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“The distance does not hinder the ties that bind and bring us together”: Interview with the Ambassador of Canada H.E. Ayesha Patricia Rekhi

in Interviews/Views

by Lenka Vestenická, Kristína Šefčíková

Lenka Vestenická with H.E. Ayesha Patricia Rekhi. Photo by Karel Němeček. 

H.E. Ayesha Patricia Rekhi has been the Canadian Ambassador to the Czech Republic since 2019. Before settling in Prague, her rich diplomatic career led her to serve at Canadian missions in Hong Kong, New Delhi, Hanoi, and Bangkok. Ambassador Rekhi focuses on supporting and giving a voice to marginalized groups and advocating for women’s rights. Therefore, this interview touches upon topics such as inclusivity, feminist foreign policy, women in diplomacy, and Canada’s Indigenous population. On a lighter note, we also talked about hockey, trick-or-treating for the Baťa family in Toronto and beautiful places to visit in Canada and the Czech Republic.

Canada and the Czech Republic have a long history of intensive relations. To name just a few examples, in 1948 and 1968, Canada welcomed refugees fleeing the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, and both countries have cooperated in the defense and security sectors. What do you consider to be the crucial elements of Czech-Canadian relations, and why?

I would say exactly what you highlighted. A key foundation to our relationship is the fact that we have a very strong and vibrant Czech-Canadian community, often dating back to 1948 and 1968 when Canada opened its arms to refugees. And those Czech-Canadians – some of whom come back to the Czech Republic to contribute to the growth and development of the country – prove that they are a really strong tie that binds our countries and provides a foundation to so many of the other things that we do: when it comes to the economic relationship, for example, and the political relationship, or education ties. You’ve mentioned peace and security as well. And this, I think, in a moment when both of our countries are so focused on helping our friends in Ukraine following the Russian aggression. It is also a very strong example in that area of peace, security and defense where the Czech Republic and Canada are closely aligned and supporting each other in this sort of a shared goal. It is really rooted in the rule of law and in the idea that we must be protecting our neighbours. And I think one of those key lines when we talk about Ukraine is also: this is in our shared interest. This is about us, and Canada feels very much the same as the Czech Republic when it comes to those approaches.

Canada ranks among the highest in international measurements of quality of life, civil liberties, economic freedom, government transparency, or education. Where do you see Canada’s role in today’s world, how much do you think it has changed, and how do you think it may continue to change?

I hope that Canada, like the Czech Republic, is playing a role as a friend, a partner, and an ally to so many in these shared goals, shared values, and shared priorities in areas like peace and security, but also in human rights. But in terms of a specific role that Canada can play in the world, I think one of our very best lessons that we can share is around diversity and inclusion. I think so much of Canada’s success story from recent years is in the experience of diversity and inclusion. Prime Minister Trudeau often says that diversity is a fact, and that inclusion is a choice. It’s this idea that being purposeful and intentional around inclusion allows you to build a stronger country economically, politically, and socially. I think that Canada has got a lesson there that it can share with others. It’s not that I’m saying that we are perfect or that we have it all figured out. We have a lot of work to do, but I think that the demonstration of interest in learning and doing better, recognizing our mistakes and finding a way to move forward together – that is also a lesson that we can share. My hometown is the city of Toronto which is one of the most diverse and multicultural cities in the world. It’s a prosperous city, it’s an innovative city, and it’s really a rich kind of cultural experience. We have a unique history and geography. It’s not to say that every country in the world can or should replicate the Canadian example. Rather, there are lessons that can be taken to really derive the greatest benefit from some of the things that we have experienced so that others can also experience those benefits.

The Czech Republic and Canada are separated by great physical distance. Do you see any common foundations, either cultural, historical, or political, that connect these two countries and could help overcome the distance, perhaps even provide an opportunity to learn from each other? Except for the passion for hockey, of course.

I feel like we do have to recognize the shared passion for hockey. Certainly, when I arrived in the Czech Republic in 2019, hockey came up in every single conversation that I had, whether I was speaking to a very senior person in the government, somebody from an NGO, a young student… Hockey is definitely a shared passion. We have to recognize it’s a good and, frankly, a really fun thing to share, because so many Canadians play in the Czech Republic and lots of Czechs have played in Canada as well. In terms of the foundation, I would come back to what we’ve already talked about, which is actually the people being a really strong foundation and a link. In spite of the distance, we have people who connect us. I mentioned I was born and raised in Toronto. Growing up in Toronto, Czechs, the Czech Republic, and Czech culture was very much a part of the city and city life. I will tell this story of being a young child and trick-or-treating. In North America, at Halloween, we dress up in costumes and we go door-to-door and we get candy. And when I received the appointment to be Canada’s ambassador here in the Czech Republic, my mother reminded me that when I was a little girl, I would go trick-or-treating and one of the doors that I knocked on was the Baťa’s family. So, Sonja Baťa, Tomáš Baťa’s wife, would be one of the people – the kind adults who would put candy in my candy bag. So, all to say, growing up in a city like Toronto, there were friends in school who had ties to the Czech Republic, there was the Baťa family who was very well known in our community… It’s a very vibrant and visible presence. So the ties are there despite the distance. The distance does not hinder the ties that bind and bring us together.

