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Justin Trudeau’s family trip to India and a new snug diplomacy

By Anagha Babu

The last week of February, 2018 marked a new phase in Indo-Canadian relations. The official visit of the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau turned out to be a family vacation. Many Indian and Canadian newspapers and political magazines treated the visit as unsuccessful and argued that the Indian administration was indeed hard on Trudeau. India received criticism for drifting away from the age old philosophy of “Athithi Devo Bhava”.

The Canadian daily, the Toronto Star pointed out that Justin Trudeau was not able to invoke the warmth and cordiality between Indian and Canadian prime ministers that his predecessor Harper had successful attempted.

The interest of the International Relations enthusiasts should lie, where these reports and analysis are scrutinised, and subject to a ‘read between the lines’ or ‘the road not taken’ attitude. The output thus arrived at, could perhaps aim at providing a better picture of the Indo-Canadian relations at the backdrop of the visit from the Canadian first family.

India in Canada

If there was a snub at the Canadian Prime Minister, why did he look nothing less than a contented  man on vacation with his family, unaffected by the reports and statements by the Indian and international media? The answer lies in the fact that he is heading the government of the country which is home to nearly 1.2 million Indians. The Komagata Maru incident had portrayed the discomfort of the Canadians in accepting Indians and their ethnicity. In the series of the official repentances and condolences over the incident, it was Justin Trudeau who gave an apology in the House of Commons in 2016, accusing the 1914 Canadian government and strict immigration laws deficient in humanity and devoid of empathy, while describing it as a “dark chapter” in the history of Canada.

Canada had been accepting and protecting Indian immigrants from the late 1900s, and since then has been a second homeland to many Indians. Canada was a fertile ground for the growth of Indian nationalism, and the formation of Ghadar party stands testimony to this. Many Indians chose to stay back in Canada and find a fortune. The Ghadar activists and their kin turned lumber mill owners. Hardworking and educated, the connections drawn between Indian philosophy and Calvinism, and being considered the elite lot of the immigrant community in the country, Canada did not hesitate to welcome Indians to their industries and associations. Though many may attribute the change in Canadian policies and attitude towards immigrants, a reason for this phenomenon, the Calvinist principles, popular in Canada see this as predestined – those who were once humiliated and turned away without being lent an ear to their pleas are now a vital part of the Canadian society. Apart from contributing to the economy of Canada, the Indian diaspora has proven to be an integral part of the Canadian society.

In October, 1971, Canada became the pioneer in celebrating cultural diversity, by announcing ‘Multiculturalism’ as a government policy. It was Pierre Trudeau’s (Justin’s father) cabinet that introduced “a multicultural policy within a bilingual framework” (English, 2009) and took forward the hospitable and cordial attitude towards immigrants pursued by his predecessor Lester B. Pearson.

The association of Liberals in Canada within the Indian diaspora, especially Punjabis, is evident from the headlines of October 21, 2015 in every international and Indian daily, which credited the electoral victory of the Liberals to the ‘Punjabi shoulders’.

The Indian diaspora and its influence can be well comprehended by the time chosen by the  Trudeaus for their family visit to India – Canada is to head to election booths briefly and the 2015 ‘Trudeaumania’ could only be recreated with the help of the Indians in Canada. The Cabinet of Trudeau with more Sikh ministers (than the Cabinet of Narendra Modi) shows that Trudeau was not reluctant to acknowledge the contributions of the Indian diaspora, especially Punjabis in his electoral victory. We must realize that the ‘India in Canada’ is at its zenith, and the momentum it creates is being felt in greater degrees in the relations between the two nations.

Recently, Indo-Canadian relations have been witnessing rising pressures and strains. The following calendar of events verifies the same. The Khalistan Movement and its demand for a separate statehood have always been a strain in Indo-Canadian relations, as many Khalistan sympathisers have found their way to the top rungs of Canadian society and administration. Having Khalistan sympathisers in the cabinet, the participation in the events conducted by gurudwaras and organisations aiding Khalistan supporters have further deepened the tensions in Indo-Canadian relations.

In April, 2017, Harinder Malhi of the Liberal party of Canada proposed a motion in the Ontario Assembly that termed the 1984 riots in India as a genocide against Sikhs: “That, in the opinion of this House…should reaffirm our commitment to the values we cherish — justice, human rights and fairness — and condemn all forms of communal violence, hatred, hostility, prejudice, racism, and intolerance in India and anywhere else in the world, including the 1984 genocide perpetrated against the Sikhs throughout India, and call on all sides to embrace truth, justice and reconciliation” (Malhi, 2017). The Indian government expressed its displeasure and resentment over this motion which was passed by the Ontario Assembly that had termed the 1984 riots as Indian state-sponsored genocide against the Sikhs. In January, 2018, Malhi became the first woman Sikh minister (Minister of Status of Women) in Canadian history. This would have been done foreseeing the elections, to consolidate and ensure the majority of the Sikh votes from the Brampton Springdale constituency (Malhi’s constituency) housing majority of the Sikhs.

