On 17 February, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived in India for a week-long visit. He has brought his wife, three children, and some of the 19 Indo-Canadian Members of Parliament elected from his Liberal Party. That includes four Sikh Cabinet Members. Canadian Ministers of Defence, Foreign, and Trade are all a part of the delegation.
It’s a serious delegation, in India for a relatively long visit. Trudeau and his team will try to show their hosts that Canada-India relations extend far beyond the 1.3 million Indo-Canadian Diaspora there, and that they can go much further still.
Getting there, though, may take some handling. In particular, touchy topics will be: Why should India care about Canada? Is Canada doing enough on the Khalistan issue? Is this trip about domestic Canadian politics or international relations?
First, why should India care about Canada? When Modi visited Canada in April 2015, it was the first dedicated visit by an Indian Prime Minister in over four decades. Meanwhile, Trudeau is on his first visit to India since being elected in 2015, while he already visited China (however, his trip there was for only four days). Up to now, there has been a seeming lack of urgency in both capitals in moving forward quickly.
This belies the natural compatibilities of India-Canada relations. There was $8.3 billion in merchandise trade in 2017—there is room for much more, especially in a range of critical commodities and resources (Canada sells everything from pulses to uranium to India) but also in software, aeronautics, power generation, etc. Additionally more Indian parents are opting to send their kids to Canada’s safe and reputable universities, and more techies are looking to Canada rather than south of the border.
National level politics aside, these trends are likely to increase, assuming barriers aren’t put in their way. Ideally, the era of relative neglect is over in both capitals.
That seems to be true on the Canadian side, at least. The length and size of the mission shows how serious Ottawa now is engaging with India. And showing up for a week is certainly a good way to focus the host’s mind. That said, Canada is a bit late beating a path to Delhi. The ground is already well trodden, from Modi’s inauguration with the SAARC leaders, to the recent Republic Day with the ASEAN leaders, and many world leaders in between.
It will be up to Trudeau to show that he is in India not just to please a certain vocal section of his electorate, but rather to build a new relationship with India that benefits all Canadians and Indians.
So why should India care about Canada when it already has so many potential partners lining up? Apart from the economic compatibilities mentioned above, as the Indo-Pacific grows in importance in India’s strategic outlook, it’s worth remembering that Canada is also a Pacific nation. Additionally, it has very close ties to US, and is a member of Five Eyes. Building trust and working more closely together might help all concerned.
For example, on the agenda for discussions during the visit are defence and security issues. This brings in the question of is Canada doing enough on the Khalistan issue? To be upgraded from just an economic partner to something more serious would be beneficial for both countries over the long term. Canada will need to show that it understands India’s concerns and is willing to built trust and work together to counter terror in all its forms. If that happens, we will all be safer.
Which brings us to the final question, is this trip about domestic Canadian politics or Canada’s international relations? We will know more in a week. The itinerary (Delhi, Agra, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, and Amritsar) is certainly designed with Canadian vote bank politics in mind.
It will be up to Trudeau to show that he is in India not just to please a certain vocal section of his electorate, but rather to build a new relationship with India that benefits all Canadians and Indians. That new mutually beneficial and trust-based relationship, built on a nation-to-nation basis, rather than an ethnicity or religious basis would anyway ultimately be an even bigger vote-getter for Trudeau among Canadians, including farmers, tech companies, film industry, defence, etc.,
Canada’s Minister of International Trade François-Philippe Champagne has said of Canada’s potential relationship with India, “The opportunity in front of us is huge. We want to engage.”
Hopefully, this week, Trudeau will prove that Ottawa means it. And Delhi will move things along a bit faster. Regardless, India and Canada will trade goods, people, and knowledge. And, given the natural compatibilities, things can only get better.
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian’s North America Special Correspondent.