Riya*, now 32, was doing exceptionally well professionally in 2018 when she decided to move to Canada. She had managed to secure Canadian permanent residency (PR) a year ago in 2017. She migrated without any family members with the aim of finding better opportunities for personal and career growth.
Shilpa* was also well-settled in Delhi and was working in a managerial role with a leading private hospital. However, she too shifted to Canada in 2022 along with her husband and daughter after managing to obtain PR for the North American country. For them as well, the purpose of migration was to find a better work-life balance and secure better future prospects for their only child.
The stories of Riya and Shilpa sum up the migration that is happening every year, from India to Canada, for better quality and standard of life.
Figures are a testament to this migration. Nearly 85,000 new permanent residents from India landed in the North American country between January and June this year. Last year, Canada handed over citizenship to 35,608 Indians.
The USA’s neighbour has a large Indian diaspora population. As per the 2021 Census, Canada’s population was 37 million and out of this, 1.4 million (14 lakh) people were Indians or of Indian origin – roughly 3.7 per cent of the total population. Of these, nearly 8 lakh were Sikhs, a majority of them from the state of Punjab.
However, the ongoing diplomatic row between India and Canada over the killing of a Khalistani separatist has created anxiety among the Indian-origin population in Canada, including those who are currently in the country for study or job prospects.
Separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar was murdered outside a gurudwara in Vancouver in June this year by unidentified gunmen. The death detonated a diplomatic nuclear bomb between India and Canada when the latter’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last Monday alleged in Parliament that agents of the Government of India were “potentially” involved in the killing.
India summarily rejected the accusations, calling them absurd. In fact, after the initial expulsion of a diplomat each by the two sides, during the week, India upped the ante by first issuing a travel advisory for Canada and then by suspending all visa services in the North American country indefinitely.
New Delhi even called Canada a “safe haven” for terrorists, with Indian Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi describing the country “as a safe haven for terrorists, for extremists, and for organized crime”.
There appears to be no quick solution to the row as both countries stick to their ground and their Western partners, while safely steering away from endorsing the allegations against India, call for the facts to be established in the case through an investigation with New Delhi’s support.
Anxiety and calm
This has left many families in India worried. Many have sent their children to study in Canada —Indians form the largest group of international students in Canada as per latest statistics— while others have their near and dear ones settled in the North American country.
The threats issued to the Hindu population by Khalistani separatists and the visa suspension announced for Canadians by the Indian government have made the situation tricky for these families.
However, those staying in Canada have urged calm and said things are normal there. Life is as usual and there seems to be no spread of the pro-Khalistani sentiment at the grassroots level.
“For me, life here is as usual and I feel pretty safe here. I have not had any interaction with the affected group; I have read a lot about it in the news but at this point, for me, it is all political and has not reached the grassroots level,” Riya, who is expected to get the Canadian citizenship soon, told Outlook from Toronto.
Riya added that she has yet to find out what effect the visa suspension will have on her and her family back in India.
“I don't really know if visa suspension has affected me in any way as apparently. It's the new visas that have been impacted (by the Indian government’s decision). I have not applied for it (visa) yet but I will be doing that pretty soon so I will know about it (the impact) when I do it,” she said.
She, however, did acknowledge that the family back home is slightly concerned. “I have told them that I am pretty safe here and the environment is very conducive for my growth, so they are also maintaining a very neutral stance for now.”
Shilpa, who lives in Vancouver where Nijjar was killed, said the pro-Khalistan sentiment was much more visible there unlike in Toronto but they as of now do not feel any threat.
“We see a lot of zealots roaming around in Canada with Khalistan flags on top of their cars. As of now, we don’t feel any threat and life is as usual, as not all from the Sikh community support the pro-Khalistan movement,” she told Outlook.
She has no plans to visit India anytime soon so visa suspension does not affect them as of now. However, the diplomatic row has certainly left the family back home in Delhi worried. “Yes, they are concerned about our well-being if the matter escalates.”
Riya and Shilpa have similar messages for the governments of India and Canada. They stress that peace should prevail and highlight that a large number of Indian-origin people live and work in Canada.
“Peace needs to be maintained between the two countries because we have a lot of migration that happens every year. So, all that happens between the two countries affects a lot of families. The rights of the people need to be protected,” is what Riya had to say.
Shilpa too desires that there should be peaceful coexistence among religions and among both nations.
Whether that will happen or the ties will suffer further, only time will tell.
*The names of the persons Outlook spoke to for this story have been changed to protect their identity, as requested by them.