A friendship at risk: Justin Trudeau’s actions have endangered the remarkable saga of the Indo-Canadian relationship

That Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, surrendering to domestic politics, has put at risk Indo-Canadian relations has now been amply documented by journalists such as National Post columnist Rupa Subramanya.

Yet, one needs a complementary account of how many Indians, immigrants and Canadian-born, have enjoyed warm relationships at many levels with Canada. For them, who have affection for both Canada and India, this witless rupture in Indo-Canadian relations is a personal tragedy.

I can do no better than recount my own romance with Canada over no less than 60 years. Canada entered my consciousness at Cambridge, England in the mid-1950s. My fellow student, with whom I had weekly sessions with the economics tutor, Robin Matthews at St John’s College, happened to be Patrick Reid. His father was Escott Reid, who was Canada’s high commissioner in India during 1952-57.

When I came to study at MIT I landed at Montreal and took the train down to the “other Cambridge”. But Patrick kept in touch and invited me to spend Christmas at their country home in Ontario. I did and nearly froze! The warmth of the Reid family kept me going as the freezing cold left me almost paralysed.

But my encounter with Canada came also through the great economist Harry Johnson. Where Robin Matthews was shy and remote, we took to Harry who was friendly and took us home for barbeque dinners. Harry’s great love was international trade; so would therefore be mine.

Robert Mundell, the other great trade economist from Canada, fortuitously became my colleague when I joined Columbia University in 1980. John Chipman, another eminent trade theorist and frequent collaborator of mine at Minnesota, was also Canadian. No international economist could also forget that Jacob Viner, the doyen of trade economists in his time, was born in Montreal.

The next generation of trade economists, among them Richard Brecher of Carleton University, and Rob Feenstra of UC Davis, are also brilliant Canadians whom I have had the privilege of teaching. I also became friendly with Canada’s distinguished trade lawyers, Michael Trebilcock and Ron Daniels of Toronto. But I also discovered eminent Canadians in trade-unrelated fields. My colleague William Vickrey at Columbia, who won the Nobel prize in economics only to die the next week, was Canadian.

My interest in public policy also made me aware that Canada had produced statesmen who matched Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in erudition and charm. Who could not be dazzled by the professorial Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who outclassed John Kennedy to the south? It is unimaginable that Trudeau would go to Berlin and declare: Ich bin ein Berliner, not knowing that Berliner was a sausage!

Thanks to my Canadian friends such as John Ruggie whom Kofi Annan co-opted to assist him at the United Nations, I got to know Pierre Trudeau. Also, given my growing prominence on issues raised by globalisation, I was also to become friendly with his close associate, the distinguished Canadian Don Johnston, who had been appointed head of the OECD.

Indians also recall with admiration David Malone who served as Canada’s high commissioner in 2006-08. Who does not know also that John Kenneth Galbraith, Kennedy’s ambassador in Delhi, was born in Canada? Canada is clearly endowed with statesmen and international public servants who have dazzled the Indians who encountered them.

But it would be folly to think that flow has been one-way, from Canadians to Indians. The reverse flow from Indians, native-born and immigrant, to Canadians has also been extraordinary. Impressively, the reverse flow has been in the fine arts: literature, dance and music.

Rohinton Mistry is a hugely successful author, rivalling the success of Sri Lankan Michael Ondaatje. The late Bharati Mukherjee, a distinguished novelist, became a Canadian citizen in 1972 and taught at McGill University. Menaka Thakkar is a recipient of the Governor General’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in Dance. Sandeep Bhagwati, a composer of international renown, has held the Canada Research Chair in Inter-X Art Practice and Theory at Concordia University in Montreal.

What the actions of Justin Trudeau have done is to put at risk this remarkable saga of Indo-Canadian friendship. It is not too late to step back towards sanity.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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