and were 21 or older.
“We must consider that we have equal rights with the other subjects of the state,” commented the Framfari when it published the constitution document. “And that not only do we have the right to govern ourselves locally, but that soon we will have the opportunity to share in common the problems affecting Keewatin, as well as the common problems affecting the state as a whole. We hope that our best and ablest men will not draw back, but will consider it their duty to use their abilities for the common good.”
Woman’s suffrage had not then been adopted — although it should be noted that Icelandic women played a major role in Manitoba’s suffragette movement which brought women the provincial vote in 1916.
Elections were held once a year and individuals were allowed to run for re-election.
Each region elected a five-man district committee, two conciliators and one vice-conciliator.
Each district committee elected a chairman called the district-governor and a district vice-governor.
All the district committee members were required to elect a governor of the regional council who
with the four district governors (reeves) was to form a regional council. The position of regional governor was reserved for “only that Icelander who is well-versed in English, and who is domiciled in the settlement.”
The first regional governor was Sigtryggur Jonasson, who is often referred to as the “Father of New Iceland.” Jonasson had been appointed by the Canadian government as a commissioner in the colony and along with Taylor was charged to distribute the $80,000 loan from Ottawa used to purchase food, cattle, etc., needed to create a new settlement.
Taxation was limited to 25 cents paid annually by each person eligible to vote.
New Iceland basically operated under a tithe system with each man obliged to annually provide the local government with 10 hours of labour for two days or $2 annually for road projects.
Each district was expected to provide the central government with records of births, deaths, marriages, financial and industrial conditions and development, and to provide material for a census of the whole region.
Social services were also integrated into the constitution. Provisions were made for widows, orphans and those unable to work, as well as providing advisors and guardians for widows and orphans, and to look out for the interests of an estate left without a competent
Provisions were also made to ensure that sanitary and healthy conditions existed in the colony. This was important to the colonists since they had in the winter of 1876-77 endured a smallpox epidemic that had ravaged New Iceland and taken the lives of 102 of approximately 1,300 settlers. Until the epidemic had run its course in the spring of 1877, New Iceland had been placed under quarantine by the lieutenant-governor of Manitoba wgo was then also in charge of the North West Territories.
The constitution also made allowances for a dispute settling mechanism. Conciliators met with the two aggrieved parties. If they failed to arrive at a settlement, an appeal could be made to a five-member arbitration board, consisting of the regional governor and two representatives from each of the two aggrieved parties.
When Lord Dufferin and his wife visited New Iceland on September 14, 1877, Gimli’s lakefront was adorned with a nine-metre (30-foot) spruce archway sporting a Union Jack, with one side welcoming the Canadian governor general (Icelandic word used was Velkominn) and the other proclaiming “God Save the Queen.”
“We have gathered under the flag of our new land, and as British subjects ... We accept gladly our new way of life as British subjects with the opportunity to acquire all the freedoms and rights which pertain thereto ...” said Fridjon Fridriksson, the vice-regional governor of New Iceland during the ceremony greeting Lord Dufferin. “We are prepared to do our share in the maintenance of public order, and in defence of our country, to perform the duties which England expects of every citizen.”
Gerrard said Fridricksson’s words do short work to any conclusion being reached that New Iceland was some sort of “banana republic.”
“Furthermore these words of 130 years ago put to shame the claims of anyone today — whether out of misinformation or disregard for truth — that New Iceland was founded with either naive or subversive intentions of appropriating Canadian soil as an Icelandic ‘republic.’”
Lord Dufferin’s speech at the time also emphasized that the “sons and daughters of Icelanders” were “now citizens of Canada, and subjects of Her Majesty, the Queen ...
“I have pledged my personal credit to my Canadian friends on the successive development of your settlement ... It will be universally acknowledged that a more valuable accession to the intelligence, patriotism, loyalty, industry, and strength of the country has never been introduced into the Dominion.”
The Free Press article about the government official’s visit a few days after the governor general’s, said English was rapidly being spoken in the colony, especially among the young.
“Nearly all the young men and women with whom the Ministers met not only understood and spoke the language well, but had the most perfect command of choice expressions and ornate English, appreciating every shade of meaning with a readiness shown by very few to whom it is a native tongue.”
Perhaps the best summation of Canadian nationalism overtaking the Icelandic settlers came during
a toast given by J.J. Bildfell during the annual Islendingadagurrin (Day of the Icelanders) celebration at
the height of the First World War. The festival held annually in Gimli, which celebrated its 108th anniversary this year and is held during the August long weekend, retains the tradition of toasts to Canada and
He said: “We, who were not born in this country call ourselves Icelanders when asked, but our representation in the war as Canadians shows our loyalty to Canada, our determination never to forget how well we were received and how good our new country has been to us.”
The phrase “12-year Republic” is a myth, which Steinn O. Thompson (1893-1972), a Riverton doctor and MLA for Gimli riding, dismissed by stating the intention of Sigtryggur Jonasson, the “Father of New Iceland,” was “plain and straight forward ... he had in mind the formation of some form of municipal government.”
In his book, Riverton and the Icelandic River Settlement, compiled from his research and published after his death, Thompson called claims to the contrary a “distortion of the facts” and “an obvious absurdity” that “has gripped the attention of the reading public ... even though it rests on no foundation.”
Thompson said Jonasson appreciated the invitation extended to the Icelanders by Canada, and the desire was for the settlers to exercise the same “rights and privileges of native-born Canadians ...
“For anyone to have suggested that they would respond to such kindness (with) the brazen and insolent behaviour implied by their setting up a separate republic within the confines of Canada would have been an arrant insult to their intelligence and pride.”
Thompson said that it was surprising that the second and third generations have not challenged “those who would injure the reputation of their fathers.”