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Pedestrians walk past a garment shop on Gerrard Street in Toronto's Little India Wednesday, June 8, 2011. (Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail/Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail)
Pedestrians walk past a garment shop on Gerrard Street in Toronto's Little India Wednesday, June 8, 2011. (Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail/Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail)

Canada and India pursue a natural bond Add to ...

Canada could be considered among the most Indian of countries.

The Indian diaspora in Canada is about one million strong, including second- and third-generation Indo-Canadians, as well as those of Indian origin from East Africa and the Caribbean. Its per-capita concentration is several times greater than in the United States. But relations between India and Canada have historically been cool. Only recently has that relationship begun to warm up.

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A new push to establish Canada as a global player in the Indian firmament begins Thursday with a major gathering of Indian and Indo-Canadian business leaders in Toronto.

The Day for Overseas Indians, a conference that brings more than 500 high-level business and government delegates together, is being held in Canada for the first time. It comes just a few weeks before the Bollywood Oscars in Toronto, whose TV audience of 700 million will put Canada, however briefly, at the centre of Indian cultural consciousness.

"It's going to be huge," said Rana Sarkar, president of the Canada-India Business Council. "It brands Toronto as a city on the broader Indian global circuit. There's Kuala Lumpur, London, Hong Kong, New York, Dubai, and to put Toronto alongside is an important framing for how a lot of trade and commerce will work in the 21st century."

Asha Luthra, a conference convener and past-president of the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce, said the focus of the two-day event is on building bridges between the two countries. The relationship suffered for many years, particularly following India's use of Canadian technology to build a nuclear weapon, the bombing of an Air India flight originating in Canada and a sense among Indian politicians that Canada's interest in the country was more about domestic politics than genuine engagement.

"The relationship between India and Canada was kind of cool," Ms. Luthra said. "Over the last couple of years it has gradually warmed up. It's really growing now with both prime ministers talking about trade going from $4.5-billion to $15-billion over the next five years. This is absolutely the right moment for Indo-Canadians to recreate the linkages with India. For the India watchers to know what India has to offer today and for Canada itself to realize what India has to offer."

The ideal outcome for conference organizers would be to help give birth to more enterprises like Sigma Systems, an IT company that works with cable providers.

Sigma's founder and CEO Andy Jasuja, who was born in India and came to Canada to study engineering, was an early convert to the potential of India. He established an Indian branch of his company in 1999. Today roughly half of his 400 or so employees are in India, the other half at his Canadian headquarters.

"I can't think of this organization as being purely in India or purely in Canada," Mr. Jasuja said. His Indian operations are essential because the lower labour costs that India offers make it possible to compete, he said. But he also needs a Canadian headquarters to be able to meet and work with his North American clients.

"As we have evolved, India and Canada have become integral partners in this equation," Mr. Jasuja said. "No country can survive on its own any more. India holds some aces and Canada holds some aces. Put them together and we can win at poker."

Kasi Rao, a consultant and member of the conference organizing committee, said the conference will bring Canada's relationship with India into focus. "What you're now seeing is that the India file has moved to a level of strategic engagement that was not there in the past," Mr. Rao said.

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