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Opinion
Searching For New Iceland Part 1: Celebrating June 17 In Toronto

Searching For New Iceland Part 1: Celebrating June 17 In Toronto

Photos by
Valur Gunnarsson

Published June 23, 2015

Maybe it’s the friendliness of the bus driver, or perhaps just the scorching heat, but it’s pretty clear I’m not in Iceland anymore. Nevertheless, I shall do my utmost to pretend that I am. On the face of it, one would think that the best place to go to find a replica Iceland would be the Faroe Islands, or Northern Norway—but actually, the Great Plains of Canada is where a place called New Iceland was actually founded.

My first point of call is Toronto, Canada’s largest city and the capital of Ontario province. It was not far from here, in Kinmount, that the second group of Icelandic immigrants to Canada landed in 1874 (the first boatload of Icelandic would-be settlers arrived in Canada in Viking times, around the year 1000. However, due to a misunderstanding with the natives (something to do with an ox), they were forced to cancel their plans). The descendants of the second, more successful group of Icelandic settlers can still be found scattered across Canada. The largest settlement was in Manitoba, but around 300 families in Toronto claim Icelandic descent and belong to the Icelandic-Canadian Club.

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Toronto seems to be largely idiot proof, which is handy for the traveller. All the streets are set up in a rectangular grid so it’s almost impossible to get lost, and even the sinks have clear instructions on how to wash your hands. The locals turn out to be almost unnervingly friendly. Nordic peoples largely ignore each other while sober, whereas Americans are quick to say “Hello” and “How are you doing,” while avoiding any actual conversation. Canadians, however, are always willing to chat with strangers, which is actually rather nice once you get over the initial culture shock. 

Here comes the rain again

It’s beginning to feel a lot more like Iceland as I attend the 17th of June celebrations at Amos Waites Park. The event is held on the Sunday preceding Iceland’s Independence Day, which this year falls on the 14th.

No matter when or where you celebrate the 17th of June, it always seems to be accompanied by downpour. This tradition goes back all the way to 1944, when Iceland declared its independence at Þingvellir, as the rain poured down. Some of the celebrations had to be postponed.

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Our cousins, or Western-Icelanders as we call them, are of hardy stock, and the food and drinks are salvaged and brought underneath the bandstand. Of the 24 people attending, some are descendants of the original settlers, whereas others are new arrivals that have come to Toronto to study or, in some cases, as spouses of Canadians (some of whom in turn originally hail from Iceland).

Forever Young in the New World

A rather less Icelandic setting is to be found at the birthday party of Dorothy, a grand old dame of Icelandic descent who is turning 84. I am expecting about an hours worth of coffee and cake, but instead am confronted with roast beef, lamb and no end of wine. It all goes on well into the evening. Another attendant is Gail Einarsson-McCleery, honorary consul of Iceland. She is 76 and has a live-in Icelandic boyfriend who has been staying with her for the past four years. I am beginning to suspect that our cousins found the fountain of youth somewhere out west and aren’t letting the rest of us in on it.

A garden party might for most Icelanders conjure up images of ‘80s fusion wonders Mezzoforte, rather than, you know, an actual party in a garden, but over here you can actually enjoy that very thing. No wonder they never returned.

A well-known Western Icelander called Sturla Gunnarsson is among those present. I last met him at Vík í Mýrdal in 2004, when he was directing the film ‘Beowulf and Grendel’ starring Stellan Skarsgaard and a pre-300 Gerard Butler. The filming was marred by storms and, perhaps inevitably, Sturla’s newest film is called Monsoon.

Cakes, Viking Style

Another haunt for Icelanders in Toronto is the Viking Bakery on Danforth Avenue. This is run by Birgir Róbertsson, who moved to Manitoba soon after the economic collapse but has recently relocated to the city. He makes traditional Icelandic fare such as kringlur and snúðar and the famous Vínarterta, an Icelandic cake actually much more popular among the Western-Icelanders than it ever was back in the old country.

My final port of call is the Royal Ontario Museum. Here, I am met by one Donald Gíslason, a retired history teacher. He is deeply passionate about his subject and starts telling me about the limestone and brick buildings outside. Just as I am beginning to despair of ever getting into the museum, we enter and he brings me to the rather impressive collection of native (here called “first nations”) artefacts.

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Going Native

It turns out that the Icelanders and the natives actually got along well, much better than was usually the case with Europeans. He tells me a story of how a pregnant Icelandic woman, sick and likely to die from scurvy, was brought out to the natives under cover of darkness so that the English settlers wouldn’t notice. The natives managed to heal her and both mother and child survived, but it wasn’t until decades later, in 1945, that she admitted to being saved by the natives out of fear of being ostracised from the European settler community.

Donald is a fountain of wisdom, but to find out more about the largely forgotten history of the interactions between Icelanders and First Nations, we must venture deep into Manitoba, right into the heart of New Iceland.

It is here we will go next. 

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