I admire the resilience of the Czech people
Ms. Ayesha Patricia Rekhi was appointed Ambassador of Canada in August 2019.
Her life journey and career serve as an embodiment of the Canadian dream. Her parents came to Canada from India, searching for freedom and to be able to marry the person that they wanted to marry. Canada gave them the opportunity. Making the parallels to many Czech immigrants, their lives were not always easy, but they invested in their child’s education, built community and lives and worked hard to succeed. Now their daughter being the Canadian ambassador is an enormous source of pride. Ms. Rekhi sees her work for the foreign service partly as gratitude for the country that gave an opportunity to her parents.
Ms. Rekhi earned her BA in political science at McGill University in Canada, pursued further specialization in developmental studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science and she completed an MPA from Harvard University. Ms. Rekhi started her career at the Canadian Department of Citizenship and Immigration in 1999 and joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in 2002. Before her appointment in Prague, she served in various diplomatic positions in Hong Kong, New Delhi, Hanoi, and Bangkok.
Ms. Rekhi came to Prague with her two children and her husband Cameron Stauch, a celebrated chef. Cameron has travelled the world with his wife, which allowed him to explore the local cuisine of Asia in-depth. In between his family’s postings abroad, Cameron spent six years in the kitchen in Ottawa as one of the cooks to three Governors General of Canada, cooking for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh; the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall; the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge; and the Emperor and Empress of Japan, to name a few. He describes his cooking style as “cooking globally and sourcing locally” and particularly enjoys learning about local ingredients and meeting the people who grow, produce, and cook local flavors where he may be living. Cameron is also a published author. It was during a three-year posting in Vietnam that he was inspired to write his first cookbook, the James Beard Award nominated and Taste of Canada silver medal winner, “Vegetarian Việt Nam”. During his time in the Czech Republic, he is working on his second book, “Thai Veg Kitchen”.
Our interview took place over the phone. As much as I have tried to avoid COVID-19 in writing for this issue, our magazine provides interviews and coverage with a broad perspective and due to the full-quarantine and current state of emergency, the COVID-19 concern could no longer be avoided. Despite this fact, I found the interview truly energizing, full of hope and a wider perspective. In many of the responses, the COVID-19 perspective provided more depth and underlined the trends we as a society perhaps avoided, but definitely should pay more attention to now.
Ms. Ambassador, how are you doing these days? I know you just finished an emergency briefing with the embassy staff.
We are living in unprecedented times with the current pandemic. Many Canadians, like Czechs, are at home and they are trying to deal with the situation. We focus not only on work issues, but we also need to take care of our families. At work, we make sure the embassy staff stays safe and healthy, while we provide assistance to many Canadians in the Czech Republic. We also share information with Canada to support the overall global response. As I am also a mother and a wife, I am helping to cope with the situation at home. Furthermore, I make sure that my children keep learning and we as a family find some joy and have fun during these stressful times. Getting out in the sunshine during the weekend, watching a movie at home, connecting remotely with our friends and family, using all the latest technology available. In terms of responses, the measures taken by both Canada and the Czech Republic are similar in many ways, some of them taken only a few days apart. In Canada, we are following the advice of the World Health Organization aimed at flattening the curve and protecting our most vulnerable groups. You can see our governments and communities reacting to the latest information available including from scientists, experts, and public health authorities.
I would like to comment on the enormous rise in people taking action and helping each other. In Canada, the term #caremongering, instead of scaremongering, is becoming popular with so many people checking in and providing care for their neighbors. Here in Prague, my husband, a chef, has been cooking with the produce that had already been purchased for Embassy events that are now postponed. This week, he is providing food for the shelter in the neighborhood of the Canadian Embassy Prague. These acts of kindness remind us that now it is time to look out for each other, safely and at a distance, but still, look out for each other. We need to follow the advice of the experts and act to protect the more vulnerable members of our communities. When I go for a walk, I take heart in seeing people in the streets maintaining a distance but still waving at each other. We are all in this situation together.
You came to Prague in August 2019. What were your first impressions of the Czech Republic? I hope that the current crisis will not leave any bad memories.
When I first arrived, I felt very warmly welcomed. I could feel the close connections between our people and our countries. I was struck by the very deep affections that Czechs have for Canada and Canadians. And the same is true the other way around. I grew up in Toronto, which had a vibrant and visible Czech community. I also witness the strong connections on both sides even during the current situation as people who have relatives here or in Canada, reach out to us and want to make sure they stay healthy and safe. I feel very fortunate to call Prague home. I admire the resilience of the Czech people. Throughout history, the Czechs have survived a lot and managed to thrive. The inner strength is one thing we will all draw upon in this current period. I see it in my Czech colleagues, in my team and my Czech friends. I try to be an optimistic person and remind myself and my family and my colleagues that we will get through this situation. Yes, the world will look different. I am a mother and one reason why I joined the diplomatic service was to make a better future for my children, for the next generation and I remain committed to that. I do not think that this crisis will change my impressions of your country. Once this situation is over, and we can all meet and gather again, we will, I hope, be able to appreciate how we pulled together to get through the difficult times.
