New Delhi: Canada “does not support and does not recognise” the so-called ‘Khalistan referendums’ being carried out frequently in that country by banned Sikh outfits and supports a “united India”, said Cameron MacKay, High Commissioner of Canada to India.
MacKay, who took charge as Canada’s envoy to India in March this year, told ThePrint in an exclusive interview that holding of such so-called referendums are considered to be a “private activity” in that country and according to Canadian laws “people have right to freedom of assembly, people have the right to freedom of expression”.
However, the High Commissioner also said that the Justin Trudeau government strongly believed in and stood for a “united India”.
MacKay’s comments came days before Sikh extremist groups in Canada are planning to hold another referendum on 6 November. India has already asked Canada to prevent this from taking place. The last one was held on 19 September in Brampton, Ontario, following which India issued a rare travel advisory against Canada, over rising anti-India incidents and hate crimes.
“Canadian government does not support, does not recognise the so-called ‘Khalistan referendum’. Canada supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India — a united India,” said MacKay.
He stressed that the Canadian security and intelligence authorities continue to “work very closely with their Indian counterparts. We’re all on exactly the same page when it comes to extremism and terrorism,” he said.
He added that Ottawa, too, had concerns over cross-border crime between Canada and India.
On the issue of vandalism at the Swaminarayan Temple in Toronto in September, the High Commissioner said some suspects were apprehended. “Canada is a rule of law country and we will enforce the law,” he said.
“We also have some concerns about cross-border crime between Canada and India. Over the last year, we have had the NIA (National Investigation Agency) from India visit Canada for an outreach, to talk to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) — the national police force in Canada. The RCMP were here last week working closely with the NIA on training exercises to make sure we can cooperate effectively together,” he said.
“So, there’s a lot of cooperation day-to-day between all of our security and intelligence forces. No one can divide Canada and India in terms of us standing together against terrorism, extremism and cross-border crime,” he added.
On the issue of tensions between both countries over Trudeau’s remarks on the 2020 farmers’ protests in India, which had created discontent in the Narendra Modi government towards the Canadian PM, MacKay said, “The relationship is back on track, we would like to see it stay that way. I am optimistic that the Indian government sees it the same way. I think occasionally between two big democracies like ourselves there will be some tensions, there will be what we call irritants in diplomacy that need to be managed. We are trying to manage those and focus on bigger issues.”
“Canada and India have so much in common, being democracies, being countries that support pluralism and rule of law,” he added.
The Canadian High Commissioner also spoke on a proposed trade deal between the two countries, joint military exercises and the post-Covid backlog in the issuing of student visas.
Canada, India to soon sign interim trade deal
While India and Canada relaunched the long-pending talks for having a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in March this year, both sides have agreed to sign an interim trade deal soon.
The talks were relaunched by Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal and his Canadian counterpart Mary Ng on 11 March.
“These are long-languishing trade negotiations … But they (trade ministers) have made more progress since March this year than we have in the last 12 years. But there is still a lot of ground to cover, a lot of work to do,” said MacKay.
He added: “I am cautiously optimistic they will be able to come up with some kind of an Early Progress Trade Agreement (EPTA) as the first step and then the CEPA. They are very complicated deals to negotiate and there will be some sensitive issues and it’s for that reason we are taking this approach of EPTA, trying to get some of the low-hanging fruits, or the less controversial issues, while some other issues will take longer to see fruition.”
MacKay pointed out: “Canada is the only G7 country that has trade agreements with every other G7 country … So we would like to go as comprehensive and as ambitious as possible. Some of this is new ground for India, so I think that’s where it will take a little bit more time to sort out what all we can each agree to in the EPTA and later in the CEPA.”
On the pending deal concerning the protection of investments, he said, both sides are yet to take a call if that will be part of the larger trade deal or will be a separate agreement.
MacKay underlined that Canada’s existing 15 trade agreements covering 51 countries connect it to global markets representing nearly 1.5 billion consumers and a combined GDP of $67 trillion, giving exporters preferential access to 61 per cent of the global economy.
More joint military exercises
According to the Canadian High Commissioner, India and Canada are exploring ways to enhance joint military exercises.
“Canada absolutely is an Indo-Pacific country and we believe in a free and open Indo-Pacific. The Canadian and Indian militaries were cooperating through operation ‘Sea Dragon’ (in January) … We would like to deepen the relationship further in this,” he said.
In January this year, India had joined the navies of the US, Canada, Japan, Australia and South Korea in ‘Sea Dragon 22’, an anti-submarine warfare exercise.
On the issue of student visas, he said, “We had an enormous post-Covid backlog on student visa applications … That had a negative impact on some Indian students. We are getting ahead of that backlog now … We will get back to normal processing times soon,” he said, adding that there was a surge of 55 per cent in visa applications this year compared to the pre-pandemic levels in 2019.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)