As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau returns home to Canada, either in triumph over US$1 billion worth of trade deals or with his tail between his legs over a series of gaffes and an alleged “snub” by his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, the spin backing both narratives is in high gear.
International media, mostly outside both India and Canada, have made major hay out of the worst setback of the Trudeau trip, notorious gatecrasher and convicted attempted murderer Jaspal Atwal managing to get invited to not one but two official receptions that were part of the Trudeau trip, even scoring a photo with Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, the Canadian PM’s wife.
Both narratives – the gushing over such things as a possible deal on the global lentil trade and the derision over such things as the Sophie-Atwal selfie – say important things about Canada and its role on the world stage, but at the same time miss points every bit as important.
This article will not try to unravel the Atwal story; at this writing, that embarrassing episode appears to have been the result of cock-ups on both the Canadian and the Indian side. Indian media are asking how a member of a banned extremist Khalistani (Sikh separatist) group got into the country, and a member of the Canadian Parliament is hiding under a table awaiting a sound thrashing from his red-faced PM for putting Atwal on the invitation list.
That said, the danger is that the Atwal scandal will result in smears against Canada’s Sikh community. Not only has that group long been a valued and predominantly peaceful segment of Canadian society, several prominent Sikhs have been hard-working advocates for labor rights. One of them was recently elected leader of the country’s social-democratic New Democratic Party.
As well, allegations that the ruling Liberal Party and even the prime minister himself are “pro-Khalistani” appear to be nonsensical smears by the anti-Trudeau crowd. Like similarly unfounded charges of anti-Semitism leveled recently against British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the “Russian puppet” canard unleashed against any left-leaning American politician who fails to bow the knee to Hillary Clinton, logic alone would seem to defeat the “Justin favors Punjab separatism” tale.
The Khalistani movement has been a thorn in the side of peaceful Canadian society, including Sikhs, for decades. Although (possibly because no Americans were killed) the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182 gets far less ink than the Lockerbie bombing three years later, the former held the record as the worst terrorist attack involving an airliner for 16 years, until September 11, 2001. It was also by far the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history. And it was perpetrated by Sikh extremists.
To pretend that any prime minister of Canada – particularly one whose father had retired from that position just one year before the Flight 182 atrocity, and who has strong family ties with British Columbia, the province where it was primarily perpetrated – would have sympathies for such scum strains credulity to the breaking point.
More important, though, the inability – or, more likely, unwillingness – of outside commentators to understand the complex history of the Sikh-Canadian relationship is a corollary of the vagueness of their comprehension of Canada as a whole. Justin Trudeau is not Donald Trump; nor was his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, or in fact any modern Canadian prime minister, even the country’s only neoconservative PM, Stephen Harper (Justin’s predecessor).
Canada has always welcomed immigrants (some say not enough, others say too much), even if they come from troubled areas like Punjab and Pakistan and Tamil Sri Lanka and Syria. Most have proved to be major assets to society; a few, like the Babbar Khalsa gang primarily responsible for the Air India bombing, far from accepting the values of their adopted homeland, turn the privileges of a tolerant, multicultural, law-abiding cultural against their hosts. Yet even in the face of such insulting – and occasionally deadly – malfeasance, Canadians do not build walls.
Again, this is not an apology for how the aftermath of the Air India bombing was handled. There is plenty of evidence that much of the investigation was bungled, and it is clear that many of the perpetrators got away with it. In fact, only one of them was ever convicted, and although Sikh extremists in Canada are much quieter these days, they are still there.
But equating Canada’s – and the Liberal and New Democratic parties’ – embrace of the larger Sikh community with sympathy for the Khalistan movement is ridiculous.
Defining any national psyche is hugely difficult, some may say a fool’s errand. Canadians themselves are among the least capable of articulating their own identity, with many preferring just to fall back on old jokes like “we’re Americans with the letter zed, les Québécois, and 10 months’ winter and two months’ poor sledding.”
In recent years, such self-identification has become at the same time easier and more difficult. The descent of Canada’s southern neighbor down the rabbit-hole of neoliberal, antisocial ultra-individualism, its chronic failure to deal with the mounting problems of for-profit health care and gun violence, and its expanding militarism spawning worldwide fear, mistrust and – ultimately – terrorism have more and more shone a spotlight on the many ways Canada is starkly different.
These differences have always been there; since at least the 1960s, no Canadian has given any truck to the idea that someone should die, or even go bankrupt, because he or she can’t afford basic health care; there is no equivalent to the Second Amendment in the Canadian constitution and if there were, anyone who said (as Wayne LaPierre did the other day) that God himself mandated that everyone has the right to bear AR-15s and multi-round ammo magazines would be laughed out of the room. But the advent of Donald Trump has made such contrasts even sharper.
And that takes us to the real flaws in Justin Trudeau’s India trip, or at least how it is being analyzed. On the world stage, Canada is a pipsqueak, and when its pundits pretend it isn’t, and get all huffy when the leaders of major countries like India or China don’t lay out a red-enough carpet for a visiting pipsqueak prime minister, they are just being obtuse. This trip was about lentils, not pomp and grandeur in the halls of mega-potentates.
Canada is a uniquely privileged nation. It is prosperous, is peaceful, and has no enemies. A Canadian passport is welcomed everywhere, and its holder treated at worst with indifference, and often with respect and warmth – never hostility. This status is its gift, its invaluable treasure. This is what it should be offering the world.
These are troubling times. As many have observed, including in this space, the greatest military empire in history not only has a vast arsenal of potentially planet-destroying weapons, it appears to be increasingly willing to use them as its hegemony is challenged. Meanwhile another, rival empire is on the rise, and it is only on the surface that it appears more benevolent than the belligerent American empire it is replacing, with its “soft power” and vast infrastructure projects.
Long ago, though it was an even smaller pipsqueak than it is now, Canada and its leaders were honored around the world for their advocacy of peace. Canada needs to reacquire that role, now more than ever.
Canada is not a great power, and never will be. And it never should be. But it can and should be a powerful voice of reason in a world that seems intent on a mad dash to self-destruction.