My next question was originally intended to ask about your strategic priorities and the priorities of the Canadian government. Once we are back to the post-corona world, what will your agenda focus on?
My job as a Canadian ambassador is about positioning Canada for success in an increasingly uncertain, unpredictable and interconnected world. That was the reality before the coronavirus spread, coronavirus only underscored it and it will be valid for the near future. In Canada, the government approach is translated at the federal, provincial and municipal levels which means that in order to accomplish our goals, you need to work together. For Canada, we work together both nationally and internationally because we know that we cannot succeed alone. This is why we put a strong emphasis on multilateralism and the rule-based international order because these institutions and efforts give us a level of predictability which is important to both Canada and the Czech Republic alike. This core belief will stay the same. We will always stand for values such as transparency, human rights and equal opportunity. Therefore while I anticipate change, it will be with regards to some specific projects and emphasis. Last but not least, I need to stress that positioning Canada for success in this uncertain world also means looking at collaboration with Europe. Europe, the Czech Republic remain key partners for Canada, in terms of shared values, geopolitics, economic and political interests. I hope that with regards to the post-corona world, we all will collaborate to adjust to a new reality.
As we already mentioned, Canada is a dream country for many Czechs. When I was doing research, I was surprised to find out about its two most pressing challenges, before COVID-19. These were climate change and the aging population.
Climate change is a clear priority of the Canadian government. As such, it is reflected in our strategic documents but it is also a high priority for Canadian citizens themselves. There is a strong commitment to fight climate change and a deep understanding that climate action and economic growth must go hand in hand. Needless to say that now we all focus on fighting the coronavirus and the impact on the health of all of our people. The economic situation will also be an issue all of our governments will have to address. The Canadian government has already announced an economic package with respect to the impact of the virus. With respect to our aging population, Canada has an aging population, coupled with low birth fertility rates, and an immigration policy has become important in ensuring that the population and our labor force are continuing to grow. Now, we are turning to questions of how our infrastructure and health system are ready to respond to the new reality. This crisis will likely raise some issues that we need to pay more attention to as we will continue the call to flatten the epidemic curve, to make sure that vulnerable segments of the population will have access to health care services when they need it.
Now, from the aging population, let me turn to our children and education. Canada prides itself on having perhaps the best educational system in the world, with one of the highest percentages of population reaching tertiary education. My daughter applied to one of the most prestigious Canadian boarding schools. What is the secret sauce for Canada being also a global leader in scientific and technological research?
We are fortunate in terms of Canada being a leader in education. I come from a family of educators, my mother was a teacher, my husbands’ parents were teachers, my sister in law is a teacher. We see the value of highly trained educators who bring diverse perspective sand skills into our schools. 26 Canadian universities ranked in the 2020 QS World University Rankings and a very good network of high schools. However, there is more than education. The quality of life in Canada is also an important factor. I am glad we have a lot to offer to parents who look for quality education for their children. We rank quite high in top students’ cities and our degrees, diplomas or certificates are recognized by employers all over the world. We have a lot to offer and we definitely look forward for having the students back in classrooms!
My last question comes from the perspective of a working mum, now more than a week trying to reconcile working from home, homeschooling of children, and being an active as well as responsible citizens, how do you personally manage to balance a two-career relationship?
I have already spoken about my motivations for my job, one being about my past and one being about building a better future for my children. As a woman ambassador, as a mother, as a daughter, as a wife, I would not be able to do my job without the support of my family, my husband, and my children. My daughter is 16 and my son will celebrate his 11th birthday during the quarantine period, so we still have to figure out how to make his birthday special. We also got a small puppy when we moved to Prague, as many Czechs do, so the puppy keeps us busy and happy amidst these stressful times. Now, as I am busy responding to the crises, I am lucky as my husband makes sure that the family is fed and that children have their daily routine. I could not do what I do without him. And he is an accomplished person of his own, he is a great chef, he is also a great father and a great spouse. He also moved his career around the world for the sake of the family. For him Czech Republic is especially nice as he is also a hockey player, so we enjoy hockey being another connector between our countries. We enjoyed the warm welcome the Canadian team received at the world junior competition and the sincere congratulations I received from my Czech colleagues after we won spoke a lot about our mutual respect and shared love of the game.