“During the time of my career, there have been some very extraordinary changes”: Interview with Her Excellency Barbara C. Richardson

in Interviews
Photo by Jiří Jež

By Makéta Šonková and Anna Formánková

Although not as much talked about as with the U.S. or the U.K., Canada, too, shares long-cultivated ties to our country, and these ties have been growing strong recently. Partly, it might be thanks to the charismatic Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, it might also be thanks to the new foreign trade agreement between Canada and the EU, the ongoing academic and personal interests of people in academia and historians – after all, our very Department of English and American Studies is a shining example of that – but it definitely is thanks to the charismatic and bold new ambassador to the Czech Republic, Her Excellency Barbara C. Richardson.

Her Excellency was appointed to Prague in October 2016 and since then, she has been actively pursuing her agenda. In our interview, she said she is interested in business ties between our two countries, female empowerment, and strengthening the cultural relationship and heritage that we share. If you examine her agenda, you can see that these are not just empty words. Moreover, if you look in her CV, one cannot be but impressed. Talking to her on and off camera was a pleasure, as Madam Ambassador can switch with ease from very serious political topics to Canadians’ passion for ice hockey.


You can also watch the interview on our YouTube channel.

Photo by Jiří Jež

This year, we celebrate 75 years of diplomatic relations between our two countries and Canada also hosts the second largest Czech expat community. What do you think were the crucial milestones in Czech-Canadian relations?

We have quite a lengthy relationship between our two countries, which I am happy to say. And actually, I am surprised to have discovered that in the 1880s the first Czechs came to Canada. We are a country of immigration, so thus began the movement of Czechs to Canada. And then there were several waves of Czechs coming to Canada: in the 1940s, around 1956, and then again in 1968. And then after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, we were able to open more extensively our relationships and broaden them so it was not just us sheltering political dissidents, but it was also a very important program related to trade, to our diplomatic relationships, and to our multi-lateral relationships, because the Czech Republic is an important partner for us in that form as well. So it has allowed us to have a full and very broad relationship. Furthermore, Canada celebrated a 150 years anniversary this year since Confederation, while the Czech Republic will be celebrating 100 years since the beginning of the former Czechoslovakia, and it is just a really nice moment for me to be the ambassador here.

I think by virtue of the fact that we have a very popular, very well-known, very charismatic Prime Minister, our profile has probably grown on the world stage.

It is so nice to hear. Now, I would like to talk a bit more about you. It is quite customary that each ambassador has a topic on their agenda that they might feel strongly about, or that they want to prioritize.  Is there any such topic that you would like to pursue in depth?

Her Excellency with Don Sparling, one of our very own Canadianists. Courtesy of Embassy of Canada to Czech Republic, used with permission.

Well, of course, one of the topics which is important for me as well as all the Canadian ambassadors in Europe is our new EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement – CETA – as it is referred to. So trade is something that is obviously very important to me and my time here. I would love  to see us being able to demonstrate the advantages of that agreement. And personally, I am interested in women’s issues; I am interested in issues that we were just briefly chatting about before we started talking on camera, related to the advancement of women into more senior positions and positions of influence and power. Also, we focus on issues around immigration and diversity, because we feel Canada has some experience in this area since – as I mentioned before – we are a country of immigration. Therefore, we have a lot of expertise and I hope we can help other countries to perhaps share some of our lessons learned in relation to that aspect.

Returning to the topic of Canada – and you actually already briefly touched upon that – this year is quite special as Canada celebrates 150 years of Confederation. Do you think that some of the events that were held in Canada have helped boost its public image worldwide? And is there still something we can look forward to here in the Czech Republic?

I think by virtue of the fact that we have a very popular, very well-known, very charismatic Prime Minister (both laugh), our profile has probably grown on the world stage related to that, and I believe also related to some of the policies that we have been speaking about, and Canada’s position related to some of the important issues for the global community as a whole. But we had enormous number of activities in Canada throughout the course of the year, and there will be more until the end of this year. Here in the Czech Republic, we have also had a number of very special and wonderful events. We have had cultural events, for example we had the Toronto Symphony here playing at the special event recognizing the conductor of the Canadian symphony orchestra, who came from the Czech Republic. We had a special event here at Masaryk University with the academic world, with the Canadianists – I am very proud that there are academics around the world who are interested in Canada and make it their specialization. I am here in Brno to talk to them today. We have a Canadian Days event that is coming up in Prague soon as well, and number of events we are bringing in; the focus there is on our indigenous people, we are bringing in an Inuit artist. We have a feature on Leonard Cohen, of course, our famous singer that many people around the world know, who passed away, sadly, and then in Moravia we have another Canadian Days coming up in November. So there is a lot of events. And just last week, I hosted, in my home, Margaret Atwood, who is a beloved and famous Canadian author, and she was here to receive a Franz Kafka literary prize. We were extremely proud of that.

There is actually one more thing that both Canada and us have very much in common and that is ice hockey. (both laugh) Moreover, Jaromír Jágr just signed with the Calgary Flames. There is even an official term “Hockey Diplomacy”. Do you believe that sport relationships can actually help with diplomacy?

No question (laughs). And you are in international relations, you may have studied about “ping-pong diplomacy” as it is called between Richard Nixon and China.

I am very proud that there are academics around the world who are interested in Canada and make it their specialization.


Ambassador Richardson with Czech Minister of Industry and Trade Jiří Havlíček upon approval of CETA by the Czech Chamber of Deputies. Courtesy of Embassy of Canada to Czech Republic, used with permission.

