OTTAWA — 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 government's 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.
Ng's office would not explain why the trip has been postponed nor when it is likely to occur, when asked by The Canadian Press. She was not made available for an interview.
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.
India's envoy to Canada revealed two weeks ago that Ottawa had paused the trade talks, and to date neither country has provided a detailed explanation.
Ng did not mention the India trade mission nor the trade talks in her opening or closing remarks Friday as she gathered virtually with her provincial and territorial counterparts.
The meeting was held virtually because Ng said she tested positive for COVID-19 that morning.
"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.
Earlier this week, Saskatchewan Trade Minister Jeremy Harrison claimed Ottawa left provinces in the dark for months over the status of trade talks with India.
Harrison said Friday's meeting gave him no further clarity, nor did a separate Thursday call with Ng.
"Assertions from (Ng) that the negotiations are merely paused to 'take stock' is utter nonsense," his office wrote in a statement.
Harrison argued the province could have used its good relationship with Indian officials to help navigate any issues emerging in the negotiations. The trade deal is of particular concern to Saskatchewan, which has a disproportionately high amount of exports to the country, particularly pulses like lentils.
"The Trudeau government has made a political decision that its best interests in a partisan context are served by a confrontational and negative relationship with the Modi government," Harrison argued.
The meeting took place while Yukon Premier Ranj Pillai was in India on his own trade mission to Asia.
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.
The issue has become particularly heated this spring over unproven allegations that India had a hand in the shooting death of a Sikh gurdwara leader near Vancouver in June. The RCMP have said they have no evidence of any links to foreign interference and had no reason to believe the Sikh community in Canada is at risk.
New Delhi has argued the claim of interference is groundless, and has complained about posters by the advocacy group Sikhs for Justice seeking the home addresses of Indian diplomats.
The Liberals have condemned threats against those envoys and offered them 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.
The Business Council of Canada, which has been pushing for more trade with India, stressed that the two countries benefit from commerce.
"We expect this relationship to continue irrespective of political tensions that may occur from time to time," wrote the group's president, Goldy Hyder.
"As we have seen with other bilateral relations, disputes tend to work themselves out. In the meantime, business carries on by strengthening ties and forging new opportunities because trade creates jobs, drives economic growth, and raises living standards for all Canadians."
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