Chrétien Visits India

Sometimes, in the life of a prime minister, it is possible to travel halfway around the world - and still face reminders of the problems you thought you had left at home.

Chrétien Visits India

Sometimes, in the life of a prime minister, it is possible to travel halfway around the world - and still face reminders of the problems you thought you had left at home. It was that way last week for Jean Chrétien when he arrived in Asia, accompanied by seven provincial premiers and 300 Canadian businesspeople for the start of a 12-day trade mission. There, he found his first host country, India, debating subjects all too familiar to him. They included nationalist tensions - in some regions affecting the country's unity - the sinking value of India's currency, the rupee, against the United States dollar, arguments over the merits of free trade with neighboring countries, speculation about whether India's two national airlines should merge and that great Canadian favorite - bickering over whether to decentralize federal government powers.

As if those were not familiar enough issues, there were also those pesky Canadian premiers. On their first night together in India in the city of Mumbai, formerly called Bombay, several joined Chrétien for a private, informal dinner at the downtown China Gardens restaurant. Midway through, a waiter handed Chrétien a note from another patron, which suggested that the prime minister should pay the bill for all premiers present. When a startled Chrétien looked around the restaurant, he discovered that the sender was Ontario Premier Mike Harris, waving cheerfully from another table.

But that was one time when a premier was only joking in making demands on a prime minister. And by the time the first week of their trip was over, most of the members of the self-proclaimed Team Canada had at least some reason to smile. As they left India last week for stops in Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, federal officials boasted of $3.4 billion in deals signed by Canadian and Indian firms. That total is minuscule compared with the $9 billion in agreements that Canadian companies signed during a similar Canadian trade mission to China in November, 1994. But, as federal officials and their counterparts from the provinces repeatedly pointed out, it also amounts to more than four times the entire 1994 total of $723 million in trade between Canada and India. "What we have done here," said Chrétien, "is, we hope, only a beginning."

Or, perhaps, more like a rebirth in several ways. Most significantly, Canadian political and business leaders want to rekindle a once-warm relationship with India at a time when its economy is surging forward. A series of economic reforms since 1991 have liberalized trade and investment, and India's middle class is now estimated to include more that 150 million of the country's 930 million population - making India the world's largest emerging consumer market. The visits this week to Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, meanwhile, are expected to result in an additional $1 billion in new deals for Canadian businesses.

But even on the other side of the globe, Canadian domestic concerns were never far from the surface. Federal Liberals hope that the chemistry created by eight of Canada's first ministers travelling together will restore some good cheer to federal-provincial relations at a time when it is conspicuously lacking. And some Liberals also say privately that they hope the trip will act as a tonic for Chrétien, who has sometimes appeared to lack confidence and energy in the wake of the agonizingly close result of last October's Quebec sovereignty referendum.

All of that amounts to an impressive wish list for a trip that began with relatively modest expectations - and in ominous fashion. On a refuelling stop in Palermo, Sicily, the truck that was supposed to supply gas to the government charter Boeing 707 carrying Team Canada turned out to be running on empty - resulting in a 90-minute delay. Then, the first two flights within India, from Mumbai to Delhi and from Delhi to Agra, were delayed by heavy fog. In a tight schedule planned to the minute, those delays were no small matter - and resulted, predictably, in a spate of blackly humorous jokes from participants that Team Canada, 1996 vintage, had shown itself to be "fogged and out of gas" right from the outset.

In part, such jokes reflected nervousness about the way the trip would be perceived at home. With three provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan as well as Quebec, and both territories not represented, the unanimity that English Canada displayed during the China trade mission - Quebec's Jacques Parizeau did not participate - was lacking. And, on the most measurable scale, the results of the India trip are much more modest. For one, the figure of $3.4 billion in new deals is, in itself, far from certain. The good news is that it includes agreements in sectors ranging from telecommunications to agricultural food supplies, indicating Canada's versatility and strength in international markets. Less cheery, though, is the fact that the total includes some firm contracts - but also some much-less-certain memoranda of understanding and letters of intent, which are far less binding. Of the $444 million in deals signed at an initial ceremony in Mumbai, for example, only $244 million was in contracts.

As well, some potential contracts hinge on factors that are beyond the control of the parties involved. For example, Montreal's Bell Canada International Ltd. (BCI) signed $200 million worth of deals. But $135 million of that total is tied to BCI's planned involvement in the development of a basic telephone service in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. For that, BCI needs an operating licence - and for that, in turn, it must await a related decision from the Supreme Court of India, which is expected to rule soon on a series of jurisdictional disputes that will, among other things, affect the granting of regional licences to foreign companies. A ruling against foreign involvement would, of course, jeopardize Bell's contract. In short, said BCI chief executive officer Derek Burney, who is part of the Team Canada mission, "We have made some big steps, but we're still not where we need to be."

