The Bharatiya diaspora has emerged as a prominent dynamic community playing a pivotal role in the socio-economic, cultural, and political landscape of Bharat and Canada. The historical evolution of Bharat’s diaspora in Canada reflects a tale of resilience and determination. In 1867, a minuscule portion only 8 per cent of the total population of Canada was of non-English and non-French origin. Now out of the total population (approximately 35 million) of the country, 23 per cent (around 8.3 million) belong to different parts of the world. The recent census data shows that the Bharatiya diaspora is around 1.8 million in a country that claims to be the land of immigrants. The data indicates that two out of every 35 Canadians are of Bharatiya origin.
The first Bharatiyas who came across this part of the world were the Punjabi soldiers from Hong Kong regiments who travelled through Canada in 1897 after taking part in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London. They saw Canada as a land of opportunity, promising good rewards for their hard work.
IMMIGRATION TO CANADA
The first wave of immigrants from Bharat, mostly Sikhs from Punjab, landed in the province of British Columbia in Canada between 1904-1908 in search of good fortune. Most of these young males were unskilled and uneducated but by virtue of their sheer hard work, they could find jobs in railway construction, lumbering, and forestry. For employers, the advantage of having these immigrants instead of White men was that they were ready to work for longer hours for lesser pay.
Due to the strict rules of immigration, very few Asians could land in Canada in the second and third decades of the twentieth century. The infamous Komagata Maru incident of 1914 speaks volumes about the racist immigration policy of Canada. The situation remained grim and improved only after Bharat gained independence when the stigma of ‘second-grade’ residents was removed after the formation of an interim government in Bharat. The Bharatiyas in Canada were conferred franchise only in April 1947.
Today, Canadians of Bharatiya origin can be now found in all ten provinces and three territories. According to the Nation Household Survey of 2011, the largest number 6,78, 065 reside in Ontario province followed by British Columbia with 2,74,065. But in proportion to the total population, British Columbia had 6.3 per cent people of Bharatiya origin surpassing Ontario which had 5.4 per cent. This signifies that the concentration of the Bharatiya Diaspora in Canada is higher in British Columbia in comparison to other provinces of the country.
Undoubtedly, people of Bharatiya origin have come a long way and have progressed in a variety of roles and industries such as science and technology, IT sector, banking and finance, medical and pharma as well as education. The Bharatiya diaspora is doing exceptionally well in the political field also. The most notable name is Jagmeet Singh, who is the first non-white leader of one of the federal parties of Canada. In 2017 he assumed the position of the Leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) and is seen as a kingmaker in Canadian politics.
Since the representation of Members of Parliament from immigrants belonging to visible minorities increased in Canada, the issues related to immigration and immigrants became very sensitive. The racial diversity in the Canadian parliament touched its peak when 45 MPs became part of it in the 2015 federal elections. In this election, Indo-Canadians won a record 19 seats in the parliament. The 2019 federal elections surpassed this record when 22 MPs of Bharatiya origin were elected. Then in the Federal Elections of 2021 for the House of Commons having 338 seats, a total of 50 candidates of Bharatiya origin were in the fray out of which 47 were from the Punjabi community. The Liberal Party of Canada gave tickets to 17 candidates whereas 13 were from the Conservative Party, 10 were chosen by the NDP for the federal elections 2021.
The Canadian government must come clean on its allegations. The main opposition party of Canada is also demanding concrete and valid proof
In this election, the Liberal Party of Canada fell short of majority with 158 seats. Consequently, Liberals formed a minority government with the support of the NDP which won 25 seats. In return, Liberals support some of the key priorities of the NDP in parliament. In 2022, both parties agreed to a common minimum agenda and NDP expressed willingness to continue its support to Liberals until 2025. Consequently, Jagmeet Singh’s NDP is playing a very crucial role in the present-day federal politics of Canada.
