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CSS Conference 2017 – Rethinking Scandinavia

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Icelandic Culture and Concepts of the Æsir in Manitoba

Andrew McGillivray, University of Winnipeg

Abstract: In Manitoba, the Icelandic community relates to the majority culture with which they are surrounded by continually translating their culture of origin into the Canadian context, preserving and transforming an impressive heritage. From the time of first Icelandic settlement in Manitoba, c. 1875, the Icelandic settlers and their descendants have drawn extensively on the rich literary tradition of Iceland, as well as added to it, resulting in a contribution to the local culture that is imprinted on the map of Manitoba, physically and culturally. Among the aspects of Icelandic culture the settlers and their descendants hold dear, they particularly emphasize the mythological theme of rebirth after catastrophe or hardship. The capital of “New Iceland” is aptly named Gimli, for in the Old Norse mythological sources, Gimli is said to be a place where life will continue after the destruction of Ragnarök, having been shielded from the devastation. Many Icelanders emigrated in the latter half of the 19th century due to the severe climate and manyfold social and political concerns on the island.

What is Gimli in the medieval sources, and how is that meaning reflected in the name of the present-day city? Importantly, how does the retention of cultural heritage help a minority culture relate to the majority? Gimli remains the centre of Icelandic culture in North America, and members of this minority culture are very proud of their local as well as their European ancestry. The persistence of the community’s national pride demonstrates a paradox of multiculturalism: as a minority culture within a cultural mosaic, Manitobans of Icelandic descent simultaneously belong to the majority culture of Canadians of European descent while at the same time identifying as uniquely Icelandic. Increasingly so, Icelandic culture on the prairies is being absorbed into Canadian culture, and at the core of this incorporation is the loss of language. With the transmission of the heritage of “New Iceland,” there is also an evolution of that heritage. The speaker will thus trace the process of cultural memory in the community as it manifests in the concept of Gimli, reflecting on the present state of Icelandic heritage in Manitoba, and conclude by situating the Icelandic heritage in Manitoba within the multicultural context in Canada.

Theme: Minority Culture

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