Does Canada and the Czech Republic have more to learn from each other than hockey?

24-11-2003

The largest ever Canadian delegation visited Prague last Friday, making their way through all ten countries set to join the European Union next year. A group of Senior level officials representing various departments came to forge new relations and intensify dialogue with the Czech Republic. With the country's imminent EU accession, Canada will look at the Czech Republic with new eyes. Not only is the EU Canada's second largest trading partner but Canada is also close to Europe in many of its cultural and social values. Canada straddles the Atlantic and at the same time its primary trading partner is to the South, the United States. The great North was described in a recent issue of the Economist as "rather cool". The magazine praised its social liberalism and its wide array of bold implementations in social issues- from gay rights to a tolerant immigration policy. I spoke with Canadian Assistant Deputy Minister in the department of Foreign Affairs about the state of Czech - Canadian relations.

"Well first of all let me tell you that we have excellent relations with the Czech Republic. We have relations that extend from the political, security and defense field, into the economic field and more into what I call the people field or the social fields. As you may you know we have thousands of Czech-Canadians who contribute to the strengthening of this relationship - not least by youth exchange programs, young Canadians coming back to discover their roots in this country or to discover a new country. They get to learn about themselves, they get to learn about Europe and we think this is very positive. But the fact that the Czech Republic is joining the European Union we see from the Canadian perspective as extremely positive. We see the Czech Republic, as the other countries acceding into the European Union, very much share the Canadian perspective on security-defense. That is in a nutshell that they wish as we wish to have a strong European defense policy, well structured, well financed, but a structure that is a strong pillar within NATO as a support to NATO and not against NATO, and I think we see eye to eye on that. I also see great opportunity in the economic and trade, investment, science and technology field in that the message that is now coming across in Canada is basically invest in the European Union. Now the Czech Republic being one, invest in the Czech Republic and that will be a big incentive I think for Canadian companies to invest. They know that the Acquis Communitaire will be respected in this country. These are the rules that will be applied across the European Union they will be transposed into Czech Law. I also see in the social field a lot of interest that will be increased through the joining of the European Union."

How are Canadians upholding Czech culture within their community in Canada?

"Very good question. Czech-Canadians form groups in our multicultural society and Canada is a country with immigration par excellence. It is a country where the integration of people who come to Canada is in such a way that we think is rather unique. It is not the same approach as our Southern neighbor the United States, which has what is known as the melting pot theory. In the case of Canada what we try to do is to express to our new immigrants that they are very welcome in Canada and that we would like them to come and join our country, contribute to development of our future together, but not forget their roots. We do believe in culture we do believe that people who have roots, who have languages, that have traditions - this should be kept and maintained with a view to make an added value to the mosaic of Canada. And we believe that this is a bit of a model for the global world."

What can Canada's experience bring to the Czech Republic in terms of maintaining and conserving its roots and culture within the European Union?

"Apart from learning from the Czech Republic how to learn how to play hockey better, I think that there is a lot that we have in common and that we can share. In our delegation for example we have a director general of the department of heritage. It is a department that is a bit unique in Canada that is trying to define Canadian identity. Our Czech friends ask themselves why do you have somebody who deals with Canadian identity on your team. And the answer to that is quite simple. We believe there are lessons to be learned, to be shared in terms of how do we define people and how do we define ourselves in a multicultural society. We think that through this we may help our Czech friends to define themselves within the European Union. As you join the European Union as Czech people you enter into a multilateral context where, yes you will have to give certain things, you will benefit from certain things - and it's a context whereby the national identity sometimes has to give way to the greater good of the larger community namely the European identity. So the balance between the European identity and the Czech identity is something that is not always obvious particularly when you have regions within countries that have their own roots that are very deep. How do you marry all of these things together? In the case of Canada we are marrying not necessarily only the old traditions of the founding nations of Canada, together with the first nations that were there much before, but by the newcomers that come in and add on to our identity. So there's a process that goes from the modernity of Canada back in history up to modern Canada."

Several years ago there was a documentary on the Roma community living in Canada. Consequentially a huge influx of Roma had tried to immigrate to Canada and then a number of visa requirements were implemented. Have there been any changes to these requirements to Canada for Czech immigrants?

"The issue of Romas coming to Canada has to be seen in its broader context. This is an issue that pertains first and foremost to the free movement of people and the right live in one society to be integrated into one society as a minority. We had been going through a period of trying to give signals to a number of countries, particularly the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia after the velvet revolution. Canada was the first country that decided to lift the visa requirements and of course there were visa requirements at that time for Canadians who wanted to come here. We decided to lift unilaterally. We don't see this as a reciprocal thing to us it was a unilateral gesture to these three countries to allow them to come freely to Canada in this concept of freedom of movement. And unfortunately we ended up in a rather uncertain, uncomfortable situation because we found there were a number of people who pretended to come to Canada just for holidays or trips but in fact were coming to Canada for other purposes and overstaying there period of visitors time and entering our social system sometimes through the back door. With the result that we ended up in a situation where many of them then decided to apply as refugees and claiming that they needed to be treated as refugees in Canada. As it were, we have a system that allows each individual to present its case, to defend its case in front of our courts to access whether the person is or is not a refugee - and it became quite apparent that many people were not refugees and were coming to Canada more as economic migrants, social migrants to benefit from the social system and so on, but not as refugees. And Canada is a country of immigration. They did not apply under the immigration legislation that would have been an option - seeing they would qualify under our requirements. So basically there was an abuse of the system which resulted in long discussions with the Czech government and later on with a similar problem with Hungary. So we tried to find solutions to deal with this issue and unfortunately there is no easy answer, as it pertains to the treatment of minorities in their own country. It is a long term solution and the Czech government tried to address the issue but there became such a large refugee flow that it became completely out of proportion and therefore Canada found itself with no other alternative but to re-impose the visa. The fact that the Czech Republic is joining the European Union and the Schengen environment is certainly a contributory factor to encourage the Canadian government to re-visit the situation - and I can tell you that we will want to re-visit it after the Czech Republic is fully integrated into the EU. We will see how the situation is and decide whether our assessment at time has come to a point where we think we could lift the visa requirements without engaging ourselves again in a situation where there would be abuses."

24-11-2003