Manitoba town keeps Icelandic culture alive thanks to strong connection

Smack dab in the middle of Canada, on the shore of the picturesque and sometimes stormy Lake Winnipeg, sits a small
town with a very large concentration of people of Icelandic heritage.

People in Gimli and surrounding communities such as Riverton have worked to maintain Icelandic culture — the language, the music, the literature and more. Many can trace their roots back to the first wave of immigrants who fled poverty and volcanic eruptions in their home country and faced harsh winters and disease on a stretch of land that offered them the chance at decent farming and fishing.

The area offered to the new arrivals was just north of what was then the Manitoba boundary (before the province expanded). Now just an hour’s highway drive north of Winnipeg, the area was remote at the time and required travel by boat.

“I did have some ancestors come on the original journey in 1875,” Peter Bjornson says. Bjornson grew up in Gimli, sang in the Icelandic choir, taught at the local school, and later represented the area in the Manitoba legislature.

“My parents, even though they were born in Canada, both of them, their first language was Icelandic until they started attending school.”

The Icelandic culture is evident when you arrive in Gimli, a town of roughly 2,200 people with thousands more in the surrounding area.

A large statue of a Viking is a popular spot to take pictures and start a lake-front walking tour. Islendingadagurinn — the annual Icelandic Festival of Manitoba, held here every summer — brings the area’s rich heritage to life. And the New Iceland Heritage Museum, open year-round, tells the story of the area’s development.

“We have 3,500 artifacts that are donated by local families and families of immigrants that came. They’re all treasures,” says Julianna Roberts, the museum’s executive director.

The museum tells a story that will strike many descendants of immigrants as familiar. Small trunks filled with tools, clothes and a few personal items show evidence of people who had to flee their home country, bringing only what they could carry. Almost a quarter of Iceland’s population left between the 1870s and 1910s due to poverty and environmental devastation.

There are books too. Many of the families who fled were convinced they would never be able to return to Iceland, and made sure to bring along literature that could be passed on to future generations.

The museum also brings home the harsh conditions the new arrivals faced.

“They were on boats for two or three months, and then they came here to the … wilderness and had to literally hack their way and make a home for themselves,” Roberts says.

“They were of tough stock, for sure.”

Just a short walk from the museum, the town’s history is also told on the Gimli Seawall — a 300-metre long, two-metre high concrete structure painted with murals that show scenes starting with the region’s original Indigenous inhabitants and ending with modern-day events.

The Gimli Film Festival takes place on the picturesque beach. (Gimli Film Festival)

The lakeside location makes Gimli a popular tourist destination.

People from Winnipeg and elsewhere will drive up for the day, walk along the shore and sit in a restaurant where they can gaze out at the lake while dining.

The museum, the seawall, restaurants and a harbour filled with pleasure boats can all be reached in a very short walk from any parking spot near the waterfront. Every summer, an 11-metre movie screen is set up in the water for the Gimli Film Festival, the largest event of its kind in Manitoba.

You may hear Icelandic spoken as you stroll around the town. Town residents continue to study and practise it, and there are also visitors from Iceland who fly to Manitoba and see what became of the area dubbed New Iceland. There is a consular office in the same building that houses the museum.

“It’s been a two-way street, with the government of Iceland and people of Iceland visiting,” said Bjornson, who hosted choirs and other delegations from Iceland during his time as a cabinet minister.

Gimli has a small museum dedicated to the “Gimli Glider.” (CBC/The National)

If you go…

  • Gimli is 90 kilometres north of downtown Winnipeg along Highway 9.
  • The New Iceland Heritage Museum is open Monday to Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
  • Gimli also has a small museum dedicated to the “Gimli Glider” — an Air Canada Boeing 767 that ran our of fuel while in the air in 1983 and whose pilot managed to coast to a safe landing on an abandoned air strip in the town.