Canada, the Icelanders, and Lord Dufferin1

Canada is celebrating a big anniversary this year. It is 150 years since the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick formed a new confederation called the Dominion of Canada. In 1867, there were no Icelanders in Canada (so far as we know). The first Icelander to settle in Canada was Sigtryggur Jónasson, who arrived in 1872. By that time, Manitoba and British Columbia had become the fifth and sixth provinces of the Dominion. The first large group migration from Iceland to Canada occurred in 1873, the year Prince Edward Island joined Confederation, and some of those people became the first settlers of New Iceland in 1875. In the years leading up to the creation of the eighth and ninth provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905, thousands of Icelanders migrated to Canada. The majority of them found homes in the west, especially here in Manitoba. In the 1911 Census of Canada, more than 12,000 people gave “Icelandic” as the answer to the question about their “Racial or Tribal origin.” 2
When I began working on my book White Settler Reserve: New Iceland and the Colonization of the Canadian West, one of my main research questions was: how did Canada become home to so many Icelandic immigrants? Such an outcome was far from inevitable. In fact, there were many compelling reasons that might have prevented such an outcome, including distance. The journey from Iceland to Manitoba in the 1870s and 1880s was time-consuming and arduous. In the early 1870s, it was probably more likely that the Icelandic migrants would settle predominantly in the U.S. Midwest, where there was already a well-established pattern of migration from the Nordic countries. Indeed, many Icelanders did settle in Wisconsin, and later Minnesota in the 1870s. So again, why Canada?
The basic answer is that the government of the new dominion desperately wanted immigrants, especially farmers, farm labourers, and female domestic servants.  Canada’s official immigrant recruitment efforts were focused almost exclusively on northwestern Europe, and immigration officials worked diligently so that at least some immigrants from the Nordic countries would choose Canada over the United States.  Various forms of travel subsidies and bonuses were offered to convince migrants to choose Canada over the United States.3 The 1873 Icelandic immigrants each received a per capita bonus from the Province of Ontario ($6 per adult, $3 per child) for settling in the Muskoka district of that province.4
Canada especially wanted immigrants to travel to its recently acquired territories in the Northwest to help colonize the homelands of the Cree, Assiniboine, Anishinaabe, Dakota, and Metis peoples. The Department of the Interior was even prepared to offer land reserves for the exclusive use of particular European ethno-religious groups. This was how the Icelandic reserve, or New Iceland, came into being in 1875.5
In sum, Canada wanted white settlers to colonize Indigenous lands in the Northwest, and was willing to offer subsidies, loans, land grants, and other forms of government support to encourage migrants to choose the young dominion over the mighty republic to the south. But this general context still doesn’t answer the question of “why Icelanders”? Norman P. Macdonald, a historian of Canadian immigration policy, once expressed his puzzlement as to why Canada went to great lengths, and incurred significant expenses to recruit a group of migrants who, in the 1870s, had almost no experience as settlers in North America.6 Why did Canada begin to actively encourage Icelandic immigration?
The answer to that question involves a popular and influential Irish lord, Frederick Hamilton Temple Blackwood, the 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, better known as Lord Dufferin, who was Governor General of Canada between 1872 and 1878.  The fact that Lord Dufferin played some role in fostering Icelandic migration to this country and the creation of New Iceland has long been part of the story of the Icelanders in Canada. However, Dufferin’s exact role has been somewhat ambiguous; did he invite the Icelanders to Canada?7 Did he intervene to convince skeptical Canadian ministers to fund the New Iceland colonization scheme?8  What I’ve found in Dufferin’s papers and the records of the Department of Agriculture is that the Governor General did give his endorsement to Icelandic immigration to Canada just as it was getting underway. In 1873, Canadian emigration agents noticed a few Icelanders passing through ports in Britain and on the European continent. John Lowe, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, sought Dufferin’s advice on whether or not to actively recruit Icelanders as immigrants. Dufferin wrote in reply, “I should say, the Icelanders would make good immigrants. They very much resemble the Norwegians. They are quiet peaceable folk, Lutheran in religion but not fanatical.”9 With that endorsement, the Canadian government began offering subsidies to Icelandic immigrants.
