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Ontario And India Today: “Do You Know My Uncle In Brampton?”

 

By Randall White

In late August 1926, the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto was opened by Diwan Bahadur Sir T. Vijaaraghava Acharaya, a noted public servant from South India.

At the time this was just another sign that, as the local historian Percy Robinson would explain only a few years later, Toronto was “the citadel of British sentiment in America, and Ontario the most British of all the provinces.” Back then the Raj in India was the jewel in the crown of the global British Empire.

Today things are different. The old Empire has given way to a dimly known new Commonwealth in a somewhat more democratic global village. 

Yet something of the old song of India is lingering on in Canada’s most populous province, and in intriguing new ways. 

Consider the trip to New Delhi, Amritsar, Chandigarh, Hyderabad, and Mumbai from which Premier Kathleen Wynne returned on this week (along with an earlier visit this year by Ontario’s Leader of the Official Opposition.)

On the face of things, it’s all about economics and trade, according to the press release put out January 27 by the Premier's Office, entitled “Premier Wynne Departs on India Trade Mission.”

India today is, according to the press release, the world's third-largest economy. As Premier Wynne reflected at the end of her trip: “We’re looking at a country that over the next two years is going to have 15 per cent growth, so that’s huge opportunity.”

At the moment, however, India is not really one of Ontario’s most, or even more, important international trading partners. In 2014 it ranked 21st on the list of the province’s export customers, and 17th among import suppliers. 

(And these numbers were not dramatically improved by two otherwise quite successful visits to India in 2007 and 2009 by Premier Dalton McGuinty.)

In 2016 it is crucial to note, however, that India is the old-world homeland for close to three-quarters of a million Ontarians. As Premier Wynne also explained at the end of her trip, one of the most frequent questions she fielded was “Do you know my uncle in Brampton?”

This is all quite different from 90 years ago, of course. It was a good thing Diwan Bahadur Sir T. Vijaaraghava Acharaya did not want to stay in Toronto after he opened the CNE in 1926. Canadian immigration policy at that point was not friendly to migrants from any part of Asia.

Whatever else, times have clearly changed in some ways. The late January press release laid out the broader purpose of the premier’s trip: “to strengthen economic, political and cultural ties with the world's third-largest economy.”

“Trade” in the old narrow sense of exports and imports are not the only kind of global economic connection that matters today. There are already, for instance, 25,000 Ontario residents working for Indian companies in the province. 

On the premier’s trip Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid took part in the opening ceremony for Auto Expo 2016 in New Delhi and met global industry representatives to try to attract direct investment in Ontario's auto sector. 

The government says 65 new Ontario-India agreements between businesses and institutions in the two jurisdictions, worth $240 million, and 150 high-value jobs, resulted from the trip.

To put that in context, more than 100,000 new jobs were created in Ontario over the past year.

It is still early days in the 21st century relationship between Canada’s most populous province and India, on all fronts. 

As the premier explained on her trip, “We have to be patient and we have to look at the long-term because there are huge challenges in this country.” (It is the world’s most populous democracy, by far.)

Yet Premier Wynne also believes that “We’ve got to really be intentional now about looking at the opportunities and working with our India partners ... My one fear is that we don’t act fast enough, we don’t follow up closely enough.”

It probably made sense to conclude with a “Bollywood-style” announcement about “Bringing the Magic of Indian Film to Ontario.” 

At some point someone might even think about reviving earlier Ontario interests in what is now an organization of independent member states known as the Commonwealth. India has about half the global Commonwealth population today. In a more democratic age it makes sense, then, that the current Commonwealth Secretary-General is the former Indian civil servant - Kamalesh Sharma.

In any case it now seems there is a rising Ontario public policy — on all partisan sides — to strengthen economic, political, and cultural ties with the world's third-largest economy in India over the longer term. 

The policy leans on the past and the future at the same time. In the end it will hopefully bring fresh prosperity all around as well.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : February 11, 2016

View all of Randall White's columns
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