The India-Canada relationship is like a $20 bill on the floor – it’s waiting to be picked up, but no one has done so,” says Rohinton Medhora, President of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, Waterloo, Canada. Medhora and Mumbai geoeconomics think tank Gateway House did, and the first India-Canada Track 1.5 Dialogue began in Ottawa on October 30.
The closed-door meeting, with scholars from the two think tanks, officials from the foreign ministries of both countries and high ministerial level representation from Canada, held in-depth discussions on a wide range of issues. The focus on innovation, growth and prosperity was intended to be futuristic, and it did discuss nascent, compelling subjects like climate engineering, dark net cyber security and energy. But it also deliberated the current issues of the bilateral, namely trade agreements and extremism. All these are areas of vital interest to both countries – now and in the future.
There are several reasons for the bilateral to get this new, determined push, led from outside government. Canada is the other big North American power, a stable democracy endowed with abundant natural resources and a related industry, a sophisticated technological base and a multicultural, cosmopolitan demography boosted by Asian – specifically Indian, Chinese and increasingly, Filipino – migrants. It is also a Pacific nation – an important potential player in the newly-defined Indo-Pacific.
Overshadowed by its giant southern neighbour, and content to be a follower, Canada has not played to full global potential. Now with the United States taking a determined turn inward, smart countries are looking beyond the 49th parallel to Canada as a partner. India is one of those which is proactively seeking to draw Canada out of its fixation with the trans-Atlantic alliance and into geographical Asia.
An Indian courtship of Canada can be beneficial at so many levels. Technologically, Canada has emerged as a leader in AI, and is now attracting the smart venture capital which will commercialise its innovations. This was not always so. Canadian inventors were content, for decades, to let Silicon Valley take their discoveries to market and profit; outside of Blackberry, few thought of Canada as an innovation centre. But savvy economists like Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans and Avi Goldfarb at the University of Toronto, recognised the losses, and innovated processes and systems to attract venture funding to Canada. According to a PWC report, in 2017, Canada saw an all-time high in investments, $2.7 billion worth, largely in AI and fintech.
Toronto is slowly becoming a competitor to Silicon Valley. This is excellent for India, which is rapidly digitising its own economy, and whose IT industry is now throwing up original innovation; it needs partners and markets outside the India-U.S. corridor. Some of India’s largest IT and fintech players like TCS, PayTM and Tech Mahindra have a significant presence in Canada and can benefit from this effort.
Geopolitically, Canada is a Pacific nation – but doesn’t play optimally as one. Canadians have been slow to adapt to the new reality of the Indo-Pacific, officially still referring to the region as the Asia Pacific. This means their telescope is fixed in Vancouver, and their gaze is mostly on China. To really support the global rules-based order and freedom of navigation, which Canada says it does, it must widen its lens to accept the Indo-Pacific and all the responsibilities that come with it. These are not just security-focused – the Canadian Navy’s Pacific Fleet deploys 15 ships and submarines– but also resource-focused. Canada, with its vast academic and industrial expertise in the Blue Economy, can be a significant and positive force for development of Pacific resources. India is already Acting East both economically and in the maritime domain, and now is looking beyond the 180th meridian to Canada, as an Indo-Pacific partner.
A big advantage for both countries is the 1.5 million Indian diaspora in Canada, a hard-working cohort of new émigrés and those embedded in Canadian society and the economy for over a century. However, the narrative of the diaspora has been hostage to the issue of the separatist Khalistan movement. And while it is a matter of pride that Indian-origin Canadians have successfully entered Canadian politics recently, there is a disproportionate representation of the Sikh community in the Parliament – four ministers in the Canadian cabinet are Sikh, as are 17 of 19 Indian-origin Members of Parliament. Sure, Sikhs comprise 40 per cent of the Indian-Canadian community and have been there the longest, tilling and now controlling vast tracts of agricultural land. This representation must broaden. Gujarati migrants form the second largest sub-group in Canada, with almost no political presence. They can take a cue from their Gujarati brethren in the United States, where the second generation has entered the policy and political ranks. Some have even led large and globally influential organisations like USAID.
An appropriate policy framework created by the two governments can help align the democratic complementarities of India and Canada with their divergent economic and industrial structures. At this moment of unprecedented global transformation, such new-era bilateral partnership models have significance for the future.