The Saskatchewan plain is very precious to India, as it is the yellow pea cultivation hotspot of Canada. Gram flour in India had found a substitute in yellow pea. The export of yellow pea to India in 2016-17 alone was 2.02 million tonnes. The 50% rise in tariff on the import of yellow pea into India announced by the Indian government in November 2017, proved detrimental to the 1,00,000 tonnes of yellow pea which was to reach India soon. The Canadian supply was, thus, forced to be diverted and dislodged to China and Pakistan at promotional rates. This not only showed the crumbling Indo-Canadian ties, but also the inconsiderate attitude of the two nations towards each other.

Doormats put up for sale on Amazon Canada bearing Indian flags, misrepresentation of Indian flags, denial of entry to a member of Indian Central Armed Police Force into Canada on charges of human right abuses against him, Trudeau turning down the request of Punjab Chief Minister, Amarinder Singh, for a meeting during his Indian visit (he made amends for it later though) have all proven detrimental to Indo-Canadian relations. Against this unfavourable atmosphere, the visit of Justin Trudeau should have been viewed as an attempt to bring the two nations closer.

Snub or Snug?

Trudeau and his family during their visit to India looked like they were taken right out of a Bollywood movie. This is a mirror to the fact how Trudeau has conceptualised India – Indian attire, cuisine, dancing all assumed as depicted in Indian movies. Amidst all the criticism received for this, it should be considered nothing less than a failure if the efforts to get Indianised by the First Family of Canada goes unnoticed by the Indian diaspora in Canada.

The hug, the welcome tweets, cultural and hometown diplomacy were all missing and Trudeau clearly got the message the Indian government intended to get across. This was evident when he sought to meet the Punjab CM (whom he had earlier tactfully declined to meet) and understood his requisitions. The Indian government ensured that the rebuke did not go overboard. The Indian government ensured that Trudeau and his family were always contented and had pleasant and comfortable stopovers, which seemingly made the official trip a family vacation. This would not have been welcomed by the Canadians as they had expected Trudeau to address and initiate new trade relations with India. The fact that the presence of Jaspal Atwal at the dinner arranged at the Canadian embassy and his selfie with the Canadian first lady were not graded as a matter of the gravest concern and the Canadian Prime Minister and organisers of the programme were not reprimanded for the same proves that the Indian government tried to overlook the fiasco, though the irritation lingered on.

It must be realized that a new kind of diplomacy was under construction here, which could be termed ‘Snug Diplomacy’ for the cordiality it expressed without explicitly expressing it and for implicitly cataloguing the resentments. Trudeau was treated like the prodigal son. He had learnt the lessons the hard way. The Indian administration like the father of the prodigal son was worried about him and ensured that the higher officials in the administration accompanied and aided him throughout his visit. Xavier James Trudeau, Ellen Grace Margaret Trudeau, and Harriet Trudeau seemed to be the perfect budding builders of cordiality between India and Canada. Ellen in Indian attire was evidently reminiscing her times with the Indian PM back in 2015 when he had visited Canada. The First Family of Canada did receive a warm reception and the meeting with the Prime Minister was a proof of this. Towards the termination of the visit, it was a happy ending, when both the leaders ruminated at their behaviours and both of them promised to work towards the improvement of their relations. This was necessary to portray the speculations, insecurities, and resentment India had, and for Canada to understand the inability to process the full potential of the Indo-Canadian relations. The visit to widen the trade relations ended on a note to combat terrorism together.

Trudeau was an 11-year-old on his maiden visit to India with his father, unaware of the Indians and their issues. After his second visit, he leaves India probably more enlightened about the India neither portrayed nor discussed in Bollywood, in addition to having a chance to understand the issues and troubles in Indo-Canadian relations. The visit of the First Family of Canada should be seen as the first step towards turning a new page in Indo-Canadian relations. The effect of a family vacation on the relations between two nations can be well elucidated through the Trudeau family’s Indian trip, when Canada is set to hit the election booths in June.


English, John (2009). Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Volume Two: 1968–2000. Toronto: Knopf Canada.

Anagha Babu is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the Central University of Kerala. She is faculty member at the Muvattupuzha Centre of Kerala State Civil Services Academy, functioning as part of the Kerala State Centre for Continuing Education, Kerala.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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