Icelanders in Alberta

In the late 19th century, the Canadian government tried to attract immigrants from Britain and western Europe, but at first was met with only marginal success. Like other groups, Icelanders settled in Wisconsin and then Dakota Territory beginning in the 1870s. However, by the late 1880s drought, prairie fires, and a severe economic depression were the catalysts that spurred the Icelanders to seek their fortune in the Canadian west. In 1888, the first wave of Icelanders settled west of what is now Red Deer, Alberta. The next year, another group from Dakota Territory arrived and settled slightly north of the original settlement. The first settlement was named Tindastoll after a mountain in northern Iceland and the second settlement was named Rola meaning many hills. Neither developed into a village.

It was the Canadian government establishing a government creamery in the district that led to the establishment of the Icelandic village of Markerville. The trade generated by the government creamery prompted a number of local west Icelanders to establish businesses nearby. The Icelanders named their village Markerville in honour of C.P. Marker, the dairy commissioner, whose faith in the area and in the Icelanders had led to the establishment of the creamery. In its heyday, Markerville had a population of 100 people.

The Icelanders were able to fulfill their desire to maintain as much of their language and culture for as long as possible, and the district was able to maintain its distinctive Icelandic flavour until the 1970s. It was only then, for example, that the ladies’ aid society, Vonin (hope), which had conducted all its meetings in Icelandic since its founding in 1891, was forced to adopt English as it working language.

Icelandic culture is very much expressed through the Icelandic language, the sagas and versifying. As long as the language is used, sagas recited and poetry recited, Icelandic culture remains alive. A newspaper out of Winnipeg, Logberg-Heimskringla, while now in English reports on west Icelander activities as well as news from “home”.

One person who exemplified the Icelanders’ tenacity in maintaining language and culture was Stephan G. Stephansson who arrived from Dakota Territory in 1889. If farming was his vocation, versifying was his avocation. Given the demands of homesteading, it is remarkable that Stephansson found time to compose a body of poetry that eventually filled six volumes that he entitled Andvokur (Sleepless Nights). Fiercely proud of his Icelandic heritage, Stephansson eulogized his homeland in countless verses while at the same time waxing eloquently about his adopted land. He was also an outspoken critic of the Icelandic Lutheran Church and, as a pacifist, of the Boer and the First World Wars. His fame as a poet grew and in 1917 the people of Iceland collected money so that he could return to Iceland for a four-month reading tour. While there, he was praised as Iceland’s best poet since the 13th century. Because he wrote virtually all his poetry in Icelandic, Stephansson is not well known among Canadians. His poetry, though, continues to be studied by schoolchildren in Iceland. His home was designated a Provincial Historic Resource in 1978 and the National Sites and Monument Board erected a plaque in Markerville on the centenary of his birth in 1953. Members of the Icelandic Farmers Union make the pilgrimage to the poet’s home every summer. Stephansson died in 1927. His grandson is Steve Benediktson.

Over the years, Icelanders from other settlements and even directly from Iceland moved to the Tindastoll-Hola district. Today, the district is proud of its Icelandic heritage although the cohesiveness of the community has changed as other groups such as the Hutterites have bought land and moved into the district. Icelandic communities in Edmonton and Calgary have formed their own dynamic clubs that follow traditional celebrations such as Thorrablot. All three clubs get together in Markerville on the weekend closest to the 17 June to celebrate Icelandic National Day. The celebrations include a programme at the community centre, Fensala Hall, where the entertainment includes the crowning of the Fjallkona. The Icelandic communities in western Canada maintain close ties with Iceland through two honourary consuls, one in Edmonton and one in Calgary; the Snorri program; and the Icelandic National League of North America.