While protests are promised, many in B.C.’s Indo-Canadian community appear to be enthusiastically looking forward to only the third official visit of an Indian prime minister to Canada.
And it doesn’t seem to matter that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will be accompanied by Prime Minister Stephen Harper at April 16 events in the Lower Mainland, is the controversial leader of a Hindu nationalist party coming to a region where Sikhs dominate the Canadian diaspora.
The son of a tea vendor in a society with limited social mobility, Modi’s political rise, his anti-corruption stance, and his economic record as chief minister of Gujarat state from 2002-14 have impressed Indians around the world.
That has some analysts suggesting India holds enormous potential for Canadian exporters, including those in the LNG sector. “He has an image of a person who is able to do things and make decisions,” said Kwantlen Polytechnic University political scientist Shinder Purewal. “And people like the fact that personally he’s not corrupt. Not even his enemies can accuse him of taking a cup of tea.”
One of his B.C. hosts, Khalsa Diwan Society president Sohan Singh Deo, brushed aside suggestions B.C.’s history as a breeding ground for Sikh separatism during the turbulent 1980s might cool Modi’s West Coast reception.
The relationship between India’s dominant Hindu majority and the tiny Sikh minority hit a tragic low point in 1984 when then-prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for the Indian army’s assault on armed Sikh separatists in the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Her assassination led to deadly pogroms involving Hindu mobs targeting Sikhs, and was followed by the Air India bombings orchestrated by B.C.-based Sikh terrorists in 1985 that left 331 dead.
“It means nothing,” Deo, who will greet Modi and Harper at the Ross Street Temple on April 16, told The Vancouver Sun. “The whole community — Hindus, Sikhs — they’re all excited to welcome (Modi) with open hearts.”
And Modi, if the hopes of many are realized, will return the warmth by announcing that foreign visitors from Canada will be able to apply online for travel visas and obtain them at the airport upon arrival in India.
Ujjal Dosanjh, who as a former premier and federal cabinet minister has been the most successful South Asian politician in Canadian history, said the 1984-85 “aberration” can’t erase long-standing goodwill between Sikhs and Hindus in Canada. “I think that the sense of connection Indians have with India makes almost everyone, even the critics, have a sense of pride.”
After the Ross Street Temple visit, Modi is scheduled to appear with Harper at the Lakshmi Narayan Hindu temple in Surrey, and will join Harper at a state dinner in the evening.
The events will be heavy with political significance, giving Harper a moment in the limelight with Canada’s large, politically active Indo-Canadian community. The visit is of interest to other politicians. Two India-born opposition MPs, New Democrats Jinny Sims (Newton-North Delta) and Jasbir Sandhu (Surrey North), say they are hopeful they will receive formal invitations to the events.
“It’s being worked out,” Sandhu told The Sun on Thursday.
A spokesperson for Premier Christy Clark said essentially the same thing, that the premier is looking forward to Modi’s visit, but formal arrangements are still being “worked out.”
If Clark and the MPs do get invites, they will be among only a few hundred people at each of the events, due to intense security concerns that will require screening, according to officials.
Modi comes to Canada with considerable political baggage. He has long been saddled with accusations that he didn’t do enough to prevent Hindu mobs from murdering Muslims, including women and children, during 2002 riots in his home state of Gujarat. His role in that tragedy is one of the issues that will be raised by protesters in Toronto and Vancouver, according to Gurpatwant S. Pannum of Sikhs For Justice.
The organization, which backs Sikh independence, is organizing several demonstrations against Modi, including one at an event planned for a Toronto memorial for the Air India victims. But the majority of Indo-Canadians will focus on the historic significance of the visit, say most community members interviewed by The Sun.
Modi, thanks to ongoing tensions over India’s use of Canadian material for its nuclear weapons program, is the first Indian prime minister to visit Canada since 1973. That was the year Indira Gandhi had Indo-Canadians bursting with pride when she spoke in French during an address to Parliament in Ottawa. Her visit included a Vancouver stop for an event at the Ross Street Temple.
The only other visit by an Indian leader was in 1949, two years after India achieved independence. Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, with his young daughter Indira Gandhi alongside, drew a huge crowd during a visit to Vancouver.
Canada and India have resolved their feud over India’s nuclear program, finalizing in 2013 a nuclear co-operation agreement to reopen the door to Canadian sales for peaceful purposes.
Both Harper and Modi, who are expected to announce nuclear industry-related agreements during next week’s visit, will undoubtedly stress that the two countries are natural partners.
But the commercial relationship has been abysmal. Canada was ranked as India’s 30th most active trading partner in a 2010 joint study looking into the feasibility of a free-trade agreement between the two countries.
They have been negotiating a trade deal since 2011 and, according to former Canadian trade diplomat Omar Allam, those talks could get a major political boost during Modi’s visit.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if (Harper and Modi) sign a declaration committing the two sides to finalizing ‘the remaining technical and legal work’ — a similar announcement to the Canada-EU Free Trade Agreement in Brussels in 2014,” Allam, founder of a firm that helps Canadian companies do business in emerging markets, told The Sun.
If there is a deal, “B.C. is particularly well-placed as a source for energy, forestry and mining products and services,” Allam said. “These areas are also an attractive destination for Indian investment.”
Modi himself suggested earlier this month that India is eager to buy Canadian oil and natural gas. “Canada is rich in hydrocarbons and other natural resources,” he told the Hindustan Times. “India’s requirements and Canada’s surplus are a perfect match.”
Other B.C. sectors that would benefit from a deal include: engineering and environmental consulting services, mining equipment and services, wood products, pulp and paper, information communications technology, life sciences, clean technology, creative digital media industries, film and television, and education, says Allam.