On Dreaming and Planning
Barbara Richardson has served in the Czech Republic for three years. She chose Prague to be her final posting and shares how special she finds her first posting in Europe. Prior to serving in the Czech Republic, she had a remarkable thirty year diplomatic career in Asia and Africa. Besides advancing Czech-Canadian bilateral relations, Ms. Richardson often speaks on the theme of diversity and gender equality. Her remarkable career makes her a true and aspiring role-model for working mothers in high positions. Find out more about what Canadians and Czechs have in common or what is her career advice to girls and women, but also to men.
Your Excellency, you have had a remarkable career journey, serving as a Canadian diplomat and three times ambassador on several different continents. What are your career highlights?
I have been so fortunate to have had this career and all these experiences. Not only have I had a wonderful life but I was able to share all my profound experiences with my son. I feel strongly that young people need to be informed about world politics. They cannot think about their own respective countries only, they need to understand that we are all part of something bigger in order to be able to make the changes the world and the globe are going to require. The Canadian point of view is that we cannot do it alone. Therefore, we need to understand different cultures and parts of the world and see them for what they are. I have been in different parts of the world and also some difficult parts of the world, my son grew up realizing that on the outside a country might look differently than when you live in it, interact with people, understand the history, peoples’ needs, and finally realize that we all share the same needs. As a young girl, I always felt I wanted to make a difference in the world. But then I had no vision how I could do that. My career enabled it and I feel very lucky that I found a job I could identify with, I loved and enjoyed. I have always told my son that when he is asked in future about what he does, he should be proud and happy about what he is able to reply.
You started your career abroad in Asia when your son was only five months old. Then you moved to Africa. All this was happening more than three decades ago in a male dominated profession. In fact, high ranking professional diplomats being mothers at the same time are still more an exception than a rule. Who encouraged you?
I had the great benefit of a female head of human resources at the time that I had planned to take the posting. When I found out that I was pregnant, I approached her saying that this was probably the end for a posting. She said: “Absolutely not, this is the time when you need to go to a posting, because you can go to parts of the world where it is easier to get help with childcare and running the household!” I went to the Philippines, where I had all the assistance I needed and raising a child there while working was actually easier than in Canada back then. The culture in the Philippines is a very child-centric one, so my son was very happy and pampered there. While I was in the Philippines, there was a temporary opportunity to go and serve in Singapore. Again, I felt that with a son only two years old, I might be excluded from the opportunity. At that time, I approached my manager and asked her that if I made all the necessary arrangements, in terms of taking my son with me – staying at the hotel room and arranging a babysitter to stay at no extra expense for the government, if she would consider me as an applicant. It worked out and I was given the opportunity. I was lucky to live in a time when companies realized that they need to become more flexible workplaces. The more models of different ways of working we have and the more demonstrations of the competencies that diversity, including gender, brings to the workplace, the easier it is for managers to make decisions with flexibility and different working schemes.
You seem to have been navigating your career with regards to opportunities while not being afraid of challenges. From Asia, you went back to Canada, only to continue your career in Africa.
Much of the younger generation talks about career planning and they have these five-year and ten-year plans. I admire people who are capable of that. I was never one of them. I have always chosen my job based on what sounded interesting and what I considered a useful thing to do. I chose my posting in Kenya as it represented a great challenge. From Kenya, we covered six countries: Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Eritrea, Somalia and Southern Sudan, not being independent then. I considered it the best political job within the department because of the scope. The peace-talks going on in two of the countries or the breakthrough elections enabled me to live throughout some extraordinary moments of history in that time and that part of the world. I am glad I made the choice, since Africa is going to be an increasingly significant continent for the future of the globe. From the perspective of a mother, I think my son developed compassion there. He was nine years old then, in many ways a baby for me. The Kenyans view a nine-year old boy as a young man. In some parts of Kenya, a boy of that age is given a spear and asked to go out to kill a lion. My son very much enjoyed being treated as a young man by Kenyans. As all parents eventually learn, children rise to our expectations. Later, I returned to Africa and served in Zimbabwe. Looking back at time spent in Africa, I suggest to everyone to go and visit this beautiful part of the world. Sometimes, I felt like I was living in a National Geographic Magazine.
After all your experiences, does not the good old continent of Europe sound boring?
I chose Prague as my last assignment. I chose the Czech Republic for many reasons. I have known a couple of refugees from Czechoslovakia and Prague sounded a bit exotic. Little did I realize that I came in an extraordinary and politically intriguing time. I arrived here after the election of President Trump, after the move to the right and far right in some other European countries, after the Brexit vote and all of that has made my assignment much more turbulent and complex than I anticipated. Let alone living in Prague which many people consider the most beautiful city in the world, in the centre of Europe.
Thank you for speaking so positively about my birth-town. I am sure you have noticed that Canada is like a dream country for many Czechs. Czechs like Canada and Australia, even though they have never been there. It seems we tend to love far away countries, but not superpowers. Were you surprised by the intensity and warmth of Czech-Canadian relations?
In some ways yes, in other ways no. Everywhere I lived, people mentioned Canada as a country where they would like to move. Particularly people from difficult parts of the world see Canada as a country that accepts immigrants. In the Czech Republic, people not only say they love Canada, but they immediately mention why. They always talk about the outdoors, the beauty, Rocky Mountains, the oceans and the Arctic. I have noticed passions Czechs have for the outdoors and all the outdoor activities, actually on much higher scale than most Canadians do.
