Milos Suchma - representing Canada's Czech and Slovak diaspora

Rob Cameron's guest in this week's One on one is Milos Suchma, chairman of the Czech and Slovak Association of Canada. The group represents Canada's large Czech and Slovak diaspora, a community numbering tens of thousands of people.

Milos SuchmaMilos Suchma When did you emigrate to Canada Milos?

"I arrived in 1968, with my wife. At that time I was a member of the head office of the Club of Committed Non-Party Members (KAN). It was a sort of opposition movement, and certainly the Communist Party didn't like it."

So you were a political refugee?

"I was a political refugee. I was fortunate, because on August 21st, 1968 [when the Soviets invaded] I was in Holland. So I never went back. We emigrated from Paris to Canada, and we never regretted it. I think it was the right decision, because my colleagues were persecuted here and some of them were in prison. So I never regretted it."

Tell me a little about the history of Czech and Slovak emigration to Canada. How long have Czechs and Slovaks been making Canada their new home?

"The main wave of emigration was after the First World War and even before that there was a large wave of emigration to the United States at the turn of the century. Even my family emigrated - three of my grandfather's cousins emigrated to the United States. Last April we had a big family reunion in Houston, Texas; there were about 70 Suchmas there. Nobody spoke Czech anymore, but there are very committed to that name and to their Czech heritage, even though they're also good Americans. Our fathers told us - never forget that you came from that country."

But the main waves of emigration came after periods of great turmoil, like wars and revolutions.

"That's right, but also for economic reasons. Of course one big wave was to escape the Nazi occupation, also many Czech Jews emigrated in 1939 and the 1940s. There was another big one was in 1948, after the Communist putsch. And of course 1968, after the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union and the Soviet army."

How many people of Czech and Slovak descent are there living in Canada today?

"Right now about 60,000 or 70,000. There are many more in the United States, especially if we include second or third generation Czechs. Our association was established just after 1939 and the Munich Pact. At that time, during the war, we had about 92 branches across Canada. There was a tremendous war effort. Czechs and Slovaks joined the Canadian Army, or even established their own units. For example there was a pilot's school in Atlanta, in Roberta, where they trained pilots and crews for war in Europe and England. About five million dollars were collected by Czechs and Slovaks for the war effort, which was quite a lot of money. Ladies knitted sweaters for soldiers and so on. There was really an effort to support the Allies."

Josef and Ctirad MasinJosef and Ctirad Masin Czech have a reputation for not sticking together abroad, unlike Polish or Jewish immigrants who form very close-knit communities in the countries to which they emigrate. Is that true of Canada?

"Yes it is. Czechs don't like living in ghettoes. They spread out, and they're pretty well integrated in Canadian society. However, our association, for example, has fourteen branches from Halifax to Vancouver. It's probably one of the most active émigré groups in the whole world. We're quite organised, we do pretty well everything through the Internet. We have sort of Internet offices, but we also have annual congresses, we have meetings and so on. So we combine Internet communication with meetings and congresses."

Recently your organisation gave an award to the famous Masin brothers - two brothers who, with three other men, shot their way out of Communist Czechoslovakia. It's a controversial story: some regard them as heroes, others as murderers, but they've never been rehabilitated by the Czech state. Do you think they'll ever be recognised as heroes by the Czech authorities?

Milan Paumer, Masin brothers, Milos Suchma is in the backgroundMilan Paumer, Masin brothers, Milos Suchma is in the background "We believe there will be a time when they'll be recognised. The reason we awarded them is this: many of us emigrated for political reasons. We experienced the 1950s. It was a terrible time in Czechoslovakia, a terrible time. If you really think about history, for example the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, people should remember it as a terrible time when another power - in this case Germans - oppressed Czechs in quite a drastic way. However, after 1948 it was the same nation - Czechs - who oppressed their own people, and very drastically. The Communist Party was fighting a so-called class struggle. There were some young people, even some army officers, who opposed it, who said - we have to fight it, the same way as we fought Nazism. Thousands of other people - millions of people - were oppressed but didn't have the courage to do that. And we admire that courage."

So that's why they should be recognised as heroes.

"They should be recognised. They did it their way. Maybe they made mistakes, but they did the best they could. The fact is they escaped, despite the fact that 20,000 East German soldiers were looking for them. And it's amazing."