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Ng won’t confirm status of ‘Team Canada’ mission to India amid strained relations

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LONDON, Ont. — Trade Minister Mary Ng has spent the past four months talking up a major visit to India designed to boost Canadian exports to the world’s most populous country.

But now she is not saying whether the trip is going ahead, raising questions about a halted trade deal amid frosty relations between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his counterpart in New Delhi.

“I’m excited to do lots of trade missions to the Indo-Pacific,” Ng said Wednesday in London, Ont., when asked about the status of the trip.

Ng is scheduled to lead a five-day “Team Canada” trade mission to Mumbai with leaders from Canadian businesses and provinces, leaving on Oct. 9.

The trade mission, the first in Asia under Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy, is focused on boosting Canadian clean-technology companies as a way to help meet India’s need for renewable energy.

The Trade Commissioner Service says the trip would also seek to increase trade in sectors such as automotive, agriculture and value-added food, digital technology, infrastructure and life sciences.

It would also involve networking with Indian business leaders, briefings from senior officials and key industry players, and roundtables with local industry and experts.

A description of the trip posted on the Trade Commissioner Service website notes that India was the fastest-growing major economy in 2022. 

“India’s growing strategic, economic and demographic importance in the Indo-Pacific makes it a critical partner in Canada’s pursuit of its objectives under the Indo-Pacific strategy,” reads the online notice meant to entice Canadian business leaders to join Ng’s trip.

Yet Ng would not confirm whether the trip is proceeding when asked directly twice on Wednesday on the margins of the Liberal caucus retreat.

“We’re working on a whole bunch of missions, and man, I’m going to be excited,” she said.

Ng was meeting Fridaywith her provincial and territorial counterparts as part of recurring trade-minister meetings. The meeting comes days after the Saskatchewan government claimed Ottawa has left provinces in the dark for months over the status of trade talks with India.

In her opening remarks, Ng did not allude to the status of the mission nor Canada’s trade negotiations with India, instead highlighting trade missions to other countries in Asia next year.

“I see us as Team Canada, and there’s lots we can do to lift up Canadian businesses,” Ng said, appearing through a videoconference.

“Whether it’s our business, our exporters or our workers, I think they all count on our collaboration.”

Ng spoke virtually because she has tested positive for COVID-19.

“Out of an abundance of caution this morning, because I was feeling a little under the weather, I thought I would take a test,” she said, expressing remorse over what was supposed to be the first in-person meeting with her domestic counterparts since she took on the role in late 2019.

Last weekend, India’s foreign ministry expressed “strong concerns” over Sikh separatists in Canada, who want to carve out their own state in India.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Sunday with Trudeau on the sidelines of the G20 leaders’ summit in New Delhi.

The summary of the meeting provided by Modi’s office focused primarily on that issue, with nothing to say on trade negotiations with Canada. A written summary published by Trudeau’s office was also silent on trade.

Meanwhile, Ottawa has refused to provide any detailed explanation of why it paused trade talks with India, a move that blindsided business leaders and provinces.

“It’s really important to take a look at the negotiations that have been taking place, and just reflect on it. It’s normal; we do that all the time,” Ng said.

“We always want the best deal for Canadians and I want to make sure that we do that.”

Two weeks ago, Indian High Commissioner Sanjay Kumar Verma told The Canadian Press that Ottawa paused the trade talks and that he wasn’t aware why.

The Business Council of Canada, which has been pushing for more trade with India, stressed that the two countries benefit from commerce.

“We expect this relationship to continue irrespective of political tensions that may occur from time to time,” wrote the group’s president, Goldy Hyder.

“As we have seen with other bilateral relations, disputes tend to work themselves out. In the meantime, business carries on by strengthening ties and forging new opportunities because trade creates jobs, drives economic growth, and raises living standards for all Canadians.”

New Delhi has long argued that Canada undermines India’s national security through some people in Sikh communities who advocate for part of the Indian state of Punjab to become an independent country.

The Indian government perceives this as an extremist movement and has long accused Canada of harbouring extremists. Ottawa has maintained that freedom of speech means groups can voice political opinions so long as they are not violent.

The issue has become particularly heated this spring over unproven allegations that India had a hand in the shooting death of a Sikh gurdwara leader near Vancouver in June. The RCMP have said they have no evidence of any links to foreign interference and had no reason to believe the Sikh community in Canada is at risk.

New Delhi has argued the claim of interference is groundless, and has complained about posters by the advocacy group Sikhs for Justice seeking the home addresses of Indian diplomats. 

On Thursday, that group announced a second grassroots referendum on Khalistan independence, saying the Oct. 29 vote would ask whether Verma is “responsible for the assassination” of temple leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

Speaking last month about posters calling him an “assassin,” Verma said: “There is a reward on my head today by the Khalistani terrorists, and when I look at that, I say, ‘If that is freedom of expression, I do not know which world I’m living in.’”

On Thursday, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly revealed Canada has offered round-the-clock security to India’s diplomats.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 15, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

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