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Interview with His Excellency Otto Jelinek

František Novotný František Novotný / Ed. 11. 11. 2016
Interview with His Excellency Otto Jelinek
foto AMO

Otto Jelinek, the currently leaving ambassador of Canada to the Czech Republic, was born in Prague in 1940. After having fled to Canada in 1948, he has made very successful careers both in figure skating and in politics. Now, after 3 three years spent as the ambassador, he is going back to Canada. But as he says, he is not sure whether that is going home or leaving home.

You have spent three years in Prague as the ambassador of Canada and now you are leaving. Last time you left the Czech Republic, you came back only a year later as the ambassador. Are you planning to come back again?

(laughing) I am laughing because many of our friends were at a big going-away party before we left last time. And then a year later, as you say, we show up, “Here we are again, ta-da!”.

Am I coming back? Well, I always come back to Prague and the Czech Republic to visit. Because it is natural to me, I can’t turn my back on Prague and the Czech Republic. I was born here, I love it, my wife loves it. We will always be coming back. Will I be coming back in a professional capacity? No, I doubt that very much, it is certainly not in my plans. I doubt it, because we have done enough of that.

Throughout your life, you have had successful careers in many fields. What are your professional plans for the near future? Would you prefer to stay in diplomacy?

The answer to the last part of the question is no, I have no plans or preferences to stay in diplomacy. I am not a diplomat. This was a political appointment for specific reasons, which we will get into. Therefore, it was a three-year agreement and it is up now. I am leaving the diplomatic corps for good.

What will my plans be? Number one, I think you have to remember what my birth certificate says. It says that I am very old guy. I don’t feel that old and when I see in print that I am supposed to be 76 years old, I think they are talking about somebody else. Because a 76-year-old is some old guy half-way through retirement, on his way to death. And I don’t consider myself that way at all.

But, I have to keep in mind that that is what it is. So I look forward to being back on corporate boards in Canada and to do some independent consulting and advisory, which I had been doing before I came here for the three years. And to reduce my work-load, but to still be involved in fundraising events. I have always been involved in charitable organisations. And in some corporate boards that will allow me to stay in touch with the business community.

What did you personally learn from being a diplomat for three years?

I gained a lot of respect for the diplomatic corps. I mean, I knew diplomats before and I had respect for them, for example from my capacity as a cabinet minister for 10 years. I have also been travelling around the world, being looked after by the ambassadors and diplomats. I have always respected them. But having become a diplomat by way of political appointment, I gained even more respect for them. Because there is so much more to being an ambassador than just having cocktail receptions. I think that that is something I learned as a result of my three years here.

Probably the biggest issue of Czech-Canadian relations in recent years was the visa dispute, which was successfully resolved after you came to Prague. Which situation was the most challenging or complicated for you in this role?

I will go back to the beginning of your question about the visa situation. Canada has underestimated the negative impact that the visa implication had on the Czech Republic. From the political perspective, the politicians from the president down to the members of the parliament were very, very upset that the Canadian visas were in place. The business community was also very upset. Travel between the two countries came to an abrupt stop, or near-stop, including tourism. Direct flights stopped flying. Our Prime Minister at that time thought that I could help the situation by being someone who knows it here, because I had lived here for 20 years after the Velvet Revolution. So when his office first came to me, I burst out laughing, saying “I am not a diplomat, I can’t be an ambassador.” Plus, we have just moved from Prague to Canada and my wife hasn’t even unpacked the boxes from the move yet. And you want us to go back? So the answer was a categorical no. But then we had a few meetings later and I said “You know, the visas are very bad. Because I know, I was here during the time.” My predecessors were being verbally attacked by every part of society in the Czech Republic. And so the Prime Minister said “If we work towards eliminating the visas, would you consider going?” I replied that that would be the only way we can do that.

So even before I came here, we were already involved. You don’t just lift visas. You can’t just lift them like that. No, the visas were there for a purpose and the visas were working. If we wanted to withdraw them, we would have to change our whole Canadian asylum system. We began that process before I even came here. Then it was moving forward very well and we have made the changes. I came here in October and we were still analysing those asylum changes to see if it would work. Because the last thing we wanted to do was to remove the visas and find out in 6 months that we have to reinstate them here. That would have been a catastrophe. I think I would have committed harakiri or something if that would have happened. So when I presented my papers to president Zeman, he was very upset about the visas, very nasty to me when presenting my papers. To make a long story short, because it is a long and very important story. My political appointment and my mandate was to lift the visas, to change it and to renew relationships with the Czech government, business and people here. I was able to announce the lifting of the visas in November 2013 and we immediately started rebuilding bridges, because Canada and the Czech Republic (and before that, Czechoslovakia) have historically always had good relationships. But the visa issue brought those relationships down, including trade, investment or bilateral visits.

