Erindi á Þjóðræknisþingi í Minneapolis.


Valgerður Sverrisdóttir,
iðnaðar- og viðskiptaráðherra

Our Common Heritage:
The Icelandic Communities in North America.

Address of Mrs. Valgerður Sverrisdóttir, Minister of Industry and Commerce
at the Icelandic National League Convention in Minneapolis,
Saturday 20 April 2002.

Ladies and Gentlemen, kæru vinir, Dear Friends,

On behalf of the Government of Iceland I would like to thank you for the opportunity to participate in this historic event, the first Convention of the Icelandic National League ever held in the United States.

My colleague Foreign Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson, had planned to be here, but was called to a meeting at short notice with Russian President Putin in the Kremlin together with the President of Iceland, who is currently on a state visit to Russia.

I bring you the warm regards of Halldór and his wife, Sigurjóna Sigurðardóttir, and their regrets at not being able to be here with you today.

The ambitious program for this Convention testifies to the energy, enthusiasm and optimism of the planners and the participants. The level of participation also sets a record, with representatives attending from most of the affiliated organisations of the INL in the United States and Canada.

You have most certainly succeeded in bringing together as many Icelandic Clubs and societies based in North America as possible, thereby creating a true umbrella organization for people of Icelandic descent in North America.

It is also a pleasure to see the large number of participants from Iceland who attend the Convention.

The extensive participation is a sign of the new life that has been breathed into the activities of the Icelandic Leagues of North America. It is clear that the people gathered here are determined to ensure the continuation of the thriving activities of the leagues.

The roots of the Icelandic National League are deep and strong. Over two thousand hard-working and dedicated members are donating their efforts to the League. Their primary goal, ever since the first Icelandic National League was founded in Winnipeg in 1918, has been to promote Icelandic language, culture and heritage in the Icelandic communities in North America and to strengthen the ties with the old country.

The participation here in Minneapolis reflects the importance of working together on achieving our goals. Together, we are stronger. Our common objective is to strengthen our bonds and create new friendships. It is my belief that closer co-operation between the national leagues in Canada and the United States will be rewarded by more vigorous activities and greater participation by Canadians and Americans of Icelandic descent.

We must also think about the future and we need to emphasise the recruitment of young people. The best way to achieve this is to offer interesting programs, as you are doing here in Minneapolis, and by promoting still further youth exchanges between Iceland and North America. It has been a source of great pleasure to observe the growing interest of young people in the activities of the national leagues on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the last three years this has been reflected, among other things, in the "Snorri Program", a youth exchange program between Iceland and Canada. The program enables young people of Icelandic descent in North America to visit Iceland and work there, live with Icelandic families, often relatives, and travel around the country. The Icelandic government has supported this program, which has surpassed our expectations. Visits by young Icelanders to the United States and Canada are also being organised. This summer, for example Icelandic students will work as guides at the Stephan G. Stephanson Museum in Markerville.

I was born and raised in Eyjafjörður in northern Iceland. Most of your ancestors who sought their fortune in a new world over 120 years ago came from northern and eastern Iceland. Indeed, one fifth of the entire population of Iceland left the country and went to Canada because of the hardships at home. Today more than one hundred thousand people in the United States and Canada can trace their ancestry back to Iceland.

There has always been great interest in my home region in Eyjafjörður in nurturing contacts with the descendants of the Icelanders who emigrated to Canada. Despite uncertain mail services, the people back home kept careful track of their parents, siblings, other kinsmen and neighbours in the new Icelandic settlements.

This interest was reflected, among other things, in the thriving publication of various genealogical writings and memoirs, especially by the publishing houses in Akureyri. In recent years, there has been a general resurgence of interest in Iceland in the history of the Icelandic settlement in the Western World. This applies not only to the history of the Icelandic Vikings who discovered new lands in North America over a thousand years ago, but also to later settlements of Icelanders, starting at Lake Winnipeg in 1875. It should be noted that hundreds of Icelanders seek education, training and employment in North America every year and will continue to do so in the future.

The present coalition government of Iceland has been in office since 1995 and has since then made a determined effort to promote relations with people of Icelandic descent in North America.

As a part of this effort, the Icelandic National League of Iceland was revived in 1997 on the initiative of Foreign Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson following a period of relative inactivity. The League is now engaged in lively activities with a strong support of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The Icelandic National League has close ties with the various INL - chapters in North America and it works on promoting cultural exchanges and seeks to promote awareness among Icelandic institutions and companies of the importance of close ties with the Icelandic communities in the New World.

