Just when India-Canada relations were getting back on track, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided to rain on the parade. Addressing members of the Indian community on the auspicious occasion of Guru Nanak Dev Jayanti on 1 December, he gratuitously waded into ongoing protests by Punjabi farmers against the recently introduced agricultural reforms.
Disregarding diplomatic propriety and with little understanding of the ground realities, he interfered in India’s internal affairs in an effort to curry favour with the Punjabi (especially Sikh) community in Canada, which he regards as a valuable vote bank.
That he had no locus standi whatsoever did not seem to bother him. He once again opted for political expediency knowing well that it could adversely impact bilateral ties with India.
India’s Swift Reaction To Canadian Interference In Internal Affairs
India's reaction was swift and sharp, with the Official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs stating: “We have seen some ill-informed comments by Canadian leaders relating to farmers in India. Such comments are unwarranted, especially when pertaining to the internal affairs of a democratic country. It is also best that diplomatic conversations are not misrepresented for political purposes.”
Canadian Politicians Across The Spectrum Have Jumped In – But Trudeau Must Have The Last Word
Objectively speaking, Canadian politicians of all hues have thrown their hats in the ring. NDP (New Democratic Party) leader Jagmeet Singh, an unabashed separatist and a proponent of 'Khalistan', was the quickest on the draw. Leader of Opposition from the Conservative Party, Erin Michael O’Toole, followed suit. Trudeau's Cabinet colleagues like Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan went a step further. And of course, Trudeau had to have the last word. There is a competition of sorts to appear more loyal than the king.
This is all the more disappointing, as in the last twenty months or so, both sides have been trying to turn a new leaf. External Affairs Minister (EAM) of India, Dr S Jaishankar, has taken charge of the relationship. In his Canadian counterpart François-Philippe Champagne, who knows India well, he has found a kindred soul.
India-Canada Bilateral Ties & Dwellings On Terrorism, J&K Issue
EAM Jaishankar paid an official visit to Ottawa on 19-20 December 2019, when he met PM Trudeau, and had productive discussions with Minister Champagne. He underlined the “importance of respecting our national integrity and unity”. The Indian EAM also dwelled on the challenge of terrorism, including cross-border terrorism, and provided “an accurate understanding of Jammu & Kashmir developments”. Canadian FM Champagne remarked that “Canada and India enjoy a close relationship anchored in a shared commitment to democracy as well as close people-to-people ties”.
They have since been in regular touch and last met on 17 November during the virtual Track 1.5 India-Canada Dialogue. Even before that, the Canadians seemed to have decided on some course correction.
The Joint Press Statement on the 16th meeting of the India-Canada Joint Working Group (JWG) on Counter-Terrorism held in Ottawa on 26-27 March 2019 interalia noted that the sides – “reviewed threats posed by terrorist groups worldwide – including cross-border terrorism, reiterated condemnation of the recent terrorist attack in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir, and discussed actions undertaken to counter terrorism, violent extremism and radicalisation to violence. The delegations discussed the reference for the first time to the threat from ‘Khalistani’ extremism in Public Safety Canada’s 2018 annual Report on Terrorism Threats in Canada” (emphasis added).
Canada’s ‘Respect’ For Indian Sovereignty – And ‘Fight’ Against Terrorism
In a first, the Public Report on the Terrorism Threat to Canada, released in late 2018 had noted – “Some individuals in Canada continue to support Sikh (‘Khalistani’) extremist ideologies and movements.” As anticipated, the ‘Khalistani’ elements were up in arms and threatened consequences in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The government was quick to beat a hasty retreat and scrubbed the report of all references to ‘Khalistan’ or Sikh extremism.
However, in a significant move, Canada rejected the ‘Punjab 2020 Referendum’ sponsored by the separatist outfit called SFJ (Sikhs for Justice), in July 2019.
The spokesperson of Global Affairs stated in an email response: “Canada respects the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of India and the Government of Canada will not recognise the referendum”. The Canadian radicals were shocked and livid.
As recently as on 26 November 2020, Minister Champagne tweeted: “#MumbaiTerrorAttack We call for perpetrators of these cowardly acts of terror to be brought to justice. Canada stands with India in the ongoing struggle against terrorism.”
How Trudeau ‘Violated’ Canadian Ethics
There is another side to the story. Going back to March / April 2019, Jane Philpott, having resigned as cabinet minister, spoke out : “There are times where the image and the narrative that the prime minister’s office wants to put out there is more important than accuracy.” (as reported by The Guardian UK). She was alluding to many factors including Trudeau’s alleged efforts to bully his Justice Minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, into calling off corruption investigations against SNC-Lavalin, a Quebec-based engineering and construction company.
Trudeau, who represents Montreal (Quebec), feared that the company could quit the province if investigated, leading to considerable job loss and voter backlash.
Ms Wilson-Raybould too resigned her post dealing a body blow to Trudeau’s carefully crafted image of probity.
Canada’s ethics commissioner who looked into the matter, concluded that Trudeau had violated the country’s ethics and rules when he used his office to “circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit” the former minister.
Trudeau’s Damage Control
The federal ethics commissioner decided in July 2020, to probe Justin Trudeau yet again, for conflict of interest in awarding a USD 900-million contract to WE Charity (as reported by Global News). WE Charity was to establish a program to provide grants up to USD 5000 to unemployed recent graduates and students, for volunteer work. They were to receive USD 19.5 million for its services.
It soon became known that Trudeau’s wife, mother and brother were closely associated with the outfit, and had received sizeable amounts of honorarium for participating in WE events over the years. Trudeau initially tried to brazen it out, but was forced to blink in the face of public anger and disapproval.
To salvage his sinking political fortunes, the Canadian leader threw open the federal coffers to the Canadian public, reeling under health and financial crisis, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the process the nation has been saddled with a massive fiscal deficit of over USD 381 billion, but has done the trick for the telegenic prime minister.
According to surveys, if snap polls are held today, the possibility of which cannot be ruled out, Trudeau could regain his parliamentary majority.
Such is the personality that India is dealing with.
India-Canada Ties In Certain Areas Continue To Thrive Despite Politics
Mr Trudeau knows that he needs his vote bank to stay afloat and will do what it takes. If there is a collateral damage to ties with another country, so be it. Fortunately, bilateral ties, especially in the areas of education, energy and FDI, continue to do well independent of political vicissitudes. India-Canada relations are too important to be left adrift due to the Canadian Prime Minister’s proclivities.
(The writer is a former High Commissioner to Canada, Ambassador to South Korea and Official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached at @AmbVPrakash. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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