Canada silent on cancelled trade mission to India amid strained relations

The Indian government has long accused Canada of harbouring Khalistani extremists, dating back to the bombing of Air India Flight 182 on June 23, 1985. Inderjit Singh Reyat, the sole convicted plotter, was responsible for the deaths of 329 people aboard.

Canada silent on cancelled trade mission to India amid strained relations
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick and Facebook/ Mary Ng
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Amidst ongoing hostilities with India related to provocative Sikh separatists, hopes for a new trade deal by year's end are diminishing.

The office of Trade Minister Mary Ng has confirmed that their scheduled "Team Canada" trip, planned for next month, will not proceed as initially planned due to escalating tensions that worsened during a disastrous G20 summit in New Delhi.

While no further details have been provided for the cancellation, India's foreign ministry has expressed "strong concerns" regarding provocative protests in Canada that took place last June.

India's anger was particularly heightened when Sikh separatists seemed to glorify the 1984 assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, who had sanctioned a military operation at the Golden Temple.

During the G20 summit in New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi briefly met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, despite Trudeau being marginalized for much of the event. Their interaction consisted of a curt handshake and a brief chat on the summit's final day, as reported by True North.

Canada's Indo-Pacific strategy included a five-day trade mission with business leaders and senior government officials to bolster access for Canadian exports to Indian markets, reported Global News.

"India's growing strategic, economic and demographic importance in the Indo-Pacific makes it a critical partner in Canada's pursuit of its objectives under the Indo-Pacific strategy," reads the notice for Ng's trip.

"We expect this relationship to continue irrespective of political tensions that may occur from time to time," said Goldy Hyder, president of the Business Council of Canada.

"As we have seen with other bilateral relations, disputes tend to work themselves out. In the meantime, business strengthens ties and forges new opportunities because trade creates jobs, drives economic growth, and raises living standards for all Canadians."

According to the Trade Commissioner Service (TCS), trade could have also picked up in the automotive sector, agriculture, and infrastructure had the talks normalized relations with the fastest-growing major economy.

However, the sudden cancellation left Indian officials bewildered and enraged the provinces and territories.

In particular, Saskatchewan's government accused Ottawa of leaving them in the dark for months regarding trade relations with India.

"It's really important to look at the negotiations taking place and reflect on it. It's normal; we do that all the time," said Ng.

"We always want the best deal for Canadians, and I want to ensure we do that."

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Indian High Commissioner Sanjay Kumar Verma did not know why Canada had paused trade talks.

The Indian government has long accused Canada of harbouring Khalistani extremists, dating back to the bombing of Air India Flight 182 on June 23, 1985.

Inderjit Singh Reyat — the lone plotter convicted — killed 329 people aboard, including 268 Canadian citizens, 27 British citizens, and 24 Indian citizens.

Ottawa has maintained that freedom of speech means groups can voice political opinions so long as they are not violent.

But the issue intensified in the spring over unproven allegations that India ordered the shooting death of a Sikh gurdwara leader in June, prompting heated counter-protests that concerned the Indian government.

"We are always there to prevent violence, to push back against hatred," said Trudeau at the summit, but clarified the float in question "do not represent the entire community or Canada." 

As of writing, the RCMP has found no evidence of foreign interference by India nor that the Asian Pacific nation threatened the Sikh community in Canada.

New Delhi maintains the allegations of interference are groundless — a topic that Trudeau revisited with Modi at the G20 summit.

When asked what he talked about with Modi, Trudeau said they discussed alleged election interference by India, which Modi did not mention during an interview with local media. 

Instead, he prefaced his concerns regarding the Sikh diaspora in Canada and whether his diplomats would be safe visiting the country.

"They are promoting secessionism and inciting violence against Indian diplomats, damaging diplomatic premises and threatening the Indian community in Canada and their places of worship," said the Indian government in a statement.

In February 2018, then-Liberal MP for Surrey Centre, Randeep Sarai, invited a convicted ex-member of a controversial Sikh separatist group to dine with Trudeau at a formal event hosted by the Canadian High Commissioner in Delhi.

Jaspal Atwal, the person in question, attempted to murder Indian cabinet minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu on Vancouver Island in 1986 and would later have his invitation rescinded. 

Trudeau faced a media firestorm at the time.

Last month, posters emerged in Canada after the Sikhs for Justice advocacy group requested the home addresses of Indian diplomats.

The group also announced a second grassroots referendum on Khalistan independence that would ask whether Verma is "responsible for the assassination" of temple leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

He replied, "There is a reward on my head today by the Khalistani terrorists."

On September 14, Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said Canada had offered round-the-clock security to India's diplomats whenever they visit Canada.

"If that is freedom of expression, I do not know which world I'm living in," said Verma.


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