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Faces of the Icelandic community

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Hans Petur Tergesen

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Hans Petur Tergesen

Hans Petur Tergesen

He was born in Iceland in 1863 and came to Canada as an adult to work in the tinsmithing trade in 1886. He moved to Gimli 12 years later and opened a general store, which became one of the best-stocked shops in the province by the 1920s, selling groceries, hardware and general merchandise. He was a town councillor and later served as Gimli’s mayor from 1911 to 1913, and again from 1919 to 1923. The store, which has been designated a provincial heritage site, is still there more than 100 years later and is managed by the same family. He died in 1954.


Arinbjorn Sigurgeirsson Bardal

He was born in Iceland in 1866 and came to Canada as an adult to work on a construction crew with CP Rail. He started a transport business and branched out into taxicabs and ambulances. He sold that business and started a funeral home business, A.S. Bardal Funeral Directors, which still operates on Sherbrook Street. He was elected a councillor in the RM of North Kildonan in 1926. He died in 1951.


Paul Bardal

He was born in 1889 in Winnipeg to Icelandic immigrants. He became the director of A.S. Bardal Funeral Directors and was elected a Winnipeg alderman in 1931, serving for 10 years. He served as a Liberal-Progressive MLA for two terms, from 1941 to 1945 and then from 1949 to 1953. He died in 1966.


Neil Bardal

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Neil Bardal

Neil Bardal

He was a third-generation funeral director. After selling his controlling interest in the family funeral home on Sherbrook Street, he founded Neil Bardal Inc., a new funeral home, in 1980. He was president of the Rotary Club of Winnipeg. For many years he was honorary consul for Iceland in Manitoba. He was recognized with Iceland’s Order of the Falcon in 2000 and was inducted into the Order of Manitoba in 2006. He died in 2010.


Gunnar Thorvaldson

He was born in Riverton in 1901. His father was Sveinn Thorvaldson, a Conservative MLA from 1914 to 1915. He was a lawyer who became president of the Income Tax Payer’s Association from 1944 to 1946. He served as a Conservative MLA from 1941 to 1949, until resigning to unsuccessfully run in a federal election. He became the first lawyer to serve as president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in 1954 and was appointed by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to the Senate in 1958. He was president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada from 1959 to 1964. He was awarded the Order of the Falcon from the President of Iceland in 1968. He died in 1969.


William Dempsey (W.D.) Valgardson

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William Dempsey (W.D.) Valgardson

William Dempsey (W.D.) Valgardson

He was born in Winnipeg and raised in Gimli. He is a Canadian author. He has been a professor of writing at the University of Victoria and English professor at Cottey College in Missouri. He has received several writing awards including the Books in Canada First Novel Award for Gentle Sinners. He has also written The Girl with the Botticelli Face and What The Bear Said: Skald tales from New Iceland.



Paul Thorlakson

He was born in North Dakota in 1895 and grew up in Selkirk. He was a medical sergeant during the First World War and received his medical degree in 1919. He co-founded the Maclean-Thorlakson clinic in 1938, later renamed the Winnipeg Clinic, one of the country’s first multi-specialty private group clinics in the country. He was elected chancellor of the University of Winnipeg in 1969 and held the post for nine years. He was named to the Order of Canada in 1970 and named Knight of the Order of the Falcon in 1939. He died in 1989.


William Stephenson

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William Stephenson (CP)

William Stephenson

Born in 1897 to an Icelandic mother, he was later adopted by an Icelandic family and given the surname Stephenson. He became a flying ace during the First World War, shooting down 12 planes before being shot down himself. He was a prisoner of war and escaped. After the war, he went into business with another man and patented a system for transmitting photographic images via wireless. During the Second World War, he was sent by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to run the British Security Co-ordination in the U.S. His wartime intelligence code name was Intrepid, and he was, in part, the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond character. He was knighted by King George VI in 1945, and received the Medal of Merit, the country’s highest U.S. civilian award at the time, from President Harry Truman in 1946. He was named to the Order of Canada in 1979. He died in 1989.


Vilhjalmur Stefansson

He was born in Arnes in 1879, but grew up in North Dakota after his family moved there. He was born William Stephenson, but changed his name to Vilhjalmur Stefansson during his college years. He studied anthropology at Harvard University and made archeological trips to Iceland in 1904 and 1905. He was a proponent that Arctic explorers could live off the land like the Inuit, and he lived with the Inuit during the winter of 1906-07. He did an ethnological survey of the Central Arctic coasts from 1908 to 1912. A statue commemorates him in Arnes. He died in 1962.