Photo by Karel Němeček.

I’ve been so impressed and moved by how Czech people have opened their homes and opened their businesses to really help Ukrainians in need.

There are currently more than 100,000 Canadians with Czech heritage. Do you think this community is close-knit and maintains ties to their heritage, perhaps even spread it in Canada?

Absolutely, and I would say it works both ways. In Canada, you have Czech businesspeople, Czech academics, or Czech students who are Canadian, but very proud of their Czech heritage and sharing it. In the same way, here in the Czech Republic, when I meet Czech Canadians who have come back, Canadians who  live here, or Czechs who had an experience in Canada and come back to work and live here, the intimacy and the warm feeling comes through in their stories and helps us to build the relationship for today and for the future. It’s a very strong asset to the relationship between our countries.

Canada and the Czech Republic are both members of NATO and support Ukraine which is currently the target of Russian aggression. How has the current situation in Ukraine shaped the Czech-Canadian relations? Did the Canadian Embassy engage in any response to the current security and humanitarian crisis in Europe?

First of all, certainly, waking up on February 24 in the Czech Republic following the invasion and having a chance to really hear from the experiences of Czech friends, colleagues in the Embassy and in the communities, to hear how this was affecting the Czech Republic being so close to the border, but also with the very intimate experience of what it was to be occupied, this was something that has stayed with me over the past few months. It was very clear early on that Canada and the Czech Republic shared their perspective on how we could help Ukraine, whether it has been in terms of humanitarian assistance or military assistance, political support, or diplomatic support. Just yesterday, we as an Embassy provided a little bit of support to some Ukrainian families, mostly women and children, who are now living here. We were just helping to make their new home feel a bit more like home, painting some furniture and helping them clean up the garden to make the space more comfortable. The Embassy has been helping in small ways, just as all Czechs have. I’ve been so impressed and moved by how Czech people have opened their homes and opened their businesses to really help Ukrainians in need. But we’ve also been helping as the Government of Canada here, locally. When it came to an immigration programme that Canada extended to facilitate the travel of Ukrainians to Canada following the invasion, the Embassy also opened its doors. We were processing Ukrainian individuals and families to travel to Canada, and that, for our Embassy, was an important piece of work. We were open seven days a week for extended hours, we had women and children and a packed reception area, trying to help them. That was a small but important contribution that we were able to make. And then similarly, as an ambassador, I’ve been having conversations with the government here, with the contacts here, sharing that information with Ottawa to continue to inform our approaches and our policies. It is an ongoing area of work for us professionally, but also personally, because we continue to feel and to see the impact, as Prague is our home.

Last year, the Czech Republic aspired to gain the status of an observer state in the Arctic Council, of which Canada is a member. Even though it did not succeed, the Czech Republic, including the Masaryk University, has several research projects in the Arctic region which study its ecosystems, climate change, and the indigenous population. Hence, the Czech Republic is more active in this region than some people may realize. What are Canada’s primary goals in the Arctic region, and how does Canada perceive the role of the Arctic Council, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

I’d say a couple of things. First of all, I too was also really impressed and surprised when I heard about the amount of work that was actually being done out of the Czech Republic focused on the Arctic. I was pleasantly surprised, because from Canada’s perspective, it is a key region – not just for Canada, but for the world. You mentioned climate change, that is absolutely one of the key priorities for Canada in that part of the world, whether it’s climate, peace, security, and the Indigenous relationships. We’ve talked earlier about issues of diversity and inclusion and the key area of that for the Canadian government – but for Canadians as well – is reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous populations. That is a troubled and difficult not just history, but the present for Canada and so the project of reconciliation is one that we see touching our work across the government. In the international sphere, sitting around the Arctic Council table, a key piece for Canada is to ensure that Canada’s own commitment to government relations with Canada’s Indigenous peoples, is also expressed and honoured around that table.

We need richer, innovative, more diverse discussions to get at solutions that will be durable, that will actually lead to a more sustainable, better outcome for everyone.

Canada is one of the top world leaders promoting the values of liberal democracy. You have personally been active in supporting marginalized groups, human rights, and equality. Could you explain what role do these values play in your current position? And why do you think that it is crucial to uphold these values in foreign policy and diplomacy?

