Surrey's business community hopes Trudeau's India visit veers back to trade talks

Much of the attention on the prime minister's state visit has been dominated by concerns over his government's stance on Sikh separatism.

Much of the attention has been dominated by concerns over Canada's stance on Sikh separatism

Balraj Mann, the owner of Polycrete Restoration, wants Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to secure a commitment from India on trade relations between the two countries. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

Members of Surrey's business community are hoping political missteps haven't derailed trade talks during the prime minister's Indian visit.

The issue of Canada's stance on Sikh separatism has dogged Justin Trudeau's first state visit to India.

Late Wednesday, news broke Jaspal Atwal, a convicted former member of an illegal Sikh separatist group, had been invited to a dinner reception with Trudeau in Delhi. 

Atwal was invited to the reception at the request of Liberal MP Randeep Sarai, one of 14 MPs who paid their own way to take part in Trudeau's official visit.

Photos of him posing with the prime minister's wife, Sophie Grégoire, Trudeau and other Canadian cabinet ministers later surfaced. 

Just hours prior, Trudeau tried to make amends with his most prominent critic in Indian politics, Amarinder Singh, the chief minister of Punjab, who had previously accused him of allowing Sikh extremists to infiltrate his cabinet.

All this has thrown a cloud over a state visit aimed at bolstering cultural and trade ties between the two countries.

Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman says she is hoping the conversation will focus on the latter.

Her organization has been lobbying for a Canada-India free trade agreement since 2003. 

At the outset, she says the trip was a sign that "maybe, finally" there would be progress on an agreement with India.

"I think the prime minister's trip needs to be very focused," she said. "I know it's a bit of a cultural trip also for him, which is great ... but I want to make sure that our federal government is focused on that Canada-India free trade agreement."

Balraj Mann, a small business owner and fellow director on the board, also sees it as a distraction.

"I'm more of a regular working person," he said, adding he'd prefer to steer away from the politics and focus on business needs.

For 40 years, he's run successful construction and restoration companies — expanding from Vancouver to Surrey and even down to Portland.

But, he hasn't been able to lay down roots permanently in India, despite ties to the country anHe says Canadian systems tend to be more streamlined and digitized.

The bureaucracy in India, though not insurmountable, was challenging.

"There, the experience we had was more manual ... you have to know people and learn the process," he said of several contract projects.

Trade stalled at $8B

Trade between Canada and India has stalled for years at about $8 billion annually. By comparison, Canada trades about 10 times that amount with China.

In 2012, the Harper government had set a goal of increasing that number to $15 billion by 2015.

A free trade deal would help facilitate the movement of goods and expertise, while dismantling some of India's traditionally protectionist strategies, according to Huberman.

But, so far, there's been no talk of a draft agreement, only the announcement of $1 billion worth of deals inked.

As Trudeau's trip winds down, Mann hopes the prime minister can make some sort of progress on trade talks with India.

"Whatever his agenda is, just to get a commitment and timeline," he said. "Make sure it happens and not just talk about it. They should have a firm timetable to make sure concrete steps are taken and implemented in the future."

The state visit is expected to wrap up by Friday.