The Government has also firmly supported the Icelandic Emigration Center at Hofsós in Northern Iceland and awarded substantial grants for its development and operation. It has been a great pleasure to observe the growth of the Centre. In the course of a short time strong links have been established between the Emigration Centre and national leagues in North America involving genealogical research and various cultural activities. I am sure that many of you have already visited the Icelandic Emigration Centre at Hofós. And to those of you planning to go to Iceland I would like to strongly recommend that you visit the Hofsós Centre. It is indeed a must when visiting Iceland and seeking your roots.

In 1999, a Consulate General was opened in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the largest settlement of Icelanders in the world outside Iceland, manned by an Ambassador in the Foreign Service. His main task was to plan and prepare for the extensive Millennium Celebrations of the year 2000 in Canada in commemoration of the viking discovery of North America in co-operation with the Icelandic and Canadian Millennium Commissions and our Embassy in Washington D.C.

Another important task of our new Consul General was to prepare for the 125th anniversary of the Icelandic settlement at Lake Winnipeg in October 2000 in close co-operation with the people of Winnipeg and Gimli.

The Consulate General in Winnipeg also performs an important function in promoting trade relations in Manitoba and western Canada and in further strengthening contacts with the national leagues in Canada. Ambassador Eiður Guðnason, currently Consul General of Iceland in Winnipeg, works in close co-operation with Neil Bardal, Consul General of Iceland in Gimli, who for a number of years has devoted extensive efforts to the service of Iceland. The Consulate General in Winnipeg also works closely with other leaders of the Canadian-Icelandic community in the Winnipeg area and in the area between the lakes.

Iceland}s Honorary Consuls are integral to the effectiveness of the Icelandic Foreign Service in its primary role of furthering Iceland}s interests abroad. I believe the consular corps that serve Iceland all around the globe is one of the country}s greatest assets when it comes to protecting our interests. As a small nation we will never be able to compete with bigger nations in the number of diplomats, but we can compete in results.

Today we have Honorary Consulates in 24 cities in the United States and ten cities in Canada. Our Consuls generally play key roles in the activities of various associations of Icelanders or INL chapters and they work closely with our Embassies in Washington D.C. and Ottawa. I am happy to see that some of our Honorary Consuls in North America have been able to join us at this INL Convention.

The Icelandic Millennium Programme in North America in the year 2000 was a very comprehensive one and highlighted the variety and vitality of Icelandic culture. Cultural weeks were launched in cities and towns throughout the United States and Canada.

Hundreds of events were organised at more than 70 venues, ranging from Icelandic film festivals, plays and exhibitions of art and Saga manuscripts to an Icelandic Symphony Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall, a Viking exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute and last but not least a voyage of the Viking ship Íslendingur, (the Icelander).

The ship is an exact replica of the ninth century Gokstad ship, which was excavated from a Viking burial ground in Norway. It is 22.5 meters long, made of oak and pine and secured with 5 thousand nails. In the Viking era, a ship like that would have had around 70 crew members while Íslendingur had a crew of nine seasoned and carefully selected sailers under the command of shipbuilder and captain Gunnar Marel Eggertsson.

The ship sailed from Iceland on 17 June, our National Day, for the four- month voyage, which would take them 2.600 miles with 20 scheduled stops on the shores of four countries in two continents. The voyage of Íslendingur caught much media attention in both Canada and the United States and thousands of people welcomed it in each harbour.

Another important event was the opening of the Viking exhibition, "Vikings, the North Atlantic Saga" in Washington D.C. in April 2000. The exhibition then continued to New York, Houston, Denver, Los Angeles and will open up in Ottawa on 7 May. It will complete its North American tour here in Minneapolis this fall. With over 400 objects from all the Nordic countries, the Unites States and Canada, the exhibition tells the little-known story of the western expansion of the Vikings for the first time to a broad, public audience. Among the treasures in the exhibition are four original Icelandic manuscripts, including a section from Eirik the Red}s Saga.

This manuscript and the Saga of the Greenlanders contain the adventurous stories of Leifur, Þorvaldur, Þorsteinn, Guðríður and Freydís in Vínland the Good, including their skirmishes with native peoples. It took an act of the Althingi, Iceland}s Parliament, to approve the loan of these priceless books. Over 4 million visitors in the Unites States and Canada are expected to experience first-hand the story of the Vikings westward expansion through this exhibition.

Another important aspect of our Millennium Programme in North America was the launching of Iceland Naturally, a joint marketing programme developed to increase demand for Icelandic tourism and Icelandic products in North America. Its purpose is to build a relationship between Iceland and American and Canadian consumers interested in Iceland and its products. The Iceland Naturally programme has been very successful and has created a strong and positive image of Iceland in North America.

