The Modi Visit: Canadians express interest in free trade with India, doubts about nuclear deal

The Modi Visit: Canadians express interest in free trade with India, doubts about nuclear deal

April 14, 2015 – As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives on a three-day state visit to Canada, people in this country feel positively towards his homeland in general, but their top-of-mind images of the country aren’t always glowing.

They see India’s economic growth as an opportunity for Canada, but still say our diplomatic efforts should be placed on China first. They’re comfortable pursuing a free trade agreement with India, but not a nuclear energy deal.

Those are among the findings of a comprehensive Angus Reid Institute public opinion poll measuring Canadian views and perceptions of India, of Canada’s relationship with the country, and of the Indo-Canadian community.

The three-part study yields some revealing, and at times, remarkable results about what we think about India, and how we view many of the main issues Modi and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be discussing, and perhaps finalizing, during the visit.

Key Findings:

  • The majority of Canadians (70%) have a generally favourable view of India
  • Most Canadians (58%) say this country should pursue a free trade agreement with India
  • They are reticent about a possible India-Canada nuclear energy deal: 60 per cent say no
  • While Canadian knowledge about India’s governance and economic situation is generally high, the poll reveals an interesting, albeit incorrect, understanding of India’s religious makeup

Angus Reid InstitutePart One – General Perceptions and Knowledge about India

How do we feel about India?

Canada and India share many common bonds: both were former colonies of the British Empire, and therefore both share a system of governance based on the Westminster model. Both are tied economically and diplomatically through the G-20 and the Commonwealth. Both countries officially embrace pluralism. Over the course of Canada’s history, and especially in recent decades, ties have focused, indeed, some may say depended on, the relationships built by immigrants from India who have made their home in this nation.

With that in mind, Canadians are more than twice as likely to have a friendly view of India as an unfriendly one. Overall, seven-in-ten said they have a favourable view of the country, while the rest said they saw India unafavourably (30%). This view was consistent across demographic and regional lines.

However, those generally warm feelings do not necessarily translate into certainty about the strength of Canada’s relationship with India, confidence in that country’s actions on the world stage, or how it manages some aspects of its domestic affairs.

India as Canada’s ally?

Indeed, just half (49%) of Canadians agreed that “India could be counted on as a dependable ally to Canada”. Still, this is twice as many as those who disagree (22%) while the rest (29%) say they don’t know. The highest amount of skepticism on this front was found in Saskatchewan and Manitoba (40%), while the most confidence was among respondents from Ontario (50%), Quebec (50%) and Atlantic Canada (54%).

India on the world stage:

On the question of whether “India does the right thing when it comes to world affairs”, even fewer – one-third (35%) – are in agreement. Notably, British Columbia residents are least likely to endorse this view (28%) and Quebecers most likely (43%). One-quarter (26%) disagreed, while the most respondents (39%) indicated that they weren’t sure about India’s performance on international affairs.

Perceptions of India’s actions at home:

Nor do Canadians take a particularly bright view of the country’s respect for the personal freedoms of its own people. Fewer than one-third (28%) agreed this was the case, while, significantly, nearly twice as many (52%) disagreed.

Angus Reid Institute

Opinions depend on overall view of India:

Those who view the country favourably to begin with are much more likely to have faith in its actions on all three fronts:

  • They are three times as likely to say Canada can count on India’s support (60% versus 23% of those who view the country unfavourably)
  • They are more than three times as likely to say that India does the right thing in international affairs (44% versus 14% unfavourable)
  • And they are nearly four times as likely to view India’s respect for the freedoms of her own people as those who don’t see the country in a positive light (36% favourable versus 10% unfavourable)

What do we know about India?

Canada doesn’t know Modi:

Presented with a photo of Modi, and asked if they could identify him, just over one-in-five respondents (22%) were successful, while the vast majority (71%) said they didn’t know who he was, and the rest identified him incorrectly (see detailed tables at the end of this release). Those living in Ontario, and those with university educations were slightly more likely to correctly identify him.

Those born outside Canada were significantly more likely to correctly identify Modi, by a ratio of more than two-to-one. Among respondents born in Canada 21 per cent knew the Indian Prime Minister. This increased to nearly half (49%) among those born outside the country.

