A celebration of Czech-Canadian friendship in Ottawa
On the occasion of Czech Statehood Day, the Czech Embassy in Canada organized a gala evening in Ottawa, awarding EU presidency medals to the Czech-Canadians who helped mold the close relationship between the two nations.
“Canada has stood by the Czech nation ever since Professor Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk launched his campaign for the creation of Czechoslovakia during World War I. It helped to create the modern Czech statehood, save it during WWII as well as keep its democratic traditions alive after Czechoslovakia became a part of the Soviet empire for four long decades.
Canada is home to the second largest Czech diaspora in the world. Czech-Canadians have played a central role in the story of Czech-Canadian friendship for more than a century.”
The words there of Czech Ambassador to Canada Bořek Lizec who undertook a project aimed at mapping the lives and work of the Czech-Canadians who strengthened the Czech-Canadian bond over the years and who fought to defend the values of freedom and democracy that the two nations share.
These are personalities like entrepreneur Tomas Bata, founder of the global Bata shoe empire, Mr. František Pavlásek, who became the first Czechoslovak Ambassador to Canada, the Škvorecký couple, who by founding the 68 Publishers publishing house basically saved independent Czech literature of the Cold War era or Czech-Canadian singer, arranger and pianist Jiří Traxler, who co-defined the Czechoslovak First Republic’s swing music era.
This week Ambassador Lizec hosted an event in Ottawa that celebrated the ties that bind the two nations and the legacy of the Canadian-Czechs who forged them. In connection with the ongoing Czech presidency of the EU, Czechia awarded EU presidency medals and diplomas to notable personalities who developed Czech-Canadian ties. Most of them came from generations of Canadian-Czechs who cherished the legacy of their old homeland and worked hard to promote bilateral ties.
The first recipient was Tomas A. Bata -the great-grandson of Tomáš Baťa, founder of the Czechoslovak Global Shoe Empire Baťa.
The presidency medals were handed out by Czech Transport Minister Martin Kupka before an audience of Canadian-Czechs, business leaders, politicians and cultural figures. And each name was greeted with a burst of applause from the audience.
Among those honored were, Karina Gould, Canadian minister of families, children and social development who has Czech roots and is a great supporter of Czech-Canadian cooperation, Canadian MP John Brassard who established the Canada-Czech Republic Parliamentary Friendship Group, Tomáš J. F. Pavlásek, professor of the prestigious McGill University and son of Mr. František Pavlásek, the first Czechoslovak Ambassador to Canada, Robert Tmej President of Sokol Canada, and Ludmila Zeman Czech-Canadian filmmaker and internationally renowned illustrator and author of childrens’ books, daughter of world-renowned Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman.
The commemorative medals they received were minted by Česka Mincovna – the Czech mint. One with a Czech lion, symbol of Czech statehood, the other dedicated to the Czech tollar, an important European currency, created more than 500 years ago in Bohemia, which eventually spread to North America and gave the name to the currencies in Canada and the United States.
Celebrating the legacy of musician Jiří Traxler
The gala evening, which took place on the eve of St. Wenceslas Day, also marked the 110th anniversary of the birth of the celebrated Canadian-Czech musician Jiří Traxler, with contemporary Czech musicians from different genres such rock singer Marta Jandová or as opera singer Adam Plachetka performing his songs.
The country’s most famous opera singer of the present day was clearly enjoying the occasion.
“This is a great event. And very inspiring. Because there are so many wonderful, successful personalities, expats who have made their name abroad and who aren’t so well known back in Czechia. So I am delighted to be able to hear their stories and find out all about them. Jiri Traxler is a case in point. His music is not exactly my genre –so I admit I didn’t know about him – but when I was invited to sing some of his songs I agreed and really enjoyed it.”
A new vinyl record featuring Traxler’s music interpreted by musicians of different genres called TRAXLER 110 received its ceremonial christening at the Gala Evening of the Czech Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The musicians who came together to make it include Czech-American global rock star Jim Peterik, Czech rocker Petr Janda and contemporary jazz and swing musicians, like Jan Smigmator or The Swings. Some of them sang live at the event. The album is now being handed out as an official gift during the Czech presidency of the European Union.
