Faiz JamilReport from India
analysisIndia's knowledge of Canada limited to Russell Peters
By Faiz Jamil, special to CBC News
Posted: Jun 21, 2011 4:17 PM ET
Last Updated: Jun 22, 2011 10:00 AM ETBack to accessibility links
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"Do you know Russell Peters?"
It's become the standard question from almost every young middle- or upper-class Indian I've met when told I'm from Canada.
Apparently, his comedic stories of being raised in Ontario by immigrant parents from India strikes a chord with young Indians here. Most of whom are more in tune with Western culture than their parents.
But in that Western awareness, Canada shares just a small slice of the Indian mindset, young or old.
Because after Russell Peters, and perhaps the odd relative in Toronto or Vancouver, most Indians don't know much else about Canada. They simply don't have any commonplace knowledge of the Great White North.
With the IIFA awards descending on Toronto this week, it's likely the GTA and any place in Canada with a sizeable Indian population is having an outbreak of Bollywood fever right now.As Canadian as ... comedian Russell Peters, one of the few Canadian icons to penetrate the Indian mindeset. (Andy Clark/Reuters)
But here in Mumbai, I don't see any signs that the reverse is true.
The Lokhandwala area of Mumbai is home to many artists, producers and other workers in India's film industry. Mention Canada here and you'll get responses ranging from "beautiful country" to "very friendly people."
Most can list specific Bollywood movies that have been filmed in Canada. Some themselves have even travelled there to work on those films.
But outside of set locations and production values, what do they know about Canada?
"Oh, it's cold there."
"Not very much."
And even, "I have a cousin who stays in Vancouver."
Something of an afterthought
Not even the fact that the IIFA awards are being handed out in Toronto later this week — the first time the huge ceremony has been in North America — seems to be generating much curiosity about Canada, either in the media or the public's mind.
That these awards are often called the "Bollywood Oscars" pretty much gives away which Western country has most of India's attention.
This tends to be followed by the old colonial master, Britain, and then Australia, where many smart young Indians go if they are looking for an affordable Western education.
Canada is a distant afterthought when it comes to getting anyone's attention here. Inside or outside Bollywood.
"It's a clean country with huge spaces. But the average Indian would not know much about Canada except that this is a country which is a neighbour of the U.S.," says Sunaina Singh, president of the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute.
It is an organization funded by both the Indian and Canadian governments to promote Canadian studies in India and Indian studies in Canada.
According to Singh, Canada does command some big plusses — such as a high standard of living and a good education system — for those in the know. But those in the know are the few.
Canadian business and development has been growing steadily here over the past two decades, but many endeavours have failed to really grab public attention.
McCain's frozen french fries are not only available in most supermarkets and restaurants here, but their popularity is such that they are offered at some of the high-end cinemas.
Still, don't count on anyone to know about the McCain's Canadian heritage. Or that of Bata shoes or Delhi's shiny new Bombardier-built metro trains.
We simply don't register.
The one area where we do hold some sway, mind you, is one of our biggest and oldest: immigration.Stephen Harper kicks off the Year of India in Canada in a speech at the Museum of Civilization in Hull in March 2011. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
"Canada is one of the top destination for those looking to emigrate for working or studying," says Vivek Kumar, a Delhi-based immigration consultant.
But while Canada ranks near the top, "the preference is for the U.S. Then the U.K. Then Australia. And then Canada. Especially when it comes to working and living."
Kumar says the lack of knowledge about Canada, as well as a stereotypical fear of the cold, seems to keep Canada from cracking the top three.
America, with its economic might, is understandably the top destination. Britain, too, for its historical ties.
But why does Canada trail Australia, whose size, population and Indian-origin citizens are nowhere near what Canada has to offer?
Climate is one factor. Advertising is another.
As Sunaina Singh puts it, Australia is not just geographically closer but it has been "working on India for sometime."
"It has to do with their marketing strategy. Australia has been around the block for sometime now, trying to sell its educational wares."
Canada, on the other hand, has lacked a focused strategy, Singh says. And that's what it takes to get noticed here.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's big 2009 visit was a good first step. But more overtures and more business and development deals will be needed.
Even then it will take time for the seeds of these deals to grow into an awareness of Canada.
Until that takes root, we can take some comfort in knowing that for now our mostly neutral image isn't hurting us and may be of help in spreading the news by word of mouth.
And hopefully many of the Bollywood stars and other well-to-do Indians who are flying in for the awards will return home to talk up Canada's hospitality, diversity and quality of life.
If all else fails, there's always Russell Peters.
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