/Icelandic Canadian Club plans celebration for Kinmount
Sigtryggur Jonasson was an immigration agent for the Ontario government. He was highly successful in redirecting Icelandic immigrants to Canada, away from the United States. /Submitted

Icelandic Canadian Club plans celebration for Kinmount

by Thomas Smith

On Saturday June 15, the Icelandic Canadian Club of Toronto is celebrating Icelandic National Day with their Icelandic National Day Picnic. The picnic will take place form 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the meeting place is the Austin Sawmill Heritage Park.

“We’re the Icelandic Canadian Club. One of the events that we all celebrate is the Icelandic Independence Day,” said Gwen Morgan, president of the Icelandic Canadian Club of Toronto. “In Iceland, it’s one of the biggest celebrations. This year is really, really special because 100 years ago in 1874, the largest group of Icelandic settlers arrived.”  

“Arriving in Quebec, there were around 164 people. This was in a time when the government was encouraging settlers to come here. At the time, they were actually shunned because they were considered different. They could not speak or read English. They were called ‘Goolies’ due to their fair complexion and blonde hair,” said Morgan.

Storms, summer snow, and frequent volcanic eruptions encouraged many Icelanders to leave in the late 19th century. The journey these Icelanders took getting to Canada was not an easy one. After leaving their lives behind, they had to sail to Scotland and then waited for months. In September 1874, around 375 Icelanders travelled aboard the steamer St.Patrick to Quebec. While the settlers initially planned to continue to the United States, they were convinced to stay in Canada.

“They arrived poor and needed to find work. They found work on the Victoria Railway Line. They wanted to extend the rail line to Kinmount.”

Local Kinmount historian Guy Scott remembers his great grandfather brought Icelanders from Coboconk to their work site.

“At the time, lumbering was still big in the area,” says Morgan. “Icelanders had families. These men had women and children with them. They lived in shanties over the winter.”

Illness began to spread through these new shantytowns, killing many children. Overcrowdedness, poor sanitation, and an unbalanced and strange diet was concluded to be the cause.

The winter also proved to be harsh to the new settlers. Around 38 Icelanders perished in the winter. Many of the gravesites are unknown to this day due to not being allowed to bury their dead in local churchyards.

In March of 1875, the Victoria Railway Company ran out of funds and left many Icelandic settlers without work. John Taylor, a missionary with the British Canadian Bible Society became aware of the plights the Icelandic settlers were facing. John Taylor was made expedition leader and along with Sigtryggur Jonasson, Einar Jonasson, Skapti Arason, and Kristjan Jonsson went to the Red River Valley in Manitoba. These lands reminded them of Iceland and with plentiful space and waters for them to survive on, most of the Icelandic settlers moved to Manitoba to an area that is now called Gimli. Gimli is named after Gimlé in Norse mythology, a place where those that survived Ragnarok live. A fitting name for the hardships faced by the settlers.

The Icelandic Settlement Disaster Memorial plaque was erected in 2000 to pay tribute to the early settlers. The Presence of Soul sculpture was done by Gundrun Sigursteinsdottir Girgis.

“Our event is outside of Toronto and further up,” said Morgan. “We still have three carloads of people coming for the event. A lot of people are coming from the Friends of Iceland Group from Ottawa,” said Morgan.

“It is a public event. We decided to hold the event in Kinmount and want people to show up. Mayne people will show up out of interest. It is such an incredible village, historically.”

Lindy Volpnfjord will be performing live music. In 200, helium balloons were released in remembrance of the children that perished, but there are plans to have a more environmentally friendly alternative this year.