Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Icelandic ties still vibrant

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Recently I stood on the shores of the Icelandic River to celebrate the unveiling of a statue to honour Sigtryggur Jónasson, the Father of New Iceland. It was a tremendous celebration held in conjunction with the federal government's recognition of Jónasson as a Person of National Historic Significance. It was a wonderful celebration for the community of Riverton, for Canadians of Icelandic decent and a recognition of a part of our history.

We celebrated a leader who embodied the pioneer spirit and established a community that, in its 137 years, would become active in all sectors, contributing much to the fabric of our society.

Like many pioneer communities, N�ja Ísland (New Iceland) endured hardships and overcame obstacles to thrive and grow. The pioneers built a fishery, which today contributes more than $60 million to the economy. They worked side by side with Ukrainian immigrants to farm in the challenging environs of the Interlake. They were builders of winter roads and pioneers in northern bulk transportation.

Icelanders have participated in all political parties, and have been successfully elected to all levels of government, first represented in the legislature by Jónasson. Though Nellie McClung is the most famous of suffragists, a group of seven Icelandic women had been strong advocates for enfranchisement and played an important role to that end. Icelanders were quick to answer the call in both the First and Second World Wars.

A strong emphasis on education has resulted in academics, scientists, doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs who have contributed significantly. These innovators ranged from the inventor of canola, Baldur R. Stefansson, to the true Intrepid Sir William Stephenson. It is also important to note the impressive contributions of Icelandic authors, poets, artists and musicians. Many have read the works of Billy Valgardson or David Arnason, or listened to John K. Sampson or k d lang.

The connection to Iceland remains strong. Every year hundreds of Icelanders come to Manitoba to see their relatives. These deep connections fostered the establishment of the first honorary consulate in 1942 and the Icelandic consulate general in 1999. There are memorandums of understanding between Iceland and Manitoba on labour co-operation and hydrogen technology. Most recently, a committee to explore the Arctic Bridge and other areas of mutual interest has been established. It is my privilege to serve as the Manitoba chairman on this committee.

We recognize in provincial law the celebration of Jon Sigurdsson Day on the Manitoba legislature grounds every June 17, Iceland's Independence Day. We have gathered to celebrate Íslendingadagurinn every August long weekend for more than 120 years. We "walk to the rock" every Oct. 21 to pay tribute to the arrival of our ancestors in 1875.

This October, the weather was cold and miserable, with a north wind and a light rain. How fitting. It was the north wind that determined the colony would be established on the shores of Lake Winnipeg at what is now Gimli, rather than the original destination at the mouth of what is now the Icelandic River. Unfavourable conditions made the captain decide to cut the barges loose to drift ashore at Willow Island. Rather than proceed further north, the settlers decided to establish the first community there, welcoming the first baby born to the colony that very cold and windy October night.

The Icelandic community, the largest outside of Iceland, continues to thrive in Manitoba, which remains an important market for Icelandic goods and an important destination for Icelandic visitors who invariably feel they have "come home."

We have tremendous potential to explore new opportunities with Iceland as we have 137 years of successful relationships to build on. Like their ancestors in Manitoba today, Iceland has proven to be very resilient, hard-working and innovative. Our partnership can only continue to evolve and our ties will only get stronger.

Peter Bjornson is Manitoba's minister of Entrepreneurship, Training and Trade. He was born in Gimli Hospital.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 J6

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