The Canadian High Commissioner to India Nadir Patel will soon return to Ottawa after an unusually long tenure of over five years. In an interview with The Tribune, Patel spoke on a wide variety of topics -- from dispelling the impression that Canada has a soft spot for separatism, welcoming more Indian immigration and hoping for greater collaboration on the world stage. Following is the interview by KV Prasad and Sandeep Dikshit
Canada has the highest per capita of Indians (at four per cent of the population) and more are in the queue. With the points system getting tightened, what is your message for prospective travellers from India? What kind of people and qualifications are you looking at?
Canada has a longstanding positive relationship with Punjab, which is deep-rooted for many years; the first settlers in Canada from Punjab go back to the late 1800s. They were the first community from any part of India that settled in Canada and have a long history. This is welcomed. We would like to see more opportunities for Indians who are interested in relocating to Canada, whether through short-term or long-term; it could be through education, it could be through an application for residency.
Canada consistently ranks among the top countries in almost any category across the board by independent third parties. Recently, Canada ranked number one in quality of life, in terms of a safe inclusive place, in terms of studies and students. We now have over two lakh Indian students studying in Canada. Canada now counts India as the largest source country of permanent residence of students and in virtually any category of immigration sphere. And this is not only because of the diaspora and its links but also because Canada has offers in terms of jobs, educational opportunities and quality of life.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishnkar had met then counterpart (now Deputy PM) Chrystia Freeland early last year and current Foreign Minster Champagne last month. Do you think these meetings can effect a turnaround in the relationship and breach the gap after the row over Sikh separatists?
I wouldn’t characterise the relationship as having a breach per se. If you look at 2018 and 2019, you will see record numbers across the board in virtually metric in the relationship.
In two-way merchandise trade, 2018 was a record year with $ 9.4 billion in trade; 2019 was another record year, it exceeded $ 10 billion. Five years ago, it was $ 6 billion and in 2017, it was about $ 8 billion. So the growth continues. I can say that about every metric across the board. Investments are significant. Five years ago, total investment both ways was $4-5 billion. It is now over $40 billion. Most of that is Canadian investment into India, much of it in the last two years alone.
The number of students in Canada is now over two lakh; 2018 was a record year with 1.72 lakh students from India. Five years ago, it was 40,000.
If you look at every other category, tourism both ways is up double digits, the number of Canadian companies active here is growing at a rapid pace. The number of Indian companies looking at expanding their investments in Canada is growing as well. Air Canada and Air India have non-stop flights and the list goes on. I say this because the relationship has not seen any type of slowdown or loss of momentum.
So Jaishankar’s visit was a great opportunity to take forward that momentum. Even in the last couple of years, you mentioned Deputy PM (then Foreign Minister) Freeland had met Jaishankar but even before that minister Freeland had spoken on the phone a couple of times. There have been prime ministerial and other ministerial interactions as well. There have been visible changes.
Jaishankar’s visit in December was a great opportunity to do three things: (i) take stock of the relationship, (ii) explore new areas of cooperation. We will maintain momentum on investment and trade. We identified a number of areas of mutual interest such as climate change, collaboration in multilateral fora, gender and a common interest in focusing on peace and security not only regionally but around the world. We are looking at ways to make the relationship grow even further, (iii) acknowledge that there was very good momentum in the relationship and what we need to do to keep that momentum going and growing.
Another thing to keep in mind is in 2019, there were elections in India and in Canada. During the first half of the year when the elections in India took place, there wasn’t going to be much in terms of high-level engagement opportunities. And in the second half of the year, there wasn’t going to be much [interaction] because the Canadian elections took place.
In 2018, there was the visit by PM Trudeau, there were other ministerial visits as well. It was very good timing for the minister [Jaishankar] to visit Ottawa, and minister Champagne acknowledged that Jaishankar was the first Foreign Minister to visit since the Trudeau government was re-elected. All these point to things going really, really well.
In the last few years [post Trudeau’s India visit], there seems to be some kind of low energy contact. Is that a fair assessment?
I am not sure I would characterise it that way. The Counsellor-level dialogue took place in the fall of last year, the joint working group on counter terrorism and security issues took place in the second half of last year as well. We had numerous engagements at the official level as well, maybe not at leaders’ level due to the elections. I think there has probably been more happening under the radar than in an overt, public manner. Because of the elections we have a policy that we will be limited in the number of speeches. Part of it has been due to elections but if you look at the statistics, believe me, there is no slowdown. In fact, it is the entire opposite. We are continuing on a solid boom across all areas.
You mentioned that new areas of cooperation with Jaishankar were discussed. But seven-eight years ago, under the Conservative Government cooperation in new areas such as nuclear energy and importing oil were discussed. What we see now is India importing oil from the US.
The key element in the nuclear relationship, thanks to the nuclear cooperation agreement, is the sale of Canadian uranium to India. India counts Canada as a stable, reliable [Canada had broken off its nuclear ties with India after the 1974 nuclear test] partner for the import of nuclear for the civil nuclear sector. The nuclear sector here is part of the clean energy future of India among others as well.
We have had Canada’s nuclear associations along with companies visit here and there are other opportunities but that [uranium supply] is the key area. In terms of what may have happened over five years ago there are a couple of things. First, Canada and India continue to collaborate quite significantly on clean energy, renewable energy. We are very active in the solar and wind space. We are the second largest exporter of hydroelectricity in the world and are bringing a lot of that capacity and knowledge here in terms of potential in the hydro-sector as well.