CHALLENGES & MISSED OPPORTUNITIES
While forming a minority government after the snap elections of September 2021, Justin Trudeau appointed three Indo-Canadians to his cabinet. Later, three more Indo-Canadians were appointed on significant political positions. In the recent reshuffle of Trudeau’s cabinet, in July this year, four parliamentarians (Anita Anand, Kamal Khera, Harjit Singh Sajjan and Arif Virani) of Bharatiya origin were appointed as ministers. Despite having so many people of Bharatiya origin (5 per cent) in the Canadian House of Commons and four cabinet ministers, bilateral relations between Bharat and Canada are on a roller coaster ride. The shadow of Khalistan threatens to jeopardise the bilateral relations.
The Khalistan motive, a separatist movement to create a sovereign state for Sikhs, has been hampering Indo-Canada relations since the 1980s. Those who had a soft corner for this movement launched an indirect attack on Bharat. On June 23, 1985, two attacks were carried out by Sikh extremists living in Canada. The first was the Air India Flight 182 bombing, a mid-air blast of Air India flight over the Atlantic Ocean that killed all 329 people including 268 Canadian citizens, 27 British citizens, and 24 Bharatiya citizens. The second attack, at Narita International Airport in Japan, killed two baggage handlers and injured four others. This bomb was intended for Air India flight 301 which was bound for Bangkok with 177 passengers and the crew.
Another attack related to Khalistan separatists was an assassination attempt in Vancouver on May 26, 1986. An attempt was made to kill Malkiat Singh Sidhu, who was a Cabinet Minister in Punjab during his visit to Vancouver. Sidhu was shot and wounded but fortunately survived. Three years later, after the Air India Flight 182 attack, Tara Singh Hayer, Editor of the Indo-Canadian Times was shot in Surrey, British Columbia; probably because of his statements made during the investigation of the Flight 182 attack. The attack paralysed him partially. After 10 years of this assassination attempt, Tara Singh Hayer was shot dead on November 18, 1989 in Surrey, British Columbia.
In the recent past, pro-Khalistan activities such as calls for ‘referendum’, attacks on Bharatiya diplomatic missions, and re-enacting the assassination of the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in Canada have deteriorated relations between Bharat and Canada. To make matters worse, multiple incidents such as the vandalisation of Ram Mandir in Mississauga in February 2023 and Swaminarayan temple in Windson in April 2023 took place on Canadian land and the Government took no serious action.
In 2018, Bharat and Canada had signed an agreement called ‘Framework for Co-operation on Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism’ in which both countries agreed that no country would allow its territory to be used by terrorists or violent extremists. It is important to note that the framework provided far-reaching Canadian commitment to Bharat on cross-border terrorism, funding to terror organisations etc. Apart from Pakistan-based terror groups; a few new names such as Babar Khalsa International and International Sikh Youth Federation also appeared in the framework.
The recent allegations made by the Canadian PM during his speech in parliament without substantive proof, accusing Bharat of being involved in the killing of a Sikh separatist leader, has escalated a diplomatic crisis. Bharat has dismissed the charges. To end this diplomatic row, the Canadian government must come clean on these allegations. In fact, the main opposition party of Canada is also demanding concrete and valid proof.
At this juncture, when Canada wants to diversify its trade beyond North America and Europe, the Canadian government must understand that trade and investment relationships in fast-growing markets like Bharat should be its topmost priority. Two-way merchandise trade between Canada and Bharat was $10.1 billion in 2019, however, due to COVID-19 it came down to $8.7 billion in 2020. The suspension of Free Trade Agreement talks by the Canadian authorities has come at a wrong time when Bharat could offer tremendous opportunities in emerging sectors such as clean energy technology, transportation infrastructure, life-science as well as renewable energy apart from traditional sectors such as defence and security, food products, infrastructure development, mining as well as oil and gas. But for that Canada must work on Bharat’s demands for stern action against the pro-Khalistani elements in Canada as per the terms and conditions of the agreed Framework on Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism. Unless the pro-Khalistan lobby in Canadian politics stops spitting venom, Indo-Canadian bilateral relations cannot take a positive turn. The appeasement of anti-Bharat separatist elements in Canada will only push Canada to self-destruction. We can only hope for better bilateral relations between the two countries in a world shrouded with global concerns such as terrorism, climate change, pandemics etc.