By Reeta Tremblay*
Under the leadership of Justin Trudeau, Canada’s liberal party received a substantial majority mandate on Oct 19th to form a new government, replacing the Conservative party, with his promise to be an agent of change. It is both a historical and a surprise victory for Mr. Trudeau whose party just eleven weeks ago was in third position, with major doubts being expressed over Mr. Trudeau’s ability to lead Canada; the slogan used by the conservatives was, “is he ready?”
Mr. Trudeau’s election manifesto was one that focused on improving the lives of the middle class through deficit budget financing over three years and by raising taxes on higher income groups in order to pay for all the other promises he made (like, infrastructural investment).
Most significantly, the liberals campaigned against Mr. Harper’s vision of Canada that was rather divisive and was based on politics of fear – fear emanating from external security threats (terrorism) and internal challenges to the Canadian culture (wearing of niqab, etc).
What came to be known as “Niqab” politics dominated the later stages of the campaign when Mr. Harper’s government refused to allow a Muslim woman to take citizenship oath wearing a niqab. During a television interview, Mr. Harper mulled over introducing legislation to ban religious symbols in the Canadian public service.
Two of Mr. Harper’s ministers announced in the last three weeks of the campaign that a new hot-line is to be launched for Canadians to inform the public authorities if their neighbours were engaging in ‘barbaric cultural practices’ (essentially wearing the niqab)!
Opposition to the Harper government’s two new initiatives–Bill C-24, revoking the citizenship of dual citizens convicted of serious crimes, and Bill C-51, anti-terror law, expanding the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, without much oversight– were the two other rallying points for the liberal party’s campaign against Mr. Harper’s conservatives.
Mr. Trudeau openly talked about tolerance, ushering an era of hope rather than fear and bringing all different types of Canadians together. The Liberal party victory represents, on the one hand, a resounding rejection of Mr. Harper’s vision of Canada which centred around security issues, and on the other, an endorsement of a pluralistic, tolerant and respectful Canada.
Discussion of foreign policy remained limited during the campaign period. Mr. Harper was taken to task by Mr. Trudeau for dividing the world into friends and enemies and for shifting Canada’s role to military interventions, thus undermining Canada’s traditional role in peacekeeping and undervaluing the multilateral institutions including the United Nations.
Mr. Harper was severely criticized for not showing compassion for the Syrian refugees by restricting the number accepted and by making the bureaucratic process for entry cumbersome and tedious. In his victory speech, Mr. Trudeau’s message to the world community was that all those around the globe who had worried about the slow disappearance of a compassionate and caring Canada to know that old Canada is back.
On the whole, analysts generally agree that there will not be many major shifts in Canada’s foreign policy. Mr. Trudeau remains pro-trade and has remained non-committal but open to the recently approved Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) which involves 12 major economies covering 40 percent of the world’s trade.
What does a change in the government mean for Canada-India relations? Probably not much difference from what they are now. India and Canada will continue on the positive path which Mr. Harper’s government had consciously constructed. Mr. Harper must be given credit for having re-engaged India after a multi-decade period of indifference, or, at the very least, neglect.
It was during his 2012 visit to India that Prime Minister Harper’s candid assessment of a lacklustre India- Canada relationship moved the bilateral relations to a different level. The recent past has witnessed the resumption of nuclear co-operation and a commitment to increase bilateral trade to $15 billion by 2015.
The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), an agreement in the making since 2010, is still at the centre of the India-Canada bilateral economic agenda. The Conservative government also opened space for the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce (ICCC), the Canada-India Business Council (C-IBC) and the Canada-India Foundation (CIF) to lobby and exert some influence on Canadian foreign policy towards India. One does not expect the liberal government to divert from this path.
The free trade agenda is going to remain prominent for both India and Canada. India, along with China, is already in the midst of negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), an initiative of the Association of Southeast Asians (ASEAN).
Seven member countries of the RCEP are also signatories of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. While it has completed negotiating a comprehensive agreement with Japan, India is still in the process of negotiating with the EU, Australia and Canada.
India is, at present, mulling over the benefits of joining the expanded TPP. But most significantly, if it is eager to join the TPP, India will have to convince its 12 signatories that it is ready to do so. If Canada remains a founding member of the TPP, not only will India’s and Canada’s economic partnership be essential but the signing of CEPA takes on further urgency.
In the new Canadian Parliament, the number of Indo-Canadian community MPs has increased significantly, from nine to 15, and 13 of these belong to the Liberal party. The Indo-Canadian representation has come from Canada’s four major provinces – Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. Moreover, there are widespread rumours that Harjit Sajjan, a Canadian Armed forces Veteran, might be in the new Liberal cabinet.
Mr. Trudeau has promised to have gender parity in his cabinet which would also reflect Canada’s diverse population. Deepak Oberai, the architect of the positive India-Canada relations under Mr. Harper’s regime, has won his seat for the seventh time.
Mr. Modi will find friends in the new Canadian parliament who would certainly assist him with his foreign policy agenda of actively developing the “India brand” globally.
His major strategy for marketing a confident and a strong India has been through connecting and building enduring links with the Indian diaspora. Mr. Modi’s soft power agenda of peace, tolerance and cooperation amongst the nations will find resonance with Mr. Trudeau’s vision of Canada.
*Reeta Tremblay is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia and a specialist on Kashmir and India-Pakistan relations. She can be contacted at [email protected]