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Donald Sparling - Professor of Canadian Studies at Masaryk University - compares Czech Roma and Native Canadian issues
07-10-2003  Kay Grigar

Originally from Canada, Don Sparling is a professor of Canadian Studies at Masaryk University and is presently acting head of the Office for International studies. As he moved to the capital city of Moravia, Brno, in 1969, he has been witness to a very significant period in history. Though scholarly in a wide array of subjects, I chose to speak with him about his present function at the University and of course, as a fellow Canadian, I was curious about what made Czechs interested in Canada.

Masaryk University has a series of steps to be carried out within the next 5 years towards furthering its internationalization. It appears to be somewhat cutting edge compared to other academic institutions in the Czech Republic.

"You know that old advertisement it was from a car rental company, 'we are number two we try harder'. And Masaryk University is the second largest University in the Czech Republic so there's a reason to be, let's say, ambitious. But I think the main point is that we have quite a dynamic team leading the University, the rector and the vice rectors and particularly a very dynamic rector. This is Jiri Zlatuska who when he was elected he was elected at the age of forty-one which in this part of the world is totally unheard of. You know usually rectors are sixty sixty-five, on their deathbed and so on. And so he's a very dynamic person and has been pushing it forward with his team who are also very committed to these changes. So what we've done basically is respond very quickly to the initiatives that are being made all over Europe now to modernize the educational systems, to move to a credit system that is interchangeable everywhere in the continent, the ECTS, system a move towards structuring the studies into a BA, MA system, so that there is more chance for students to move from one university to another and so on."

What areas of Canadian Studies are offered at Masaryk University?

"It began in the English department so we have a lot of courses there that are focused on literature but more widely on cultural studies things like multiculturalism, native society and so on. Then we've got courses on Canadian history, Canadian political science, Canadian film, geography. We have a course, which always blows the minds of most Canadians when I say this, on Canadian philosophy. Canadians always say, what are you talking about? Is there a Canadian philosophy? Yes we have a course on Canadian philosophy."

Why would Czech be interested in taking these courses? Why would Czechs be interested in Canadian Sociology?

"Well, I think Czechs are generally interested in Canada. They've got obviously some of these preconceptions about Canada. Canada is "nature" the great empty spaces and so on. But I think it's more than that. Many Czechs have relatives or friends who immigrated to Canada in '38, '48, '68, '77, and so on. And Canada for instance in '68 was the first country in the world to take people fleeing the country after the Russian invasion. So, a lot of people have relatives in Canada and by in large these relatives have had very good experiences in Canada. But it's also I think that Canada is viewed as a multicultural society that works, a federal country that works, unlike the old Czechoslovakia which fell apart. It's an American country, I mean in the Czech language people say "Amerika" and this means Canada, the United States, South America and so on. So it is an American country but it's not the United States with all of the kind of negative associations that the United States has. So, Czechs have got a very positive view of Canada and so this makes them interested in then in Canadian Studies."

Because policies are going to be changed with the Czech Republic's admission into the European Union, do you think that Czechs use Canada as a template for some of the decisions being made?

"I think perhaps to a certain extent that could be said I'm not sure necessarily if it had to do with Czech entering the European Union. I know that for two or three years now that they've been looking at for instance Canada's immigration system, the way we have the point system and try to select out immigrants in this way. This has been something that has already interested the Czechs because they desperately need some sort of coherent immigration policy in the country. The whole treatment of minorities, the multiculturism of Canada has been looked to as a model by many Czechs and Czech authorities in trying to deal with in particular the Roma problem in this country. So, I think there were already a lot of areas in which Czechs saw potential models in Canada. Probably now it may be even more true because, as you say, were are about to enter the European Union and though nobody who is in favor of this movement will openly say that Europe is moving towards a federation because this tends to freak out opponents of the increasing integration of Europe. In fact Europe already is acting more like a federation and from that point of view the operations of Canada are very instructive for people here."

When we had spoken previously you had mentioned that the Czech Republic is moving towards a very homogeneous society. In your course on multiculturism, do you ever make comparisons between the Czech Republic and Canada with perhaps as you mentioned the Roma problem?

"Well certainly in the multiculturism course which I offer the first half of the course is about theories of multiculturism, how societies can adopt different models of multiculturism and there is continual comparison with what goes on here. One of the purposes of the course is to make people think about how things work here whether they are working well or wrongly. Of course there are many differences between Canada and here. In some ways the position of the Roma here is closer to the position of the Natives in Canada. The Roma are not literally indigenous people here but in a slightly stretched definition of the word indigenous they are. I mean they have been living here for six hundred years and have been a part of society, on the fringes of course, but have been a part of it here. And there's nowhere else where they are from, well obviously they are from India but that is like saying the native are originally from Asia. It's so far back in the past that it is no longer relevant. From all practical purposes the Roma are from here. So, from that point of view it's like the Natives in Canada. From other points of view it isn't. The Czech didn't enter and take away the country from the Roma such as the Europeans did in North America. But so many of the social issues whether it's educational levels, literacy, economic levels, problems with alcohol, drugs etc. These are very reminiscent of what effects the Natives in Canada."

Do you think that things are changing? Do you think that integration is possible?

"Well, I think so. And I think things are improving though I think extremely slowly. I think that if you look at the general political climate and the general attitude toward Roma say ten years ago. There has been a change and there has been a change for the better. There are far more programs that are operating that try to solve the problems that are happening and there are far more open recognition of the fact that there are problems. You know ten years ago people were saying that there are no problems the only problem is that the Roma don't want to be like us-end of discussion. Now I think large numbers of people are prepared to say, yes, and we must do something about it. But we are talking about change that will take another generation or two but basically that is what we are talking about in terms of the society as a whole. If you have been forty years under a communist system there is a whole series of ways of doing things, there is a whole set of mental attitudes which are very deeply ingrained. And that is only going to come with one or two generations of people with experience elsewhere and things gradually changing here. It is what Masaryk said in the first republic. He said we need two generations to throw off the mental shackles that we had from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. We need two generations to have the confidence of being an independent, self-determining nation."

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