Cooperation between Canadian officials and Czech dissidents from days of Normalisation recalled

Canadian embassy in Prague

On Tuesday the Canadian Ambassador to Prague hosted a panel discussion at the Canadian residence recalling cooperation between Czech dissidents and Canadian officials in the years prior to the fall of communism. The event was most unusual as it brought together many of the former players: figures like Jan Urban and Jirina Siklova and former embassy officials.

In the mid-1980s a number of diplomats at the Canadian embassy went out on a limb - risking health and career over the very real possibility of being found out and declared persona non grata for helping smuggle important illegal Czechoslovak writing, known as Samizdat, in or out of the country.

Samzidat writings - illegally published texts in Czechoslovakia - were nothing if not the lifeblood of the country's small but important dissident movement. Many key texts - including works by Vaclav Havel - were smuggled out of Czechoslovakia and back to further fuel the country's opposition movement. Tuesday's panel discussion at the Canadian residence recalled not only the important role of Czechs but also of Canadian diplomatic officials. In the mid-1980s their lives were among those forever changed. Peter Bakewell was posted to the Canadian embassy in Prague in 1986: he fostered close ties with dissidents like Mrs Siklova or Mr Havel, and even helped smuggle texts out of the country. Appropriately, his bravery and example were duly honoured on Tuesday by Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg:

Karel Schwarzenberg
"Nowadays few people understand what the work of Peter Bakewell meant in that time. I worked at the time with Dr Precan and the Charter 77 movement and I was on the outside too and I know what courage (and sometimes one needed to be quite cunning) was needed to fight for human rights. And Peter had it. I think that in him Canada had a wonderful representative and we will never forget what he did."

Mr Bakewell, whose professional career has spanned numerous international positions, told those present of all his postings Czechoslovakia had been the "closest to his heart". He also made clear that he and those who followed in his footsteps at the embassy, felt a higher level of responsibility. Afterwards this is how he described his decision to help to Radio Prague:

"Well it was a big decision and a tremendous amount of stress, particularly as I was not just a diplomat but also a family man and I think of my family when I undertook to do this kind of work. I think in the two or three years following my experience in Czechoslovakia I experienced a kind of exhaustion, a physical exhaustion that was kind of a legacy of this time. But I never once regretted working with the people I worked with and made my contribution to the eventual collapse of communism, a system I grew to abhor while I was here."

Vaclav Havel
Former president Vaclav Havel, among the many guests, also commented, saying he had not seen some of those present for years. He summed up Tuesday's event like this:

"I saw some of the people here for the first time in twenty-five or thirty years, so it even took a moment to recognise who was who. I think the event was excellent and was a reminder of an important chapter from modern history or of one aspect of the situation before the fall of the Iron Curtain. People forget or even belittle it but it really was important and the Canadian diplomats who helped us, deserve all our thanks and respect."

Next Tuesday, October 16th, Radio Prague will take a closer look at the Canadian Connection from the 1980s in its feature programme.