Interview with H.E. Michael Calcott, Ambassador of Canada to the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Your Excellency, how did you come to the posting as Ambassador of Canada?
Very strangely. I had no experience with the diplomatic corps at all; I began working in the (Canadian) Department of Foreign Affairs four years ago. It was then announced that the Department would consider executives from other departments for postings, so I applied.
Since I was interested in going somewhere very exotic, I said I’d prefer to be posted anywhere but Europe. Naturally, they sent me here to the very center of Europe. When I told a friend I was going to Prague, he said, ‘Ahh,the 10-pound posting,’ because the Czech Republic has the reputation that that’s how much weight you gain from the hearty food.
I just love the food here, but after 14 months in this posting I’ve had to up my morning running from three to five times a week.
Were you surprised at what you discovered about the Czech Republic?
I’d never been here before so I did a lot of reading about both the Czech and Slovak republics when I first arrived. The longer I’m here the more I realize that I’ve only scratched the surface – there’s such a rich history pulsating in the layers below. It’s both a negative and a rich and powerful thing.
It took me the first year to understand the implications of things, how language really translates into politics and culture, the writers … composers … I was just in Antwerp, and when I got back I realized, ‘This [pointing to the floor] is different’ – just looking at the cities, the way towns are structured, the usage of space. You can’t understand this society without understanding its unique culture. Yet it seems that there’s a kind of deep and lasting link between Canada and the Czech Republic… Yes, that’s another part that’s so fascinating to me. Czech and Slovak people know Canada from events in 1948, 1968 … Czech Canadians appreciate everything they had received by emigrating to Canada, and at the same time, when they come back here they have a deep desire to pay back what they’ve attained, to keep it here.
But also, Czech immigrants’ advancement of culture in Canada cannot be overlooked. Historically we were a frontier culture. Czech immigrants in the ‘60s helped to establish cultural institutions which Canadians had never invested in – the Canadian Opera Company, the National Ballet School, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra – Czechs could never give up their own culture and they showed us how to enrich our society. It seems the link is going to be strengthened even more, now that the “Youth Mobility” visa program has been implemented…
Yes. The SWAP [Student Work Abroad Program] is a brilliant idea but it has now been incorporated into the broader Youth Mobility Program. It gives up to 400 young Czech people – and young Canadians – the opportunity to experience the other culture in many ways. For up to one year these 18-to-35-year-olds can go to the other country to study, on a holiday with pre-arranged temporary work permits, or as tourists. I can’t underscore enough how important it is for young people to have this rich, basic, strong experience. You can’t replicate it any other way. You learn and go through it, so it becomes part of you. The friends they make will be friends all their lives. That’s one of the best ways to cement the links between countries.
And what is your view on the new visa waiver program for all Czech citizens?
I said, ‘Hallelujah! I am a Happy Camper.’ The continuing complaints from Czech officials had the positive effect of pushing the Canadian government to develop a specific series of criteria – looking at security issues related to identification documents, abuses of overstays, how the originating country deals with organized crime, for instance. Before this, countries such as the Czech Republic said to us, ‘You keep saying you can’t lift the visa requirements but you never tell us what the requirements are.’ Now we can conduct an ongoing, country-by-country review based on facts. That has increased our credibility, the countries respect the criteria, and they can begin working towards meeting them.
About 80% of Canadian exports go south to the American market. Is there any chance for opening up more trade with central Europe?
I think the fault lies with Canadians who haven’t gotten investment in the Czech Republic up to where it should be. Canadian investors are rather conservative and careful. There’s been a history of excuses for postponing development here: first it was ‘wait for communism to fall,’ then ‘the EU is an administrative nightmare,’ and now it’s ‘we can’t compete with the EU.’ And then they say, ‘But I’m looking at China!’ Canadian investors and companies need to recognize that the Czech Republic offers a sophisticated workforce. We’re in an ideal location for moving products throughout Europe, and there’s a huge potential market here. And zechs know how to deal with that other potentially attractive partner, Russia.
A good partnership investment could open up a remendous new market without anyone risking it all.
What is the Canadian International Development agency (CIDA)?
CIDA began working in Central and Eastern Europe after 1990. Basically, we invested money in the political and internal services structure of several countries. In the Czech Republic, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police helped develop community policing techniques, for example. The government of Manitoba brought in flood control techniques. There were projects working with Roma families.
That was Phase I. In Phase II, the Czech Republic and the other countries in turn became donor countries, to help still other countries. They determined their own priorities, funded development projects, and monitored success. CIDA worked with the Czech Republic to offer mutual cooperation with countries such as Angola, Moldava, Mongolia, Serbia, Yemen, Vietnam, and others.
It was an innovative and creative move to help set up powerful linkages among countries to help solve global problems. So all in all, it has proven a wise move to accept the posting in Europe…
I’ve never had such a wonderful opportunity before to meet so many giving, open people, not by dipping but by delving into the culture. I appreciate things differently than I did before. On days when I’m exhausted I go to a factory or meet people and listen to their stories … and suddenly I’m hit with new life, knowledge, new things, and suddenly I feel more alive. I’m more inquisitive. – It’s a gift to be here.