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Like many other immigrants from Europe during the 1800s, Icelanders, for economic reasons, left their country for Canada. Although inhabited by only 70,000 people, their tiny North Atlantic island nation, one sixth the size of Alberta, could no longer support their booming population. Iceland’s landscape, with its volcanoes, geysers, and other forms of geothermal activity, means that only one percent of its land is suitable for farming. In the mid-1800s, a lack of farmland was exacerbated (made worse) by the fact farmers were primarily tenant farmers, paying rent to the Danish crown.
The first Icelanders to leave for North America settled in the northern United States in the 1850s. In 1873, a group of 165 was coming through Canada on its way to the United States. The Canadian government was trying encourage settlement of the Canadian West and was eager to entice Icelanders to stay. Because Icelanders, as northern Europeans, were seen as desirable, the Canadian government offered them free transportation from Quebec City and 200 free acres of land as incentive to settle in Canada. Of those 165 settlers, 115 took up the offer.
Although Icelanders originally settled in Muskoka, Ontario, this settlement did not last. Instead, the Icelanders continued west, stopping in Manitoba, north of Winnipeg. This community became known as New Iceland and from 1876 through 1887, it was the focal point of Icelandic immigration to Canada.
The location of New Iceland was chosen because it reminded the Icelanders of their homeland and offered them the chance both to fish and to raise livestock. Compared with Iceland, however, the new community had the distinct advantage of forests. In Iceland, the only source of wood was driftwood but Canada’s abundant trees were a source of both fuel and shelter. Icelanders hoped to establish a large Icelandic community where their culture and language could flourish.
It was not to be. The community, which numbered 1,500 in 1876, lost 100 members to a smallpox epidemic and another 100 to other causes, including malnutrition. Many left, moving to Saskatchewan or Winnipeg.
Icelandic settlement in Alberta began in 1888 when a group that had been living in North Dakota decided to move. The group chose a plot of land near the Red Deer River, about 130 kilometres north of Calgary. Originally known as Tindastoll, it was later renamed Markerville. Like the New Iceland settlement before it, Markerville was chosen because it provided the opportunity both to fishing and to raise livestock.
While these Icelandic pioneers had difficulty establishing themselves, Markerville was a more successful settlement than earlier communities. The fishing was good and their catch was dried for eating over winter. Sheep were raised for their meat and wool, and cows were milked. In fact, the small community established several cheese factories which eventually merged to form the Tindastoll Butter and Cheese Manufacturing Association. Because the soil ill-suited to the growing of vegetables, these first settlers relied on the native berries in the area.
By the time World War I broke out in 1914, over 16,000 Icelanders had immigrated to Canada and most were living east of Alberta. After this point, however, the influx of immigrants began to slow, largely due to a change in Iceland’s economy as a result of improvements in the country’s fishing industry. Consequently, few Icelanders were forced to seek better fortunes abroad.
Alberta’s Icelandic communities began to lose their Icelandic flavour. The lack of new immigration and the death of the original immigrants meant that most of the Icelanders had been born in Canada. Already minorities in their communities, they began to assimilate even more quickly.
Beginning in the 1930s, Icelanders began the process of urbanization. Both Calgary and Edmonton received an influx of migrants and became centres of Icelandic culture in Alberta. In both cities, cultural groups were organized and events, have been held, sometimes in conjunction with other Scandinavian groups.