In March, when Iceland is still being heated by the island’s dramatic hot springs, members of the Icelandic Canadian Club of Toronto try to appease the spirit of winter with an invitation to a communal feast called “Thorrablot.” It takes place in the ancient Norse mid-winter month of Thorri, and is a festival of traditional food, music, and dance held in expectation that neither severe weather nor hardships will occur before spring approaches.
Toronto’s Icelandic community, which is estimated at approximately 4,000 persons, consists mainly of second, third, and fourth-generation families whose professions include medicine, law, banking, business, and journalism. Many of the city’s Icelanders arrived from Western Canada where their immigrant ancestors had settled more than a century ago.
Icelanders coming by way of Greenland were the first known European visitors to Canada, dating back to 896 A.D. when Eric the Red founded a settlement in Greenland. In the same year, Bjarni Herjolfsson sighted the northeastern coast of Canada. At the turn of the 11th century, Norsemen established a temporary settlement in Newfoundland, and it is believed that Snorri, son of community leader Thorfinnur Karlsefni, was the first European born in Canada.
Following his Norse ancestors, the first Icelander to land on mainland Canadian shores was Sigtryggur Jonasson, who arrived in Quebec in 1872. A year later, 150 Icelanders arrived in Quebec, and a second party of 351 followed in 1874, settling temporarily at Kinmount, Ontario. A monument to these pioneer settlers has been erected. Until the railway was built across the Canadian Shield, immigrants going to Western Canada, including groups of Icelanders, were routed through Toronto and stayed temporarily in the city’s immigration sheds. The first permanent block settlement was established with the help of Jonasson along the shores of Lake Winnipeg.
In the 1870s, several families located in the Muskoka district near the village of Rosseau, Ontario. They named their community Hekkla, after a volcano in their island homeland. Descendants of these pioneers still live in the district, as well as throughout Southwestern Ontario.
The Icelandic National League of North America was founded in 1919 to promote community links and to assist in integration to Canadian society while recognizing and encouraging an awareness of their heritage. Chapters of this association are located throughout the country. A quarterly journal called The Icelandic Canadian, and a weekly newspaper,Logberg-Heimskringla, are published in English.
In 1959, the Icelandic Canadian Club of Toronto was started by a group of women. The association has a mailing list in excess of 800 households in Southwestern Ontario, and holds several events throughout the year, such as slide shows, lectures, socials, dances, and other cultural presentations relating to their heritage.
Among Toronto Icelanders are teachers, film makers, and novelists. A street is named after entrepreneur and real-estate broker Magnus Paulson, who founded Canada’s first satellite city of Bramalea, Ontario. At the Art Gallery of Ontario, a room is named after Signy Stephenson Eaton, patron of the arts and wife of the late John David Eaton. Signy Eaton was a founding member of York University and a recipient of the Order of the Falcon, the highest honour awarded by the government of Iceland.
THORRABLOT, held in March, sees Icelanders eat a smorgasbord feast which includes traditional foods such as lax (salmon), flatbraud (flat-bread), spice-rolled flank of mutton, smoked lamb, and desserts such as vinarterta, ponnukokur, and kleiner.
ISLENDINGADAGURINN. The most important festival is one of the oldest annual ethnic gatherings in Canada. Islendingadagurinn (Icelandic Day) was first held in 1874 in North America by a group of immigrants in Wisconsin to celebrate Iceland’s millennium. The biggest Islandingadagurinn is held in Gimli, Manitoba, at the beginning of August; in Ontario it is combined with a celebration of Iceland’s Independence Day on June 17th and usually takes the form of a picnic at a farm outside Toronto.
THE ICELANDIC CANADIAN CLUB OF TORONTO (ICCT). Publishes a newsletter, organizes an annual dinner dance and picnic, and holds meetings at the Unitarian Hall on St. Clair Ave. It organizes six programs a year, featuring lectures, recitals, slide shows, and cultural presentations. In conjunction with the Icelandic National League, the ICCT sponsored a provincial historic site honoring immigration in 1874 from Iceland to Kinmount. The August 2000 unveiling of the monument was covered by TV Ontario and local newspapers. In addition, the club promotes the works of Canadian writers of Icelandic descent. It produced a millennial publication,The Icelanders of Kinmount, (Tel. 905-277-5298), which is available through the club. President: Leah Salt.
Memorial at Kinmount, Ont. Sculptor: Gudrun S. Girgis 2000 Ontario Heritage Foundation Historic Site
Icelandic settlement memorial at Kinmount, Ont., commemorating the 1874–1875 Icelandic settlement there.