From Russia with love: Canadian ambassador visits students at St. John's high school

Rodney Squires class at Prince of Wales Collegiate welcomed the Russian ambassador to Canada on Thursday.

Alexander Darchiev fields questions, shares stories at Prince of Wales Collegiate

Russian teacher Rodney Squires poses with his students ahead of the Russian ambassador to Canada's arrival on Thursday.

Inside Rodney Squires's classroom at Prince of Wales Collegiate in St. John's, there's not a Canadian flag in sight.

Instead, flags from Russia and the former Soviet Union are pinned to the walls, with a portrait of Vladimir Putin sandwiched between them for good measure.

Squires is one of the only Russian teachers at the high school level in all of Canada, and on Thursday, his students were delighted to welcome Russia's ambassador to Canada, Alexander Darchiev, to his classroom.

Alexander Darchiev, Russia's ambassador to Canada, exchanges a ceremonial gift with high school Russian teacher Rodney Squires on Thursday at Prince of Whales Collegiate. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

One of them was Grade 11 Sam Mackay, who says the Putin portrait is a cheeky reference to classrooms in Josef Stalin's Soviet Union, which weren't complete unless they had a photo of their dear comrade front and centre.

"I think it's great that he's visiting here, because we get to hear it from someone else's point of view and not just a Canadian's point of view. It's someone who is 100 per cent blood Russian," she said. 

Fielded questions from students

In town for a two-day visit, Darchiev quickly remarked on the decorations in the classroom, admiring a portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev, an ode to Dostoyevsky's classic novel Crime and Punishment, and of course the reference to his boss, Putin.

One corner of Rodney Squires classroom shows a tribute to Crime and Punishment, and Russian art drawn by students. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

He then spoke about his experiences and fielded questions from the group of eager, wide-eyed young learners.

They asked about his country's history, the relationship between Canada and Russia, and what he's learned over the years as an ambassador. 

"I'm very glad [to be here] in Newfoundland, Newfoundland had many historic ties to Russia," said Darchiev.

"During the Second World War, St. John's was the place where the military convoys brought supplies and equipment to the Soviet Union, to the eastern front where the major battles of the Second World War took place."

Teaching Russian for 16 years 

While it may seem a little strange for a school in St. John's to host a Russian ambassador, it's not the first time Prince of Wales Collegiate has hosted a diplomat from the country.

In 2003, Vitaly Churkin, who was Canadian ambassador at the time, visited Squires's classroom to conduct a similar exercise. 

"I started teaching Russian here at Prince of Wales in 2001, and pretty much ever since then, I've had two to four — some years five — classes of Russian per year," said Squires.

Grade 11 student Sarah MacKay says Darchiev's visit is a great learning opportunity. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

In his class, students learn about the Russian language and the country's culture and history, which Squires studied in-depth at Memorial University.

He tries to stay apolitical in his classroom, but he said there's no doubt that students are interested in contemporary Russia, including the allegations that Russians meddled in the 2016 presidential election in the United States.

"They like to talk to me about it more than I talk to them, quite honestly. "They are intrigued by the CNN, CBC and BBC reports."

But in 2017, students are drawn to his class for a variety of reasons, and studying Russian is perhaps more relevant than ever. 

"I think it's a phenomenal time to study Russian, both from a language point of view, historical point of view, contemporary point of view, and I encourage anybody else if they get a chance to study Russian," said Squires.