Business relations between B.C. and Iceland are heating up

We take a look at how this European country is courting investment with B.C. and Canada

For several years, a cloud hung over bilateral relations between Canada and Iceland. In 2018, Iceland’s president, Guðni Jóhannesson, expressed his conviction that pineapple pizza, Canada’s gift to the culinary world, should be banned. Diplomatic outrage ensued. But, according to Hlynur Guðjónsson, Iceland’s ambassador to Canada, the dispute has now been settled. “It was finally put to rest when your prime minister and our president met during his state visit in June,” he says. “Yeah, high-level meetings, high-level meetings.”

With that obstacle out of the way came a recent event held at the Wosk Centre for Dialogue in downtown Vancouver that was specifically intended to foster more commercial ties between Iceland and British Columbia. Representatives from a number of Icelandic companies were there to pitch their services.

The connections between the two nations are considerable. The first lady of Iceland is Canadian Eliza Reid, and Canada is home to the largest population of Icelandic immigrants (and their descendants) outside of Iceland (see “On the Radar”). Per Unheim, head of public affairs and trade at the Embassy of Iceland, believes B.C.’s industries are a particularly good fit. “Iceland and British Columbia share a very strong maritime industry,” he says. “Iceland has developed a sophisticated series of industries coming out of the seafood sector. We call it the 100-percent fish model. It’s basically making all kinds of products based on every part of the fish, from cosmetics to sutures that are used to treat burns and other wounds. The biomedical field in the country has really grown out of the fishery sector.”

Among those biomedical initiatives is the use of fish skin in tissue regeneration, an innovation offered by a company called Kerecis. “I think Canadians recognize that Iceland is a bit ahead in terms of how much technology we use in our processing industry,” Unheim says. “With a small population, we’ve had to develop innovative technology that helps us prosper and grow economically without drastically increasing the size of  our population.”

The giant of Iceland’s processing industry has grown far beyond the seafood sector. Marel (the name comes from Marine Electronics) began in 1983 with three University of Iceland students who received a grant to develop a digital scale that could communicate with a dot matrix printer. From there it has become a dominant player in North American poultry and meat processing. “About 60 percent of our business is in poultry,” says Marel sales manager Haukur Johannesson. Last year the company also completed a US$540-million acquisition of Kansas-based pet food processer Wenger Manufacturing.

While Marel already has a B.C. presence, other firms at the Wosk Centre event were looking to make their first forays into the provincial market. Pétur Jakob Pétursson was there representing HPP Solutions, which sells systems that help transform fish byproducts into fish meal used in fertilizer, feed and pet food, driving profitability and eliminating waste. He cites the experience of Seattle-based client Glacier Fish Company. “Their revenue from byproducts was at 14 percent,” Pétursson says. “Now it is between 18 and 22 percent of each trip.”

Icelandic technology can also help steer the boats themselves. Hefring Marine, which includes B.C.’s Pacific Pilotage Authority among its clients, markets onboard systems that not only function like black boxes in airplanes, tracking a vessel’s route, speed and fuel consumption in real time, but also measure the G-force levels experienced by crew members as a craft strikes the waves. Then, the systems recommend the ideal speed to minimize damage and discomfort. “It’s like an assistant operator,” says Hefring’s Karl Birgir Björnsson. “You might be gaining two or three extra knots but using an excessive amount of fuel to get that.  We can calculate what your fuel consumption will be based on the environment and find a safe and efficient speed.” Björnsson says that an Icelandic insurance company called TM now offers discounts to operators using the Hefring system.

Icelandair recently instituted year-round service to Vancouver, replacing its former seasonal schedule. Ambassador Guðjónsson points out that this offers benefits extending far beyond the tourism sector. “It always has business implications, because you have more cargo space. We always see a rapid uptick in trade when you have an air hub.”

The air freight connection is essential, as B.C. is as far away from Iceland as it is possible for a Canadian province to be. Certainly an ice-free Northwest Passage would help improve Icelandic access to the West Coast. “That may happen,” says Marel’s Johannesson, “which is very unfortunate.”

In the meantime, there are many Icelanders currently among us. Unheim points to the Icelandic Canadian Club of B.C., based in the Scandinavian Community Centre in Burnaby. “Okay, the Scandinavian Community Centre name needs to change,” he says, “because Iceland and Finland are not technically part of Scandinavia. But it’s a great facility.”

If there’s pizza at their meetings, it is likely to feature seafood.

On the Radar

According to the 2021 census:

  • 101,990 people of Icelandic origin live in Canada

  • Gimli, Manitoba, is home to the world’s biggest Icelandic community outside of Iceland. The town was established in 1875 as a “reserve for Icelanders,” many of whom were fleeing poor living conditions

  • After Manitoba, B.C. has the largest number of people of Icelandic origin in Canada

  • Bilateral merchandise trade between Canada and Iceland was $209 million in 2022: Canada exported $90.3 million and imported $118.7 million in goods

Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Geographic