What about Canadians and their relations to Czechs?
There is not a lot of knowledge about the Czech Republic in Canada. Canadians of a certain generation know about the Velvet Revolution or the split of Czechoslovakia that happened without a war which is very fascinating, but the younger generation is not as aware. The Czech Republic is known as a travel destination and its reputation for its beauty. There is a lot of scope for commonality between Czechs and Canadians. Neither of us is a superpower country. Czechs and Canadians share a view of the world and values.
It is time to discuss not only immigration but also diversity. “Diversity is Canada’s strength”. The motto of your Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is on the notepad I have received as a gift. However, many Czechs still seem to fail to appreciate the full potential of diversity. What is that the Czechs are missing?
I have met many Czechs who do value and support the idea of diversity. Many point out the Vietnamese community as a recognition what another culture can bring. They recognize the value Vietnamese businesses brought, they see them integrating and providing value for the Czech society. Diversity is a long process to reach the point when it is widely accepted and valued as being an important fabric in a society. However, we have such different history and geography, that I understand certain Czech people being skeptical and hesitant about someone coming from the outside. For centuries, the Czech society has been very homogenous. In Canada, except for indigenous people, we are all immigrants and we all share the common recognition that we and our families come from somewhere else. We also recognize what diversity has brought to our country in terms of languages, culture, innovation and skill sets. When we talk about an economic migration, we pick and choose those who can add value to our economy.
You mentioned Canada’s population reaching currently at 35 million people. I remember that 30 years ago, I learned the figure 27 million at school.
Without immigration, our economy could not grow. Already 70 years ago, we recognized that and started doing economic modelling related to the economy, which is determining how many new people we need in Canada to drive the economy. Based on that modelling, we have developed a very specific immigration program and model. Every year, across the whole Canada, a broad survey is done on what kind of experiences and positions are needed. We bring about 1% of population per year. For some, it might be frightening, for us it is seen as useful and essential. There is a recognition that immigration drives our prosperity, our future success and future vision. We target the best in the world. Equal to our perspective on immigration and providing the safe haven to those who need it, the inclusion comes next. Thanks to our work and program for inclusion Canada has not made some mistakes as other countries with regards to the true integration of newcomers to what has become the multiculturalism society. It is Canada who should be thankful to immigrants for choosing our country helping to build it. Like many Czechs did.
You are known to be an advocate and supporter of gender equality and you actively promote women empowerment. What would be your mentoring advice to Czech women? What would be your advice to Czech men?
Canada does not support the attitude of us preaching to the rest of the world, because we have many problems on our own. Canada may have a more progressive approach to gender equality but many issues feel similar to the ones our society has faced with regards to gender equality. When I talk to young women today, I always encourage them that their potential is limitless. When I talk to young women, I mention how often many women say “I was lucky” with regards to their distinguished career. Men usually do not say it. They think “I deserve it”. My advice is: “Plan to be lucky and do the hard work to be lucky”. Women work hard. There is a Canadian politician who said: “Women have to work twice as hard, be twice as smart, to do twice as much to be seen as half as good to men.” However, she finished the quote by saying: “Fortunately, that was not that difficult”. But that was way back in 1960s. I also suggest: “Dreaming is planning”. When I was a little girl back in Alberta, I dreamed big about all sorts of opportunities. Yes, there are going to be obstacles along the way. With regards to men, I encourage them to mentor young women. We tend to hire, mentor and give opportunities to people who are like us. Naturally, men are more likely to support other men. Therefore, I think it is important for men to mentor young women and to learn from that experience which can benefit them as well, as they can learn more about women’s perspective on both life and work. Like with immigration, there is an economic and business case. Gender equality is not about being nice to women, it makes economic sense for companies as it allows to attract the best talent and to be smarter, innovative and excelling. Is there any company that would not be interested in reaping the benefits?
What will the year 2019 bring to Czech-Canadian relations?
This will be a politically big year not only for Europe, but also for Canada, as we also will have our own elections. Canada has a set of priorities for the upcoming year. Security and defense will come first, as we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Czech Republic joining the NATO. The Czechs and Canadians both support democracy and rule-based order, and there will be an opportunity to commemorate values and principles while celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. Trade is also information. After the ratification of the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), the statistics show that mutual trade is growing and that such agreements are important. As far as culture is concerned, we will be involved at One World Festival, a jazz pianist David Braid is coming back to Prague. On July 1, the Canada Day, we will open the Czech-Canada production of Charlotte at National Theatre. The story of a Jewish woman from Germany who was killed in Holocaust shows what happens in a society that rejects values of diversity and inclusion. I must not forget hockey-diplomacy. There will be National Hockey League Games in 2019 and next year, the Junior Hockey Championship will be held in the Czech Republic. We also have been working on expanding the number of students who study in the Czech Republic and also how many people travel as tourists to the Czech Republic. It comes back to the question that the Czech Republic should have been known more in Canada. The Czech Republic has an impressive number of post- secondary educational institutions. The quality of your research facilities across the country, built with the help of the EU funds, working on knowledge- based approach to the future, should be more known in Canada, as this is another approach we share in common. I will be sad to leave the Czech Republic later this year, as it has been wonderful, enriching and such a different experience to all my postings. I am enormously grateful for the opportunity to come here.
By Linda Štucbartová