Icelandic festival becoming inclusive and diverse place, say volunteers and organizers

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Thousands have descended on Gimli, Man., to take in the best of the Viking era as part of the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba.

For many long-time performers, a growing and diverse crowd allows them to share the knowledge of their heritage and, in turn, learn from visitors, too.

“I don’t think anyone should live in a box. I think it’s important for people to experience different cultures, different heritages and we can all learn skills from each other,” said Travis Isfeld, who has been playing the role of fisherman in the Viking Village since he was 14.

The village is the main attraction of the festival, where visitors and volunteers turn back the clock 1,300 years to offer a glimpse of how Vikings would have lived.

The festival, now in its 130th year, has become a meeting point for Icelandic people in Canada, with several dignitaries from Iceland also travelling to participate. 

The town of Gimli has been dubbed “New Iceland,” due to its large population of Icelandic migrants.

Cathy Dyck is now a volunteer in the Viking Village, after initially being a visitor eight years ago with her husband. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

Isfeld grew up in Gimli, but his grandparents are from Iceland and the four days of the festival allow him to be around people like himself, he said.

“It’s a celebration of our heritage … It’s a good weekend and time to reconnect with family. I know a lot of people come in [from across the country],” said Isfeld, who has been part of the festival for more than a decade. 

Isfeld has talked to hundreds of festival-goers while playing his role in the village and he’s come to realize there are only small degrees of separation between cultures.

“It’s really interesting how different areas built the same technology — it might be a different style a little bit, but you know we’re really all the same, human ingenuity is universal,” he said.

The Icelandic Festival is now in its 130th year. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

The love of the Icelandic culture became a reality for Cathy Dyck when she first attended the festival in 2011 with her husband.

Ever since her first visit, Dyck, who has no Icelandic heritage, began learning about the culture and immersing herself in what Viking women would have done.

“We walked in and I felt like we were home … It’s unique being able to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, to be able to make the stuff,” she said as she knitted.

A woman sews as two men talk near the food in the Viking Village. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

She believes hosting cultural festivals allows people to be more tolerant and creates a more welcoming culture.

Opening minds

Limiting the amount of the technology his kids can access is a priority for David Taylor. He grew up in Winnipeg, and brought his kids, Zoe and Milo, and wife Amber, to experience his Icelandic heritage.

“Nowadays, when everything’s a touch of a button, you can see how things were done, made with your hands all the time,” he said,

The Taylor family, David, Amber, Zoe and Milo, take in the Viking Village where they get a close look at how Vikings used to live. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

Taylor wants to encourage his kids to explore cultures that might at first seem different, because he feels there is value in knowing about the cultural background of other Canadians.

“Seeing how groups of people from all over come together and act as just one big family, it’s really important to me,” he said.

A volunteer shows off a bow and arrow that was used to get the attention of people, but not harm them. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

Sharing cultures

Just a few blocks away from the village, the Icelandic Art Show features the works of Manitobans who have been influenced by Iceland.

Signy Thorsteinson, chair of the art show, feels art can help bridge cultural gaps between people. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

Signy Thorsteinson, chair of the art show, says art can bring people together and allow them to display a greater appreciation for one another’s cultures.

“We’ll have people painting photographs of Iceland, or who have visited or want to go there. It helps to create an appreciation for the culture, and desire for people to want to learn more,” she said. 

On Monday, the festival caps off with a parade, family events, and a traditional program.

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