Without question the single most important player in the great drama that began with the founding of New Iceland on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in 1875, Sigtryggur Jónasson - visionary leader, entrepreneur, statesman, and ‘Father of New Iceland’ – occupies a unique place in the history of the Icelandic people in Canada.
From humble beginnings as a farmboy in Northern Iceland, Sigtryggur rose by sheer initiative and ability to positions of power and distinction in this, his chosen land - Canadian Federal Agent, transport and lumber magnate, ship’s captain, editor and publisher, and Member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, to name a few. Perhaps the most unique of his honours, though, and the one closest to his heart in later years, was his community’s bestowal on him of the title ‘Father of New Iceland’.
Though not the scion of a privileged family in his homeland, Sigtryggur Jónasson was of stalwart and gifted farmfolk whose ancestors numbered many outstanding individuals. One of his best-known cousins was Iceland’s poet laureate Jónas Hallgrímsson, who penned the famous words “Hvað er svo glatt, sem góðra vina fundur...” Born on the farm of Bakki in Öxnadalur on Feb. 8, 1852, Sigtryggur was provided with a good upbringing and home education by his parents, Jónas Sigurðsson and Helga Egilsdóttir, and as a lad he entered the service of Governor Pétur Havstein at Moðruvellir near Akureyri, where he gained some formal training and much valuable experience as the Governor’s clerk. Iceland’s narrow valleys and the economic and political climate of the day became too confining for young Sigtryggur’s widening horizons, however, and in 1872 he left his homeland at age 20, travelling via Scotland to Canada - the first Icelander to settle permanently in this country.
Within two years, while working in Ontario, Sigtryggur had mastered the English language and the ways of this country, and through a successful logging venture he also gained considerable experience as an entrepreneur. The flow of immigration to Canada from Iceland began in 1873, and through unselfish efforts to assist his countrymen in Ontario, Sigtryggur found himself cast in the role of interpreter and government agent. In 1875 he was elected to a delegation entrusted with selecting a site for Icelandic settlement in Canada’s West, and later that same year he played a major role in having the tract of wilderness on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg formally designated ‘New Iceland’.
As this area was then part of the Northwest Territories, beyond the boundaries of ‘The Postage Stamp Province’ of Manitoba, ‘New Iceland’ fell directly under the jurisdiction of Ottawa and required its own local government. A constitution for ‘New Iceland’ was thus drafted, four administrative districts were created, elections were held, and a full-fledged council called the Vatnsthing (Lake Assembly) was formed, with Sigtryggur Jonasson as ‘President’. This honour, indicative of the leadership he showed and the respect he earned, was his for the most part as long as New Iceland’s government endured, and it was a position he filled unofficially for years afterward, both as the economic benefactor of the settlement during its darkest hours and as its political advocate in Manitoba’s Legislative Assembly until well after the turn of the century.
During those eventful first years, Sigtryggur was instrumental in establishing the region’s first Icelandic newspaper, Framfari (Progress), published in a log building in ‘Lundi’ - now Riverton’s ‘East Side’. Besides financing this venture to a large extent and editing Framfari for a time, he also founded a lumber and transportation empire on Lake Winnipeg in 1880, in partnership with Friðjón Friðriksson, thus providing both the critical employment and positive vision needed to sustain ‘New Iceland’ during and after the painful blood-letting of the ‘Great Exodus’.
Subsequently a ship’s captain on Lake Winnipeg, one of the founders and editors of the Icelandic weekly Lögberg, a benefactor of the First Lutheran Church, an immigration agent for the Province of Manitoba, an advocate for improved transportation in Iceland (whose efforts led to the eventual founding of the Eimskipafélag), a homestead inspector, and a Member of the Legislature for two terms, Sigtryggur moved in elite circles as easily as he did among people at the grassroots level, exercising considerable influence and seeing fortunes come and go. He became the grand old statesman of ‘New Iceland’ - articulate, dignified, and well-versed in politics - and largely through his ongoing efforts, the settlement he was so instrumental in establishing finally took root and flourished.
One of the clearest examples of Sigtryggur’s contributions was his success in lobbying Federal Government and Canadian Pacific Railway officials to extend the railroad to Gimli (1906) and to approve future extensions to Arborg (1910) and Riverton (1914). In acknowledgment of this accomplishment, so crucial to the area’s economic development, he was given a standing ovation when the announcement of the Gimli extension was made on the 30th anniversary of ‘New Iceland’ in 1905.
There is irony in the fact that this great man spent his last years humbly, his achievements increasingly forgotten or unknown. Though he was honoured by the community on more than one occasion over the years, Sigtryggur outlived most of those who had been the direct beneficiaries of his personal acts of kindness and charity, and at the time of his death at age 90 in 1942, his modest funeral provided scant evidence that here was being borne to the grave one of the most noble and accomplished Icelandic Canadians of all time.
Today, on the east bank of the Icelandic River near Riverton, among the resting places of his kinfolk, stands a modest monument to a true local hero - Captain Sigtryggur Jónasson, ‘Father of New Iceland’. In 2012, however, a bronze statue of Sigtryggur was unveiled in Riverton, on a corner of his former homestead (Möðruvellir), together with a Government of Canada plaque acknowledging this remarkable Icelander and Canadian as “a person of national historic significance”
by Nelson Gerrard