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'A definite link between us': Iceland president says Manitoba holds special place in his country's heart

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2019-05-19 CBC/Radio-Canada
Guðni Th. Jóhannesson wearing a suit and tie: Iceland's President Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson said Manitoba has a lasting connection with Iceland during his visit to the province this week. Here, the president is seen at a November 2018 ceremony in Latvia. © Ints Kalnins/Reuters Iceland's President Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson said Manitoba has a lasting connection with Iceland during his visit to the province this week. Here, the president is seen at a November 2018 ceremony in Latvia.

The president of Iceland says the connection between Manitoba and his country — forged in the 19th century by a large-scale emigration of Icelanders to the province — is still strong, and he hopes a presidential visit will only make it stronger.

"There is a definite link between us," said President Guðni Jóhannesson in an interview on CBC Manitoba's Weekend Morning Show.

Jóhannesson was in Winnipeg this week to mark the 100th anniversary of the Icelandic National League of North America, headquartered in Gimli, Man. The league was created by some of the thousands of Icelanders who moved to the U.S. and Canada in the late 19th century and early 20th century, many of whom landed in Manitoba and established Gimli.

"It was a time of hardship in Iceland. Volcanic eruptions, sea ice, harsh winters and conservative attitudes in society. The young people in general felt, many, that the only way to seek a bright future would be to go here. And of course, it wasn't a rosy life all the time over here," Jóhannesson said.

"But here we are, and now, the descendants of those who emigrated are still willing to honour their heritage. And that makes us back home really, really proud."

Jóhannesson said he and his wife, Icelandic First Lady Eliza Reid, are a "living embodiment" of Iceland's strong relationship with Canada. Reid was born in Ottawa and her grandfather was born in Winnipeg, he said.

Jóhannesson and Reid were at Winnipeg's city hall Thursday to raise the Icelandic flag along with Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman.

He said he hoped the presidential visit can build on the Manitoba and Canada's connection to Iceland.

"Take, for instance, the fact that the University of Manitoba has the only department of Icelandic in the world, outside of Iceland. We want to maintain and strengthen that link," he said.

"And, in all modesty, I hope that the fact that I, holding this position as president of Iceland, come to attend the 100th anniversary of the Icelandic National League and the Icelandic Canadian Club ... here in Winnipeg, it shows … the people of Icelandic descent here in Canada, that we value so much this connection between Canada and Iceland."

If you're ever in Iceland, Jóhannesson advised connecting with the locals.

"Especially when you're from Canada, not to mention Manitoba, when you go to Iceland you should mention you're from this neck of the woods," he said. "And people will say, 'Ah yes, my cousin Jón, he is from there,' or something like that."

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