Czech ambassador to Canada on energy security and the country's Volhynian Czechs
Czech ambassador to Canada on energy security and the country's Volhynian Czechs
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Bořek Lizec is not just Czechia’s ambassador to Canada but also a man on a mission to track down the history of the many Czech communities in North America. He recently visited Radio Prague International’s studios to talk about Czechia’s search for Russian energy alternatives, as well as about his encounters with Canada’s Volhynian Czechs. I began by asking him what it is like to be an ambassador during a time of significant international tension brought about by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
“I feel that diplomacy has once again become something that I recognise from those old publications, when diplomacy really mattered both in terms of the numbers of lost lives and in terms of the survival of some countries, including our own.”
“I certainly feel that the current situation in the world since Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, that goes against those values that certainly both us Czechs and Canadians believe in, has changed something.
“I feel that diplomacy has once again become something that I recognise from those old publications, when diplomacy really mattered both in terms of the numbers of lost lives and in terms of the survival of some countries, including our own.
“So I certainly feel that responsibility and that is something new, I think, in my profession.”
Canada is a major producer of crude oil and it is also the fifth largest producer of natural gas. Prime Minister Petr Fiala asked ambassadors in August to look especially into questions of energy diplomacy. Are there any matters in terms of energy cooperation that Czechia is currently looking into with Canada and, if not, why is that?
On Canada helping the EU with the energy crisis: “The problem is that Canada has basically no infrastructure when it comes to getting the gas from the prairies in the west to the east coast.”
“It is certainly a very important topic for me and for the Czech Republic, the enormous resources and natural wealth in Canada. We are certainly aware of that and, in that respect we are not an exception.
“The whole European Union has been discussing all possible opportunities with Canada on how they can help us with the current energy crisis. We also have to look at it with a long-term view, since our final long-term vision is to become independent of Russian oil.
“We are therefore not just looking at the immediate situation, but also that in the long run. In both of these terms we have been talking to our Canadian friends and how they can help.
“The biggest challenge is in the short-term scenario, how they can help us with this current crisis especially when it comes to this winter.
“The problem is that Canada has basically no infrastructure when it comes to getting the gas from the prairies in the west to the east coast. That is a big problem.
“I think it is also important for Canada that we look at the changes we need to make in terms of preventing global warming.”
“In terms of future energy exports, Canada has been focusing on the west coast, towards Asia. As some of your listeners may know, there was also a setback in terms of strengthening the capacity of Canadian oil and gas energy exports to the United States, when the Keystone XL pipeline was cancelled at the beginning of the term of the current US president.
“Now, everything is of course on the table. I am sure that Canada is looking into all options to help us as quickly as possible. Again, your listeners may have heard that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was in Canada recently.
“I think it is also important for Canada that we look at the changes we need to make in terms of preventing global warming. These are aims that the EU and Canada share.
“This is one of those long-term perspectives that I was talking about. For example, the ability of Canada to contribute with green hydrogen, meaning hydrogen that would be produced from renewable sources especially wind energy from the east coast.”
You must have had the opportunity to speak with many of your colleagues during the ambassadors meeting in Prague in August. What were they saying? Where could Czechia or the EU find energy sources?
“I think that the critical term is that this is an ‘energy crisis’. This is why our prime minister set this as an important priority for our diplomatic corps.
“We have now been given this task as diplomats that each of us looks into the available options, try to communicate them with our government and try to come up with long-term and short-term solutions.”
What about questions relating to security? Can there be any more cooperation when it comes to security between the EU and Canada, or Czechia and Canada specifically?
“For sure. Cooperation in this area has already been quite substantial. The first deputy chief of staff of our army visited Canada this spring, in June, so there is continued communication between our armies.
“This is also related to the fact that Czech soldiers and Canadian soldiers have served side by side in protecting Latvia for several years now. Czech soldiers are under Canadian command in the so-called Enhanced Forward Presence NATO mission in Latvia. This, of course, has a huge impact on how our armies are able to work together.