In oil and gas, there have been visits both ways by the ministers concerned and there have been exploring ways in which companies can explore opportunities in Canada, whether it is in Alberta or here as well, for example in oil field exploration. On the gas side, there is infrastructure being developed in Canada that will have a significant impact going forward as well.
The energy relationship is multifaceted and we would want to see it grow. We are placing a big premium on clean energy, renewable energy. That is the future for not just Canada but India as well.
How do you look at two other issues that have been on the table for a long time -- BIPA and CEPA?
Both countries are keen on both. But the reality is that Canada is a free and open trading nation. We are free trade liberalisers. India is not quite where Canada is in terms of its trade policy. We would like to see less protectionism and more free and open trade. Now, there is still scope to conclude some type of an agreement. But when you are coming at it from different philosophical angles, it can take more time to bridge the gap.
The good news is that there is keen interest on both sides. If there is potential to conclude something, the question is when. We are keen to conclude something on the investment side but the Indian Government has made it clear that they wish to link the investment agreement to the trade negotiation. We feel that we shouldn’t do that. We should go ahead and conclude the investment treaty because it would stimulate even greater investments from Canada. The investment story has been a good one but concluding an agreement would bring more investment. These items were discussed during Jaishankar’s visit. The good news is we are on the same page in wanting to do something but certainly much more needs to be done.
Talking of philosophical differences, are there some between India and Canada on interpreting separatism? Have you bridged the gap during Jaishankar’s visit?
I would challenge the premise of your question. There has been no gap. PM Trudeau, several ministers and I have made it very clear that Canada respects the territorial integrity and unity of India. Said in another way, we do not support or condone any separatism or any separation of India. I don’t think how we can be any clearer than that. That appears to be the Indian position too. So for me there is no gap.
The second element is that if there is any violation of Canadian laws, someone crosses the line and promotes terrorism or violence whether on the financing side, we will act on any evidence, any information that showcases any type of laws have been broken. We have made that very clear. Our security agencies continue to collaborate very closely and they will continue to do that. That is a very important point that often gets lost in the noise. Our position is very clear on that. This is something that has not changed.
To be more specific, there is concern among Indian authorities largely because of what they see as pro-Khalistan activities which they keep flagging at times. We have heard about it at the ministerial level and the MEA level. That has been the issue with Punjab in particular. Punjab CM Amarinder Singh has also taken a position on that.
My comments are related to pro-Khalistan activities. If there are any laws that are being broken, we will act on those. But Canada does not support the creation of another state or the separation or break-up of India. You can take that in the context of that topic or any other separatist movement. We very much respect Canada’s charter of rights that provides for freedom of expression. But if these freedoms are impeded upon, we will act on that right away.
Both countries are keen on taking on a wider role of ensuring peace and security in the world. Canadian planes are in Australia battling bushfires while your military is in Iraq and Afghanistan. India is planning to collaborate with France, Japan and the US in security and development. Is there any Indo-Canadian plan for collaboration in any part of the world?
We are active in a number of places. India is also active in places where Canada is active. In Afghanistan there are strong developmental programmes and in those countries our ambassadors have very strong, close working relationships. We certainly see potential to collaborate together in other countries. The best avenue up to now has been multilateral initiatives and we are very much committed to multilateral initiatives, including peacekeeping. India, of course, plays a very significant leadership role around the world as well. We will see more of this happening.
Much has been talked about the Indo-Pacific concept. How does Canada look at India viewing this concept as central?
We have had some very good discussions on India’s leadership role in the region. When Jaishankar was in Ottawa, we discussed the Indo Pacific concept. It will shape India’s foreign policy priorities, India can count on Canada as an important partner contributing to regional stability and security. It is in everyone’s interest for that to happen.
What is Canada’s stand on CAA, NRC and Kashmir?
Deputy PM Chrystia Freeland did come out on Kashmir. She indicated that Canada, like many other countries around the world and like many Canadians is concerned about the potential risk of escalation in Kashmir. We would like to see any risks managed and of course…reports of house arrests and infringements of civil liberties…that was our perspective. Like any friend, we can have open and frank discussions about these topics and that we did. We would like to see any risks around escalation be managed and maintained. Beyond that when it comes to these types of topics we do have, we will have very honest, good, frank discussions, articulating Canada’s perspectives and that of Canadians or like-minded countries as well. What you would have noticed is that we don’t talk about it [Kashmir/NRC) publicly because we feel it is much more constructive if we can share honest perspectives with our closest friends behind closed doors. We did that and we will continue to do that as well.
You have been the High Commissioner for over five years. Such a long tenure is extremely unusual. What are the key takeaways?
There are three dimensions to it. The first is the relationship itself. Some of those metrics I quoted from five years ago to right now; virtually every statistic has seen unprecedented growth coincided with time here. There are multiple reasons for that. I believe that growth will continue at a more rapid pace in the next five years. The second thing is the momentum in relationship itself – Jaishankar’s visit to Ottawa was very positive. We anticipate several high-level engagements in the coming months. We are diversifying the relationship, looking at arts and culture and films, literature and other areas to expand more people-to-people ties, the growth in diaspora, the educational ties. The growth in soft elements is also something to be proud of.
Being of Indian origin and having been here to see that growth has been something I wear with a lot of pride. As we move on we will miss the most the people, the friends, the relationship, in business, in government, out of government. We have been welcomed with open arms. That is a combination of Indian and Canadians coming together. I will always have a special place for India. This is not ending my time in India. It will be a life-long ambassadorship as far as I am concerned.
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