“Our strengths lie in similar fields”, says Czech ambassador to Canada

Bořek Lizec

Bořek Lizec has been serving as the Czech ambassador to Canada since 2019. This summer he returned to Prague for the first time since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Radio Prague International caught up with him to discuss Czechs in Canada and bilateral relations. I began by asking him what it’s like to lead an embassy during a pandemic.

“It was certainly a challenge. I had arrived to assume my post in Canada just ahead of the pandemic breaking out. We had to switch everything to the online world, which was not easy. One could only create contacts with people through the online world. There was no opportunity to meet at events which meant that there was also a lack of any impulses that you would normally get during such occasions. This was a limiting factor that I appreciate more now that I was able to take my first trip after such a long time.”

We were talking about that just ahead of the interview – it has been two years since your last trip back to the Czech Republic. That brings me to my next question: What do Czechs in Canada most miss about their homeland, and what are you specifically focusing on to bring home to them?

“I think that they certainly miss Czech culture, so that is certainly something that I keep in mind. Our main focus, indeed our main role over there, is to help strengthen our ties with Canada. That means that we are trying to bring Czech cultural projects to all Canadians and not just Czechs who live there. On the other hand, I know that Czechs and Czech-Canadians greatly appreciate these projects and love to attend and enjoy those events.”

As far as cultural events are concerned, you’ve been posting about you recent tour through Alberta on Facebook. Is there anything coming up this year that you would like to mention to the expat community?

Newspaper Together To Victory 2020 | Photo: Radio Prague International

“I am using my time in Prague now as an opportunity to meet people with whom I have been in contact with for quite some time now, even before I was posted to Canada. I can tell you that we have major plans for Canada, but unfortunately it is still relatively hard to be able to make firm commitments that we will be able to bring guests to Canada. The country has not yet opened its borders to foreigners.

“The Canadian government announced that, if everything goes well, borders would be opened from September 7. We are hoping that this takes place, but it is not something that I can promise. However, I would like to invite them to join our National Day celebrations, which we will organise either in person or as an online event.”

There are also elections coming up and Czechs abroad often complain that when they are abroad they have to vote in person by turning up at the embassy, or consulate. This can be complicated in large countries. However, postal voting may become possible for Czech expats in subsequent elections. Is this something that would be welcomed by Czechs in Canada? Have you heard anything about that from people living there?

“I often hear about that. I also served in the United States in the past, so I know that this would be greatly appreciated. On the other hand, I think that the number of people who live in North America and actually participate in the Czech elections is not very big. Nevertheless, I think that this symbolic option is very important for them and to many of us who believe in that.

Czech Ambassador Bořek Lizec and Canadian Ambassador Sara Hradecky whose family members came from Czechoslovakia and co-founded Batawa | Photo: archive of Bořek Lizec

“But, as I say –and I know this from my time as consul in Chicago, which I am sure had thousands of voters who were eligible to cast their vote in the elections – only a small fraction of them turned up at the consulate to cast their vote.”

But this number would surely increase through postal voting, no?

“It would, but it would still be limited. There would not be a major turnout, even if postal voting were possible. One reason for this is that a relatively large number of the Czechs who possess Canadian citizenship simply feel that they do not live in the Czech Republic and do not feel confident about deciding in that country’s politics. I hear that quite often from them.”

Staying on current affairs topics, I wanted to move to bilateral trade, which has substantially increased over the past decade, receiving a further boost after the signing of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between the EU and Canada in 2016. Do you think the presence of this agreement will also help speed up the recovery in trade between the two countries?

“Both I and the Canadian officials that I meet with believe that CETA can be a tool to help us in the post-Covid recovery. My colleagues from other EU member states also agree with me that we are very proud of this achievement. We see still see big potential for good things to come from it. The effects of the pandemic prevented us from taking full advantage of the agreement.

“Nevertheless, some provisions are very important for Czech and Canadian companies. From my experience as consul in Chicago I remember, for example, how difficult it was sometimes for Czech companies to bring technicians to the US to work on their contracts. With CETA, this has become incredibly easy.”

