It has been a Central American homecoming of sorts for Neil Reeder, Canada’s new ambassador to Costa Rica.
A second ambassadorial posting brings the career diplomat back to a region that fascinated him during his student-era travels.
“I think I reflect a genuine interest on the part of Canadians as well,” said the 51-year old Reeder.
In the interim, his career in Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs has taken him to Morocco, Hong Kong, the United States and the southeast Asian nation of Brunei, where he served as high commissioner. His most recent assignment was as deputy chief of mission in Mexico City.
The ambassador hails from Melfort, in the province of Saskatchewan, a town he describes “as small as you can get.” He holds degrees from the University of Saskatchewan and Ottawa’s Carleton University, bringing backgrounds in journalism and public relations to the foreign service.
Reeder’s November arrival with wife, Irene, and 15-year-old son, Ryan – the couple’s two older children attend university in Canada – coincided with the end of former ambassador Mario Laguë’s three-year term, the standard length of service in Canadian diplomatic posts.
The embassy in the Sabana neighborhood on San José’s west side is also accredited to Honduras and Nicaragua.
The Tico Times caught up with Reeder this week before a ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Costa Rica-Canada Foundation (see story below). Here’s some of what he had to say:
TT: What do you bring with your own personal experience to the ambassador’s post here?
NR: I’ve had a long-standing interest in Latin America. For a lot of young Canadian people growing up in the ’70s and ’80s (especially) for those of us in university at the time, this was an area of great interest. A lot of cooperants (volunteers) came down from Canada to work in the region and…in the promotion of peace. It’s kind of natural for many of us.
I thought this would be a nice opportunity to come back to the region, a nice opportunity to engage with a government that was very well-disposed to working with Canada.
What will it be like providing coverage to three countries rather than one?
It’s a fairly demanding schedule. You have to travel a lot. You pick the issues you want to pursue with each country. It offers a lot of scope for initiative and creativity and pushing these relationships forward.
How do you assess the state of relations with these countries?
It’s quite a diverse relationship, different relationships because of the difference in levels of development.
Costa Rica is a more mature relationship in the sense that it has graduated from official development assistance, but we still have small programs here. It’s a mature relationship we want to take to a new level.
We have tremendous Canadian investment in the country with companies like Scotiabank, now the largest private bank here, and the Four Seasons resort. But a lot of Canadians are in small businesses, bed and breakfasts and hotels. It makes for a people-to-people relationship that’s very strong. I’m proud of our community and their contribution to Costa Rica.
And with Nicaragua?
We’ve had a long development-cooperation presence in that country. We’ve always been partners. That Canada was engaged throughout the ’70s and ’80s through development programs, even during periods of conflict, is appreciated by governments in Nicaragua today.
We’re finding now a growing interest in Canadian business and investment. It’s a vote of confidence and shows that Canadians are interested in contributing directly to Youth Championships in Qatar in 1995, and from then on I decided on a career in soccer.
You moved to England in 1996 when you were only 20 years old.Was that difficult?
Moving to a new place is always tough, but I was really keen to go. When I realized that I had an opportunity to go to England, I was thrilled. I knew that I was going to face a lot of challenges but also that I would have to get through them if I wanted to make progress.
How does the style of play in England compare to Costa Rica?
There is no comparison (laughs). It is much faster and more difficult. Also, unlike here, there is constant physical contact – working hard, tussling for the ball. And I liked that.
And the fans there are really passionate.
There is a culture of respect for soccer players. Obviously there are some problems no matter where you go, but in England there is an atmosphere in the stadiums that you just do not find anywhere else in the world.
How did you find playing in the United States?
The United States came as quite a surprise. There is a good intensity to the game there, and it is growing all the time. The atmosphere is very different from Europe, but it was a good feeling to be a part of a league that is on the up.
You played all around the world.Was it difficult to be constantly on the move?
Well, more than anything else, I am very lucky, as my wife went with me and supported me in everything and soon adapted wherever we were. With Pamela, it was not that hard, as she was still a baby, and she did not really understand what was going on. That made it easier.
What are your fondest memories from your career?
My debut for Derby County against Manchester United (when he beat several players to score a memorable goal) is one. I was playing at Old Trafford, I scored, and we went on to win the game – that was brilliant. The World Cups were both great experiences as well.
Was it difficult dealing with the fame that success brought you?
You get used to it…When I was 10 or 15 years old, I went out to get autographs and photos. So I understood, and I think people responded to that. Pamela finds it strange because she does not understand. It bothers her sometimes, but now she asks for some paper to sign as well.
Was it a difficult decision to retire?
Yes, that was really tough. I am still young and I still have a lot of energy, but I am conscious that the knees are not up to it.
Recovering from games takes longer and it is hard work in the gym to keep the leg strong. If I did not have the problems with my knees, I am sure that I would still be playing in Europe.
So what does the future hold?
Right now, I have a project for a soccer school, and along with that I am looking toget my coaching qualifications. Also they are forming a commission (to oversee the construction of the new national stadium), and I will be part of that, suggesting ideas. I am very excited about that… it will really help sport in the country.
Do you have any regrets?
Perhaps. I think leaving England was a key moment in my career. I didn’t have any guarantees that my contract would be renewed so when the opportunity came up, Idecided to go to Spain. For various reasons, things did not really work out there, so I think that is one moment where, if I could go back, I would have changed.
Canada-C.R. Group Marks 20th
The Costa Rica-Canada Foundation, an organization “committed to the rural development of the country,” on Tuesday celebrated its 20th anniversary at a ceremony attended by Housing Minister Fernando Zumbada, Canadian Ambassador Neil Reeder and President Oscar Arias.
During the event, Arias said he was “honored” to hand over the 250,000th bond issued by the organization, 20 years after he presented the first.
The foundation works with rural organizations “to improve peoples’ quality of life, principally those in rural areas, through financial packages that promote the development of the local region.” Since its founding, the organization has funded the construction or renovation of more than 35,000 houses, benefiting more than 125,000 people. This means that at least 4% of the country’s housing stock has received finance from the foundation, according to manager Juan José Umaña.
Officials also said that this year the foundation expects to invest 12 billion colones ($24 million) in bonds and credits for housing projects and small businesses.
Speaking at the ceremony, Canadian Ambassador Neil Reeder said, “This is one of Canada’s most successful aid programs, having been started by a contribution of $10 million from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Today it is a sustainable scheme, which has received awards for its good management and focus on solidarity.”