Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Iceland's prime minister tours CMHR

Looks to strengthen Manitoba ties while visiting Icelandic festival

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Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson may be the youngest democratically elected leader in the world, but he knows his history.

After finishing an interview following a tour of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights Friday morning, Iceland's 38-year-old prime minister quietly asked a reporter, "Where can I get a Falcons jersey?" referring to the Winnipeg senior men's team of Icelanders who won Canada's first Olympic gold medal in hockey in 1920.

A member of the CMHR staff overheard the question and immediately started working the phones to secure a personalized jersey for Gunnlaugsson from the iconic team.

Although his weeklong visit to Manitoba and North Dakota centres on this weekend's Islendingadagurinn festival in Gimli -- still referred to as "New Iceland" and home to the largest Icelandic population outside of the island nation -- Gunnlaugsson is also hoping to lay the groundwork for a little business.

He would like to use the cultural ties between Manitoba and Iceland as a springboard to boost the economic relationship between the two.

Both jurisdictions have strong agricultural, fishing and energy industries as well as growing technological, pharmaceutical and engineering sectors.

"Those similarities offer a lot of opportunities to work together," he said.

Before any trade talks can bear significant fruit, he said Icelanders and Manitobans need to be educated about their longstanding relationship.

"Once a person has been here from Iceland and experienced Canada, come into contact with Canadian Icelanders and realized how strong those ties still are, they go back home and tell their friends and family that they've had an amazing experience. Everybody who comes here from Iceland becomes an ambassador for Winnipeg and Manitoba," he said.

The $351-million museum is still a construction site, but Gunnlaugsson was impressed with what he saw and heard as he and other dignitaries walked through with museum CEO Stuart Murray.

"The last time I was here, this was just a hole in the ground. (The museum) will be like stepping into the future. People will come here from all over the world to see it. The technology they're using to show people all of the topics will be breaking new ground," he said.

There's even an Icelandic connection with the museum. Gagarin, a Reykjavk-based provider of interactive media solutions, is part of the technology team.

"When you bring a prime minister here to talk about the fact one of their companies' technology is in the museum, it gives them a chance to feel really proud about our relationship," Murray said.

Construction crews are about to begin working on the "fit-up" for the museum's exhibit areas. Murray said he hopes to be able to announce an official opening date within the next couple of months. That will be done, in part, to appease tourist organizations looking to start booking flights and visits to Winnipeg.

"We're going to be opening in 2014 and we're working very hard toward that," he said.

Gunnlaugsson departed for Grafton, N.D. -- another community with a strong Icelandic heritage -- Friday evening. He will leave for Gimli this morning where he'll stay until Tuesday. He'll meet with Premier Greg Selinger on Monday.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2013 A1

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