Jalandhar: For the past week, Raj Rani has been glued to her mobile phone for two reasons. To speak to her son and daughter in Canada and to keep abreast of the news amidst the diplomatic spat.
The Jalandhar resident’s situation is not unique in Punjab, where numerous households have a member, usually young, in Canada.
The past five or six years has seen an outflow of Punjabis, particularly students and the working class, to Canada. The country is one of the most sought-after migration destinations owing to its comparatively easy visa norms and opportunities of settling down permanently.
While Punjab’s Canada dream has picked pace of late, with the easy availability of study visas, Sikhs in Punjab have been migrating to Canada since the early 1990s, at a time when militancy was at its peak as well.
Since Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau levelled allegations that the Indian government was behind the killing of pro-Khalistan activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, India and Canada’s diplomatic relations have soured.
While Canada has asked India to join the investigation, India has denied the allegations and suspended its visa service for Canadians, halting many Canadian Punjabis’ travel plans to India to halt. Meanwhile, families of students and workers remain worried about changes that may affect them too.
Promise of prayers
Talking to The Wire, Raj Rani said that earlier, when she would miss a call from her children, it usually did not worry her much. But that is no longer the case as she finds herself completing all her household work so as to be able to speak to them at around 8 pm IST.
“Not just my son and daughter, nearly all my nephews, nieces and relatives are either in Canada or in the UK. I am keeping in touch with them too,” she said, adding that the frequency of phone calls and WhatsApp messages has increased several folds.
Raj Rani’s son is in the city of Toronto while her daughter is in Scarborough, also in the Ontario province of Canada. “These days, the only conversations we have among relatives and neighbours are about the latest developments in this issue,” she said.
She said that once this row comes to an end, she has plans to visit the famous Gurdwara Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh Ji situated in Talhan village, Jalandhar, where people come from far and wide to pray for visas and foreign travel. Raj Rani is not the only person who said this to the reporter. The site is a popular one in this regard and sees numerous toy aeroplane offerings. In August, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the apex body of the Sikhs, put a ban on such offerings, terming it a practice against Sikh religious principles.
People would also bring their passports to pray in the gurdwara. After quite a few passports fell into the cash box or were lost or damaged, the gurdwara management put up a notice, asking people to stop.
‘As if everything is over’
Many students, whose work permits are set to expire within a couple of months and who are awaiting their Permanent Residency (PR) permits are also worried about the situation.
Lovepreet Singh, a Punjab Police constable from Rurka Kalan village, Jalandhar whose sister was in Vancouver, Canada for the last four years said that she too was on a work permit and was yet to get her PR.
“We do not know what the Canadian government will do next. My entire day is spent checking news and updates on Google, X, Facebook and Instagram. Unless there is an official confirmation on improvement of relations between India and Canada, we are stuck. My sister was already under pressure and to add to it, this fiasco took place. We are trying to tell her that things will normalise soon,” he said.
Gurmeet Singh, a businessman from Amritsar, whose son went to Canada on a study visa in 2022 said that mainstream news channels’ creation of hype over this issue did not help at all.
“In such a situation, the media’s role should be in maintaining balance but they are treating this as if everything is over between the two nations. Like others, we have invested huge money on our son’s education and want him to do well. Student life is not easy. We know how students struggle to attend classes, work, cook meals and manage life. People have no idea that in such circumstances, students can go into depression as well,” he said.
‘Must admit that everything is fine in Canada’
Notably, the highest concentration of Punjabis in Canada was in British Columbia followed by Manitoba, Alberta, Ontario, Yukon, Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. According to the 2021 census conducted by Canada, there were 7.71 lakh Sikhs in Canada, 4.15 lakh were permanent residents and 1.19 lakh non-permanent residents.
The influence of the Sikh community in Canada can be gauged from the fact that there are 15 Sikh MPs in the Canadian parliament. During the 2019 election, when Justin Trudeau’s government came to power for the second term, the House of Commons had 18 Sikh MPs.
Harpreet Kaur from Surrey, British Columbia, who had to cancel her plans of coming to Punjab at the last moment said that she got Canadian citizenship in July.
“In between this, the India-Canada row erupted and the BLS International, the online visa application centre, informed us that the Indian Mission has suspended visa services in Canada till further notice. Now, I cannot get a visa. We have every right to visit our home and hope the India-Canada diplomatic row gets resolved soon,” she said.
Kaur said that she had plans of attending a friend’s wedding and seeing her nephew for the first time, all of which is thrown into uncertainty.
Kaur pointed to the fact that during the farmers’ protests against the central laws, now rolled back, the Indian government had controversially cancelled the visas of Canadian persons of Indian origin and overseas Indian citizens as well.
Navjot Dhillon, another Canadian citizen and a renowned radio broadcaster from Surrey, British Columbia, was also planning a visit to India to attend the famous ‘Mela Ghadari Babeyan Da’, an annual event held in the memory of the martyrs of the Ghadar Movement in Jalandhar and meet her relatives.
“We were planning to apply for our visas when this decision was announced. While we can still postpone our visit, there were many who were planning for weddings and functions back home in Punjab, they are stuck,” she said.
Yet another Canadian citizen who did not wish to be named and has been living in Vancouver, British Columbia for last 24 years said that he has been coming home to Ludhiana in Punjab almost every year. “This year too we had plans to visit Punjab but they stand cancelled as of now. Every Canadian is feeling concerned but I must admit that everything is fine in Canada. The fact is that people in India should stay away from fake news. Look at what the international media like The New York Times, The Economist and Washington Post is reporting and see the way Indian media was misleading people on this issue,” he said.
He also said that while the mainstream media was keen to showcase a communal divide claiming that Hindus are in danger in Canada, the fact was that nearly all students irrespective of their religion would visit Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, Surrey, where Hardeep Singh Nijjar was the president.