There is a very good reason you haven’t been thinking much about Canada for the last ten years. Inspite of being a G7 country, one of the world’s biggest energy exporters, having strategic installations on the Atlantic, Pacific and even Arctic coasts, and many of the other usual indicators of being a “major” country, Canada has seemed largely invisible for the last decade or so.
Under the Prime Ministership of Conservative Stephen Harper (2006-2015), Canada’s role on the international stage became increasingly focused. Some areas were of interest, for example strengthening important ties with India on counter-terrorism and nuclear power, others weren’t, for example the United Nations and the climate negotiations. Additionally, Canada’s diplomats, like its civil servants, scientists, and even government ministers, were constrained by PMO policy in their public interactions.
So, unless you were interested in something the Canadian government was interested in, Canada probably didn’t appear on your radar. And, even if you were, its good work on things like strengthening security cooperation with India weren’t widely known outside the relevant institutions due to messaging constraints.
For better or for worse, all that is about to change. With the October election of a Liberal Party majority under Justin Trudeau (son of the late former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau), Canada’s international profile is set to undergo a major relaunch.
The difference in style was made clear with the announcement of the Trudeau Cabinet on 4 November. There are 30 Cabinet members plus the Prime Minister. In a deliberate move, half the Cabinet members are women. When asked why, newly minted Prime Minister Trudeau replied: “Because it’s 2015”.
Trudeau also said his Cabinet “looks like Canada”. It includes two Aboriginal Canadians, including the new Justice Minister/Attorney General. The new Minister of Veterans Affairs is paraplegic.
But the big demographic story is the enormous electoral success of Indo-Canadians. As of 2011, people of Indian ethnic origin comprise roughly 3.5% of all Canadians, but a record 19 of the 338 of members of the new Parliament are Indo-Canadians (approximately 5.6%).
The Indo-Canadian parliamentarians were elected from a range of parties, though overwhelmingly for the Liberals, and from across Canada. This wasn’t just block voting by Indo-Canadians for Indo-Canadians. One new Member of Parliament, young lawyer Anju Dhillon, was elected in a largely French speaking Montreal riding with a negligible Indo-Canadian community.
Also, while overwhelmingly Punjabi, the elected Indo-Canadian Parliamentarians also included men and women with roots across India, and who are Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim. For example, in 2004, the Liberal Party’s Yasmin Ratansi became the first Muslim woman elected to the Canadian Parliament.
Even more striking, the new 30-member Cabinet includes a record four Indo-Canadians, making it 13% Indo-Canadian. That number includes the new Defence Minister, retired Canadian Armed Forces Lieutenant-Colonel Hon. Harjit Singh Sajjan.
By comparison, Canadians of Chinese ethnic origin comprised about 4.5% of all Canadians and there are few in Parliament and none in Cabinet. So, while Chinese-Canadians (and African-Canadians, and others) may wonder if the new Cabinet looks like their Canada, it certainly looks like an Indo-Canadian Canada.
What does this all mean and, in particular, what does this mean for India?
It is very hard to tell so far. Once you start to dig beneath the seemingly clear message in the political optics, the picture gets very fuzzy, very quickly. For example, Sajjan unquestionably has a distinguished record of service to Canada. He served honourably in Afghanistan and Bosnia, was a special adviser on Afghanistan, and was the first Sikh to command a Canadian army regiment. However, the way in which he came by his seat caused controversy in his riding.
Some in Sajjan’s riding, Vancouver South, saw him as a “star” candidate parachuted in by the Liberal Party, displacing a popular choice for the ticket, local businessman Barj Dhahan. The key issue was that while Dhahan was known as a moderate Sikh who stood up to Khalistani-supporters, Sajjan’s father, Kundan Sajjan, was on the board of the hardline World Sikh Organization. The younger Sajjan has repeatedly affirmed he is “not a member of the WSO”. Regardless, his selection triggered the resignation of many long-term Sikh Liberal Party supporters. Rajinder Singh Bhela, the former general secretary of Vancouver’s largest gurdwara, the Ross Street Temple, was quoted as saying “we think this Liberal Party’s been hijacked by the WSO”.
As per his track record, Canada’s new Defence Minister has served honestly, diligently and honourably. The controversy around his selection is an indicator not of his character, but that the new Liberal Party can still play the top-down hardball of the old Liberal Party.
And that is where the key questions lie. Trudeau has said that his government will be more open and collaborative than those of the last ten years. His Cabinet, diplomats, and civil servants have all been told they will be given much more leeway to influence policy. From the “looks like Canada” Cabinet to the “unmuzzling” of government officials, the new government is being presented as far more democratic in governance style.
However, the parachuting in of opaquely chosen Party candidates (Sajjan was not the only one) indicates there are some deeper currents also at play. In the past, the Liberal Party was known as a cozy closed club, replete with special interests. Trudeau will have to prove that it is not just optics, that his Liberal Party is truly different.
This has direct implications for India. Under Harper, the bilateral strategic relationship with India quietly grew substantially stronger, built around common security concerns. Trudeau has stated that his foreign policy is going to be much more vocal and multilateral. So, for example, while Harper disengaged from the climate negotiation process, that meant that Canada was not criticising India for its emissions. If Canada reengages and becomes more vocal, it is possible it may revert to some of the old Liberal Party habits of castigating India on its policies, including domestic and strategic ones.
Trudeau stated his foreign policy will harken back to a time when “everyone loved Canada”. Unfortunately, that is a fictional time, as those in the Indian strategic community know. Patronising statements about countries that face a very different reality to the one faced by wealthy, largely secure Canada are likely to produce a much stronger response than they did in 1998.
The role of the Indo-Canadians in Cabinet in helping their colleagues understand that times have changed is unclear. The India they or their parents (or grandparents, or great-grandparents) knew, doesn’t exist anymore.
It is very difficult to know what Canada’s new foreign policy will actually be. Will it reinforce the positive bridges to India forged by the previous government or change course? Will it be more collaborative and, if so, who are the collaborators? Will the Canada it projects truly be the Canada of today, or a reimagined version of a mythical nostalgic Canada?
One promising sign is that Canada’s new Foreign Minister, Stéphane Dion, is highly experienced. But we don’t yet know how much actual input he will have.
The only thing we know for sure is that Canada is about to make noise again. Whether it will be music to India’s ears is yet to be discovered.
Cleo Paskal is the Visiting Trudeau Fellow at the Center for International Studies at the Université de Montréal and Associate Fellow at Chatham House, London.