Use visit by India trade chief to push forward negotiations, business council says

·4 min read

OTTAWA — As India's trade minister visits Ontario this week, corporate Canada is hoping both countries will commit to signing a trade agreement this year after more than a decade of talks.

"It just seems to me like a no-brainer," said Goldy Hyder, head of the Business Council of Canada.

"We need to have the capacity to demonstrate that democracies can work for business, because when they work for business, they work for people."

Indian Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal is to meet his Canadian counterpart, Mary Ng, at an event Monday in Ottawa, before plans to join a delegation of large Indian businesses Tuesday in Toronto.

In an interview, Hyder said he's hoping the two agree during the visit to push for some form a trade deal this year, since multiple negotiations have been underway since 2010 and electoral cycles could further prolong these talks.

For decades, outsiders have seen India as a poorer country with a protected market that makes it hard for foreign companies to set up shop.

However, Hyder said trade deals with Australia and the United Arab Emirates show the country is branching out. India is on track to be a powerhouse for complex semiconductors, vaccines and life-sciences research.

"With the greatest respect to North Americans, you need to you need to realize that 'Slumdog Millionaire' was not a documentary," said Hyder, who was born in India.

The country is Canada's top source for immigration, from data specialists and students to temporary foreign workers. India is one of Canada's top targets for foreign investment, particularly for pension funds and companies such as Brookfield Corp.

In November, the Liberals identified India as a key partner in their Indo-Pacific strategy, which calls for more economic and security ties with countries across the region, as a counterbalance to an increasingly assertive China.

The plan calls for expanding Canada's diplomatic footprint in select nations instead of inconsistent spurts of engagement with countries in the region.

The strategy has raised hopes for faster visa processing for relatives of Canadians in India, and that the agriculture sector will increase crop sales to feed India's booming population.

"We're really calling on our government to implement and execute the policy expeditiously. Like, let's not give it another year here," Hyder said.

"Let's be more strategic, more targeted, more focused and where we can get big bang for our buck."

He's hoping Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will sign some sort of trade deal either before or during his expected visit to New Delhi in September for the G20 leaders' summit.

Hyder notes that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi heads into an election the following spring. Trudeau is also governing with a minority, which means the Liberals could face an election if they lose a confidence vote.

"Do not walk away from this without some kind of an agreement, because I'm not sure anybody would go back to the table any time soon," he said.

The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, a government think tank, says India could benefit from importing more Canadian produce, chemicals, wood products and minerals, while a trade deal would make Ottawa less economically vulnerable to conflicts between the United States and China.

"Over the years, Canada has captured only a relatively small slice of India’s rapidly growing market," reads a report last fall by analyst Pia Silvia Rozario.

"The current trade relationship is still below its full potential."

Hyder said India would snap up Canadian technology in small modular reactors and carbon capture, when both are more developed. He said Canada's defence, aerospace and agriculture sectors could all see a boom.

The current talks surround what's called an Early Progress Trade Agreement, a deal restricted to certain industries instead of the entire economy.

This week, the countries could release a time frame for the talks, or even announce which sectors will not be part of the negotiations, Hyder said.

Hyder also believes the Liberals will make more headway with India if they water down their equity approach to trade deals.

In recent years, the Liberals have inked agreements with specific clauses for smaller businesses, those owned by women and minorities and the environment.

"We have to be more mature and more responsible," Hyder said.

"That is not to say we should compromise at all in our values on human rights, on calling each other out for areas in which we could do better, to continue our push on climate responsibility."

Already, Canada is under pressure for how it balances trade talks with raising concerns for minorities in India.

Human Rights Watch has called out Modi's government for a "serious regression in human rights and constitutional protections," leading the NDP to call on the Liberals to limit their involvement in G20 events.

India has long argued Canada does not do enough to denounce some Sikh separatists who have venerated people convicted of terrorist offences.

Hyder said both countries should find areas where they agree and co-operate economically as a show of force between democracies.

"An agreement of some form in 2023 would signal that we're serious about India for the longer run," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press