UPDATE: On Oct. 25, the Indian government announced it will resume processing visas for Canadian citizens. Read more here.
Mississauga paralegal Bobby Sidhu had planned to visit India in November to check up on his family’s ancestral property in Punjab. Those plans are now on hold.
Like many members of this country’s Indo-Canadian community, Mr. Sidhu maintains strong ties to his parents’ home country. So the souring of diplomatic ties between India and Canada – including, most recently, a decision from India to suspend visas to Canadians like Mr. Sidhu – is likely to have sweeping effects on South-Asian communities from coast to coast.
“We visit there almost as a holy place,” Mr. Sidhu said. “It’s our village, our land. It’s sacred to us.”
On Thursday, India’s Minister of External Affairs announced that the country would temporarily suspend visa services to Canadians. “Security threats being faced by our High Commission and consulates in Canada have disrupted their normal functioning,” spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said.
He did not give a timeline for when services might be resumed, saying only that the decision would be revisited “on a regular basis.”
Hostility between the two countries was touched off early this week after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke of “credible allegations” connecting India to the killing of Canadian Sikh independence advocate Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
India denies the accusation, and has since responded with its own escalating accusations against Canada. On Wednesday, India advised its citizens to be cautious when visiting the country, warning of a “deteriorating security environment” and “growing anti-India activities.”
India’s latest decision on visas is expected to have a widespread impact on Canada’s vast South Asian diaspora. About 1.3 million Canadians reported their ethnic origin as Indian in the 2021 census.
As such, Canadians represent one of the largest tourist groups to visit India each year – more than 80,000 in 2021. Many major Canadian institutions, including large universities and hospitals, have long-established partnerships with their Indian counterparts.
Since the Thursday announcement, Kubeir Kamal, an immigration consultant in Toronto, said his phone hasn’t stopped ringing with calls from clients looking for clarity on the news.
“Most of the Canadians who apply for visas are people who already have connections to India,” he said.
The suspension of visas will mean that many Indo-Canadian families may have to endure a prolonged period of separation. Some Indo-Canadians may have OCI or PIO cards – Overseas Citizen of India or Person of Indian Origin – which exempts them from visas. But many have relied over the years on what until recently was a relatively simple process of obtaining a tourist visa.
Mr. Kamal also noted the timing of the decision. One of India’s biggest religious holidays, Diwali, takes place this year in mid-November. This means many Indo-Canadians will likely have planned trips to India over the coming weeks.
It’s also the onset of wedding season in India, he said. The months between November and February are seen in Hindu culture as auspicious for wedding celebrations. Many Indo-Canadians, too, may have planned trips in the coming months to attend weddings.
Most of Mr. Kamal’s clients are Indian nationals coming to Canada to study or work (almost 40 per cent of international students in Canada, for example, come from India). He’s explained to these clients that this recent decision won’t likely directly affect them.
Still, he added, India’s call on Canada to reduce diplomatic staff in New Delhi could slow down application processes overall.
The impacts of India’s visa decision will likely extend beyond travel, Mr. Sidhu said.
Many members of Canada’s Indian diaspora maintain business or administrative ties with the country, he said. Some Indo-Canadians collect pensions from India, he said, or own businesses there. Other families, including his, continue to own and manage land there.
As such, many of their day-to-day activities rely on assistance from India’s consular services in Canada. A reduction in that office’s staff will likely mean disruptions.
“It’s definitely going to affect the lives of many, many Indian-Canadian citizens,” he said.
Mr. Sidhu hopes the suspension will, in fact, be temporary – and short. “If it’s long term, the effect will be devastating,” he said.
“In the community, the attachment to India is very emotional,” he said. “People are very concerned right now. Nobody thought that this would happen between Canada and India.”