I think we achieved great success, but it was not just my doing, it was the whole team, here and in Canada. The relationships have been renewed to the point where speaker Štěch of the Czech Senate has just come back from a visit to Canada with a forty-member delegation. His counterpart Speaker of the Senate is coming here at the beginning of September, before I leave. Deputy ministers have already exchanged visits, business people have restarted doing deals with Czech people and direct flights have been resumed by Air Canada and Air Transat. So I think my mandate has worked out well, and it is time to go back to Canada.

So was this the most challenging part, then?

For me, that was the outside challenge in part – by that, I mean outside of the Embassy. Also, as a non-career-diplomat, one of the big challenges was inside – being able to understand and fit inside the Embassy. Because I have never done that before. Fortunately, this Embassy has great people, like Michal Vlček here, who has had a continuity of experience. We have four, five or six people who have been here for more than a decade. It’s great that we have great local people here with the continuity that helped me fit in. So, there were a lot of challenges and I think we have been able to overcome them.

Lately, there has been a rise in support for nationalist and populist movements across Europe and the USA. What is the situation like in Canada, which is otherwise well-known for its positive stance towards multiculturalism?

You have just answered your own question. You asked about Canada’s situation vis-á-vis the nationalist movements in Europe and the United States, but Canada does not have that problem. Because it has a long-standing multicultural policy. And of course, policy is one thing, it can work or not work. But it also has a multicultural society that has been in place for decades. I had the honour for a short period of time to even be a minister of multiculturalism. And in Canada, multiculturalism works. People from all parts of the world come to Canada and become Canadians. We don’t even have to have it on paper, we are an inclusive country which makes us stronger by bringing in people from different countries, different backgrounds, different colours, different religions. And they become inclusive as one Canada. So there is none of that nationalist feeling of fighting off “We are here and you can’t come.”

In fact, Canada was, I think, one of the first countries that officially brought in refugees from Syria. We have brought in, since last November, nearly 30.000 refugees. And when they come to Canada, Prime Minister and others say “Welcome home.” We treat refugees as future Canadians. And they are going to become Canadians. They are welcome by this population of Canada because Canadians know that these refugees will contribute towards the well-being of Canada – as they have done in the past and as they will in the future. Canada is a very lucky country in terms of being tolerant, inclusive and multicultural.

For Canada, it works. That doesn’t mean it should necessarily work anywhere else, I am not saying that. Nor am I saying that what we do is something that you should do in the Czech Republic or in other countries. I am saying that what we do in Canada, works in Canada.

Do you think that such tendencies that we have just mentioned in Czech politics could in the future worsen the relations with Canada? I know it is a little bit of a speculation, but still?

No, this won’t hurt relations with Canada. Canada will continue to share its experience with multiculturalism and with refugees with the rest of the world. It is not dictating to the rest of the world to do the same thing. Canada knows that no two countries are the same. Canada is not the same as the United States. And we look to be the same, but we are not. It is also not the same for Hungary, Czech Republic and Poland. And we are not saying that you should be same. But it is not going to change our relationships at all. We will continue to work together very closely with the Czech Republic. And not only on these issues, but also on human rights, environmental issues and so on.

We are very like-minded. Canadians and Czechs have many similarities, they are entrepreneurial people, innovative, both Czechs and Canadians love the outdoors and nature. I mean, that is a big part. And when I drove to my golf-course in Beroun yesterday with a friend from Canada, he said “This looks just like Canada.” And it really looks like Canada. There are only similarities, including ice-hockey, of course. Both countries are also moving in the direction for the future, which is not manufacturing, but information technology, innovation, research and development. These are the future growth opportunities in both countries and the job of the Embassy is to bring those two together.

Would you say your home is in Canada or in the Czech Republic?

It is a very hard question for me to answer, because I don’t know. I feel at home in the Czech Republic and I feel at home in Canada. We are going to Canada now, because most of our family is there. And it is time to go to Canada as we planned three years ago. And I also said earlier that I can’t turn my back on Prague and the Czech Republic. So it is not a question of whether we will come back, we will on a regular basis. But we are not going to come back in a capacity of working here. I will be coming back to see my friends, to see beautiful Prague and the beautiful rest of the country.

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