- White Settler Reserve: New Iceland and the Colonization of the Canadian West by Ryan Eyford
White Settler Reserve tells the significant story of the reserve called Nyja Island (New Iceland) established for Icelandic immigrants in 1875 on Lake Winnipeg by the Canadian government. It is a turbulent story with accounts of poverty, starvation, a particularly nasty smallpox epidemic in 1876, and the later integration of this self-governing community (though not a republic, as has often been claimed) into an Anglo-British culture of citizenship.
Yet Ryan Eyford's study offers much more than traditional histories of colonial projects as it effectively situates the story within a broader discussion of federal policy towards desirable ethno-religious immigrant groups, [End Page 163] particularly within the context of Indigenous reserves in the West. Here, Eyford details how the immigrant reserve system was employed by the Canadian government to create and sustain the framework of the liberal order, most especially known through the work of historian Ian McKay. It is most particularly in his opening chapters that Eyford deals with the reserve system of settlement within the larger framework of Canadian expansionism and the dominion lands policy, where he discusses "the uneasy fit between colonization reserves and the political, economic, and cultural logic of nineteenth-century liberalism which … fundamentally shaped Canada in the century between 1840 and 1940." The creation of reserve systems for immigrants, Eyford contends, was not in fact "exceptional" but, rather, reflected state policy that nineteenth-century liberal administrators used to consolidate recently colonized territories. Immigrant reserves, like Indigenous reserves, "held the promise of securing collective interests against the claims of other competing groups." At the same time, however, the former helped to contain the latter as the federal government sought to restrict First Nation and Métis claims in the West. In fact, the territory that became New Iceland on the west side of Lake Winnipeg had once been claimed by Indigenous groups in Manitoba.
Other chapters in White Settler Reserve, especially those that deal with early migration, the formation of the reserve community, and the particular hardships associated with disease, crop failure, flooding, and what Eyford labels "the spatial practices of colonization," including the establishment of an independent municipal government, provide considerable insight into the Icelandic experience in western Canada. His chapter on the controversial figure and "Icelandic Agent" John Taylor, a Baptist missionary and convicted slave trader, tells the story of a man whose guise as a Christian abolitionist and protector of Indigenous peoples belied his staunch belief in the superiority of European agriculturalists in the colonization project.
While the settlers of New Iceland believed their reserve status would protect their language and culture, they also saw their form of local government as basically aligned with the beliefs and concepts of the Anglo-Canadian state. As northern white immigrants, such a belief was in essence accurate, although the later problem of converting homestead claims to private property, which is the subject of the book's last chapter, severely tested the authority of the liberal order in the northwest.
White Settler Reserve provides a well-researched and nuanced history of Icelandic settlement in Manitoba. But it is Eyford's positioning of New Iceland within the larger colonialist project and nineteenth-century liberal order, as well as the colony's relationship with Indigenous peoples and the federal government, that sets this book apart from so many celebratory settler narratives. [End Page 164]
History Department, University of Manitoba