I had mentioned before Prime Minister’s Trudeau’s quote that he often uses around diversity and inclusion. The idea that inclusion is a choice is very important to me. I often speak about this research that was done by McKinsey, one of the big consulting firms, on the importance of diversity in leadership, in decision-making and the return on investment for companies, that it was quite clear that having diverse voices and perspectives around a decision-making table led to better problem-solving and better solutions. I work in the world of foreign policy, and I think that’s an important lesson for the foreign policy world in a moment when we are confronted with such complex geopolitical challenges – that we need richer, innovative, more diverse discussions to get at solutions that will be durable, that will actually lead to a more sustainable, better outcome for everyone. That’s something that is a strong motivation for me, the idea that diversity actually gets us to a better place for everyone. When we have people around the table who think differently than we do, who have a different experience than we do, who are coming at a problem with a different perspective, it can make us think differently as well, we can think a bit more creatively. It can challenge the assumption we have and lead to a more innovative solution. For me as Canada’s ambassador in the Czech Republic and working with groups or individuals whose voices aren’t always at the table, there’s a role I can play in terms of bridging the space between where they are on the margins and maybe where some discussions are taking place and making sure that some of those voices are just brought in for consideration.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has proclaimed himself a feminist several times. In 2021, the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs presented a new Feminist International Assistance Policy which pursues the empowerment of girls and women worldwide and promotes gender equality. Canada is also one of the few countries that have declared a feminist foreign policy. Could you explain what this means to you and how it links to your work in diplomacy?

I know that for some people, “feminism” can be a hard word. For me, fundamentally, it’s about equality. If you believe in equality, then you’re a feminist, because it’s truly about understanding and believing that a whole population can’t move forward if half the population is held back, if those voices are not heard and the potential is not realized. In terms of a feminist foreign policy, at its heart, it is about equality, inclusion, and bringing marginalized voices to the centre. It is rooted in the evidence… We talked about peace and security in this conversation. In the area of women in peace and security, we know that when women are part of the decision-making table around peace, peace lasts longer. Women’s inclusion in peacebuilding increases the success of peace agreements lasting for fifteen years by more than 30%. The fact that we can quantify and see the difference that it makes is important. For Canada, the feminist foreign policy is rooted in what the evidence and the experience tell us – that in order to build a more equitable, sustainable world, it’s about equality and that, for us, means feminist foreign policy.

Photo by Karel Němeček.

Before your current position as an Ambassador, did you have any connection to

Central Europe or the Czech Republic? And have you ever taken Czech classes?

I mentioned growing up in Toronto, so certainly, there is a connection there in growing up and knowing a little bit about the Czech Republic. Also as I traveled, visiting as a young person. Certainly, living here though, has built the closer connection that I will carry with me. My children will have spent a nice part of their growing up in this country and calling the Czech Republic home. So, when I complete my assignment in the Czech Republic, I will be carrying part of the Czech Republic with me always. As my colleagues at the Embassy would know, I wish that I would have taken more Czech language classes. I moved to the Czech Republic from Thailand, a very different language, culture and place. A wonderful place, but very different. I certainly did not hear much Czech when I was living and working in Asia. I did some lessons when I arrived, but not as many as I would have liked. I am envious because my husband and my son are both actually now able to speak really well. So, they at least serve as my informal translators. And our Czech dog, she is probably our most bilingual member of the family (both laugh).

If you believe in equality, then you’re a feminist, because it’s truly about understanding and believing that a whole population can’t move forward if half the population is held back, if those voices are not heard and the potential is not realized.

In previous interviews, you have talked about Indigenous communities that are integral to Canadian society. What impact do these communities have on contemporary Canadian culture and perception of Canadian history, in your opinion?

It’s a great question and I think we are living in a moment where a true appreciation of Indigenous contributions, culture, and potential has come. As Canadians, we are coming to that understanding now. I can speak about my own learning journey. It’s been shocking and upsetting, over the past couple of years, the discovery of mass graves in Canada. It is something that Indigenous communities have been talking about for many, many years. Now that horrific reality has become known to everyday citizens. The impact of that is combined with a realization that as a country and as a people, we have to do better by our Indigenous friends and neighbours, that we have to come to a mutual understanding. Such partnership means spending a lot of time listening and reflecting as opposed to coming up with our own ideas of what should be done. So, my answer is not so precise because I think the answer is still taking shape. The government has committed to this nation-to-nation relationship, to reconciliation and to implementing the calls to action that came out of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada. But that is in progress. We are not there yet. I think the bright spots are, for example, the appointment of our Government General who is an Inuit woman. This is a moment that is really meaningful not only to Indigenous communities but to all Canadians and her voice as a representative of her own community, but also as a platform to include other Indigenous voices. I am reflecting myself in terms of how to best implement these objectives here in the Czech Republic. We certainly talk a lot about Indigenous issues within our Embassy community, within our own walls, but also externally with public audiences. I look forward to seeing this next period in Canada when we implement the promises that have been made.

