The role of the Canadian Embassy in Prague in the "Age of Normalisation"

Canadian embassy in Prague

This month the Canadian Ambassador to Prague Michael Calcott hosted a panel discussion at the Canadian residence recalling cooperation between Czech dissidents and Canadian officials in the years leading up to the fall of communism. During the mid-1980s, the end of the period known as the Normalisation, key officials at the embassy went out on a limb, risking careers to help dissidents and their cause, even going so far as to smuggle dissident writing, even going so far as to smuggle dissident writing (Samizdat) out of the country. Documents included everything from personal correspondence to political and philosophical tracts to novels and plays, authored by members of the dissident movement that included Vaclav Havel.

The event held at the Canadian residence was unusual since it was the first time in a quite a while that former members of the dissident movement were able to reunite with the former diplomats, some of whom they hadn't seen in years. Pierre Guimond - now the Canadian ambassador to Hungary and Slovenia - was a political officer at the Canadian Embassy in 1988. I asked Ambassador Guimond how it felt to be back in Prague and to describe the period of the Velvet Revolution he and others saw firsthand:

"These were moving days and moving times. Of course to be back in Prague - the third or fourth time since I left in 1990 - to come back and see Vaclav Havel, and Jan Urban, Karel Schwarzenberg, Petr Uhl and many others who I met on a regular basis when I was here is touching even if it wasn't about the Velvet Revolution! That period was very moving: we felt we were part of something much bigger. To be there at that time... I'm not sure we always had the big picture but we knew something massive was happening."

Until the fall of communism in 1989, the Canadian Embassy had been an important pillar of support for many Czech dissidents like Jirina Siklova and others: Jan Urban affectionately called key service officers like Mr Guimond, and his predecessor Peter Bakewell, "cowboys" for help that certainly broke at least some "written" rules of diplomatic conduct. Jan Urban even went so far as to call the October meeting an "unprecedented diplomatic coming out". But the former embassy officials made clear their decision - like that of Czech dissidents - was one of higher moral necessity. All felt the risk of being found out by the communist secret police, the StB, but said the risk of being expelled was worth it. Even if Ottawa wasn't aware of all the details, Pierre Guimond says his and other diplomats' approaches were of course consistent with Canada's aims.

"I'm not sure if a foreign government, a foreign ministry, can 'plan' activities of this sort through their ambassadors abroad. Within the policy of the government diplomats have to know where the governments want to go in terms of foreign policy and then the ambassador is responsible for delivering the policy. But it's impossible for people in the capital city to decide 'you should go to all the demonstrations, and you should do this and you should do that'.

November 1989
"So, the foreign ministry knows what we do because we send regular reports. We call this result-based diplomacy. It's not event-based, it's not because we've been to 36 demonstrations that anything will happen, it's were there there because something is happening. People in Czechoslovakia told us at the time that they were very happy to see us at the demonstrations because they felt it was known outside, which now of course hardly happens in Burma. We were also very active in attending political trials, so that defendants knew that if anything would happen to them there would be protests. There was a variety of activities that we did, but the ultimate aim was to do what the Canadian government wanted us to do, which was to promote the fact that all of the communist countries had signed the Helsinki document: [armed with the facts] we could argue they were doing wrong."

Pierre Guimond's predecessor Peter Bakewell was posted to the Canadian Embassy in Prague in 1986: he also fostered close ties with dissidents like Mrs Siklova, Mr Havel, and others, and even helped smuggle texts in or out of the country in his own vehicle. This is how he described his decision to help:

Jirina Siklova
"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 had to think of my family when I undertook to do this kind of work. I think in the two or three years following my time 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."

According to Mr Bakewell, he and his contacts took the utmost precaution in pickups from dissidents but even so came ever so close to being caught:

"We were very, very careful about our communications both here in Prague as well as outside on the subject of moving materials backwards and forwards, and observed a high degree of security not just in Czechoslovakia but also in West Germany. We rarely met in the same place twice and contact Vilem Precan and I would move around from place to place. Here, we were even more strict.

"Jirina Sikolova, who was the essential person in Czechoslovakia, would always make sure that we met at a different place and we would move items extremely quickly. She always had two or three young strong men with her and they would be moved rapidly from my vehicle to someone else's. And I think that's why it probably took the StB quite a while to figure out what was going on. Of course, later I was shown the file the StB had on me: I was completely unaware that they had managed to figure out what was going on and it looks like I was extremely lucky that I was not expelled at that point."

Vaclav Havel and Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz,  photo: CTK
Czech-Canadian Professor Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz, a specialist in Czech as well as German and Polish literature at the University of British Columbia also became involved in the smuggling of Samizdat, almost by chance. She also kept contacts at the embassy. And says she also felt a kind of higher duty to help. Today this is how she modestly sums up her role:

"I had been teaching 19th century literature at UBC for years but actually I felt that this was somehow 'unreal', it was academic. Of course not all academic things are unreal but many of them are. And then, all of a sudden I stepped into this 'living situation' in which I felt I could possibly do something for people, for the cause. And so that's what I did.

"I got more and more involved, I felt a responsibility although I am just a little fish from Vancouver! What could I do? But still: I wrote a bit, I wrote some books into raise more awareness. That's how it went and I felt I was extremely lucky!"

JV: Certainly the Samizdat meant a great deal: on the one hand you have the literary quality of the books, the stories, the plays, on the other you have the moral relevance. How do you divide the two - if in fact you divide?

"I don't think you do divide because in the literary works that you are trying to publish or whatever that you are reading, you feel a profound moral dimension, even if it's a story, even if it's a banal story. They don't write banal stories {laughs}, well some of them... you feel a moral commitment of people. So I don't really think I had to face a situation of having to distinguish between the two: where was my moral commitment and where was the literature: they merged. They merged. "

Former president Vaclav Havel was himself one of the many guests at the Canadian residence who well remembers those days. This is how he described the recent event:

"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."