Her Excellency Valerie Raymond, Ambassador of Canada
Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg, Professor Precan, family, friends and associates of Professor Skilling, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am honoured to join Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg in welcoming you to the opening session of an international conference commemorating the life and legacy of Professor H. Gordon Skilling.
I am humbled to be in the company of so many who knew and admired Prof. Skilling, and who could surely speak more knowledgably than I about this pre-eminent Canadian scholar and his special relationship with Czechoslovakia. Although regrettably, I did not have the privilege of meeting Prof. Skilling, I have been inspired by reading some of his works and speaking to Czechs and Slovaks and Canadians who knew him.
I would like to express my profound thanks and gratitude to Prof. Vilem Precan of the Czechoslovak Documentation Centre for initiating the Skilling conference. Professors Precan and Skilling were friends and associates for many years during which Prof Skilling assisted in building up the archive centre of independent Czechoslovak literature and scholarship that Prof. Precan had established in West Germany. Without Prof. Precan’s vision, commitment, dedication and determination, this conference would have remained only a wishful dream.
May I also extend thanks and appreciation to Helena Kasova, Director of the Czechoslovak Documentation Centre, and to the National Library for offering this wonderful venue for this evening’s opening session. Special thanks to the Jan and Meda Mladek Foundation, and to Mrs. Meda Mladkova, for hosting the Skilling exhibition at the marvelous Museum Kampa. Thanks also to the National Museum, in particular Jitka Hanakova for her outstanding work in compiling the catalogue for the Skilling Exhibition.
My sincere thanks to Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg for offering the magnificent and historic Czernin Palace as the Conference venue. And finally, thank you to the many eminent scholars and researchers who are participating in Prof. Skilling’s “virtual Return to Prague” over the next two days.
Ladies and Gentlemen, all those familiar with the life and legacy of Gordon Skilling will know that he had no family ties to Czechoslovakia; no Czech or Slovak roots. He was, if I may quote Vilem Precan, a Czechoslovak by choice. From his first visit to Prague before WWII, he intensified his study of Czech and Slovak, becoming deeply interested in this country. As an historian, as a political scientist, the study of Czechoslovakia became Prof. Skilling’s lifelong mission.
But his interest went far beyond an academic study of 20th century Czechoslovakia. He became profoundly committed to freedom and democracy in the country, becoming as much activist as historian, frequently returning for visits, writing scores of detailed scholarly and journalistic articles, maintaining contact with leading intellectuals and personalities in the dissident community, and actively supporting and promoting their struggle for greater rights and freedom in the world beyond Czechoslovak and Cold War borders.
He witnessed the Soviet-led military intervention of 1968 and the crushing of the Prague Spring. At a time when Communist authorities would never have permitted publication of accounts that differed from state-sanctioned versions, Prof. Skilling wrote a comprehensive history entitled “Czechoslovakia’s Interrupted Revolution.”
In the years that followed, he closely monitored the nascent Czechoslovak human rights movement, and maintained friendships with many leading Charter 77 signatories. He wrote a book on “Charter 77 and Human Rights in Czechoslovakia” that helped to inform the world about the dissident movement’s struggle for rights and freedom.
Prof. Skilling also smuggled printed materials - Samizdat – into and out of Czechoslovakia, donating a vast quantity to the University of Toronto Library. It was at the University of Toronto where Prof. Skilling spent most of illustrious academic career, including establishing the Centre for Russia and East European Studies, and serving as the Centre’s Director for many years.
Professor Skilling married his wife Sally in Prague in 1937; a half century later Gordon and Sally Skilling returned to Prague to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary. On this occasion, in 1987, Gordon Skilling met Vaclav Havel. Five years later, in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution and the return of democracy and freedom to Czechoslovakia, President Vaclav Havel awarded Prof Skilling the Order of the White Lion, the highest Czechoslovak honour.
This international conference, marking the 100th anniversary of Gordon Skilling’s birth, is a remarkable tribute to an outstanding Canadian scholar and activist. Prof. Skilling dedicated so much of his life to chronicling Czechoslovak history during the years of Communist rule, and to supporting the struggle of his many Czech and Slovak friends and associates who risked so much in their long campaign for democracy and human rights.
Thank you, Prof. Precan, and best wishes to all for a successful conference.