Toronto, Canada - April 14, 2015
A New Beginning
After much anticipation following the election of the new government under Prime Minister Modi, the moment that Canada India Foundation and members of the Indo-Canadian community had been waiting for is finally here, the first state visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Canada in nearly five decades.
Admittedly Canada-India relations had settled into an uneasy lull after the heady days of the 60’s when Canada and India were seen as the voices of reason in what was then a highly polarized world, and formed the core of many a peacekeeping mission around the globe. This was the period that saw Canada’s then Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the formation of the Shastri Institute named after India’s then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and the CANDU nuclear reactor becoming Canada’s brand identity in India. After those days, however, nearly five decades went by without a major diplomatic breakthrough. Ironically, during the same time, encouraged by Canada’s newly enlightened immigration policies, hundreds of thousands of Indian citizens, along with their counterparts from countries around the world started making Canada their home. It turned out to be the best investment Canada has made, as the highly prosperous Indo-Canadian population is a ready, able and willing catalyst for the rapid blossoming of trade and other relations between Canada and India.
The formation of Canada India Foundation (CIF), as a non-partisan public policy organization, represented a natural evolution for the Indian diaspora community, moving from settling in, growing a family, pursuing careers, achieving economic stability and then prosperity, all the time retaining its cultural values, thanks to the spirit and practice of multiculturalism here, as well as its ties with India.
A milestone in Canada India relations was reached in 2008 when CIF, in the first of the many initiatives since its formation, facilitated a closed door meeting between Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper and India’s former President, A.P.J Abdul Kalam. Along with India’s then High Commissioner to Canada. R.L. Narayan, two CIF executives were the only privileged observers of the meeting where the breakthrough idea of civil nuclear cooperation was first mooted. So it was natural that, when CIF organized the first of its many theme forums on Canada-India relations, the Canada India Energy Forum 2009, the most significant recommendation coming out of the event was for a speedy conclusion of the civil nuclear treaty.
CIF has followed up its Energy forum with equally successful forums on Mining (2010), Agriculture and Food processing (2012) and Infrastructure (2014), each with 50-60 speakers from both countries presenting, discussing and recommending ideas, opportunities and action plans in each theme sector. This year, CIF will be organizing its fifth forum, the Canada India Healthcare Summit 2015, which will tackle both the business and social themes of healthcare, in particular, highlighting Make in India opportunities for prescription drugs, and charting the path towards assurance of universal health and long-term care for citizens of India.
It is to the credit of Canadian democratic values that during the course of the lengthy negotiations with India on Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs continued to update CIF and other prominent Indo-Canadian organizations on the progress, seeking input and advice as appropriate. Even as all of us are eagerly awaiting and anticipating the signing of CEPA during the visit of Prime Minister Modi to Canada, it is important to recall what CIF executives said during a submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade. They said, “With a comprehensive approach to addressing the top 5 areas of partnership reflecting both Canada’s strength and India’s need, i.e. Energy, Agriculture, Education, Mining and Infrastructure (including water), the current target of $15 billion in bilateral trade should not only be easily achievable, but should force a rethink of the target to at least $30 billion, especially with the breakthrough in the nuclear sector.” As stated during its submission, CIF hopes that the final CEPA agreement will incorporate most, if not all, of the following recommendations to realize a higher bilateral trade target:
- Facilitate the temporary entry and legitimate delivery of professional services between our two countries, such as to allow ease of temporary professional travel. A more progressive approach to enable hi-tech workers to come to Canada, especially when they would form the core of a foreign investment initiative from India, would offer more incentive for that initiative to succeed and also potentially increase the value of the initiative. This would also address the shortage of such workers here on a permanent basis.
- Removal of tariff barriers which impede market access for Canadian exporters.
- Phase in the lifting of tariff barriers. For certain industries, longer transition periods will be needed for them to adapt to a new context of tariff-free Canada-India trade. One area which has not realized its trade potential, due to excessive tariffs, is high-end textiles, and with lifting of tariff barriers, the trade volume would grow.
- Tackle non-tariff barriers. Regulatory approaches and standards differ across jurisdictions. CIF advocates regulations based on internationally accepted norms. Limits also need to be placed on the number and scope of regulations such that they not exceed what is necessary to achieve the World Trade Organization Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement.
- Canadian businesses whose commercial or investment endeavours in India are impacted by technical barriers or regulatory measures, should be permitted to be part of a transparent consultation process.
- Inclusion of services as part of CEPA, given that the same represent nearly 75% of Canada’s GDP. Canadian financial companies in particular face significant restrictions on foreign direct investment in India’s banking and insurance sectors.
- Ensure high standards of intellectual property protection.
There is a tendency to view relations between two countries strictly through the eyes and statistics of trade. This, of course, is a simplistic tendency because trade by its very nature is subject to the uncertainties of market, and if not backed up by strong and vibrant people-to-people and institution-to-institution relations, and strengthened by a common sense of political purpose and approach to global situations, the vision of strong relations could turn into a mirage.
One of the important elements of the multi-dimensional matrix of country-to-country relations is that of political interaction, not just government to government, but also directly between its elected representatives. CIF was a catalyst in the formation of the Canada India Interparliamentary Friendship Group, made up of Canadian federal parliamentarians from all major political parties and has since continued to hold regular meetings with this group to express and emphasize the importance of ties with India, with specific recommendations for action. It has been the fondest hope of CIF that a similar multi-party group made up of Indian parliamentarians be formed, as well as a joint group made up of parliamentarians from both countries, all to continue to identify and push their respective governments towards partnership for mutual gain in specific areas.
Interaction between Canada and India can take place at multiple levels and domains. The levels are federal, provincial and municipal and the domains are business, academic, cultural and social. CIF has supported Canadian initiatives at all three government levels, as well as academic, business and social interactions. CIF Members have joined Prime Minister’s and Provincial Premiers’ delegations to India and have advised municipal delegations as well. CIF members have also supported numerous academic institutions in either setting up India centres or in developing ties with Indian institutions.
With the buzz about Prime Minister Modi’s visit, highlighted by the public event and hopefully by a formal conclusion of CEPA, it is tempting to recall the closing quote from the protagonist of the movie, Casablanca, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship”. It is a relationship that Canada India Foundation will do its best to sustain and strengthen in its own small way.