So yes. Hockey diplomacy is something real, it is something that makes us feel that we have relationships before we even met. It is a shared passion, there is no question the Canadians are passionate about hockey, but I discovered so are Czechs. And I will share something that I heard Jágr say after he was signed by the Flames in Calgary – which happens to be my hometown. So I am delighted to have heard that. And I actually tweeted – when he was in this period of negotiations – to all the Canadian teams “Please, could you please sign Jaromír Jágr?!” (both laugh). So I am really happy he was signed by a Canadian team. But he said this: ‘In the U.S., 8,000 people come for a fun time and to watch hockey. In Canada, 15,000 hockey experts come to the game and they criticize everything about every team, so you are either hero or not in Canada’. But he will have a wonderful time because he will be embraced by Calgary and he will find that everybody he meets anywhere is a hockey expert.

For the past several months, the U.S. has been rather isolationist in its foreign policy conduct. And among other things, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations (TTIP) have been suspended. On the other hand, as you already mentioned, the provisional application of EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) has just been approved. Do you think it can bring Canada a bit closer to the European continent, into the position predominantly held by the U.S. for the past several decades?

Well I hope so. We have a natural relationship with Europe. Many of our ancestors, in fact most of our ancestors, came from Europe. Mine did. And the ancestors of almost everyone I know did. We share values, we share a view of the world. And with CETA, what we – both on the Canadian side and on for example the Czech side – our governments recognize that it is extremely important that we demonstrate to the citizens the importance of such trade agreements, and why they can work, and the difference that they can make for people of each of our countries. Because we are extremely proud of that agreement as it is not a traditional trade agreement, but it also recognizes the issues important to citizens and protecting their social rights, their cultural rights, their control over their own issues and regulatory frameworks. It is much broader than the traditional trade agreements and it might prove that to both our people and through the agreement we will develop a lot more ties.

Well I am looking forward to that.

So am I.

I would like to go back to one of the topics you already mentioned. Because Canada is also one of the world leaders in promoting gender equality and supporting women’s rights. You currently have a female Governor General, the fourth woman to hold the post. Furthermore, Canada’s offices abroad are taking action to empower women. Even though roughly half of the current Canadian members of the foreign service are women, do you feel you might still be perceived differently within your line of work than men in the same position? And is it still more difficult for a woman to get heard in the diplomatic circles?

During my career, there have been very extraordinary changes. When I started in the foreign service, there were very few women in senior manager positions. I would say it was rare, in fact that is how few there were. And it was the same with female diplomats, female ambassadors. So at the early days of my career, I was not aspiring to the position of ambassador, because it never occurred to me that it might be possible. There weren’t any role models or they were extremely limited. Today, as you may know, our Prime Minister has made it one of his priorities to increase gender parity across government, and foreign service is one of those areas in question. Plus this year, as well as last year, at least 50% of our appointed ambassadors are women. And I think that’s where change really comes from – leadership from the top. There can be a will to make changes, there can be an interest in creating the opportunities for women, but it often takes the person in the position of power to make it happen. Until the last decade, people in the positions of power were men and they often didn’t think of this. Now that women are in positions of power I hope there will be some sort of organic change, but when there isn’t, then we need somebody like our Prime Minister who has said: ‘I will make that happen’. And your readers might be familiar with this quote, or with the moment when he was asked on the steps of Rideau Hall, which is where our Governor General is, where he introduced his cabinet. The question was: ‘Why do you have 50% in your cabinet as women this time for the first time?’ And his answer was: ‘Because it is 2015.’

We shouldn’t have to explain or defend or rationalize anymore why more than 50% of our population shouldn’t be equally represented in all industry.

I remember that.

And I think that says it all. We shouldn’t have to explain or defend or rationalize anymore why more than 50% of our population shouldn’t be equally represented in all industry. But it certainly is changing, and women like you, who are interested in international relations, are going to continue to make a difference.

And my very last question – to finish on a less serious note – how do you enjoy studying Czech?

(laughs) Well. “Enjoy” I would say is not the word. (both laugh) It is a very challenging language and I found it extremely frustrating because I had an assumption that I would be able to learn Czech. Not easily, but that I would be able to learn Czech, however, I discovered it is going to be a lifelong endeavor, and it is something that is probably a special aspect of the Czech Republic and Czech people – the fact that they can speak it and so few of the rest of us can (laughs). But we try, and our Canadian officers take training in Canada before they came out, as I do, and we continue with private lessons; and what I am being really happy about here is even if we try a little bit to speak Czech, the Czech people are very understanding and they welcome our efforts and then they switch to English. Because I think it is painful for them to talk to us in Czech (laughs).

Barbara C. Richardson  

Photo by Jiří Jež

Barbara C. Richardson (B.A. University of Alberta) has extensive travel and work experience outside Canada. Following graduation, she spent two years working and touring the South Pacific, Australia, and New Zealand and then overland travel from Singapore to Nepal to London.  On return to Canada she worked at the University of Calgary and then began her career in public service with the Canadian Human Rights Commission in Alberta and North West Territories.  She joined the Department of External Affairs and International Trade in 1988 and moved to Citizenship and Immigration Canada in 1992. While there she was head of Planning and Analysis for the newly created International Service Group and she also served at the Canadian Embassy in the Philippines and as the Director of the Access to Information and Privacy Division which processed the largest volume of requests in the federal government at that time. She re-joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in 1999. Since then she has served as the Political Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission in Kenya (accredited to Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, and Eritrea). She was also Canada’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and to the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UN-HABITAT). She was Canada’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh 2005-2008 and then Ambassador to Zimbabwe and Angola and High Commissioner to Botswana.  Since returning to Canada in 2011, she has been the Director General for Consular Operations, Director General for Mission Operations and Client Relations, and Inspector General for Global Affairs. She was appointed Ambassador to the Czech Republic in October 2016. (1)

Official CV, used with permission.