WARSAW, Poland – Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis wants Canadians to know that his people love hockey, and he is hoping the Canadian soldiers who will start arriving in his country early next year will be up for a game.
Canada and Latvia already have some hockey history after facing off against each other at the 2014 Winter Olympic quarter finals – in Sochi, Russia.
Off the rink, they will be on the same side facing a mutual opponent: Russia. And they had better get used to each other, because Canadian Forces personnel could be in Latvia for a while.
Speaking to The Canadian Press on the sidelines of the NATO leaders’ summit in Poland, Vejonis said his country welcomes Canada’s decision to lead efforts to establish a multinational battlegroup in their country.
About 450 Canadian soldiers as well as a number of armoured vehicles and other necessary equipment will be sent to the tiny Baltic state, where they will form the core of what will be a 1,000-strong battle group.
Vejonis, who has invited Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to visit, acknowledged that sitting on oppose sides of the Atlantic Ocean, Canada and Latvia are “quite far.”
“But we strengthen these transatlantic ties all the time,” he said. “Not only with the U.S., but also with Canada.”
NATO and the Liberal government say the force, which will be matched with similar battle groups in Estonia, Lithuania and Poland, is a defensive measure intended to dissuade Russia from trying to repeat what it did in Ukraine in other parts of Eastern Europe.
Germany is taking a similar lead in Lithuania, with the United Kingdom in Estonia and the United States in Poland. Officials have not explained how or why Canada got matched with Latvia.
“The fact is the Canadian ties with Latvia go back a long way,” Trudeau said when asked. “Our relationship is strong with all the Baltic states.”
Recent history has shown Canada come out in support of an independent, westward-leaning Latvia. Canada was one of the first countries to recognize Latvia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. It was also one of the first to ratify its accession to NATO in 2004.
There are other ties. One of Latvia’s most famous and respected post-Soviet leaders, former president Vaira Vike-Freiberga, arrived in Canada as a teenager. She went on teach at the University of Montreal after spending more than 40 years in Canada before returning to her native Latvia in 1998.
The Canadian government says there are about 28,000 Latvians in Canada.
More recently, the relationship has revolved around planes. Latvia has ordered 20 of Montreal-based Bombardier’s C300 passenger planes for its state-run airline, Air Baltic. The first jets are due to arrive later this year, which will make Air Baltic the first to operate the C300.
“It means we are really trying to find new ways of co-operation,” Vejonis said. “We are the first to buy the new model, C300, and this autumn we will receive the first new models from Bombardier in Riga.”
Aside from the planes, however, two-way trade between the two countries has been minimal, totalling less than $75 million in 2015.