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Manitoba bond with Iceland thriving

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For 137 years, Manitoba and Iceland have shared a bond as strong as volcano-forged steel, but the kinship began rather by chance. Icelandic settlers, fleeing areas of their mother country that were rapidly being covered in lava and ash, tried their luck in locations across eastern Canada, most particularly in Kinmount, Ont. But insufficient land was available there and conditions were such that children were getting sick and dying by the dozens. The group fled, and today there's not much evidence they were ever there aside from a commemorative plaque headed: The Icelandic Settlement Disaster.

The surviving Icelanders mostly headed west, and after a series of picaresque adventures more romantic in the retelling than in the actual experience, came to rest on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. Their point of arrival, on the beach a kilometre or two south of Gimli, is marked by a large, chalk-coloured boulder and by another plaque, somewhat less apocalyptic in tone than the one in Kinmount.

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There was much more death and privation to come for the Icelanders, though, and the new land was hostile in ways they'd never foreseen; but, if only because they hadn't the energy to find someplace new, they stayed and made a home of it. With grim Nordic optimism, if not much imagination, they named the region New Iceland.

All of this is fairly common knowledge in Iceland even today. Curiosity about the development of their departed brethren has only increased in the old country, in fact. Earlier this year, an Icelandic television crew was here investigating the ethnic connection, and they were only the most recent of many such forays. The foibles of Manitoba's Icelandic-blooded community, the strange parallel -- but very separate -- development that has occurred in the two communities during the past century-plus, are matters of much interest across the volcanic North Atlantic island.

For example: five years ago, a Manitoba academic, not himself of Icelandic descent, chanced upon a group of Icelandic students in Sussex, England. Upon learning he was from Manitoba, they immediately wanted to know his thoughts on the recent big election. The academic begged pardon: he wasn't up on his Icelandic politics. No, the students corrected him, they were speaking of the mayoral race in Gimli, which they'd been following avidly despite never even having been there.

What is at the root of this interest? Iceland is a small country, with barely half the population of Winnipeg, so to discover even a small and distant community of fellows is somewhat revelatory for them. It's a little like one of those dreams in which you discover a small door in your house you'd never noticed before and find it leads to a marvellous and exotic new suite of rooms.

The fascination runs both ways. North America's oldest ethnic newspaper, the Lgberg-Heimskringla (or L-H to those who, for some reason, are unable to pronounce the full name), is based here in Winnipeg, and reports not just on the doings of North America's Icelandic communities, but covers news from Iceland for consumption here. For many years the newspaper was the one thin strand of communication between the residents of Old and New Iceland, maintaining a connection even as the actual settlers grew old and passed on, and as their children did the same. The settlers' grandchildren are now elderly, and within not too many years there will be no one left with living, first-person memory of the original bond between Iceland and Manitoba.

It was for this reason that the extraordinary Icelandic consul in Manitoba, Atli Ásmundsson, created a new sort of bond, this one based on arts and culture rather than history and genealogy. The consul's creation is a wide-ranging annual festival called Núna -- "Núna" being the Icelandic word for "now" -- and since 2007 it has brought in dozens of world-class Icelandic musicians, filmmakers, authors, artists and dancers. The project has since expanded its mission and now sends Canadian artists across the North Atlantic to astound and delight Icelanders with their talents.

And after the 2008 financial meltdown, which briefly had Icelanders thinking about things other than their connection to the Keystone province, emigration from Iceland to Manitoba has begun anew. It's hardly on the scale of the original immigrations, but it's serving the same purpose: to further strengthen a bond between two dissimilar but amazingly compatible communities who were lucky to find one another in a perilously turbulent world.

Filmmaker and writer Caelum Vatnsdal was born in Winnipeg and has lived here for most of his life. He is a former editor of Lgberg-Heimskringla. Vatnsdal, has made numerous music videos and documentaries and some feature films, and is the author of Kino Delirium: The Films of Guy Maddin and They Came From Within: A History of Canadian Horror Movies. He is currently writing a biography of the actor Dick Miller and is developing a number of film projects.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 20, 2012 J1

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