Dufferin continued to support Icelandic immigrants when their prospects seemed bleak. In 1875, the Barbadian-Canadian missionary John Taylor appealed to Dufferin to help relieve the suffering of the Icelanders at Kinmount in Ontario, who had lost their employment on a railway project. Dufferin’s executive secretary Henry Moody forwarded Taylor’s letter to the Minister of Agriculture along with the statement: “His Excellency will be glad to learn that you feel at liberty to make some recommendation calculated to relieve the distress of those who have already settled here as well as to promote the arrival of more immigrants from a country in which his Excellency feels the warmest interest.”10 The recommendation that the Department  of Agriculture formulated was to send a delegation to the Northwest to choose a site for a colony.  This was the Icelandic Deputation that chose the southwest shore of Lake Winnipeg as the site for an Icelandic reserve.
In sum, Lord Dufferin was consulted on the question of Icelandic immigration government officials and continued to express support for Icelandic immigrants through their difficult first years in Canada.
However, there is another question to answer: why was an Irish lord considered an expert on Iceland and Icelanders? What was the origin of that “warm interest” that he had toward the people of Iceland? In large measure it was because Dufferin had spent a few weeks in Iceland as a young man. In 1856, Dufferin—then thirty years old—journeyed the North Atlantic in a schooner called the Foam. He wrote about his travels in a series of letters to his mother, which was later published as the book Letters from High Latitudes. The book proved to be very popular and was continuously in print for many years afterward. A major reason for its success was its humour. For instance, Dufferin recounts a banquet in the home of the Governor of Iceland where there were so many toasts that he quickly became so drunk he had difficulty remembering what happened. “Then began a series of transactions of which I have no distinct recollection; in fact, the events of the next five hours recur to me in as great disarray as reappear the vestiges of a country that has been disfigured by some deluge…I gather…from the evidence…that the dinner was excellent.”11 The Canadian civil servants who worked to recruit and resettle Icelanders derived their knowledge of the country and its inhabitants from Dufferin’s book. Edmund Allan Meredith, deputy minister of the Interior, recalled having a laugh-out-loud moment on a train while reading Dufferin’s Letters.12 In his introduction to the 1910 edition of the book, the Icelandic scholar Dr. Jón Stefánsson wrote “How strongly forever after he was under the spell of Iceland was seen in 1877. In that year, [Dufferin] went out of his way to visit the little Icelandic colony on Lake Winnipeg.”13
At the time Dufferin visited New Iceland, the Icelanders were in desperate need of friends. They had just come through the crisis of the 1876-77 smallpox epidemic, and some influential Manitobans, including the physician, Dr. J.S. Lynch, who had come to treat them during the crisis, were openly questioning whether Icelanders were “racially fit” to be colonists.14 Dufferin was advised against going to the colony, but insisted on visiting Gimli. Weather almost prevented the trip, but the Governor General arrived in the little village on September 14, 1877. Dufferin toured the village and entered the homes of a few of the settlers. In his remarks that day, he told the Icelanders that he had “pledged my personal credit to my Canadian friends on the successful development of your settlement.” Dufferin expressed his sorrow at the hardships they had gone through, especially the smallpox epidemic, but categorically rejected the idea that the Icelanders were racially unfit to be colonists. All they needed was an opportunity:  “Beneath the genial influences of the fresh young world to which you have come, the dormant capacities of your race, which adverse climatic and geographical conditions may have somewhat stunted and benumbed, will bud and burgeon forth in all their pristine exuberance….”15