Baldur Stefansson

He was born in Vestfold in 1917. He served in the Second World War and received his agricultural degrees from the University of Manitoba. He worked to develop a variety of canola seed that could be used as an edible oil, becoming known as the Father of Canola. He was named to the Order of Canada in 1985 and the Order of Manitoba and Iceland’s Order of the Falcon in 2000. He was inducted into the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame in 2002. He died in 2002.


George Johnson

He was born in Winnipeg and received his medical degree from the University of Manitoba before serving in the Second World War. He was elected a Progressive Conservative MLA in 1958 and was appointed health minister, later helping to implement medicare. While education minister, he established the University of Winnipeg, Brandon University and the Manitoba Institute of Technology, which later became Red River College. He was appointed the province’s lieutenant-governor in 1986, serving until 1993. He was honoured with the Order of Canada in 1994 and the Icelandic Order of the Falcon in 1992. He died in 1995.


Janis Johnson

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Janis Johnson

Janis Johnson

She was born in Winnipeg; her father was George Johnson. She was a public affairs consultant. She was appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1990. She has been chairwoman of the Gimli Film Festival since it began in 2000. She was honoured with the Icelandic Order of the Falcon in 2000.


Frank Fredrickson

He was born in Iceland in 1895 then attended Kelvin Technical School and the University of Manitoba. He served in the First World War. He then joined the Winnipeg Falcons as centre and won the Allan Cup in 1920, before winning the first Olympic gold medal in hockey at the 1920 Olympics as the team’s captain. He later played for the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Pirates and the Detroit Falcons in the National Hockey League. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958. He died in 1979.


David Arnason

He was born in Gimli and went to the University of Manitoba and University of New Brunswick. He co-founded the Journal of Canadian Fiction in 1972. He is a co-founder of Queenston House Press, is an editor at Turnstone Press and chairman of the Literary Press Group. He has taught at the University of Manitoba since 1972 and was head of the English department from 1997 to 2006. He was written several books including Marsh Burning, The Pagan Wall, If Pigs Could Fly, and King Jerry.


Magnus Eliason

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Magnus Eliason

He was born near Arnes in 1911. He became interested in politics and was a founding member and organizer of the Co-operative Commonwealth Foundation that later became the New Democratic Party of Canada. He worked with J.S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas and Stanley Knowles. He was elected to Winnipeg’s city council in 1968 and except for two terms, he was re-elected councillor several times until he retired in 1989. He was honoured with Iceland’s Order of the Falcon, and for his support of preserving heritage buildings, he was given a Distinguished Service Award by Heritage Winnipeg. An inner-city community centre is named for him. He died in 2005.


Stefan Stefanson

He farmed with his father until going to work in the sheriff’s office in Winnipeg, rising to become the province’s chief sheriff. He served as president of the Icelandic National League of North America and received Iceland’s Order of the Falcon. He was reeve of the RM of Gimli from 1956 to 1960, and president of the Manitoba Farmers Union. He died in 2008.


Philip Petursson

He was born in Minnesota and moved to Winnipeg when he was nine. After graduating from the University of Chicago, he was called to become minister of All Souls Church in Winnipeg in 1929. He became minister of First Federated Church, later called the Unitarian Church of Winnipeg, in 1934, using English for morning services and Icelandic for evening services. He opened his pulpit for guests including J.S. Woodsworth. He was elected to the Winnipeg School Board in 1942, and as MLA from 1966 to 1977, serving as cultural affairs minister from 1969 to 1971. He was president of the Icelandic National League of North America and worked on amalgamating the city’s two Icelandic newspapers into one, Lögberg-Heimskringla. He was inducted into Iceland’s Order of the Falcon in 1952 and honoured with a Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee medal in 1977. He died in 1988.


Sigurbjorg Stefansson

She was born in North Dakota in 1897. She came to Canada with her parents in 1905 and grew up in Saskatchewan. She went to Wesley College and after graduation taught in a couple of communities before teaching in Gimli from 1923 to 1962. She helped establish libraries in Gimli, Arborg and Riverton and is responsible for creating the largest library of Icelandic books outside Iceland. It is housed in Gimli. She was honoured with life memberships in the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, the Manitoba Women’s Institute, the Manitoba Library Trustees Association and the Icelandic National League. A Gimli school was named in her honour. She died in 1985.


Sigtryggur Jónasson

He was born in Iceland in 1852 and came to Canada in 1872. The Ontario government appointed him an immigration agent to guide Icelanders to Kinmount in 1874, but because that settlement didn’t do well, the group moved to Gimli in 1875. He went to Iceland and recruited another 1,200 settlers. He helped write a constitution and legal code for the new settlement and founded Framfari. He was elected MLA for St. Andrew’s in 1896 to 1899, and again from 1908 to 1910. He wrote The Early Icelandic Settlements in Canada in 1901. He died in 1942, and is commemorated by plaques in Gimli and Riverton.