There are still far fewer women in diplomacy than men. What advice would you give to girls and women aspiring to be diplomats?

I’d say in the first instance, I am particularly pleased and proud to serve as a Canadian ambassador at a time when 50% of Canada’s ambassadors are women – our skilled, experienced ambassadors who happen to be women. That is really meaningful and for Canada’s foreign service, internally, women in our diplomatic service can see themselves and can see a pathway to becoming an ambassador. It’s also really important for our friends and colleagues and partners around the world to see Canadian ambassadors who represent Canada in all its diversity whether it’s gender, whether it’s ethnic diversity, whatever that diversity might be. What would I say to women and girls who are looking at careers in diplomacy? In the first instance, I would say to give it a go, because I think, as women and girls, our dreams can feel risky, particularly if you don’t see yourself represented. There is that saying that “seeing is believing”. And so, if you don’t see role models, it can feel scary to put your hand up and take the risk and be the first one to try something out, whether it is in the world of diplomacy or any other part of professional or personal life. So, I’d say give it a go, because what is the worst that can happen? Sometimes it doesn’t work out, maybe you make a mistake or maybe you even fail. Maybe you don’t succeed. But you always learn something. If you take a moment to reflect on what you’ve learned, it can set you up for the next challenge. And then I would also say – and this isn’t only to women and girls, it would be to anyone who is interested in this career – to be curious. I think curiosity opens up the space for those diverse perspectives and ideas that we talked about. It opens up space to talk to people who you wouldn’t normally talk to or to ask questions that maybe are a bit unusual. In that space, you can learn for yourself, but also to the benefit of your organisation or your country or your objective. 

I am particularly pleased and proud to serve as a Canadian ambassador at a time when 50% of Canada’s ambassadors are women – our skilled, experienced ambassadors who happen to be women.

And to end on a lighter note, what places in Canada would you recommend to visit to Czechs, and vice versa, what places in the Czech Republic would you recommend to Canadians?

A piece of the Arctic at the Embassy. Photo by Karel Němeček.

That’s a tough one and it’s both tough for a diplomat who never wants to express favourites but also genuinely tough. In terms of Canada, I come from a country that is incredibly vast. We talked about the Arctic, we talked about Toronto – my hometown. We can talk about the East Coast, places like Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, with incredible, unique culture and music and amazing seafood. We could talk about the West Coast with its amazing mountains and sea, and both incredible city life, but also amazing outdoors. And then the middle of the country, which is also a completely different landscape with its unique cultures and foods and music. I think, for Canada, you almost can’t go wrong. Where you visit, you are bound to have an interesting, unique experience and also one which would be quite different from another part of the country. And in terms of the Czech Republic, it is also hard. I think there is an obvious answer, where there is a part of the country – Česká Kanada – which, you know, for Canada’s ambassador, it feels like it is a beautiful part of the Czech Republic. It feels like the answer I should give. There is of course Prague which has been my home for the past three years and during the period of the pandemic which made for a difficult, challenging time. I also felt quite lucky to be at home in Prague where I could still enjoy just a beautiful, scenic, historic city and place. And Brno, my most visited Czech city after Prague with Masaryk University being the “capital” of Canadian studies in the whole country and beyond. I’ve been fortunate to visit other parts of the country, so again, it’s hard for me to choose just one. I would say for Canadians, in the Czech Republic, you can’t go wrong with any place that you would visit. I think you’ll always find a really beautiful, unique experience to have and take home with you.

Ambassador Ayesha Patricia Rekhi

H.E. Ayesha Patricia Rekhi was appointed as the Ambassador to the Czech Republic in 2019. She majored in development studies at the London Schools of Economics and Political Science and holds a Master in Public Administration from Harvard University. During her career at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, she worked as the Deputy Director of the Southeast Asia and Oceania Division and as an advisor on peacebuilding and human security issues. Previously, she worked as vice-consul for immigration in Hong Kong, first secretary for political and economic affairs in New Delhi, counsellor for political and public affairs in Hanoi, counsellor for political and economic affairs and permanent observer to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok. You can follow her Twitter account here

Photo by Karel Němeček.

I would say for Canadians, in the Czech Republic, you can’t go wrong with any place that you would visit. I think you’ll always find a really beautiful, unique experience to have and take home with you.

We would like to thank H.E. Ayesha Patricia Rekhi who heart-warmingly welcomed us at the Canadian Embassy in Prague and dedicated her time to this interview. We are also grateful to Mr. Michael Vlček, Political, Economic and Public Affairs Officer at the Embassy of Canada, for his kind help with arranging the interview. We also thank our team member Karel Němeček for supporting the editorial team and taking photographs.

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