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Manitoba History: Book Review: Ryan Eyford, White Settler Reserve: New Iceland and the Colonization of the Canadian West

by Kate MacFarlane
Parks Canada, Ottawa

Number 88, Winter 2018

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Ryan Eyford, White Settler Reserve: New Iceland and the Colonization of the Canadian West. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2016, 272 pages. ISBN 9780774831598, $32.95 (paperback)

On 21 October 1875, a group of Icelanders arrived to settle on the southwest shore of Lake Winnipeg, in the Interlake Region of what is now Manitoba. They called their new home Nýja Ísland (New Iceland). This reserve for Icelanders, established by Order-in-Council, was one of the earliest government colonization efforts in the Canadian Northwest. It was created to encourage a growing number of Icelandic immigrants to settle in the Northwest. New Iceland retained its reserve status until July 1897.

In the mid-19th century, a growing population and poor environmental and agricultural conditions spurred Icelandic immigration to North America. Between 1870 and 1914, some fifteen to twenty thousand Icelanders—roughly a quarter of the country’s population—left for North America, and more than eighty percent settled, at least initially, in Canada. Early settlers went to Ontario and Wisconsin but these settlement efforts were largely unsuccessful. Icelanders were considered desirable immigrants, and their mass emigration coincided with Canada’s aggressive campaign to entice immigrants from northern Europe. The Canadian government, keen to populate the Northwest, invited an Icelandic delegation comprised of agent John Taylor, Sigtryggur Jónasson and four other Icelanders to choose a site. Despite pre-existing and competing claims by local Indigenous groups (Cree, Ojibway and Métis people), the land was reserved and the first group of about 250 arrived in the late fall of 1875. In the late summer of 1876, a second, much larger (circa 1,000) group of settlers arrived.

The early history of the community was marked by hunger, crop failure and disease, most notably small pox. In 1878–1879, more than 50% of the original settlers left for Winnipeg or Dakota Territory. Flooding drove most of the rest to leave in 1880–1881, and by the time the reserve was opened up to non-Icelanders only twelve of the original settlers remained. Despite these challenges, from its inception through the first decade of the 20th century, New Iceland was an important destination for Icelandic immigrants and served as a mother colony that spawned other settlements in Canada and the United States.

This fascinating but still relatively unknown and little understood chapter in Canadian history is the focus of Ryan Eyford’s White Settler Reserve: New Iceland and the Colonization of the Canadian West. Essentially, the book examines the role of land reserves for European immigrants in the colonization process of the Canadian Northwest during the late 19th century. This practice of reserving land for various European ethno-religious groups was a significant plank in the government’s immigration and settlement platform. The Icelanders formed part of a patchwork of reserves, set aside for not just Europeans, but also Indigenous peoples, Métis and private interests such as the Hudson’s Bay Company and the railway. Eyford focuses on the specific example of New Iceland, in order “to explore the ideas, practices and processes that were integral to the building of a new Colonial society in the Canadian Northwest.” He also examines “the internal dynamics of colonization by detailing the Icelandic colonists’ relationship to the Indigenous people whom they displaced, to other settler groups, and to the Canadian government” (p. 8). The central problem, he finds, was “the uneasy fit between colonization reserves and the political, economic and cultural logic of nineteenth century liberalism” (p.8). In seven densely packed chapters, Eyford looks at New Iceland and its people; the context, structure, dynamics and impact of the reserve experience. He looks at the specific confluence of Icelandic mass migration and Canadian expansionism in the mid-1870s, focussing on the ways in which Canada’s immigration policies and practices reflected that era’s thinking about the relationship between race and nation building. He then looks more closely at the experience of the Icelandic colonists, their origins, demographic character, their motivation for leaving Iceland and their settlement patterns. A chapter focusses on the colourful, somewhat controversial and highly paternalistic figure of community leader John Taylor, who was “a convicted slave trader in Barbados, a Baptist missionary in Ontario, and a Canadian colonization agent in the Northwest” (p. 9). A chapter on the devastating impact of the smallpox epidemic of 1876–1877 on both the Lake Winnipeg Icelandic and Indigenous communities examines the ways in which government land administration and public health policies worsened the situation. Another chapter deals with the efforts of the Icelanders to govern themselves through the creation of a unique municipal system.

This system of government forms the core of a persistent myth in the literature on New Iceland: that during its first twelve years of existence it was a semi-autonomous state called “the Republic of New Iceland,” separate and distinct, with the stated goal of preserving the Icelanders’ language and cultural traditions within its borders. To some extent this was true, but most Icelanders envisioned a community in which they could preserve their language, religion, and cultural traditions while, at the same time, integrating with the larger economic and political structures of Anglo-Canadian society.

According to Eyford, this form of local government helped the Icelanders become citizens who aligned with the norms and assumptions of the liberal state, though some Canadian legislators were unwilling to grant them political rights before they had become property owners and naturalized British subjects. The Icelanders’ problems in converting their homestead claims into private property are the subject of the final chapter. Eyford explores how Ottawa attempted to use the loan it had granted to the Icelanders as leverage in an attempt to hold the colony together. In this drawn-out dispute, issues of indebtedness became entwined with personal liberty and citizenship.

When the Canadian government set aside the Icelandic reserve, hoping to attract further Icelandic immigration to the Northwest, it was not a unique experiment. Government policy of the day was designed to “rapidly augment the non-Aboriginal population of the Northwest with people who would help transform Indigenous lands into a settler-dominated agricultural empire” (p. 186). As Eyford notes, “Indigenous dispossession and the building of settler communities were fundamentally intertwined” (p. 186). His book highlights the early and ongoing interactions between the Icelanders and Indigenous peoples, beginning with the pre-existing land claims and including the devastating impact of smallpox, adding greater depth and context to the history of New Iceland and to the history of the settlement of the Canadian Northwest.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 25 April 2021

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