Canada is home to the world’s largest Indian diaspora per capita. It’s also a top global destination for Indian students. Despite strong cultural, business and academic ties, bilateral trade volumes are very low. In an interview to businessline, Canadian High Commissioner in India Cameron MacKay speaks on the status of the trade talks, on the huge lag in student visa approvals and on the contentious issue of SFJ’s referendum on Khalistan in Canada. Excerpts.
What is the status of bilateral trade negotiations between Canada and India?
The bilateral commercial relationships between the two countries stand at $100 billion, which includes $70 billion of Canadian portfolio investment into India. But for two G20 economies, the size of our economies, that’s far too small. That’s an underperforming economic relationship. Started about 12 years ago, the negotiations have made no progress till recently. But India’s recent deals with Australia have given us new confidence and interest on both sides. We relaunched negotiations and made more progress since March than we had in the previous 12 years. So there’s definitely a renewed vigour and vitality in negotiations.
Do you see a possibility of arriving at an interim agreement?
Ministers are talking every monthl. They have committed that they will have a deal by the end of the calendar year for an early progress trade agreement (EPTA). This will be followed later by CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement) which will take longer. Round four of the negotiations will be held next week in Delhi. The meat and potatoes of the negotiation. We’re not at the final steps yet, but that will come soon. We think that there’s some kind of interim agreement can be arrived at.
What are the major challenges coming in the way of negotiations?
I don’t agree with the argument that negtiations are not progressing well. In the past there was no progress, now it is happening. I think the biggest issue in the past was different philosophies about what a trade investment treaty should do. And the Canadian philosophy is extremely ambitious and extremely comprehensive. With every other G7 country, we have a deep ambitious comprehensive deal.
Which key sectors can the two countries focus on to start with?
I get that question a lot actually. The Canadian Government’s philosophy is that the government should not be picking champion companies or champion sectors. We think the government is not well-suited to deciding today what are the sectors of opportunity in 5-10 years. Our philosophy is —be comprehensive, cover all sectors. Let’s open up and liberalise as much as we can.
There has been a huge interest from Indian students to study in Canada. But of late visas have been a huge issue. When do you think visa issues will be resolved?
Indeed, it comes from the pandemic. Canada has the most open immigration system in the world. We kept the door open all through the Covid period. Applications kept coming in. We sent all visa reviewers home during the pandemic. They can’t review visas from home. So we developed an enormous backlog globally, with millions of them in the queue.
As compared to 2019 pre-Covid, we’ve seen a 55 per cent increase in visa applications to Canada globally. We frankly didn’t anticipate such a huge surge and therefore we lagged behind. Our current focus is prioritising student visas. Processing time will be back to normal in coming months. We want to get as many students as possible.
There are concerns in India about the referendum by SFJ in Canada on Khalistan. It has become a kind of political flash point though not overtly, but it is causing some heartburn. How you are looking at the situation?
Our position is is very clear and very straightforward. First, Canada respects the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of India. Second, Canada does not recognise SFJ’s unofficial referendum.
But the referendum is allowed, respecting their freedom of expression?
Yes. People can say what they like in Canada, but the Canadian government does not recognise the referendum.