As a child, Anne Gerard van Leeuwen dreamt of becoming an explorer. But with no more white spots to fill in on the world map, he uncovered another way to fulfill this dream: by becoming a diplomat, or a modern-day explorer of sorts.
“What an explorer does is telling the folks back home what he has explored, what he has found, and what his findings are and that’s what a diplomat does as well of course,” said Mr. van Leeuwen, sitting in his downtown office on July 22, the two-year anniversary of his arrival in Toronto as the Netherlands’ consul general in the city. “You explore what’s going on in that country or city where you are based…and you report back to headquarters.”
Mr. van Leeuwen had been interested in international relations since high school. He then decided to study social anthropology in university to satisfy his interest in other people and cultures and how they all connected.
“People might argue that even the diplomatic corps or the whole culture of diplomacy is kind of a tribe that deserves some anthropological analysis,” he said with a chuckle.
He’s never regretted his decision to join the foreign service.
“I was educated and brought up by my parents with a view that there was more in the world than only the Netherlands, the world is much bigger than that and very interesting, and you should go and explore that.”
‘You can’t have a better start’
Mr. van Leeuwen started out his career of exploration abroad in 1993 at the Dutch Embassy in Suriname. He handled press relations and worked as the personal assistant to the ambassador, who he said was a great mentor.
“You can’t have a better start as a young diplomat and a better learning experience I think than as a diplomat being in that particular country with that particular history that we shared,” he said.
Suriname, located in northeastern South America, was a Dutch colony until 1975. At the time of his posting, some residents were unhappy with the Netherlands’ influence in the country, meaning protests were often held outside the Dutch mission. He also spent a few years in Indonesia, also a former Dutch colony, and a country he grew up interested in.
Back in the Netherlands, Mr. van Leeuwen worked with Jan Pronk, Dutch minister for development co-operation during the '90s. There was an emerging focus on trying to prevent conflicts in places like Sudan, Afghanistan and western Africa. Mr. van Leeuwen dealt primarily with Liberia. Since the Netherlands had the presidency of the European Union at the time, it was trying to get other EU countries interested in Liberia to establish democracy, promote fair and free elections and disarm local factions.
Mr. van Leeuwen also had a stint at the Dutch Embassy in Ottawa from 2000 to 2006, where he was head of the press and public affairs section and tried to raise the profile of his country, not a difficult task given the connection between the two countries.
Before arriving in Toronto, he was head of his foreign ministry’s consular affairs division, meaning he was working with difficult situations that involved Dutch citizens abroad. This included a plane crash in Libya in which dozens of Dutch citizens were killed.
The Dutch touch
Mr. van Leeuwen points outside his office window at all the cranes spread out across Toronto’s horizon, evidence of new buildings “mushrooming” across the city.
An expanding city also means growing pains, challenges that the Netherlands, a densely populated country, can help with, Mr. van Leeuwen said.
Waste and water management are a couple of examples, he said.
“Our slogan is it’s a waste to waste waste,” Mr. van Leeuwen said, adding that a very small percentage of waste in the Netherlands ends up in landfills.
“The practice used to be at least that this country is so big and so empty, you just drive up north, you dig a hole and you dump,” he said. “Now people here in Toronto, in Canada, they [have come] to realize, that’s not healthy, you can’t do that.”
“So the Dutch expertise…in waste management is very relevant for Canada.”
People have to see waste as a resource, not a problem, he said, adding that it can be used to produce energy.
The Dutch can also consult on watershed management, Mr. van Leeuwen said, while discussing the Don River, which runs through Toronto, and the tendency for flooding after a rainfall.
“Water management is in our DNA,” he said. “We built that country—we claimed it from the water, and we had to fight against the water.”
In that regard, the consulate has been in touch with those at city hall, provincial legislators, Waterfront Toronto and local businesses.
The Dutch consulate, which includes consular, economic and general administrative sections, has a small staff of about 10 people: two diplomats and locally-engaged staff. The consulate also houses two or three interns from Dutch universities for about six or seven months at a time.
It also acts as a representative for countries like Aruba or Sint Maarten, which are part of the kingdom of the Netherlands.
Mr. van Leeuwen is in Toronto with his wife Ivon Kemper and his dog Snor, which means moustache in Dutch. It’s fitting given that Snor has a moustache and, well, snores.
A royal visit and veterans
The first half of the year was a busy time for the consulate’s staff.
King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands visited Canada in May, which meant preparations started at the beginning of the year. The delegation included cabinet ministers, about 70 Dutch businesses and others.
The consulate was busy matchmaking so that the Dutch businesspeople could connect with Canadian counterparts during the trip. They also organized a seminar on climate change and resilient cities, where the king gave a keynote address.
The consulate and the Dutch community had another big event in May at Nathan Phillips Square to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands by Canadian armed forces.
Many of the Canadian veterans would be in their nineties and unable to travel to the Netherlands, where they would be greeted as heroes, so the event in Toronto was another way to say thank you to them, said Mr. van Leeuwen.
He said they encouraged young people to go and speak with veterans and hear their stories.
“It’s an important story, it’s a story about international solidarity, about cruelty of war and never having it happen again,” said Mr. van Leeuwen, calling the event a “highlight” of his two years in Toronto so far.
Toronto-based journalist and former Embassy staff writer Sneh Duggal writes columns for Embassy on foreign consulates in Canada.
Rapid fire with the Dutch consul general
Favourite Toronto restaurant?
Home. My wife is an amazing cook, I have a nice house. What I do is I entertain a lot at home…as many opportunities that there are, I take them and I invite people and I do a reception or I do a dinner party. My wife often prepares the dishes herself because she’s good at it, and she loves to do it.
I’ve been an ornithologist, or birdwatcher, all my life. So when I have the opportunity I go out with my binoculars and watch birds…or other animals, wildlife in general.
If you could choose any other career, what would it be?
I think a job that is very interesting, very relevant, very important and very closely linked to what diplomats do is being a journalist, and particularly of course an international correspondent. I think it’s a very important job and the people have a very high responsibility to be fair and honest and precise. I have great admiration for journalists.
Typical Sunday afternoon?
I could be in the garden with my dog and my wife, having a good time there, or with friends and receive people at home. I could go out on my own bird-watching or…I’m a golf player as well so I like to go out and be on the golf courses also, a very nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.