Those results are consistent with our July 2014 survey canvassing Canadian opinions of G7, Russian and BRIC leaders. At that time three-quarters (74%) indicated they didn’t know Modi well enough to choose attributes they might associate with him.

It should be noted, however, that notwithstanding US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister David Cameron, most Canadians didn’t have enough familiarity with the other leaders mentioned in last year’s survey to offer opinions, either.

But we do know the country (sort of):


Respondents are, however, familiar with India’s system of government. Three-quarters (72%) correctly identified the country as a democracy, while just over one-in-ten said it was a military state (12%) and about as many chose “dictatorship” (16%). People living in British Columbia were most likely to know how India is governed (80%).

Those with favourable views of India were more likely to know it is a democratic country than those with a negative view (79% versus 56% respectively). Conversely, those who have an unfavourable view of India were twice as likely to identify it as a military state than those more warmly predisposed (19% versus 9%) or as a dictatorship (25% versus 12%).


Canadians also correctly see India’s economy as one that is growing briskly, a subject to be visited in more detail later in this report.

  • Three-quarters (75%) saw India’s economy as growing, either rapidly (37%) or moderately (38%)
  • Practically no one (3%) thought the country’s economy is shrinking
  • The rest (22%) thought the Indian economy is stagnant


The Angus Reid Institute poll did find some interesting Canadian perceptions of religion in one of the world’s most populous and arguably spiritually diverse nations. Asked to identify which two religions they thought had the most followers in India:

  • Respondents accurately chose Hinduism (88% thought this was one of the biggest two faith groups). Indeed, Hindus comprise the largest religious group in India, with more than 800 million followers.
  • But two-in-five (38%) incorrectly view Sikhism as one of India’s largest faith groups (rising to a whopping 67% in BC). While Sikhs do comprise a significant swath of the Indian community in Canada, they are in fact, not more than two per cent of the actual Indian population, with roughly 19 million adherents there.
  • Buddhism was similarly overestimated as a major faith group with one-third (33%) choosing this as one of India’s two largest faith groups (with this perception highest in Quebec at 54%). This perception may perhaps be understandable considering that internationally known Buddhist Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has been living in exile in India since 1959. However, actual adherents to Buddhism in India total less than one per cent of the population.
  • It is Muslims who make up the second largest faith group in India, at 13 per cent of population (nearly 140 million adherents). One-quarter (25%) of survey respondents chose Islam as one of the two biggest religions in that country.

Angus Reid Institute

Images of India:

Canadians may generally view India positively, but that does not necessarily extend to top-of-mind impressions of the country. Respondents were asked “when you think about India, which of the following images are strongest in your mind”, and invited to choose three, or write in their own. Here’s what they told us:

  • Massive population (68%)
  • A dangerous place for women (46%)
  • A very poor country (38%)
  • Cuisine/food (30%)
  • Ancient culture (23%)
  • Mahatma Gandhi (20%)
  • Bollywood movies (19%)
  • Corruption (19%)

Although respondents were aware of how India is governed, and of its economic growth, neither of these options were at the top of their lists:

  • World’s largest democracy (12%)
  • Economic powerhouse (7%)

Once again, as with general knowledge of India, top-of-mind perceptions are affected by general views of the country, headlines, and whether respondents personally know anyone of Indian heritage. Demographics are also drivers of opinion (see tables at the end of this report for full details).

A few highlights:

  • Women and those aged 55+ were more likely to say India is a “dangerous place for women”, (52% and 51% respectively). While the Angus Reid Institute has no tracking data on this issue, it is conceivable that this particular perception has risen significantly in the consciousness of respondents due to the brutal December 2012 rape and murder of a Delhi woman, followed by the worldwide attention, study and discussion of rape and violence against women in India that has dominated headlines about that country since.
  • Younger Canadians – aged 18-34 – are nearly three times more likely to have picked “Bollywood movies” than older respondents. Indeed, several Hindi films have been shot on location in Canada.
  • Older Canadians, and those living in Quebec, were more likely to think of Mahatma Gandhi when they think of India (26% each)

Part Two – The Modi Visit: Opinions about Economic and Trade ties

Does India’s growth create Canadian Opportunities?

