In mid-April, I packed my car and headed south. At home, there was still enough snow to Ski-doo. For several hours I drove through intermittent garbage weather (snow in the north and sleet or rain in the south).
For two days, I stayed with Leeann Minogue’s family near Griffin, Sask. While there I visited the South East Research Farm for a Country Guide story, and Ceres’ Northgate Terminal for Grainews. Watch for those stories in the future.
After, I headed to Winnipeg. I attended an Icelandic brunch at the Scandinavian Centre, and discovered that pickled herring is delicious. Pickled herring is a polarizing topic, so it’s good to know where one stands.
Then it was north, to Lake Winnipeg. I researched the history of Icelandic settlers in the Gimli area for a new novel. In late October, 1875, about 325 Icelanders landed just south of Gimli with ragged Hudson Bay tents and stoves for shelter. Once there, they hurriedly built houses for the winter. There were many families, and children in this group.
Why would they undertake such a trip in late October? Some stayed in Winnipeg — mostly single women who found work as domestic servants. But there wasn’t much employment available.
Immigration officials urged the women and children to stay behind. That would have meant staying in the immigration sheds, and as the name implies, those sheds weren’t exactly winterized. They also would have been cut off from their husbands and fathers for several months. I haven’t read anything that explicitly states this, but I imagine that women and children living in immigration sheds would have been vulnerable to predatory types.
So they all chose to head up the lake.
No strangers to hardship
These Icelanders were no strangers to hardship. Before arriving in Winnipeg, they’d lived in Kinmount, Ontario. There they suffered through unemployment, overcrowded housing, hunger, and sickness that killed many of the children.
Why did they leave Iceland in the first place? Reasons included an earthquake, poor economic conditions, poor fishing, unusually cold weather that resulted in poor pasture, a massive sheep die-off. The poor risked becoming wards of the state. From there, they might be bid on, and become indentured farm workers. This process often split families.
There was also worry about volcanic eruptions. In fact not long after the Kinmount group left Iceland, Askja erupted, triggering mass emigration.
Things didn’t exactly go smoothly in Gimli, either. The first winter was hard, and about 35 Icelanders died. The next year, another huge group of Icelanders settled in the area. But the newest settlers likely brought small pox. By the fall of 1876, small pox was raging through their communities, killing 102 Icelanders. The whole area suffered under a quarantine that dragged into the next summer, long after the disease had run its course.
It also devastated First Nations families in the area, killing all but 16 of the 60 members of the Sandy Bar band. Particularly poignant is the story of the Ramsays. John and Betsey Ramsay had lost their summer camp when the government gave the land to the Icelanders. Yet they built relationships with the Icelandic settlers.
Betsey Ramsay and most of their children died of smallpox. Only John and his daughter Mary survived. John Ramsay was then hired to drive Dr. Lynch to other settlements all through the winter, until the disease had subsided. Afterwards he bought a marble headstone for Betsey’s grave.
An Icelandic family still maintains Betsey’s grave, which is on private land.
There was no shortage of suffering in the 1870s, whether you were in Iceland or Canada. While people still suffer today, there have been some improvements in both countries. For example, I don’t think Iceland gives away wards of the state as indentured labourers today.
Seasons change, too. I was in Gimli for a week. By the time I left, the ice on the lake had gone from solid white to a blue-grey colour, with the texture of rippled glass. At home, the Ski-doos are gone and the fields are drying. Soon we’ll all be cutting grass and watching crops grow.