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Minister postpones 'Team Canada' trade mission to India amid strained relations

Move comes after Canada paused negotiations for a trade deal with India
Relations between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi were rather frosty at a recent G20 summit. | Oleksii Liskonih / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Canada is postponing a trade mission to India that federal Trade Minister Mary Ng had spent the past four months promoting as key to the Indo-Pacific strategy.

"At this time, we are postponing the upcoming trade mission to India," Ng's spokeswoman Shanti Cosentino wrote.

Ng was set to visit Mumbai on Oct. 9 with Canadian business leaders to form ties with their counterparts in the world's most populous country, for a five-day trip known as a "Team Canada" trade mission.

The Canadian Press has asked Ng's office to explain why the trip has been postponed.

But the move comes after Canada paused negotiations for a trade deal with India, and relations between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his counterpart in New Delhi were frosty on a recent visit.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Trudeau on the sidelines of the G20 leaders' summit last weekend, and Modi's office said he focused on Sikh separatists in Canada. Trudeau told reporters ahead of his arrival in India that he would be raising concerns about India's foreign interference in Canada.

Ng did not mention the India trade mission in either her opening or closing remarks Friday as she gathered virtually with her provincial and territorial counterparts. 

Earlier this week, the Saskatchewan government claimed Ottawa left provinces in the dark for months over the status of trade talks with India.

"We had productive and candid conversations. It's the kind of teamwork that I think Canadians have the right to expect from us," Ng said as she closed the meeting. She did not take questions from reporters "due to scheduling," according to her office.

The Friday meeting was held virtually as Ng said she tested positive for COVID-19 that morning. India's envoy to Canada revealed two weeks ago that Ottawa had paused the talks, and to date neither country has provided a detailed explanation. 

Last weekend, India's foreign ministry expressed "strong concerns" over Sikh separatists in Canada, who want to carve out their own state in India.

New Delhi has long argued that Canada undermines India's national security, saying groups advocating for part of the Indian state of Punjab to become an independent country amount to an extremist movement.

Ottawa has maintained that freedom of speech means groups can voice political opinions so long as they are not violent. But the Liberals have called out threats to Indian diplomats by these groups, and offered the envoys 24/7 security.

The trade mission, the first in Asia under Canada's Indo-Pacific strategy, was meant to be focused on boosting Canadian clean-technology companies as a way to help meet India's need for renewable energy.

A description of the trip posted on the Trade Commissioner Service website noted that India was the fastest-growing major economy in 2022. 

"India's growing strategic, economic and demographic importance in the Indo-Pacific makes it a critical partner in Canada's pursuit of its objectives under the Indo-Pacific strategy," reads the online notice meant to entice Canadian business leaders to join Ng's trip.

The Trade Commissioner Service said the trip would also seek to increase trade in sectors such as automotive, agriculture and value-added food, digital technology, infrastructure and life sciences.

It would also involve networking with Indian business leaders, briefings from senior officials and key industry players, and roundtables with local industry and experts.

Ng's office stressed Friday that Team Canada trade missions are still slated for six destinations ranging from Japan to Vietnam. 

"Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy is the framework for Canadians businesses — old and new — to expand and grow into the dynamic markets across the Pacific," Cosentino wrote.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 15, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press