“Diverse perspectives and diverse networks are key to finding innovative, durable solutions to global problems”
Text: Martina Hošková and M. Zisso; Photo: Archive
Canadians are widely known for their tolerant, fair play, and peace-loving attitude. Living mostly in modern urban areas, they are used to open-minded interaction with people of different ethnic and social backgrounds on daily basis. Mrs. Ayesha P. Rekhi, Canadian Ambassador to the Czech Republic, shows in our interview the very essence of this approach. She herself comes from an immigrant Indian family with a history of human rights activities, assures us of Canada’s strong support of Ukrainian independence, and appreciates the warm feelings that Czechs have for Canada and for Canadians.
Can you tell us a few words about yourself, please?
Mine is a very Canadian story – my parents immigrated to Canada from India for the freedom to marry, and Canada gave them that. I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, and have lived, worked, and studied all over the world. I am a career diplomat and have served as Canada’s ambassador to the Czech Republic since 2019. And like many of the readers of your magazine, aside from my professional role, I am also a parent and a spouse.
Was becoming ambassador your dream profession?
I have always been passionate about the human dimensions of international affairs, and knew early on that I wanted to work on issues around peace, security, equality, and human rights. As a child of immigrants, studying the world was also a way to connect to my family’s culture and history. My specific interest in human rights is, I think, in my DNA. My grandmother was organizing peace meetings for Mahatma Gandhi in 1940s India, and well into her 70s she was still active in areas around disability rights and other issues. And so, my role models from a young age demonstrated a value in public service and equality.
It is an honor and a privilege to serve Canada at this level, and an opportunity for me to contribute to a country that has given me and my family so much opportunity. That being said, when I joined the Canadian foreign service over 20 years ago I did not think about becoming an ambassador. In practical terms, “you cannot be what you cannot see”, and at that time there frankly weren’t many role models for me – women with children with my ethnic background, doing this work at this level. That has changed. Today, fifty per cent of Canada’s ambassadors are women – experienced, skilled diplomats who are also women.
You have been serving in our country for three years now. What common points between the Czechs and Canadians do you see?
There are so many highlights to my time here, underscored by our strong people-to-people links and shared priorities in areas like defense and security. I could speak about our shared love of hockey, or the many impressive leaders I have met across sectors, including in business, NGOs, culture, and academia. Most of my posting has been during the challenging periods of the pandemic, followed by the shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. During these times I have been reminded over and over again how lucky I am to be serving as Canada’s ambassador to the Czech Republic. When I arrived in 2019, I was struck by the genuine friendship and warm feelings that Czechs have for Canada and for Canadians. Those demonstrations of friendship and support, big and small, continued during the pandemic. In the early days of the pandemic, I remember our Czech colleague arriving at the embassy with hand-sewn masks for all of us. Like so many Czechs he and his family wanted to ensure that friends and neighbors stayed healthy and safe. More recently, I have been genuinely moved by the generosity of thousands of Czechs who opened their homes to Ukrainians. Canada of course joins the Czech Republic in its strong support for Ukraine and Ukrainians. At the embassy, we have also tried to do our part – from volunteering our time to fix furniture and clean a garden space to help Ukrainian families feel a bit more comfortable and at home, to supporting Canada’s special visa program for Ukrainians, which allows them to work, study and stay in Canada until it is safe to return home.
What is the most difficult part of being an ambassador?
Among the most difficult parts of diplomatic life is being far from home. While this life offers amazing professional and personal opportunities, including the chance to really be immersed in different cultures, languages, and traditions, it is tough to be away from family. This is something that I know many of us have felt during the pandemic, when we were unable to travel for health and safety reasons.
As an experienced diplomat, what advice do you have for the next generation of ambassadors?
My advice would be to remain curious. Expose yourself to new people and ideas that challenge you and may even make you uncomfortable. I learned early on in my career the value of including diverse voices in analysis and decision-making. Among my first jobs in Ottawa was working in the area of Women, Peace, and Security. Through early work with Afghan women peacebuilders, I learned concretely how insights from those who were generally not part of formal decision-making tables could benefit communities and help me do my job better. Now, more than ever, diverse perspectives and diverse networks are key to finding innovative, durable solutions to the global problems we all confront.
Can you evaluate the status of Czechia-Canada relations?
Canada and the Czech Republic are friends, partners, and allies with vibrant political, trade, investment, security, academic, and cultural relations. We have a strong, positive, and productive bilateral relationship, based on shared values, as well as on our people-to-people ties, including the more than 100,000 Canadians with some Czech heritage. The warm welcome offered by Canada to Czechoslovak political refugees in 1948 and 1968, steadfast support for dissidents throughout the Communist period, as well as the support provided by Canada in the early 1990s when the Czech Republic was quickly modernizing, all bolster the bilateral relationship. Canada and the Czech Republic regularly cooperate in multilateral organizations, we are strong NATO allies, and we share many common values including support for human rights and democracy. To give two concrete examples, the Czech Republic is a member of the Equal Rights Coalition (ERC) intergovernmental network, which works to promote the human rights of LGBTI persons globally, and which Canada co-chaired from 2017 to 2019. The Czech Republic is also a member of the 50-member Media Freedom Coalition, which is co-chaired by Canada and advocates for media freedom and the protection of journalists.
On defense and security, Canada was one of the first countries to support the Czech Republic’s accession to NATO in 1999, which led to closer defense cooperation. Today, our soldiers serve shoulder-to-shoulder in the Canada-led multinational NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group in Latvia. And both our countries are among the leading supporters of Ukraine as it continues to face Russia’s unprovoked and unjustifiable attack. Canada, alongside the Czech Republic, is steadfast and strong in our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence.
The presidency of the Czech Republic in the EU Council began on 1 July this year. What are you, as a representative of your country, which is a G7 and NATO member, expecting?
Canada and the EU enjoy long-standing friendship and cooperation rooted in a shared commitment to stand up for the ideals of democracy, international security, and prosperity. The EU is a strategic partner for Canada, and we are keen to cooperate with the Czech Republic during the Czech EU Council Presidency on various files of common interest. Thanks to the Canada-EU Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) and the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), we are now working more closely with the EU than ever across the whole policy spectrum, including of course working together on supporting Ukraine.
In the fall we will celebrate the 5th anniversary of the CETA provisional application. Since CETA came into provisional force, we have seen a renaissance in the Canadian-Czech bilateral commercial relationship, with real mutual benefit. COVID slowed down the exchange significantly, but we already see an important uptick. In 2021, bilateral trade increased by 24.7% to reach the highest level of the past decade. In the January-May 2022 period, bilateral trade in- creased by a further 21% compared to the same period of time in 2021. This is a shared success that we will continue to grow.
Can we conclude with your wish for our countries, Canada and Czechia?
The months ahead will continue to have their challenges for both of our countries, and my hope is that we continue to strengthen our partnership and cooperation so that we come closer to our shared goal of a more sustainable, equitable, and peaceful future for us all.