Czech Refugees in Cold War Canada, 1945-1989.
Between 1948 and 1989, three separate waves of Czechoslovaks immigrated to Canada. Each wave came through different routes and different methods, but almost all were united in their opposition to communism. In his book Czech Refugees in Cold War Canada, Jan Raska delineates the attitudes of each wave, their strategies to survive in their new homeland, and their attempts to influence the Canadian government and its foreign and domestic policies.
Concentrating primarily on the actions of ethnocultural organizations such as the Masaryk Memorial Institute (MMI) and the Czechoslovak National Association of Canada (CNAC), Raska's work provides invaluable insights into these organizations' formative years and their political and social activism in service to the Czechoslovak refugees. The emphasis on these organizations allows Raska to document their strategies, not only in helping individuals and families adapt, but also in advocating for government support for refugees and in protesting the totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia. As Raska points out, many of the Czechoslovak refugees initially had hopes to return to their homeland once the political climate changed, in sharp contrast to earlier immigrants who wished to make new lives in Canada. However, the Cold War political demands forced the Czech and Slovak refugees to craft their ethnocultural identities through their political and cultural organizations in order to become "citizen allies" (3).
Raska has organized his book chronologically, which bolsters his contention that previous immigrants assisted the successive waves in ways determined by the political atmosphere and the objectives of these organizations. He begins with inter-war immigrants from the First Republic of Czechoslovakia [1918-1938]. Unlike the subsequent three waves of Cold War refugees, these immigrants came from a democratic tradition, sought economic opportunities, and were focused on achieving Canadian citizenship (77). In this opening chapter, Raska discusses the distinction between ethnic Slovaks and Czechs; a distinction that carried with it political overtones because many Slovaks sought the establishment of a separate Slovak state (23-24). Works on the Slovak experience in Canada already exist; Raska's is the first to focus on the Czechs. Raska then describes the experiences of Czechs and Slovaks escaping the division and fascist takeover of Czechoslovakia after the Munich Pact and during the Second World War. Notable in these refugees was the owner of the Bat'a shoe factory, who reassembled his factory in Ottawa (31-33).
The narrative begins with the post-war displaced person crisis which was followed by the large number of Czechoslovak refugees fleeing the Stalinist coup of February, 1948 (84). Like most of their war-time predecessors, the '48ers had hopes of eventually returning to their homeland. Through membership in organizations like the CNAC and the Sokols, Raska shows how these refugees maintained connections with Czechoslovak traditions while advocating for regime change with such activities as anti-communist demonstrations (90). As time passed and the conditions in Czechoslovakia remained the same, the '48ers assimilated into the Canadian middle class and were courted by provincial and federal politicians as a reliably pro-democratic voting block (118-120).
The second wave of refugees left during the 1968 Prague Spring reform movement, or soon after the Soviet-led Warsaw-pact military invasion which ended those reforms. These people, Raska points out, "were fleeing communism as a lived reality" (140). Prepared to assist them were mature and politically-connected Czechoslovak community organizations as well as Canadian government officials who hastily set up facilities to resettle the most desirable refugees (157-163). Raska meticulously details the refugees' demographic information, the material assistance they received, and the social and economic adaptation studies done a decade onward (171-172).
In the late 1960s, the Canadian government's growing awareness of the many unique ethnic cultures within Canada, urged on by cultural organizations, led it to set up a variety of immigrant assistance programs (209). The direct beneficiaries of these efforts included the third wave of refugees from Czechoslovakia. Members of this group came to Canada in small groups; most escaped at great risk through dangerous border crossings, or sneaking off airplanes during refueling stops (198-199).
Generally speaking, the Czech emigres to Canada, like so many others, faced difficulties in learning new languages, finding jobs, and coping with their new situations. The Cold War hostilities heightened the public's distrust of the Czech refugees, fearing that the newcomers might be spies, were taking jobs from Canadians, or that the government was coddling them (94-95). The Czechoslovak government saw these emigrants as criminals, and tried to blackmail them or harass the family members they had left behind (106, 181-183). Raska uses many interviews to document these struggles, putting a human face on them, so to speak.
Raska writes clearly, with minimal jargon. Having in-depth knowledge of Czechoslovak history and culture is not necessary to understand this book, but it is helpful. Raska briefly describes historical events as needed. Readers familiar with the historical record will appreciate Raska's use of correspondence from Canadian officials and community leaders that bring new insights to the events. The oral histories, which I admit were my favorite part, seemed too brief. However, Raska balances these anecdotal accounts with weighty quantitative evidence, thereby making the book valuable for researching the experiences of ethnic groups, immigration policy, or the functions of ethnic organizations. His intensively-researched work offers a solid body of evidence to the field of ethnic studies.
Misha Mazzini Griffith
Department of History, Northern Virginia Community College, Loudoun Campus
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|Author:||Griffith, Misha Mazzini|
|Publication:||Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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