They say everything is bigger in Texas. But for someone from Austria, the European country only slightly larger than New Brunswick, everything is bigger in Canada.
After Austrian Ambassador Arno Riedel arrived in Canada in October 2012 he said he impressed his friends by telling them his new posting has six time zones.
Austria is home to 8.3 million people spread across the peaks and valleys of an 83,870 square-kilometre Alpine country, whereas 35 million Canadians live in an area more than 100 times that size.
While this is his first ambassadorial post in the Americas, it’s not his first time in Canada. He got a sense of the massive country when he visited as a tourist during his university days. He studied economics and later diplomacy, and he travelled to Toronto, Montreal and the Rocky Mountains.
“Whereas in the Alps, even a little valley is populated…here, you find huge [areas] where there is nobody,” said the 59-year-old, spreading his arms wide while seated in his office in his Sandy Hill embassy.
“This is what is striking, yes.”
The landscape’s beauty helped draw him back. His 15-year-old son Julian and 13-year-old daughter Annachiara said, “Let’s go to Canada,” he recalls. “And they got their say.”
But dad wanted to go too, he notes.
The kids picked it for the nature and space available to develop themselves, he said. He also brought along his wife, Loretta Loria-Riedel.
On the day he sat down with Embassy at the end of January, he was thinking of taking the family to Quebec to ski during the kids’ school break.
He’s an alpine sports fan, but was given some “good advice” from a Canadian, he said with a laugh, to familiarize himself with hockey.
(Ironically, the National Hockey League was in the midst of a lockout when he arrived, and “all the Canadians, they had quite a long face.”)
He said he was also well advised to get out of Ottawa and explore Canada’s vastness. Travel is his ambition. He wants to go north to see the Northern Lights, the snow, breathe the clean air, and see the prospects for development at a time of climate change.
He swapped snow for sun when he presented his credentials in Jamaica earlier this month.
But even two very different-sized countries like Canada and Austria can have a lot in common.
As part of a strong education partnership he would like to nurture during his posting, Austria’s University of Innsbruck and the University of Alberta in Edmonton have a comparative mountain studies program.
Both countries have also faced similar challenges with integrating newcomers. Austria’s secretary of state for integration met with Foreign Minister John Baird and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney last summer during a visit to check out what Austria can learn from the Canadian system. More than 500,000 persons of foreign origin were residents of Vienna in January 2011, making up roughly a third of the city’s total population.
You can’t just take one country’s system and translate it exactly into another setting, said Mr. Riedel. But Austria’s interested in learning from or taking some aspects of the Canadian system.
And the conclusion of a Canada-European Union free trade deal “will have also positive effects on Canada’s relations with EU member states,” he said.
Austria and Canada already have strong investment in each other.
Magna founder and billionaire Frank Stronach was born in Austria and recently started a political party there in advance of this autumn’s parliamentary elections. True to his career-diplomat form, though, Mr. Riedel is wary of talking politics.
One thing he will elaborate on is his previous postings.
“I had, what you call, certainly well-ordered postings and rather adventurous postings,” he said with a little laugh.
Some of those “adventurous” ones include his three years in Iran from 1987 to 1990 during the Iraq-Iran war. Being in a country during such upheaval and witnessing historic events like the funeral of Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 was “a lifetime experience,” he said.
He was also posted in Albania’s capital, Tirana, between 1998 and 2001 during the Kosovo war and associated refugee crisis.
While his crisis management skills aren’t being put to use in the same way in Canada—the two countries do not have problems, he noted—it adds to his understanding of the discussion in Canada of whether and to what extent the international community should intervene in Mali, for instance, he said.
Meanwhile, he’s had no crises getting to know folks in the Ottawa diplomatic scene. He went out of his way to note the warm welcome he’s received.