Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi used a speech in front of nearly 10,000 Indo-Canadians in Toronto on Wednesday night to tout his achievements since becoming India’s leader and promise that his country would overcome corruption and poverty.
In a speech that was by turns charming and fiery, Mr. Modi said he would work to build a stronger relationship with Canada. The event at Ricoh Coliseum came just hours after he met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Parliament Hill, where the two leaders announced a uranium supply deal and simplified tourist visas for Canadians travelling to India.
A crowd of Indo-Canadians cheered and chanted Mr. Modi’s name as he took the stage. His speech was preceded by brief remarks from Mr. Harper, who pledged to work more closely with India.
This is the first bilateral visit to Canada by a sitting Indian prime minister in more than 40 years.
Both Mr. Modi and Mr. Harper are keen to take the opportunity to court Canada’s large and influential Indian diaspora – Mr. Modi’s address was clearly directed to the Indo-Canadian community and delivered in Hindi.
Mr. Modi arrived in Ottawa on Tuesday evening for the start of a visit that will also take him to Toronto and Vancouver, where the largest concentration of Indo-Canadians live.
Indo-Canadians who managed to procure tickets to the free event in Toronto arrived hours before both leaders were expected to speak to get through security at the main entrance. They broke out into chants of “Mo-di, Mo-di,” during a break between cultural performances as they waited for the Indian Prime Minister to appear.
Mr. Modi referenced Canada’s past support for his “Vibrant Gujarat” summits, economic forums launched by the Indian Prime Minister while he was that state’s chief minister. “We had extended a hand of friendship long before others,” Mr. Harper said, in an apparent reference to the years when Mr. Modi was shunned by some in the international community over allegations related to deadly riots in his home state of Gujurat.
At one point, during Mr. Modi’s speech, people in the crowd broke out into cheers of “Harper, Harper” after Mr. Modi thanked the Canadian Prime Minister.
The two politicians, who both lead conservative parties and share similar views on trade and security, appeared to be in lockstep on most issues when they appeared together in Ottawa on Wednesday. After Mr. Modi responded at length to a question from a reporter about terrorism and global security, Mr. Harper commented, “I’m not sure I can add much more” to what the Indian Prime Minister said.
Mr. Modi’s visit comes after stops in Germany and France, where he sought to boost trade and promote a “Make in India” campaign that’s aimed at persuading more companies to establish manufacturing plants in his country. On Thursday, he is scheduled to meet with the heads of Canadian pension funds and banks, and attend an official dinner with Mr. Harper in Vancouver.
Mr. Harper, who flew to Toronto with Mr. Modi and will also follow him to Vancouver, will use the visit to build support among Indo-Canadians for his Conservative party ahead of the federal election in October.
Defence Minister and Minister of Multiculturalism Jason Kenney took the stage to warm up the crowd before the leaders’ speeches. Mr. Kenney began by greeting the audience in different Indian languages, including Gujarati, the predominant language in Mr. Modi’s home state. When the minister spoke in Gujarati, a cheer erupted in the crowd.
For his part, Mr. Modi hopes to bolster grassroots international support for his Bharatiya Janata Party. Many of the organizers of the Ricoh event are members of the Overseas Friends of the BJP, and some were involved with Mr. Modi’s election campaign last year.
During a news conference with Mr. Harper on Wednesday, Mr. Modi said he is confident Canada and India will conclude an investment protection treaty “very soon.” Canada and India will also implement plans to complete a comprehensive trade deal by September, 2015, he said.
The two countries restarted long-delayed trade talks in March, just weeks ahead of Mr. Modi’s visit. Canada wants more access for its goods in India’s large consumer market, but is reluctant to give India what it wants: more mobility for visitors and temporary workers in this country. The investment protection deal was signed in 2012 but never ratified.
Trade between the two countries remains limited: Canada exported $3.1-billion in 2014, compared with $19-billion to China.
“Trade negotiations are never easy,” Mr. Harper said. “But there is nothing about India – particularly given that it is a vibrant democracy – nothing that would preclude us from being able to ultimately conclude negotiations. But look, there are many issues to be resolved, and both the Prime Minister and I are determined to move forward.”
Mr. Modi is a controversial figure, and some Indo-Canadians say he has failed to protect his country’s religious minorities.
Some protesters appeared outside the Ricoh Coliseum early Wednesday evening before Mr. Modi was scheduled to speak.
One group that said it would be protesting outside the speech, Sikhs for Justice, said it aims to draw attention to deadly religious riots that broke out in Gujarat in 2002. Mr. Modi, who became that state’s chief minister just months before the riots began, was previously denied a visa to the United States over allegations he had failed to stop the violence. He is no longer barred from that country.
Organizers of the protests also said they planned to use Mr. Modi’s visit to call for a referendum on independence in India’s Punjab state, which has a large Sikh population.
India has at times accused Canada of harbouring Sikh extremists and has expressed dissatisfaction at the Canadian handling of the investigation into the 1985 Air India bombing, which killed more than 300 people. Sikh extremists were accused in the incident, and one man was eventually convicted of manslaughter. A commission of inquiry uncovered serious concerns about the way Canadian authorities handled the investigation.
KIM MACKRAEL AND JOE FRIESEN
TORONTO — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Apr. 15 2015, 10:35 PM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Apr. 15 2015, 10:39 PM EDT