Lord Dufferin is unquestionably a significant figure in the early history of the Dominion of Canada. He made several significant contributions during his time as Governor General, including helping to guide the country through its first major political crisis, the Pacific Scandal that forced John A. Macdonald from power in 1873, and granting amnesty to the leaders of the 1869-70 Red River Resistance.16  He was also a champion of immigration, and frequently spoke publically on the subject.17
However, Dufferin, like many of the Dominion of Canada’s early leaders, is a figure with whom it is hard to identify with.  He was born to privilege, part of the hereditary nobility in a profoundly unequal society with a rigidly hierarchical class structure. He was an imperialist, later becoming Viceroy of India, and a powerful imperial functionary during an era when Indigenous peoples around the world were dispossessed on an immense scale, including in the Canadian west. But at the same time, Dufferin was also humanist, a skilled diplomat, and an opponent of religious intolerance. He believed in the ability of immigrants to make important contributions to the economic, social, and cultural life of the country. While visiting Gimli in 1877, he stated: “In becoming Englishmen and subjects of Queen Victoria, you need not forget your own time-honoured customs or the picturesque annals of your forefathers. On the contrary, I trust you will continue to cherish for all time the heart-stirring literature of your nation, and that from generation to generation your little ones will continue to learn in your ancient Sagas that industry, energy, fortitude, perseverance and stubborn endurance have ever been the characteristics of the noble Icelandic race.”18
Dufferin hoped that Canada would be a place where the disadvantaged would be able to make a new start, and with their hard work, build new lives for themselves and for their families. On the 150th anniversary of Confederation, that is a vision of Canada that remains as relevant as ever.

1.     Adapted from a speech given at the Arborg Thorrablot, 18 March 2017.
2.     See Library and Archives Canada, 1911 Census, (accessed 1 August 2017)
3.     For more on Canada’s immigration and colonization policies in the late nineteenth century, see chapter 1 of Ryan Eyford, White Settler Reserve: New Iceland and the Colonization of the Canadian West (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016).
4.     Archives of Ontario, Records of the Department of Immigration, RG 11-19, volume 3, “Refund Bonus Paid to Immigrants.”
5.     See chapter 2 of Eyford, White Settler Reserve.
6.     Norman P. Macdonald, Canada: Immigration and Colonization, 1841-1903 (Aberdeen, UK: Aberdeen University Press, 1966) 212.
7.     David Arnason, “The Icelanders in Manitoba: A Myth of Beginnings,” in David Arnason and Vincent Arnason, eds., The New Icelanders: A North American Community (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1994), 3.
8.     Walter J. Lindal, Canada Ethnica II: The Icelanders in Canada (Winnipeg: Viking Press, 1967), 113.
9.     Lord Dufferin to John Lowe, 13 May 1873, Library and Archives Canada (hereafter LAC), Office of the Governor General of Canada fonds, RG 7, G 20, vol. 129, file 3066.
10.  Harry Moody to John Lowe, 16, April 1875, LAC, Department of Agriculture fonds, RG 17, A I 1, volume 131, docket 13750.
11.  Frederick Temple Blackwood, Marquis of Dufferin and Ava [Lord Dufferin], Letters from High Latitudes Being Some Account of a Voyage in the Schooner Yacht “Foam” 85 O.M. to Iceland, Jan Mayen & Spitzbergen in 1856 (London: John Murray, 1857), 60-61.
12.  Sandra Gwyn, The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1984), 164.
13.  Jón Stefánsson, introduction to Lord Dufferin, Letters from High Latitudes (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1910), vii.
14.  “Lt. Governor of Manitoba Transmits Report by Dr. S.S. Lynch on Condition of the Icelandic Settlement, Lake Winnipeg, 1877,” LAC, Department of Secretary of State fonds, RG 6, A I, vol. 28, file 536.
15.  Speeches of the Earl of Dufferin, Governor General of Canada, 1872-1878: Complete (Toronto: J.R. Robertson, 1878), 93.
16.  See Ben Forster, “BLACKWOOD, FREDERICK TEMPLE, 1st Marquess of DUFFERIN and AVA,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 1, 2017,
17.  Canada: A Place for the Emigrant as Shewn by Speeches Delivered by His Excellency Lord Dufferin, Governor General, During a Tour Made in the Summer of 1874 (Toronto: J.M. Trout, 1874).
18.  Ibid., 94