“There are also other projects going on between both our armies. We have a Canadian representative to our Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (JCBRN) Defence Centre of Excellence in Vyškov and I could name some more.”
And this cooperation has been strengthening since February 24th?
“For example in Latvia, just to add on it, Canada is the lead nation committed in enhancing the NATO presence in that country as part of the Enhanced Forward Presence [NATO] mission, so this will of course also include the countries that are contributing to it.
“So, yes, as you said, the alliance is an important platform where this cooperation is taking place, but bi-lateral cooperation is an essential part of it.”
To go a bit on a lighter topic, you were recently traveling through Canada’s prairies yourself, specifically Saskatchewan and Manitoba where you visited the local Czech community. Last year, you were telling us about what you had learned of the Czechs in Alberta, so I was wondering what you had found out about the Czechs in the prairies this time?
On traveling through Canada’s prairies: “I found that a significant number of the Czech community who live there are descended from the Czechs who came from Volhynia.”
“Yes, there is certainly more that I learned. This time I visited Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
“What was interesting was that what I had read in the literature, the old books, ahead of my travels, was confirmed to me. I found that a significant number of the Czech community who live there are descended from the Czechs who came from Volhynia. This is particularly apparent in the prairies.
“I went, for example, to a community in the north of Manitoba called Minitonas. They contributed substantially during the Second World War. This is a community that left the Czech lands in the early 1700s. They went through Germany and Poland to Volhynia.
“They were among the people who emigrated after the Battle of White Mountain [fought in 1620 at the beginning of the Thirty Years War]. They stayed in Volhynia a long time and then they moved to Canada, so it has now been basically more than 300 years [since they left the Czech lands].
“I was really surprised that this particular community spoke the most Czech that I have yet seen. What was also shocking to me was that the leader of this community, Jerry Vítězslav Marek, spoke Czech like any other Czech in Czechia. You wouldn’t be able to say that he wasn’t born here.
“It is typical for Czech Canadians, even for those of later generations, that the Velvet Revolution was an important milestone for them. Many of them decided to go to Czechia, or what was still Czechoslovakia at that time, to help the country get back on its feet. This was also the case with Jerry Vítězslav Marek who came to Czechia to teach English with his wife and help our country that way.
“So that would be one experience, but of course I had many others. There was a Volhynian community I visited in a community called Gerald, which arrived to Canada before the end of the 19th century. They were telling me many stories about how important Czech heritage still is to them.
“What caught my attention was that they were asking each other if they still plant poppy seed in their gardens. They were saying that they make it as smooth as possible by keeping some of the old instruments that allow them to do that.”
Given that they are Volhynian Czechs, so Czechs who at some point would have lived in Volhynia, today’s western Ukraine, did they ever talk about the conflict? How did they feel about it?
“I think they certainly have that and I would say that in general for Czechs, with the history that we have, this is a difficult situation in terms of these terrible historic parallels, whether it be with the Russian invasion of 1968, or with taking a sacrifice and losing a part of the country only for the promises of the aggressor not to be kept, like when Adolf Hitler didn’t have enough after he carved off the Sudetenland.
“The same with Vladimir Putin for whom Crimea was not enough. This in spite of what both of them were saying originally.”
And do these Volhynian Czechs also feel any connection to Ukraine?
“I think that with the Volhynian Czechs there is of course a stronger sentiment to have a direct connection to Ukraine and those parts that are now under siege. On the other hand, they always consider themselves Czechs and also left Volhynia.
“I would say what plays a role is that often the ultimate impulse for them to leave that region was the Bolshevik revolution. They were leaving under a lot of stress. Often, after many decades of building something that they thought would be a future for their children, they then realised that everything was lost and taken away from them. So there are also some bitter memories from the past related to their stay in Vohlynia.”
Bořek Lizec will also be our guest in next week’s Sunday Music Show, where we will look at his latest project celebrating the 110th anniversary of the birth of Czech-Canadian pianist Jiří (George) Traxler. More information about the project, including a history of Czech Canadians that features many unique images, can be found on the website: www.traxler110.cz