The importance of Indo-Canadian relations

Indo-Canadian relations took centre stage last week as Prime Minister Stephen Harper made his first visit to India. According to numerous pundits, a visit by the Canadian PM has been long overdue.

Even at the Sept. 19 Young Liberals rally at Wilfrid Laurier University’s campus pub Wilf’s, Canada’s opposition leader Michael Ignatieff echoed this same critique.

CBC Radio’s Victor Nerenberg claims that these commentators have a point.

On CBC Radio Canada International’s India report, Nerenberg explained that “There is a widely held perception that Canada has been lagging with regard to India, missing the boat as it were, as India blossoms economically.”

Harper’s trip is a grand gesture, one that points to Canada’s willingness to build on its relationship with India. At present, Canada and India conduct nearly $5 billion worth of business annually, a dollar amount that is exceeded 10 times by current U.S. trade relations with India. It would seem that Canada has a lot of catching up to do.

Laurier professor Margaret Walton-Roberts, who specializes in Indian immigration to Canada, was interviewed by Nerenberg last week and discussed some of the obstacles Canada faces in expanding its relationship with India.

One of the principle obstacles is Canada’s proximity to the U.S.

“Canada as a trading nation is very much pulled into the sphere of the U.S.A. and that makes traders, it makes businesses and corporations sometimes reluctant to make the effort to look to new markets such as India,” she explained on CBC Radio.

Another obstacle is a lack of foreign students in Canada, particularly Indian foreign students. This is due, in large part, to the fact that Canada does not market Canadian education to Indian scholars. Walton-Roberts points to Silicon Valley as an example of how foreign students help to boost the economy by creating links between countries and establishing trading networks.

According to Walton-Roberts, “Canada hasn’t necessarily benefited to the same extent [as the U.S.] because we don’t have the same kind of immigration model; we don’t have the same number of international graduate students coming through our higher education sector. And so in some ways one could argue that we have lost that opportunity and we certainly have not tapped into India as a higher educational pool from which to attract international students.”

Canada is also reluctant to recognize the impressive credentials of educated immigrants. Many skilled immigrants, such as foreign-trained doctors and other professionals are currently driving taxis, working in factories or operating convenience stores. If these highly skilled immigrants remain in such positions, Canada will continue to be unable to utilize them to help enhance Indo-Canadian relations.

“When it comes to the labour market, we are failing these increasingly highly skilled immigrants that we are bringing in and so those individuals from India who do have the capacity to enhance our marketing outreach to India, those people who have knowledge of the Indian market, corporations may not be benefiting from that vital knowledge when it comes to doing business in India,” she explained on the same program.

The recognition of foreign training and credentials falls under provincial jurisdiction; many provinces are now beginning to take the necessary steps towards easing the restrictions that hinder such recognition.

Another issue is the visa process; attaining a visa for the purpose of visiting, studying or conducting business in Canada is often difficult.
According to Nerenberg, this is because “the Canadian government has to balance its commercial interests on one hand with the interests of national security and fraud on the other.”

All of these issues will have to be taken into account and dealt with in order to attain a stronger relationship with India. This prime ministerial visit is an important first step towards achieving this goal.

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