Inside the Costa Rican retreat of Manitoba’s premier

Brian Pallister controversially spends weeks of the year in Costa Rica. So Maclean’s went in search of the premier’s foreign office.
(L): Brian Pallister's home in Winnipeg. (Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press); (R): Brian Pallister's Costa Rica home is perched on a hill overlooking a private valley and the ocean in Tamarindo.
(L): Brian Pallister’s home in Winnipeg. (Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press); (R): Brian Pallister’s Costa Rica home is perched on a hill overlooking a private valley and the ocean in Tamarindo.

The Costa Rican retreat of Manitoba’s premier, Brian Pallister, is not exactly the humble, weekend getaway you might expect from a prairie premier known to tout his modest farming roots.

Its entryway, a series of stone steps leading through a small pond, opens to an open-concept living room. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the Pacific Ocean, an azure pool in the foreground. Just beyond is the Pallisters’ 35-acre, private tropical forest, cut by a river. It is part of a valley sloping from their home to the sea. It’s home to giant iguanas and howler monkeys, whose low, guttural whoops announce the arrival of the morning. Natural swim holes abound in the valley, created by waterfalls or the sudden widening of the river as it twists its way to the Pacific.

Pallister employs a guard to keep watch through the night in a tidy villa at the base of the driveway. (To live in such a secluded hideaway in Costa Rica is not without risk.)

The surrounding hilltops are barely populated. The Pallisters’ eight neighbours, who hail from around the world—France, Germany, Israel and the U.S.—have built discreet compounds into the distant hills; none is within shouting distance. Just up the road is a six-room, $850-a-night boutique hotel that provides guests with free Cohibas.

Around here, locals know the six-foot-eight Manitoba premier, often seen speeding past on the empty roads in his silver SUV, as the “super tall gringo.” None seem to know what he does for a living. Diario Extra, a brash, San Jose tabloid known for explosive investigations, and some of the country’s best crime writing, came out to write about the part-time Rican who is also a Canadian politician. It was a solid piece, but for the photo: They had the wrong house.

Indeed, finding Pallister is no easy feat. There are no street names in Costa Rica, not even in the capital, San Jose, a city of two million. Getting here meant driving through a two-foot-deep river, up a gravel road so steep the car couldn’t make it up. The Pallister driveway is at a sharp, 60 degree angle—an “I-don’t-want-to-be-f–king-found” property, as one local described it.

The premier, barefoot and dressed in a faded, blue Under Armour shirt and navy shorts, likes it this way. He’s “not a city guy,” he says, and doesn’t get to town much. The bustle of Tamarindo, a surfing hotspot known around the world, doesn’t appeal to him. The last time he even visited the beach, he says, was in December, with his two daughters: Shawn, 20, a basketball player with the University of Winnipeg Wesmen, and Quinn, a 25-year-old actuary.

When Maclean’s arrived at his door unannounced, he warmly invited this reporter inside, offering a quick tour of the house and a view of where he sits to take care of his government duties while out of the country for many weeks of the year.

Everything he needs is here: a basketball half-court for shooting hoops, a shaded porch for reading. The guesthouse was transformed to a gym, with treadmills and weights. Two large satellite dishes keep him connected; a transformer ensures he can power the place. But the pool he pretty much ignores. “Esther’s the swimmer,” he says. When he needs to, he and his wife get around in a silver Land Cruiser, and a pair of Honda ATVs. He’s not totally alone, though; his wife and two old friends have joined them.

His absence from Manitoba has been a subject of much controversy back home. During last year’s election, he came under fire after getting caught lying about his time here. When he left Manitoba on Friday, it was again amid a storm of controversy. Divisions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Manitobans over treaty hunting rights risk “becoming a race war,” he said at a speech in Virden, Man., which was recorded by a local radio station. After nine days in the tropics he still refuses to apologize for the loaded language: “Young Indigenous men—a preponderance of them are offenders, with criminal records—are going off shooting guns in the middle of the night. It doesn’t make sense.”

NDP MLA Wab Kinew, who says he never hunts at night, called the premier’s words awful and offensive. “There are reasonable people on all sides of the issue,” he said. “But the problem is reasonable voices get crowded out by inflammatory comments like ‘race war.’ The premier’s got to own up to that. He’s got to recognize this was reckless and he should apologize.”

But Pallister is left alone, in his mountaintop retreat. For the time being, away from his office at the provincial legislature, he doesn’t have to face a barrage of questions from reporters, or angry calls for apologies from the opposition NDP. By the time he returns to Winnipeg, the controversy will likely have faded from memory. Critics, though, wonder what the premier would do if some tragedy struck in Manitoba requiring his attention (he was here, for instance, for a 14-day stretch during the Manitoba floods of 2014). From Tamarindo, it could take two days to get to the site of an emergency, say travel agents.

At the very edge of Pallisters’ tended yard is a little bit of home: a single Adirondack chair, what the premier calls his “meditation spot.” He plans to spend about two months of the year here, his Costa Rican office—”working holidays,” as he calls them.

“It’s easier to work here than in Manitoba, where I’m constantly interrupted by meetings,” he says. He has a conference call with senior staff every other day. “If there’s anything else, there’s email and text,” he adds.

He says he spends a lot of time reading up on projects.

Indeed, an environmental report on the Delta Marsh sits on the glass table in front of him. Carrying out a black leather briefcase from the living room, he pulls out a December report to parliament on cannabis legalization, budget papers, and more.

Where does he take the calls, and do all that reading? “Right here,” he says, pointing to his shaded, poolside deck. This is the unofficial office of the premier, but there is no home office in sight.

Pallister says he and his wife started visiting Guanacaste province a decade ago. Originally they were here to visit friends, then quickly fell in love with place. The arid northwest province has none of the humid rainforests that define the rest of the country. In many ways, it’s not unlike Manitoba; this, too, was also once farm country. It’s populated by the kind of unassuming, warm, family-oriented folks you might find on the southern prairie. Its open highways are also lined with lonely, gnarled trees that have seen generations grow old.

The big difference, of course, being the weather. It is around 30° C on this day. Back home, Manitobans were enjoying a high of -7° C.

“Esther and I saved for 30 years to buy this,” he says, as he walked me down his steep driveway, in bare feet. In a way, it’s too bad Manitobans don’t get to see more of their premier this way: Unbuttoned, relaxed, chasing the pura vida.