An part of this emphasis of the Government of Iceland to strengthen ties with Canada was the opening of a new Embassy in Ottawa in May 2001. It should be mentioned that Canada also opened a new embassy in Reykjavík this year. The main tasks of Ambassador Hjálmar W. Hannesson and his new embassy in Ottawa are to further promote trade and tourism between Iceland and Canada and strengthen political and cultural links.

In the past few years, a measurable increase in trade between Iceland and Canada has been observed and various tourist services have also increased. We are determined to strengthen still further the relations between these friendly countries in as many areas as possible. Iceland is Canada}s nearest European neighbour, and for this reason relations with Iceland in the area of trade and fisheries have naturally concentrated in the provinces on the east coast of Canada, where numerous Icelandic companies have established a foothold in various areas of trade and services in a short time.

Tourism, for example, is becoming more and more important for the economy of Iceland. Last year it accounted for 13 percent of our income from foreign sources, the second most important after the fishing sector. We are seeing more and more tourists visiting Iceland from the United States and Canada every year, and we expect this increase to continue.

An important aspect of the effort to preserve the cultural heritage and to kindle the awareness of people of Icelandic descent of their origin is the publication of the Icelandic weekly , Lögberg-Heimskringla. The publication has been through difficult times, which is understandable in light of the harsh competition of today's media world. For some time, Lögberg-Heimskringla has shared premises with the Icelandic Consulate General in Winnipeg at a reasonable rent. Now, the newsletter has been secured a place for the future.

I am happy to inform you that the Government of Iceland has decided to increase its annual contribution to the Lögberg-Heimskringla from 8 thousand to 15 thousand Canadian dollars. It is, in our opinion, important to continue the publication of this old and respected weekly. It is an institution with an immensely important role.

It is a matter of great satisfaction that the co-operation between the University of Iceland and the universities of Minneapolis and Manitoba is going well. This is evidenced, among other things, by successful conferences held in Akureyri and Reykjavík last month.

Another important point in this context is the recently started co-operation between the Agricultural College at Hvanneyri and Hólar and the Agricultural Department of the University of Manitoba. However, we are far from having exhausted all the possibilities in this regard. To give an example, I can mention that the Faculty of Law of the University of North Dakota is interested in co-operating with the Faculty of Law of the University of Iceland, and the University in Winnipeg has expressed an interest in co-operation with the University in Reykjavík. I am certain that the possibilities for co-operation in science and education will multiply in the coming years.

The Icelandic government, together with companies in the private sector, provided substantial financial grants to pay for the work of improving the premises of the Icelandic Library in Winnipeg and to the New Iceland Heritage Center in Gimli, where numerous opportunities have been created for Icelandic cultural activities in the future. The third and final installment of the Icelandic Government}s gift through the Valuing the Icelandic Presence campaign was recently presented to representatives of the University of Manitoba at a meeting in Reykjavík.

The magnificent new Iceland Reading Room at the University of Manitoba and interrelated areas, adjacent to the Libraries}relocated Icelandic Collection have become the home of many Icelandic community and academic activites. Department of Icelandic courses, previously taught in available classrooms elsewhere in the University, are now taught in the area}s Seminar Room. This is the first time in 50 years that these two elements of the "Icelandic Presence" have been physically together.

It is safe to say that all these new projects, millennium programs, strengthening of the Icelandic National Leagues, both in North America and Iceland and opening of a new General Consulate and an embassy
ave resulted in a new and promising activity and in a new ambition for the future.

These measures have created a wave of interest and energy which we must now harness for the benefit of our common interests. This energy is clearly reflected in our convention here in Minneapolis and in its varied program.

I would like to emphasise that the Government of Iceland is of course fully committed to a continued support of our various projects serving our mutual interests. We have only seen the beginning of a new and vibrant chapter of our history.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to use this opportunity to thank the Icelandic National League for its valuable support in distributing the Heritage Gift of the Government of Iceland, the Complete Sagas of Icelanders, to hundreds of schools, universities and libraries, all across North America. All your dedicated work on this project is greatly appreciated.

I would also like to thank all of those who assisted in the preparation of this Convention for their good contribution. I would especially like to thank the Convention Organizing Committee, and numerous Committee members from both sides of the border for their tremendous and unselfish work. The active participation from other INL chapters in Canada, the United States and Iceland is also much appreciated.

I am honored to have with me here Iceland}s Ambassadors in Washington D.C. and Ottawa, Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson and Hjálmar W. Hannesson, who will participate in our panel discussions. Ambassador Hannibalsson is a former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland and a veteran politician and Ambassador Hannesson has en extensive experience in the Icelandic Foreign Service.

Thank you very much.


Valgerður Sverrisdóttir