scroll to top arrow or icon

What the G20 summit revealed about the Modi Trudeau relationship

​Modi and Trudeau back to back

Modi and Trudeau back to back

Annie Gugliotta
The G20 meeting in New Delhi recently wrapped up with many observers touting it as a success. The African Union, comprising 55 members, joined the group. President Biden announced a plan for a rail and sea corridor between India, Europe, and the Middle East. And despite some discord, the heads of state and government agreed on a joint communique that touched on, among other matters, climate change, trade, and geopolitics.

But it wasn’t a great few days for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who ended up literally stuck in the country because his plane had broken down.

The broken plane begs to be called a metaphor. That’s a bit on the nose, but it isn’t wildly off the mark. What’s more, Canada didn’t get what it wanted and its G20 grab bag seems light compared to the Biden administration’s haul, and Modi’s, too.

Ottawa, for its part, wanted a tougher rebuke of Russia for its war in Ukraine, but wasn’t able to secure it. It also wanted to advance its Indo-Pacific strategy, which includes making further inroads with India, the world’s most populous country and its fast-growing economy.

Trudeau also, no doubt, wanted to avoid any embarrassing snubs. There’s a sense among observers that India and Modi, while certainly not inclined to dismiss Canada all together, don’t value the country as a top-tier partner, even as Canada increasingly recognizes the importance of its relationship with New Delhi. This dynamic isn’t new. Canada has been snubbed by India before.

India-Canada relations aren’t thriving

Canada wants – and needs – a robust trade and migration relationship with India. In 2022, trade between the two states amounted to roughly CAD$20 billion ($14 billion) in goods and services. India is the number one source of immigration to Canada. Nearly 120,000 newcomers from India became permanent residents in 2022. That’s more than a quarter of Canada’s entire permanent resident count for the year.

Ahead of the summit, the Modi government was cagey about the prospects of a bilateral meeting between the two leaders, which wasn’t a great sign for bilateral ties. That’s no surprise, since it’s evident the two leaders don’t particularly care for one another.

Indian High Commissioner Sanjay Kumar Verman told the Canadian Press he expected some sort of meeting, but cautioned that the format was “difficult to say.” The two ended up talking on the sidelines in New Delhi, but did not hold a bilateral meeting.

Biden and Modi, on the other hand, did hold a bilateral meeting, their second in just a few months after the Indian leader’s state visit to Washington in June. Both meetings pointed to warming relations between the US and India, particularly concerning trade, energy, and technology. India is keen to place itself as a partner and alternative to China in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, which the US is happy to oblige.

Canadian officials often compare foreign – and, for that matter, domestic – policy outcomes with those of its southern neighbour. Canadian governments are routinely compared to US administrations, and benchmarked against them. Plus, Canada can’t stray too far from the US, its top ally, trade and security partner, and global guarantor.

And yet Canada appears to look out of step with the US on relations with one the world’s most important emerging powers – India. Many analysts say this is reminiscent of Canada’s complicated relationship with China. The Trudeau government is trying to manage its affairs with the world’s second-largest economy – trade between the two hit an all–time high in 2022 – against a backdrop of the US hedging its China bets, and Beijing allegedly interfering in Canadian domestic politics.

In a sign of just how bad ties between India and Canada have become, ahead of the G20, the two countries announced an indefinite pause on trade talks, which have been ongoing for more than a decade. Canada asked for a break in 2017 order to “take stock” of its position, and India accepted. Trudeau kept mum on why.

Accusations of domestic interference

At the same time, Canada has launched an inquiry into foreign interference in its democracy, which may include a look at India, particularly its reach into the Indian diaspora in the country.

Canadian officials are concerned about India’s influence on these communities and the political agenda New Delhi may be trying to set, including suppressing dissent and critique of the Indian government, and efforts to support the Khalistani separatist movement, which seeks to establish an independent Sikh state within India. Trudeau talked about foreign interference with Modi, and it can’t have been a warm chat.

If Canada is sensitive to Indian diaspora politics in the country, so is India. Modi reportedly brought up Sikh protests in Canada with Trudeau. He chastised Sikh separatists while an Indian government statement claimed the activists were promoting violence and separatism – essentially accusing Trudeau of letting dangerous secessionists run wild in Canada. After India, Canada has the largest population of Sikhs in the world at roughly 770,000.

“The Khalistani issue, and now claims that India is interfering in Canada's domestic affairs, are real obstacles,” says Sanjay Ruparelia, associate professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Toronto Metropolitan University.”

In a not-so-subtle jab at Modi’s rebuke, Trudeau told a press conference that Canada will always respect and protect “freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and peaceful protest.” Modi is routinely accused of suppressing protest at home, particularly from Sikhs and Muslims in the country.

Canada outside looking in

If the American relationship with India looks to be more constructive than Canada’s, that’s because it is. Ruparelia points out that several US presidents, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, “ramped up efforts to forge a multidimensional strategic partnership with India to counter China.”

While Washington and Delhi have disagreed on plenty throughout the years, Ruparelia says, “the Biden administration has clearly taken a realist stance”, adding that while theoretically that could help Canada’s relationship with India, given its closeness to the US, there’s no guarantee it will.

The human rights angle

Trudeau has been critical of Modi’s human rights record in the past. Human rights and faith groups have urged Trudueau to snub Modi given his record of discrimination towards minorities in India. These groups want Canada to make trade talks with India contingent on the country improving its human rights record.

In the United States, however, Biden now faces his own criticism for putting strategic interests ahead of human rights as the White House presses for more integration with India. During a visit to India back in March, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken avoided criticizing human rights abuses in India, despite facing pressure to do so. Blinken claims he discusses these issues in private. Indeed, the Biden administration has been softer on India than the Trudeau government, and it seems to be showing in the respective foreign policy outcomes of the two.

For Ruparelia, while “the underlying structural and political issues are longstanding … the trip [G20 summit] seems only to have worsened official relations.”


Subscribe to GZERO's daily newsletter