Bjorn Valdimar Arnason

He was born in Gimli in 1916 and became a butcher, owning Tip Top Meats there. He was a volunteer in the community and served on Gimli’s town council, the local chamber of commerce, the Lutheran Church council and the board of Johnson Memorial Hospital. He was the longest-serving member of the annual Icelandic Festival of Manitoba, volunteering for more than 50 years and served as president in 1970 and 1971. He died in 2009.


Guy Maddin

He is of Icelandic descent through his mother, whose last name was Eyolfson and whose own mother came from Iceland. He grew up in the Little Iceland area of Winnipeg near Sargent Avenue and Victor Street. He went to the University of Winnipeg, graduating with an economics degree. He joined the Winnipeg Film Group and released the short film The Dead Father and his first feature Tales from the Gimli Hospital in 1988. He has made several films since then including My Winnipeg, The Saddest Music in the World and Brand Upon the Brain! He has won several awards through his career including the U.S. National Society of Film Critics Award for best experimental film for Heart of the World, the Canada Council for the Arts Bell Award in Video Art for life achievement in the field, and an International Emmy for Best Performing Arts Show of 2002 for Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary.


Jon Thordarson

He began working in newspapers as a copy boy and finished his career as the Free Press photo editor. During his 40 years of award-winning photojournalism, he worked with the Winnipeg Tribune, Hamilton Spectator and Winnipeg Sun. He snapped the photo of Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg holding the Avco Cup above their heads and then snatched it from their hands before anyone else could take the same photograph. He died in 2010, and a photojournalism internship at the Free Press is named in his memory.


Tom Tryggvi Oleson

He studied archeology and anthropology at the University of Manitoba before switching gears and starting a lifelong journalism career at the Free Press, starting as a copy boy. He later became literary editor and finally a member of the editorial board in 1974 where he wrote editorials and columns. He was president of the Winnipeg Press Club in 1983. He also served as editor of Lögberg-Heimskringla, the Icelandic ethnic newspaper. He died earlier this year.


John K. Samson

He is a musician who played in the band Propagandhi before fronting the Canadian indie folk/rock band The Weakerthans. He is also on the board of the núna (now) festival.


Caelum Vatnsdal

He has been a filmmaker for 20 years. He created and directed award-winning films, documentaries and videos including the Gemini-nominated television documentary There’s Something Out There. He shared a Blizzard Award in 1999, for best script in a documentary for Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight. He wrote the book They Came From Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema, and Kino Delirium: The Films of Guy Maddin, for which he won the 2001 Carol Shields City of Winnipeg Book Award. He was also editor of the Icelandic ethnic newspaper, Lögberg-Heimskringla.


Kevin Marc Fournier

He is an author of books for young adults including Sandbag Shuffle, a winner of the McNally Robinson Award for best book for young readers, and the recently released The Green-Eyed Queen of Suicide City.


Freya Bjorg Olafson

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Freya Bjorg Olafson

Freya Bjorg Olafson

She is an inter-media artist/dancer who works with performance, audio, painting and video. She has performed locally, nationally and internationally. She studied classical dance for six years in the professional program of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Winnipeg/Winnipeg’s School of Contemporary Dancers.


Nelson Gerrard

He is a former high-school teacher who, as a sideline, researched the history of the province’s Icelandic community. He has amassed the largest collection of early photographs of Icelandic immigrants to North America and has exhibited them many times. He wrote the book Icelandic River Saga: A History of the Icelandic River and Isafold Settlements.


Birna Bjarnadottir

She is acting head of the Icelandic Language and Literary department at the University of Manitoba. She received her degrees and doctorate at the University of Iceland. She wrote A Book of Fragments, a collection of poetic fragments.


Ken Thorlakson

Son of the founder of the Winnipeg Clinic, he has worked there as a doctor. He has also been a legendary fundraiser, chairing fundraising campaigns that have saved several cultural and linguistic heritage institutions from folding, including the Icelandic Collection and the Icelandic Department at the University of Manitoba, and Lögberg-Heimskringla, the Icelandic ethnic newspaper. He has been inducted into the Order of Canada and has received Iceland’s Order of the Falcon.


Robert Thorlakson

He is also the son of the founder of the Winnipeg Clinic and the twin brother of Ken. He was a surgeon who devised many instruments for surgery. He also volunteered in the community, co-founding and serving as president of both the Manitoba Opera Association and the Manitoba Conservatory of Music and Arts. He also served as vice-president of the Winnipeg Art Gallery and on the boards of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Winnipeg Habitat for Humanity and the Aquatic Hall of Fame and Museum of Canada.


