How Trudeau's India trip lays the groundwork for the 2019 election

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's week-long trip to India is ostensibly about foreign policy and international trade, it also might be about shoring up his party's support with Indo-Canadians — a constituency that helped the Liberals win a majority government in 2015 and could play a decisive role in next year's federal election.

Indo-Canadians helped Liberals win the 2015 federal election, but the party faces new challenges in 2019

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Amritsar, India during his visit to the country that is part foreign policy, international trade — and local politics. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Even when you're 12,000 kilometres away and on another continent, politics remains local.

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's week-long trip to India is ostensibly about foreign policy and international trade, it also might be about shoring up his party's support with Indo-Canadians — a constituency that helped the Liberals win a majority government in 2015 and could play a decisive role in next year's federal election.

For Trudeau in India, the stakes are high. The prime minister has tried to smooth over tensions with the Indian government over its concerns about support for Sikh separatists in the Canadian diaspora. He's also keen to deepen Canada's trading relationship with one of the world's largest economies; Canadian trade with India is worth only a paltry $8 billion annually.

Of course, hopes the Liberals might have had to capitalize on goodwill resulting from the trip may have been dealt a blow by revelations that a B.C. man convicted of attempting to murder an Indian politician in Canada had been an invited to two functions attended by the prime minister.

But there was undoubtedly domestic political reasons behind Trudeau embarking on the extended visit to India. Journalists from Indo-Canadian news outlets are with the press corps travelling with the prime minister, who is visiting not only centres of political and business importance, but those with cultural, religious and historical significance as well.

For example, Trudeau took the time to visit the Golden Temple of the Sikhs at Amritsar Wednesday. Sikhs make up less than two per cent of India's population but represent a powerful political constituency in Canada. Punjabi, the predominant language of Sikhs, is the mother tongue of about half a million Canadians. The four Indo-Canadians in Trudeau's cabinet are Sikhs.

For the Liberals, the domestic political aspects of the trip are primarily defensive in nature. There are 25 ridings in Canada where at least one-fifth of the population reports being South Asian (that includes Pakistanis and Sri Lankans along with Indians). The Liberals won 24 of those ridings in the 2015 federal election.

Playing defence in Indo-Canadian ridings

The ridings in question are located almost entirely in the Greater Toronto and Vancouver areas, parts of the country where the Liberals made significant gains in 2015. In the 25 ridings with significant South Asian communities, the Liberals edged out their nearest rivals by an average of 19 points.

The ridings with the largest South Asian populations — Brampton East at 65.9 per cent and Surrey-Newton at 60.7 per cent — were won by Liberal candidates Raj Grewal and Sukh Dhaliwal by margins of 29 and 30 points, respectively.

On the face of it, those ridings should hardly be on the bubble for the Liberals.

But they were swing ridings in the last election. Of those 25 ridings (keeping in mind that the boundaries changed between votes), the Liberals retained their hold on four and added another 15 at the Conservatives' expense.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with, left to right, Minister of National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains, Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan, Leader of the Government in the House of Commons Bardish Chagger and Infrastructure and Communities Minister Amarjeet Sohi. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

With 184 seats nationwide, the Liberals were 15 seats over the threshold for securing a majority government.

Not all of those ridings were won by comfortable margins. The Liberals took Calgary Skyview (37.2 per cent South Asian) by just six points in 2015. Complicating things is the fact that their winning candidate there, Darshan Kang, is sitting as an independent while under investigation over sexual harassment allegations.

The Liberals prevailed in the B.C. riding of Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon (20.7 per cent South Asian) by just 2.3 points, while Amarjeet Sohi, now minister of infrastructure and communities, won Edmonton Mill Woods (27.4 per cent South Asian) by a scant 92 votes.

And now the Liberals have to contend with an NDP led by Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh. In 2015, the Liberals pulled five ridings with significant South Asian populations away from the New Democrats.

The Jagmeet Singh effect

Singh has the potential to upset what have been primarily contests between Liberals and Conservatives in heavily Indo-Canadian constituencies. When he ran for the Ontario NDP in 2011, Singh boosted the party's performance in the riding of Bramalea-Gore-Malton by 26 percentage points over its result in 2007.

The NDP leader certainly has his own personal appeal. The NDP saw its support increase in other Brampton-area ridings in 2011 by just four to eight points — a far cry from Singh's surge in Bramalea-Gore-Malton.

That might put the federal seat of Brampton East within the NDP's grasp. Sharing territory with his provincial riding, it's where Singh has said he probably will run. The riding also has a large Indo-Canadian contingent; 33.2 per cent of Brampton East residents report Punjabi as their mother tongue, while 33.2 per cent were born in India — a larger percentage than anywhere else in the country.

But while Singh is an Indo-Canadian, that makes him a member of a group that is far from monolithic.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says he will probably run in Brampton East in 2019. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Canadians who cite Punjabi as their mother tongue represent 47 per cent of all those who reported speaking an Indo-Aryan language, as defined by Statistics Canada in the 2016 census. Another 20 per cent report speaking Urdu, which is predominantly spoken by Muslims, while 27 per cent cite Hindi, Gujarati or Bengali as their mother tongue.

Punjabis make up the minority of Indo-Aryan speakers in 14 of the 25 ridings with significant South Asian populations. There are more Urdu than Punjabi speakers in five of Mississauga's six ridings, while more Canadians speak Urdu, Hindi or Gujarati than Punjabi in all six of Scarborough's ridings.

In other words, Singh's appeal in these communities might not be much stronger than that of Trudeau or Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. In the December byelection in Scarborough-Agincourt — where 14 per cent of the population reports being South Asian but where there are more people speaking Urdu, Hindi or Gujarati than Punjabi — the NDP saw its support drop by 2.8 points.

But the pull of a native son can be strong. In 15 consecutive federal elections, the party with the most votes in Quebec has been led by a Quebecer.

Ridings with significant Indo-Canadian populations moved over to the Liberal column in a big way in 2015. If voters in these ridings sense that the wind is blowing in the Conservatives' direction, they could swing back again.

Singh, the first Indo-Canadian leader of a major national party, adds a new element of uncertainty to the picture.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in Indian investment in Canada is certainly a good thing. But for the Liberals, 24 seats in some of the most important electoral battlegrounds in the country might be more valuable.


  • This story has been updated from an earlier version that referred to party leaders born in Quebec to refer instead to parties led by Quebecers.
    Feb 22, 2018 4:28 PM ET

About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.


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