Photo: archive of Bořek Lizec

As an ambassador you of course have to follow events in Canada and Czechia very closely. You are also privy to information that most people do not have. If you were living in Canada not as an ambassador but just as a Czech, what sort of business would you go into right now? Is there any area of trade that you believe Czechs living in Canada could have a particular opportunities in?

“That is an interesting question. I do not have that ambition, but I must tell you that there is actually quite an interesting similarity between Canada and the Czech Republic – we are quite complimentary and our strengths lie in similar fields. The IT and ICT sectors are both areas where I see a lot of potential for cooperation. The car industry, aerospace, defence and some areas of artificial intelligence also have that potential.

“A great example of these growing ties is, for example, the recent acquisition of Colt by Ceska Zbrojovka (CZ Group). Colt has of course a large Canadian division. This is one example where we worked together in the areas of business and defence. Our nanotechnologies are currently of significant interest to Canadians.

“The same can be said for our technologies relating to batteries and electricity storage. For example, I visited Quebec last summer where they are searching for our technologies and capabilities on the backdrop of the major changes currently happening in the aerospace industries. I was very impressed by that.”

Both countries also have very good video game studios…

Bořek Lizec,  Stephen Harper | Photo: archive of Bořek Lizec

“Absolutely. Speaking about the online world, we even switched our economic diplomacy to that. We were offering Czech companies to take part in online tradeshows that were organised in Canada. One of them was concerned with the gaming industry and many Czech companies took part in it.”

If we move a bit back in time now, last year we spoke about a special online event called Together for Victory that you were organising on the occasion of Czechoslovak Independent Day on October 28. In it you paid tribute to the Czechs and Canadians who helped in the struggle to liberate Czechoslovakia during the Second World War. Have you had any opportunity to travel through Canada since then and learn a bit more about the history of Czech Canadians there?

“That was certainly one of the things that I missed most during the coronavirus pandemic. I felt that I needed to go to the provinces to meet local representatives and with parliamentarians in their own districts. I finally got this opportunity before my trip to Prague. Alberta was the first province that began opening up so I took the chance, because I felt that the autumn season could bring about travel complications again. Alberta was a great choice, because there is a lot of Czech history in that province.

“I was very much looking forward to building on these ties. First of all, I went to visit historic Czech communities which were set up at the end of the nineteenth century. These communities helped us during both world wars, and I felt that it was time to go and thank their descendants for that.

“Fortunately, I was able to meet with the highest representatives of Alberta such as the province’s premier, Jason Kenney, and with the former prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper. Both agreed with me that the 40-year-long period of communism in Czechoslovakia artificially cut ties with these traditional communities. It was rather difficult to reconnect after this decade’s long period, and we still have work to do in this regard. I was very happy to have this chance.

Bořek Lizec | Photo: archive of Bořek Lizec

“Everywhere I went I was very warmly welcomed both by representatives of these communities and the local politicians. Members of Parliament were welcoming me in their districts and three of those I met during my trip joined the Canada-Czech Republic Friendship Group in the Canadian Parliament….

I read that the biggest emigration wave of Czechs to Canada came in and after the year 1968, which is actually relatively recently. This cohort of Czech immigrants was not as eager as previous generations to join Czech societies in Canada. Is it true that there are not as many Czechs who moved to Canada recently who want to join such societies and, if so, why is that the case?

“First of all, I would say that a relatively big growth of the community occurred between the two world wars. Before the First World War – and I think that this is something that has not yet been investigated sufficiently by historians – we can say that about one-third of the population of Canada came from Eastern Europe. The other two-thirds came from the United Kingdom and the United States.

“What is interesting in this respect is that farmland in US states such as Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois was becoming scarce. These states, which neighbour Canada to the south, were also heavily populated by Czechs. Therefore, the children and grandchildren of these Czech immigrants often went to Canada while not necessarily also claiming their Czech ancestry.

