India-Canada Relations: A Roller-Coaster Ride

By Budhwar, Prem K. | Indian Foreign Affairs Journal, January-March 2018 | Go to article overview

India-Canada Relations: A Roller-Coaster Ride


Budhwar, Prem K., Indian Foreign Affairs Journal


A Historical Backdrop

The foundation of the special relationship between India and Canada was laid immediately after India's independence and cemented during Prime Minister Nehru's visit to Canada in October 1949. This warmth and closeness in relations saw several positive outcomes, including Canadian development assistance to India and, significantly also, cooperation in the field of nuclear technology with Canada agreeing to supply to India in 1954 CIRUS (Canadian-Indian Reactor, US), a research reactor at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Trombay near Bombay (now Mumbai). In 1954, at the Geneva Conference on Indo-China when the International Control Commission was set up for this region, India was made the Chairman of the Commission, with Canada (representing the Western block) and Poland (representing the Socialist block) as members.

But from the mid-50s the clouds of the Cold War started casting their shadow on these relations and the relations resembled a Roller-Coaster ride! Like most Western countries, Canada perceived India as increasingly getting closer to the former Soviet Union, conveniently overlooking the fact that the US and its allies were fast building up Pakistan, India's arch rival, in their wider scheme of the containment of Communism in which Pakistan pretended to be an active participant when its real target all along was India. This syndrome extended even to the functioning of the ICC where Canada often, and unjustifiably, viewed India as a biased Chairman. Indo-China was viewed as a hardship posting so that the turn-over of Canadian diplomats was frequent. Consequently, over the next two decades a substantial number of Canadian diplomats in their Foreign Ministry and with a background of having served in Indo-China, continued to carry the burden of unhappy, at times even bitter, feelings towards India.

A New Low

The year 1974 marked a new low in India-Canada relations, with India's Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) in May of that year. Canada was livid with rage, with its then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (father of the current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau) calling it an act of "betrayal". All cooperation in the nuclear field was suspended by Canada and, generally speaking, India-Canada relations went into deep-freeze. The 1980s did no better with India being rocked by Sikh militancy and the demand for the so-called "Khalistan" by a few hard-core elements. With Canada providing shelter to some such elements - and if not encouraging them, certainly not restraining them in their antiIndian activities - bilateral relations only got murkier. The blowing up of the Air-India flight "Kanishka" from Montreal in 1985 with the loss of 329 innocent lives - clearly an act of terrorism - was a further set back to India-Canada relations. Canadian investigations into this ghastly and tragic incident were tardy and painfully slow, taking Canada 25 years to concede failure on the part of its police and security forces to prevent the bombing. Most of the victims were Indo-Canadians and not white Canadians. This even led and encouraged some to accuse Canada of racial prejudice behind its indifferent attitude towards the long drawn out investigations.

Things Look Up

Things started changing for the better only from the early 1990s. Major economic reforms in India were initiated from 1991, thereby opening up the Indian economy to foreign participation and cooperation in a big way through various liberalisation measures. Given India's size and potential, this understandably attracted considerable international attention. Canada was no exception, with its increasing emphasis on spreading out economically and commercially, notably in Asia that was fast emerging as the Continent with immense possibilities for the future.

The general election in Canada in 1993 brought the Liberals back to power under the leadership of Jean Chretien who took over as the new Prime Minister. The Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade was entrusted with the task of preparing a special report on "Focus India". …

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