On the ties that bind
Karina Gould, Canadian minister of families, children and social development, says the gala evening was a revelation and struck a deep chord because her great-grandparents came from the Czech town of Žatec.
“I have to say - what a beautiful evening it was! It was great to hear all these Czech musicians singing here in Canada. I have spent a lot of time in the Czech Republic and my Czech friends are always into music so it made me nostalgic for them.”
Regarding the medal you received– what does it mean to you?
“I am so honoured! I am very proud of it. Normally, as a member of the Canadian government, I am the one handing out the medals, I don’t usually get them, so this was very special for me. When we were watching the opening video I was very emotional because the history of the Czech Republic, of Czechoslovakia, is my family’s history and all of the things that the Czech people have gone through –that’s what my family went through. It is really nice to maintain that connection all these years later. I spoke about my great-grandfather’s linen shop in Žatec and it is always amazing to go back and see it. In my grandmother’s house there was always a painting of the main square in Žatec and she would say – that is our home – that’s where we are from. To maintain that connection is quite special.”
Although Canadian MP John Brassard has no Czech connection, he established the Canada-Czech Republic Parliamentary Friendship Group a few years ago and says there is plenty to build on.
“What the group is about is really fostering the relationship between Canada and the Czech Republic. Historically our countries have been aligned in many ways – economically, militarily, we share the same sentiment for democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights. A lot of those shared values form the base of this relationship and what the group is all about. One thing we are trying to do is to promote and foster economic development and cooperation between the two countries. There’s a lot in terms of science and innovation, the military connection is still strong between our two countries and so we are trying to build on those relationships.
"Right now it is a parliamentary friendship group, but eventually I would like to see it elevated to a parliamentary association where we are having formal, bilateral discussions. It really is a non-partisan group. We have members on our side in the Canadian Parliament that belong to all the parties in Parliament and it really is about having a conversation and connecting and making sure that business leaders are meeting with business leaders, military leaders are meeting with military leaders, members of parliament are meeting with each other, to really build on this historical relationship that Canada and the Czech Republic have and have had for a long period of time.”
On helping Ukraine
Inevitably, the talk at the gala evening turned to a subject that has been at the forefront of public attention for some time now and is a matter of global concern –the war in Ukraine. John Brassard again.
“In an era of uncertainty around the world there is one thing that is certain and that it that the Czech Republic and Canada adhere to the same values –the principles of freedom and democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights, those are critical, and no less critical now with the Czech Republic’ s ascension to the presidency of the European Council. They have a lot of influence and the values that we share can be utilized by the Czech Republic in their presidency – particularly with respect for human rights.
"The Czech Republic and Canada have worked together to make sure that we are a safe haven for Ukrainian people who are fleeing from the invasion. I know the Czech Republic has stepped up in a big way - 400,000 Ukrainians have gone to the Czech Republic and they have been welcomed by the Czech people and the Czech government. Those are the kind of things that we can work together on to make sure that we do respect human rights and values around the world. And some of the discussions that I have been having these days are the issues that are being faced in the EU with respect to energy. Russia is holding the EU hostage and Canada can play a role in providing clean Canadian energy.”
Karina Gould, Canada’s minister of families, children and social development stressed the need for the two countries to continue helping Ukraine and for the bond between Canada and the EU to stay strong.
“What we are seeing in Ukraine right now hits particularly close because these are things that we thought were things of the past – the annexation of territory but also the atrocities that we are seeing –children being taken away from their parents and shipped to various parts of Russia...It is absolutely devastating and horrifying…people having to flee violence and persecution. I know we see it all the time, all around the world – but that does not make it any easier. As I said in my remarks, the connection between Canada, the EU and NATO is so strong and so deep and we need to make sure that we continue to support each other, but also to support Ukrainians.”
It is possible to listen to the Traxler110 record on the website: https://traxler110.cz/ The site also contains a biography of Jiří Traxler, as well as the digital version of the accompanying booklet looking into the history of Czechs in Canada.