“I had a wonderful experience in a town called ‘Prague’ during my trip. Usually when you find a community in North America that is named after a Czech town; it means that it was founded by Czechs from that town. This is also the case with Prague in Alberta. However, its founders were not from the Czech capital of Prague, but rather from Prague in Oklahoma.

“That is why I say that there was this large Czech community in Canada before 1948 (the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia) and 1968 (Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia). Nevertheless, it is true that there was a big influx of Czech immigration into Canada after 1968. These people often took over positions within the Czechoslovak National Association of Canada.

“Unfortunately, just eight of the 91 branches of the association that were originally created by President Edvard Beneš during the Second World War still exist. This shows that there was a big change, and, unfortunately, it was not possible to keep in touch with those old communities for some reason.

“As for your last question, which was concerned with how popular these associations are with Czech Canadians today, I would say that you are right that it is low. For example, I visited Canmore, an old mining town in Alberta which is a flourishing tourist destination nowadays, due to its beautiful location in the Rocky Mountains. During the Second World War, it housed one of the branches of the Czechoslovak National Association of Canada.

“Today, 500 young Czechs live in this town and work in the tourist industry to take advantage of the local hiking and skiing opportunities. They are interested in culture, for example in concerts in the nearby city of Calgary, but not in re-creating or joining this association. It is a different generation. That said, they do often set up Czech schools, so the type of Czech organisations that they set up is different. Ultimately, I believe that the Czech organisations that they create will be similar to those in the US.”

Borek Lizec

On this note of your trip through Alberta and Czechs moving to Canada in the late nineteenth century, I wanted to ask about Josef Gaschnitz who is sometimes called “the greatest Czech farmer in Canada”. Could you tell us a bit about this man’s story? He sounds like an example of the Czechs who moved to Canada at the end of the 1800s.

“You’re absolutely right. I read a bit of his memoir, which is really interesting. Czechs in Canada, especially those who arrived from Europe and did not have enough financial resources to make the trip and then begin to farm, needed to get some money first. The usual way to do that was to work in the coal mines.

“Josef Gaschnitz was a champion of that method. He moved through most of those mining areas in Alberta and in several other places in Canada. Mining was of course a very difficult profession and he describes his time in Hillcrest, Alberta one of the mining towns around Crowsnest Pass in the Rocky Mountains, which was heavily populated by Czechs.

“He felt that there was something wrong in that mine and two weeks later one of the largest mining disasters in Canada’s history occurred there. He managed to escape it and went on to work in more mines. He ended up in Drumheller, which was also a mining town at the time. He would work for two shifts a day in the mine and then go on to do some farming in the evening, saving money to buy more land.

“Using this strategy he eventually became ‘the greatest Czech farmer in Canada’, a title which he was given in a memory book on Czechoslovak Canada published during the Second World War. Three members of his family went on to fight in that war for democracy and freedom. That is basically his story. His family still lives in Drumheller today and it was quite nice to meet with his grandson Josef Gaschnitz. We spoke a lot about the history of the Czech community in Drumheller.”

If I understood you correctly, earlier were saying that we still need more historical research into the Czech community in Canada and its past. What sorts of sources do we have now?

“I think that the questions are still there. First of all, the Czech community was certainly larger in the United States. The Czechs who lived there had their own newspapers and publishing houses for decades, so many books got written and published. I do not think that this really happened in Canada and certainly not on such a scale as in the neighbouring US. That means it is more difficult to find sources. Some kind of primary research probably has to be done.

“However, on an encouraging note, what I experienced earlier when I served in the United States is just the same in Canada. Namely, that people of Czech ancestry are incredibly proud of their heritage and love to reconnect. They travel to the Czech Republic, are very proud of that and are searching for more information regarding Czech culture and Czech ties. They have fond memories from their childhood and some of them even speak Czech, something that is of course very rare in the US and Canada.

“It was certainly quite touching when I entered the Prague Hall built in 1939 in Prague, Alberta, and was welcomed by a lady that was born more than nine decades ago in that province. Her name was Blažena Zemánková and she welcomed me with perfect Czech. It was very nice.”