Atli Ásmundsson

He is the current, but soon to be former, Icelandic consul in Winnipeg. His term here has been extended because of his involvement in the community, including being instrumental in getting the núna (now) festival started.


Martha Brooks

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Martha Brooks (CP)

Martha Brooks

She is an award-winning author of books for young adults. She was born in Manitoba and grew up on the grounds of the Manitoba Sanatorium in Ninette where her father was a surgeon and her mother a nurse. Her book, True Confessions of a Heartless Girl, won the Governor General’s Award for English language children’s literature in 2002, and other books have been nominated. She has also won the Canadian Library Association Young Adult Book Award and the McNally Robinson Book for Young People Award. She is also a jazz singer whose Change of Heart album won the Prairie Music Awards outstanding jazz album in 2002.


Eric Stefanson

He was born in Gimli and practised as a chartered accountant in Winnipeg after attending the University of Manitoba. He was elected to city council from 1982 to 1989 and was finance committee chairman and deputy mayor. He was elected as a Tory MLA in the Filmon government in 1990 and served as industry minister, finance minister and health minister. He left politics in 2000, and in 2004, he was hired by BDO Dunwoody as a regional managing partner.


Kris Stefanson

He was born in Gimli and entered law school after graduation from the University of Manitoba. He articled and then worked in Winnipeg until joining a Brandon law firm in 1971. He became a Crown attorney in Thompson two years later, transferring to Winnipeg in 1974. He was appointed a provincial court judge in 1979, at the time, the only judge of Icelandic descent in the country. He became chief judge of the provincial court, before being appointed a Court of Queen’s Bench Justice in the family division.


Laura Goodman Salverson

She was born in Winnipeg in 1898, and grew up in a family that only spoke Icelandic. Later, after marriage, she started writing and published The Viking Heart in 1923. Her novel, Dark Weaver, won the Governor-General’s award for fiction in 1937, and her autobiography, The Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter, won the Governor-General’s award for non-fiction in 1940. She died in 1970.


Arne MacPherson

He is an actor. He was born in Saskatchewan and moved to Winnipeg in 1991. Since then, he has directed productions including The Threepenny Opera for the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Midsummer Night’s Dream for Shakespeare in the Ruins, and Romeo and Juliet for Manitoba Theatre for Young People. He has also acted, playing several roles, including the title role in Shakespeare’s Dog at RMTC.


Charlie Thorson

He was an artist who helped design many iconic animation characters. He was born in Winnipeg to Icelandic immigrants in 1890, and moved to Hollywood as an adult to join the Disney Studios as a character designer. Known as Cartoon Charlie, he is credited with creating the Snow White character based on a Winnipeg waitress he was sweet on, Kristin Solvadottir. He is also credited with creating other characters at Disney and then Warner Brothers, including Elmer the Safety Elephant, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. He also created Punkinhead, which was Eaton’s mascot in the 1950s. He died in 1967.


Peter Bjornson

He was a teacher in Gimli, honoured with a Governor General’s award for excellence in teaching Canadian history in 2000 and a Prime Minister’s medal in 2001. He was elected to Gimli town council in 1988 and served until 2002. He was elected to the provincial government in 2003 and has been re-elected twice. He has been the education minister and is currently the entrepreneurship, training and trade minister.


Ron Johnson

His father and maternal grandfather were born in Iceland, then immigrated to Canada.. He has been heavily involved in the local Icelandic community through the years, serving on the executive of Gimli’s Icelandic festival and he is currently president of the Icelandic Frón Club in Winnipeg.


Gunthora Gisladottir

She is an iconic figure in the local Icelandic community. Born in Iceland, she trained in Britain as a nurse. She came to Canada and later settled in Winnipeg, working as a nurse at the Health Sciences Centre. She participates in numerous fundraisers, usually with her vínarterta. Even at the age of 87, she makes so much of it, she must buy her flour in 25 lb. bags.


Judy Bradley

She was born to parents of Icelandic heritage and grew up in Gimli. She spent more than 30 years in education starting as a teacher in the Winnipeg School Division in 1968. In the St. James-Assiniboia School Division, she taught, was a department head and created an adult business education program. She became president of the St. James-Assinboia Teachers’ Association, then president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS). She began working for MTS and rose to be the organization’s first female general secretary, its highest management position, before retiring. The MTS building at Portage Avenue and Harcourt Street is named Bradley Square in her honour.


Sources: Winnipeg Free Press archives, Manitoba Historical Society, Wikipedia, personal and institutional websites.

Compiled by Kevin Rollason


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