Honourable senators, today I wish to draw your attention to the eightieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between Ottawa and Belgrade.
It was from exile in London on May 31, 1941, during the Second World War, that King Peter II provided the royal decree that would officially create the diplomatic channels between Canada and Serbia. Although diplomatic channels did not open until the Second World War, our ties began far before then.
Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on and invaded Serbia. It would be the spark that ignited the First World War and the resulting conflict would be devastating for the Serbian people.
While Serbian forces were fighting to repel the Austrian offensives and with much of the civilian population being forced to flee their homes, the region was hit by epidemics of typhus and relapsing fever. Serbia would ultimately suffer among the highest casualty rates of the war. Although Canada was entrenching its soldiers on the Western Front, we also responded to Serbia’s call for help by establishing a Canadian field hospital to assist in the massing casualties in Serbia. Canada’s military-medical mission during the First World War is remembered and appreciated in Serbia to this day.
During the interwar years, the formation of Yugoslavia came during a time when fascism was rising in Europe. By March 1941, when Yugoslavian Prince Regent Paul Karadjordjevic reluctantly acquiesced and signed onto a treaty, it took only two days for a pro-British coup to successfully remove the Prince Regent from power and declare King Peter II of age. Assuming full duties, the young king found himself surrounded by hostile Axis powers. Serbia would be invaded within 10 days, and Peter and his ministers forced to exile in London. It was there, governing in exile, that King Peter II issued a royal decree to formally create diplomatic relations with Canada.
Although our connection with Serbia was forged during the most challenging of times, our relations with Belgrade have not always been without difficulty. Our role in the United Nations Peacekeeping missions during the Yugoslav wars presented a challenging time in our relations and a dark chapter in the region’s history.
However, I am pleased to see that relations between Ottawa and Belgrade have improved significantly since then. Democratic and economic reforms have revitalized our partnership and common interests, and promoted a growing level of investment and trade, especially during the last decade, and no fewer than 150,000 Serbians now call Canada home.
After eight decades of diplomacy, may Canada and Serbia continue to foster our growing partnership and build upon our renewed common interests for peace, security and freedom for all. Thank you, honourable senators.