Atli Ásmundsson, the good-natured consul general for Iceland in Winnipeg, likes to say that only the superpowers have diplomatic representation in Winnipeg -- the U.S. and Iceland.
Ásmundsson has endeared himself to the Winnipeg community so excellently in his nine-year tenure here that most of us do not give it a second thought that Iceland is the only other country besides the U.S. to have a professional diplomatic presence in Winnipeg.
Considering there are much greater trade volumes between Manitoba and places such as China, Japan, Mexico and South Korea, and likely more immigration connections to the Philippines or Ukraine, it underlines the special relationship that exists between the north Atlantic island nation and this lake-dominated central province in Canada.
Ásmundsson has become a fixture in Winnipeg and is held in high regard not just by those of Icelandic heritage in Manitoba, but by the broader community. He has reached the mandatory Icelandic foreign service retirement age of 70 and will officially leave his post next June.
Lgberg-Heimskringla, Winnipeg's long-standing Icelandic newspaper, will honour Ásmundsson and his wife Thrúdur Helgadóttir at its annual gala dinner in January.
The ever-charming former political party operative and his wife will relocate to Iceland, where they plan to spend their early retirement years doing public speaking in towns and villages throughout Iceland about a subject he said Icelanders cannot get enough of: Manitoba.
"For me, it (his time in Winnipeg) has been the best time of my working life," Ásmundsson said.
"I have been offered many times to go elsewhere to different postings. I have always said that if the minister thought I am doing a good job here I would like to stay."
Officially, the consulate's most important function is to help the tens of thousands of people of Icelandic descent who live in Manitoba and Western Canada stay in touch with their history and heritage by offering information and facilitating cultural events.
Iceland established an honorary Consul in Winnipeg in 1942 even before the country was officially independent. In 1999, a diplomat was sent to head the new consulate general that opened that year.
Ásmundsson has been an excellent promoter of the vigorous cultural output from Iceland (as well as from North Americans of Icelandic descent.) Among other things, he was a great supporter of núna (now), the Icelandic Festival.
He has championed Icelandic writers and proudly boasts that Iceland has close to 100 per cent literacy and that Icelanders publish more books per capita than any other nation in the world.
But he is also a responsible advocate for economic interests between Iceland and Manitoba. Five years ago, when Iceland was full-steam ahead in its aggressive, if ill-advised, quest to establish a presence in the international banking industry, Ásmundsson helped Landsbanki, the former National Bank of Iceland, set up an office in Winnipeg.
It is fitting that on the eve of his retirement and departure from Winnipeg, Ásmundsson has seen a special committee of trade officials from Iceland and Manitoba formed to look into potential economic development opportunities between the two regions that have so many friendly connections but little to no business dealings.
"The fact is, there is very little trade between Manitoba and Iceland," Ásmundsson said. "The committee will look at what the obstacles are. We assume distance and the cost of transportation hinders it. Now with Churchill and Centreport, we are going to have a serious look. I am hoping there will be meaningful results before the middle of next year."
The Manitoba lead will be fittingly taken by Peter Bjornson, Manitoba's minister of Entrepreneurship, Training and Trade and a Gimli resident of Icelandic heritage.