That same notion reflects the way in which Canada views India's progress in several areas. Publicly, representatives of both countries have politely agreed to disagree on the issue of India's refusal to sign the United Nations Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. In fact, Canada has sent mixed signals on the issue, insisting that while it remains a high priority that India eventually sign the treaty, its present refusal will not harm relations between the two countries. But on the subject of human rights, Chrétien last week showed a new willingness to tackle that question head-on - unlike the Team Canada trip to China, during which he was reluctant even to mention the thorny issue for fear of offending his hosts, instead using the much more innocuous phrase "good governance issues."

In India, he was more blunt. Despite the country's status as the world's largest democracy, it still suffers from ongoing human rights problems, among them widespread child labor, child prostitution and discrimination against women. During meetings with Indian officials, including one on Jan. 11 with Prime Minister V.S. Narasimha Rao, Chrétien raised all of those questions.

Canadian federal representatives said that Indian officials acknowledge the validity of Canadian concerns in the area of human rights - but both sides agree that the problems involved are not easily solved. The question of child labor provides one clear example of that. The issue has been raised to new prominence by the efforts of 13-year-old Craig Kielburger of Thornhill, Ont., who has mounted his own campaign against the exploitation of children. Last week, after visiting Bangladesh, Thailand and Nepal, Kielburger also brought his highly publicized crusade to India - and arranged to meet with Chrétien over the weekend. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, in a weekend speech to a New Delhi business audience, pledged that Canada will try to undertake new efforts to tackle the problem. Vowing that "we will look at making sure that we make a contribution," Chrétien also declared that "all of us must work to alleviate the poverty and underdevelopment that is at the root of this horrible problem."

In fact, with more than 600 million Indians living, by Canadian standards, in poverty-level conditions, many families depend on all family members working in order to survive. Canada's secretary of state for Asia-Pacific relations, Raymond Chan, one of the government's most vocal campaigners for human rights, said that he raised the issue of child labor extensively during a trip to India last year, during which he focused on a variety of rights issues. But, he added, "you cannot support it, but you have to try to understand it. The reality is that in some cases, if the children did not work, the family would not eat."

Overall, Chrétien's performance on the human rights issue did help to dispel the impression his government has sometimes given that it cares about trade at the expense of virtually everything else. But in almost every other way, the new Team Canada suffers by comparison with its 1994 China predecessor. Then, the Chrétien government was at record levels in the polls, and the Prime Minister was the undisputed leader of a team that included nine of the 10 provincial premiers and the leaders of the two territories. That trip marked one of Chrétien's first major forays abroad as prime minister, and his performance was highly praised by the business and political leaders accompanying him. In a sharp departure from the traditionally fractious relations between prime ministers and premiers, Chrétien was even dubbed Captain Canada by then-Ontario premier Bob Rae, who presented him with a hockey sweater embossed with a "C" for captain.

In India, however, the premiers appeared in a less giving mood - both toward the federal government and each other. Despite their surface good cheer, tensions exist. For one, several premiers concede privately that they are deeply annoyed with Alberta's Ralph Klein and Saskatchewan's Roy Romanow, who declined to take part in the Asia mission, citing domestic commitments. By their decision to stay behind, one Maritime premier declared, Klein and Romanow "are implicitly suggesting that the rest of us don't care as much about what happens at home."

As well, there are several reasons for frayed tempers between the premiers and Chrétien. The principal one is provincial frustration over federal plans to reduce the size of annual transfer payments to the provinces, which help fund a variety of provincial programs. Another is provincial impatience with the pace of federal government plans for reforms, which, premiers hope, will result in the transfer of new powers from Ottawa. In turn, Ottawa is frustrated by the unwillingness of most provinces to harmonize their sales taxes with the federal Goods and Services tax.

All of which goes to show that, in politics, environments may change but the problems remain the same. Still, one incident last week showed that it should never be said that Canada's first ministers are completely incapable of working together. At the end of the day's formal activities, Chrétien took his wife Aline to dinner at New Delhi's famed Bukhara restaurant. There, he encountered most of the premiers and their wives. The group decided to sit together and, after several minutes, rose to inspect the kitchen at the invitation of the head chef. Although no one remembers who came up with the idea, they donned aprons and, under the chef's instructions, prepared an enormous roll of naan, a dense, leavened Indian bread. While the chef put the final product in the oven, they returned to their table - and broke bread with the finished result several minutes later. And for once, there was not one argument between the federal and provincial leaders over the final result of their efforts.

Maclean's January 22, 1996