Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe’s government is accusing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of damaging relations with India and keeping the provinces in the dark about trade talks.
In a letter Moe released Monday, Saskatchewan Trade Minister Jeremy Harrison argued Trudeau is picking a fight with India for domestic political gain and risking access to one of his province’s most important export markets.
“It is very difficult to come to any other conclusion that your government has once again put its own domestic political interests ahead of the national economic interest — particularly as it relates to exports and trade of western Canadian-produced commodities,” Harrison wrote.
Last month, Indian High Commissioner Sanjay Kumar Verma told The Canadian Press in an interview that Ottawa sought a pause “within the last month” to ongoing talks for an Early Progress Trade Agreement.
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The news stunned business leaders, and Harrison wrote that his peers have had a “complete lack of updates” on the negotiations since at least late July.
“It is unacceptable to our government that we first heard of a pause in the EPTA negotiations through the media one week ago, and have received no explanation from (the) Government of Canada subsequent to that,” reads Harrison’s letter, dated Sept. 8.
“Clearly, what your government has done has put the already strained Canada-India relationship in even further peril after some improvement following the prime minister’s disastrous trip to India in 2018,” he wrote, a reference to Trudeau being mocked for wearing traditional outfits and for inviting a convicted terrorist to a reception he hosted in India.
Harrison added that provinces and territories ought to be present in the negotiations, saying this has been done in talks for past trade deals. Harrison also claimed that Trade Minister Mary Ng had not replied to a late July letter seeking an update on the negotiations.
The Liberals have given no clear reason why they ordered a pause in the trade talks, and Ng’s office said she would be providing a statement in the late afternoon in response to Harrison’s letter.
“We know the negotiations around free trade are long and complex, and I won’t say any more,” Trudeau told reporters last Friday in Singapore.
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Saskatchewan makes up roughly a third of Canada’s exports to India, amounting to more than $1 billion per year. The trade includes commodities such as lentils, which India has occasionally blocked or delayed as it tinkers with pest-control policies.
Ng is set to lead a trade mission to India next month with Canadian businesses.
Further strain over Sikh separatists
Trudeau briefly met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi this weekend, and India’s external affairs ministry said Modi expressed “strong concerns” to Trudeau about “anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada,” particularly Sikh separatists who want to carve out a state they call Khalistan from India.
The Indian readout made no mention of themes Ottawa included in its summary of the meeting, such as economic growth, support for lower-income countries and reforming global financial institutions.
Trudeau told reporters that he had concerns about foreign interference from any state, including India, and that Canadians of any origin have a right to free speech.
India has long accused Canada of harbouring extremists, while Ottawa has continually maintained that freedom of speech means groups can voice political opinions if they don’t use violence.
Tensions escalated this spring over a series of incidents, including with posters referring to India’s diplomats in Canada as “killers” and seeking their home addresses.
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Human Rights Watch says the Modi government has overseen a “serious regression in human rights and constitutional protections,” with attacks on Muslims and other minorities met with impunity and restrictions on journalists.
The meeting between Modi and Trudeau coincided with voting in British Columbia on a non-binding referendum for a Sikh homeland that supporters call Khalistan.
Large crowds of voters lined up to vote at Surrey’s Guru Nanak Gurdwara on Sunday, after the Surrey School District cancelled organizers’ original plans to rent a local high school for the vote, which is part of an international campaign.
Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, general counsel for the referendum’s organizers, said Monday the attendance numbers were so large that “thousands” were not able to vote, and a second phase of voting is now scheduled for Oct. 29.
Pannun said the turnout is a “clear message” that activists are committed to a “peaceful and democratic” process for the group’s goal of seeking Punjabi independence from India.
“Thousands and thousands (of) Sikhs got together (at) 7 o’clock in the morning and peacefully dispersed after the voting,” Pannun said. “That should be a clear signal even to the Canadians that we follow the laws of the land, and Khalistan is a peaceful and democratic movement — and the Indigenous people of the Punjab should have the right to do an official referendum.”
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Organizers have held votes in the Vancouver and Toronto areas, and are preparing for additional referendums in Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal, as well as other parts of Canada, the United States and other countries, Pannun said.
The goal, he said, is to gather all overseas votes by 2025 and present the case to the United Nations for an official referendum on Punjabi independence from India.
Foreign interference accusations
Tensions around Sikh independence movements and Canada-India ties escalated in June after Guru Nanak Gurdwara president Hardeep Singh Nijjar was shot dead while in his vehicle at the temple’s parking lot.
Activists organized a protest later that month outside the Indian consulate general’s office in Vancouver, accusing the country of “foreign interference” for possible links to the death.
Police say Nijjar’s death has not been connected to foreign interference, and there’s no reason to believe Canada’s Sikh community is at risk.
However, some activists have called on supporters in Canada to “besiege” India’s diplomatic missions, offering cash rewards for the home addresses of its diplomats.
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India’s High Commissioner in Ottawa, Sanjay Kumar Verma, recently said the concern from Indian diplomats about their safety has been “well understood” by Canada in its response to a request for better protection.
“There have been posters where I am called an assassin,” Verma told The Canadian Press.
“If a reward is put on my head, doesn’t it restrict my movement? So, where is my freedom to move freely in this country?”
Verma said, however, that Canada is adequately protecting his country’s diplomats, and closer ties are possible despite heated diaspora politics.
The Indian government’s statement about Modi’s meeting with Trudeau said it believes the Punjabi independence movement is involved in “damaging diplomatic premises and threatening the Indian community in Canada and their places of worship.”
“The nexus of such forces with organized crime, drug syndicates and human trafficking should be a concern for Canada as well,” Modi reportedly told Trudeau, the statement said.
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Sikh vote organizers say they have been unfairly portrayed by India, saying their referendum poster — showing a pen stabbing a gun representing the Indian government — is a pro-peace, pro-democracy image showing the group’s commitment to voting and non-violent actions.
The same poster was one of the key reasons cited by the Surrey School District in its decision to cancel vote organizers’ planned rental of a school for the vote.
In a statement, the school district said it cancelled the rental of Tamanawis Secondary a week before the event because promotional posters featured images of a weapon alongside the school building.
The district says its decision is neither an endorsement nor a criticism of the movement and refunds will be issued, but organizers said they intend to pursue legal action for what they call a “breach of contract” and a violation of Charter rights on freedom of expression.