In 1875, more than 200 Icelanders immigrated to western Canada to found the New Iceland colony along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. The following year approximately 1,200 more Icelandic settlers arrived. The Icelanders declared their colony an independent republic with its own constitution, government, laws, and schools, with Icelandic as the official language. The republic lasted almost a decade before the Canadian government abolished it in 1887. In the meantime, Icelandic settlers had continued to move westward, eventually establishing a series of colonies across the prairies as far west as Alberta. The first Icelandic colony to develop in present-day Saskatchewan was the Thingvalla and Logberg colony in the Concordia district between Churchbridge and Calder, in 1886. Today Churchbridge is less than 10% Scandinavian, but there are an estimated 400 people of Scandinavian (mostly Icelandic) origin in the immediate area. A second colony, Valar and Holar, soon developed about 40 km south of Churchbridge, outside of Tantallon and Spy Hill, in 1887. Few people of Scandinavian origin live in these neighbouring villages (although a Norwegian Lutheran congregation came into existence in Spy Hill); but there are an estimated 300 people of Scandinavian origin in the immediate area.
Those initial colonies were always very small, but a large Icelandic settlement grew in the Quill Lakes region in central Saskatchewan after 1891. None of the three main towns in the region (Wynyard, Wadena, Foam Lake) are predominantly Scandinavian today, the dominant population being of British or Ukrainian origin. Icelanders and other Scandinavians form little more than a third of the residents in the incorporated village of Elfros, and a slightly higher proportion in the neighbouring unincorporated village of Mozart. Yet Icelanders, preferring the family farm, settled heavily in many rural districts around these communities: this is by far the largest Icelandic colony in Saskatchewan, with an estimated 2,000 people of Scandinavian origin (mostly Icelanders) in the region.
In 1998, the Vatnabyggd Icelandic Club of Saskatchewan unveiled in Elfros a $60,000 memorial to Icelandic pioneers; it includes a bronze of a young Icelandic couple, information on the first Icelanders to move to the Vatnabyggd, murals of Iceland in the 1880s, the voyage to Canada, and Vatnabyggd then and now. To recognize the contribution of Icelandic pioneers, the main trails in the Foam Lake Marsh portion of the Quill Lakes Birding Project are named “Vatnabyggd,” and the two minor loop trails have been given Icelandic names for local birds or animals. According to recent census data (2001), people of Icelandic origin in Saskatchewan numbered 6,100, of whom the overwhelming majority, 88.6% (5,405) also claimed other ethnic origins, compared to just 13% (805) claiming only Icelandic origin.
Alan Anderson, Joan Eyolfson Cadham
Lindal, V.J. 1967. The Icelanders of Canada. Winnipeg: National and Viking.