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31 August 2017, Gateway House

India in Canada’s worldview

India hardly figures in current discourse on Canadian foreign policy. Yet, the two countries are important to each other: one, a source of investment, technology and energy, the other an attractive market. The current challenge is to conclude negotiations on long-pending trade and investment agreements

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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As the Trudeau government completes two years in November 2017, uncertainty persists about the Canadian prime minister’s proposed visit to India. Canada and India are important to each other – Canada as a source of investment, technology and energy and as the home of 1.3 million Canadians of Indian origin, and India as an increasingly attractive market, a large and successful democracy and a global player. Yet, today’s mainstream discourse on Canada’s conduct of foreign relations does not include India – barring the occasional mention. Likewise, Canada goes missing from analyses of Indian foreign policy in the Indian media. Bilateral Track II dialogue on foreign policy issues hardly exists, reflecting the low priority each country accords the other.

A two-week sojourn in Toronto, with the opportunity to meet a range of scholars, diplomats and other experts, yielded many insights into the existing state of the bilateral. It reinforced the impression that shared values, the G20 platform and the Commonwealth connection form the background to this bond. Driven by these obvious commonalities, the two countries have cooperated well, culminating in Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Canada in April 2015. This gesture reciprocated several visits by Canadian VIPs including PM Harper and the governor general. After Trudeau became PM in November of that year, ministerial visitors to India have kept the momentum going, but interaction at the highest political level is still awaited.

The Indo-Canadian community, which is growing in size and influence, with four ministers and 19 MPs at the federal level, favours a closer bilateral relationship. Some elements, though, that are interested in persisting with the fundamentalist agenda of the past, remain keen on holding the partnership back, and even received a boost in their mission when the Ontario assembly adopted a motion in April 2017, which described the 1984 anti-Sikh riots as “genocide”. This immediately evoked negative reactions in India. The official spokesman stated: “We regret this misguided motion which is based on a limited understanding of India, its constitution, society, ethos, rule of law and the judicial process,” adding that New Delhi’s views were conveyed to the government and political leadership in Canada. [1]

The politically savvy Trudeau is expected to resist pressures from a small minority and pay heed to the strong pleas of Canada Inc and others about the advantages of forging long-term bonds of cooperation with India. The current challenge is to bridge differences and conclude negotiations on long-pending agreements on trade and investment, allowing the latent synergy to turn into a deep collaboration. It is evident that the two governments could do with some assistance from like-minded people in both countries who advocate a determined drive in a positive direction.

Before this can happen it is important to grasp the Canadian view of the world. Canada sees itself as “an essential country” in “the life of our planet”, as Foreign Minister Christia Freeland said recently.[2]

Despite its small population (35 million), it enjoys a special role as an advanced G7 economy. It has a strategic position in North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), historical and contemporary linkages with Western Europe, and a global vision presented by a charismatic leader, Justin Trudeau. A well thought out foreign policy, reinforced by a conscious integration of diplomacy, trade, aid, defence and soft power, make Canada an interesting and influential player on the international stage.

Also, the replacement in January 2017 of then foreign minister Stephane Dion, a veteran politician with an academic bent of mind, by Ms Freeland, an experienced journalist, editor and award-winning author, seems to have injected fresh dynamism to the scenario: she is proactive and said to be keeping the focus on relations with the U.S.

Her appointment has also sharpened the projection of the Canadian view of the world. But, there is little doubt that PM Trudeau and his close advisers call the shots. In his ‘mandate letter’ to Freeland, the prime minister pinpointed several key foreign policy priorities. These included maintaining constructive relations with the U.S., which is “Canada’s closest ally and most important economic and security partner”; strengthening North American cooperation involving the U.S,, Mexico and Canada; and expanding Canadian diplomacy and leadership on global issues and in international institutions. ‘Canada is back’ has been the mantra of the Trudeau government, conveying that the nation has shifted significantly from his predecessor Stephen Harper’s conservative policies to the progressive liberalism of the Liberal Party, which is supportive of steps to strengthen and improve the multilateral order.

Managing relations with the U.S. has been the biggest and most complex challenge for any Canadian government, but with Donald Trump in the White House, the task has become even more difficult. Many in Ottawa had hoped to see Hillary Clinton win the 2016 election. Political reality intervened, forcing Trudeau to balance twin needs: being cordial to the new American president despite serious ideological and political differences, and safeguarding Canada’s interests as a small, sovereign nation with its own global perspective.

Following Trudeau’s visit to Washington, which was rated a success, Ottawa has launched a long series of high-level visits to the states and Congress to consolidate support for its idea that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has served everybody well and only needs some ‘tweaking’. The Canadians have also assured Mexico, the third member of NAFTA, that it was committed to a fair, three-way negotiation process and would refrain from a side deal with Washington. Negotiations began in mid-August, with Canadian experts cautioning the government that the road ahead would be bumpy, what with the U.S. wanting to re-negotiate NAFTA, seeking major concessions from Mexico and Canada too – or else, threatening to walk out.

The only other country, besides the U.S., mentioned in Freeland’s June 2017 address on foreign policy, was China. She spoke of “the rapid emergence of the global South and Asia, most prominently, China”, and her nation’s view that these countries should be integrated into the world’s economic and political system in a fair manner.[3]

Canada has been an enthusiastic member of G20, promoting an inclusive approach that blends the imperatives of economic development with climate change.

In September 2016 PM Trudeau undertook an eight-day visit to China and Hong Kong. China is Canada’s second largest single-country trading partner (after the U.S.). The visit resulted in 50 deals worth $1.2 billion, and an additional 10 agreements were announced in Hong Kong. Trudeau observed that the visit had placed the China-Canada relationship on “a renewed and stable track” that would foster greater economic and social benefits to both nations. The Globe and Mail commented that Canada, much like other countries, had not always been successful in “making its relationship (with China) a balanced one”.[4]

The other region of considerable interest is Europe, with the Canadian aim being building ties with Germany, France and the UK. The conclusion of the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) was a priority, which has been fulfilled.

As for Russia, the evolving equations are complicated. The Trudeau government has been strengthening Canada’s role in the NATO in response to Russia’s aggressiveness in Crimea and the Ukraine, but it maintains sustained economic ties and cooperation with its Arctic neighbour. Ottawa has been engaged in various UN operations over many years while redressing its peacekeeping role.

Some experts argue that only marginal differences exist between the foreign policy of Trudeau and that of his predecessor, Stephen Harper. The official view is expectedly different. Ottawa claims to follow an external relations policy that is informed by the Liberal Party’s all-encompassing inclusivity, covering advocacy of human rights, values in public life, gender equality and women’s empowerment, and unusual receptiveness to immigrants and refugees.

An objective view may suggest, that much like in India’s case, Canada’s foreign policy today has a blend of change and continuity – but it is a little too early to judge its impact.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House and a former ambassador. He served as Consul General in Toronto during 1994-98.

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[1] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Media Briefings, Official Spokesperson’s response to a question regarding passage of a Private Members’ Motion in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario (New Delhi: Ministry of External Affairs, 2017) <>

[2] Government of Canada, Global Affairs, Address by Minister Freeland on Canada’s foreign policy priorities, (Ottawa, 2017) <>

[3] Government of Canada, 2017

[4] Vanderklippe, Nathan, ‘Trudeau’s visit to China fails to shift power imbalance’, (The Globe and Mail Inc., 2016) <>