As noted earlier, most Canadians are aware of the fact that India’s economy is expanding fast. To put this into context: more than twice Canada’s own growth rate. Ahead of Prime Minister Modi’s visit, analysts have widely canvassed expectations on the Indian leader to open up markets to foreign investment, deliver more economic growth at home, and improve the living standards of ordinary citizens. How do Canadians view India’s current growth in terms of their own national prospects?

  • One-in-five opted to characterize it as a “huge opportunity – it’s a can’t miss”;
  • A full majority of six-in-ten described it as an “important opportunity – but it depends on what we’re doing with other countries” ;
  • While the remaining one-in-five dismiss it as “not much” or “not an opportunity at all”.

Angus Reid Institute

Trading preferences in context:

While the above results may indicate a Canadian population that is enthusiastic about pursuing economic opportunities with India, it is important to consider this country’s current economic and trade framework.

As organizations such as the Asia Pacific Foundation have noted, our current level of trade with India today is a fraction of the amount this country trades with China, and an arguable drop in the bucket compared to Canada’s trade with the US, its most significant trading partner.

To that end, the Angus Reid Institute poll specifically asked Canadians more to consider our overall relationships (trade, culture, diplomacy etc.) with the two Asian giants – India and China – and decide on which nation between the two Canada should be focusing its future efforts. On this question, Canadians are clear – China still comes first.

Angus Reid Institute

Nearly six-in-ten (58%) chose China, compared with two-in-five (42%) who chose India. Still, the large number choosing India is notable given the fact that China has been a source of more immigration to Canada (although not by much) and the fact that, as noted above, Sino-Canadian trade currently heavily outweighs the volume of Indo-Canadian trade.

Free Trade with India? What’s the bottom line:

In spite of a strong tilt towards China, the prospect of a Canada-India trade deal – one aimed at significantly increasing the roughly $2.7 billion (US) that we currently export to India – is creating excitement in more than one corner, with the business community and government officials praising the benefits of such an agreement.

Our poll results show the majority Canadians are supportive of this country pursuing a free-trade agreement with India, but that support is far from unanimous. When asked, most (58%) said Canada should pursue such an arrangement, while the rest (42%) were against it.

Views on these two questions are broadly consistent across major demographic groups, although Ontarians are somewhat more reticent than those in other parts of Canada: there is split opinion in Canada’s largest province on a Canada-India trade pact, in contrast to the roughly 60-40 divide across the other regions (see detailed tables at the end of this release). Support for a Canada-India free trade deal is also more than twice as high among those who have a favourable view of India rather than unfavourable (70% versus 32% respectively).

Angus Reid Institute

But … no desire for Nuclear Deal:

In addition to talking trade, it is widely expected that any conversation between Prime Ministers Stephen Harper and Modi will focus on finalizing an agreement where Canadian companies could supply India with fuel for nuclear power plants in that country.

Both countries share a complicated history on the nuclear file. Canada banned exports of uranium and nuclear hardware to India in 1974 after New Delhi used Candu (Canada Deuterium Uranium) technology to develop a nuclear bomb. The result was a palpable drop in temperature on bilateral relations, which became even frostier when India conducted more nuclear tests and declared it had a nuclear weapon 14 years later. According to the Asia Pacific Foundation, the Canadian Prime Minister of the day, Jean Chretien (he had also been Justice Minister in 1974) was embarrassed by the episode.

Relations between the two countries have subsequently warmed like a summer in Mumbai compared to those frosty days. In 2013 Harper signed the Canada-India Nuclear Cooperation Agreement which allows Canadian companies to export nuclear items for peaceful uses, in accordance with Canada’s nuclear non-proliferation policy, ensuring Canadian exports only go to facilities in India under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

Canadians however remain suspicious of providing support to India’s nuclear energy industry. Most surveyed (60%) voiced opposition to Canada helping develop India’s nuclear energy industry, compared to 40 per cent who support it. Opposition is highest in Quebec (69%) and among the lowest in Ontario (56%). Notably, support is also higher among the university educated (49%) and among those who view India favourably (47%).

Despite the high hopes of Modi and Canada’s private sector uranium suppliers, it would appear Canadians are at this stage jaded by the prospect of a nuclear co-operation deal.

Angus Reid Institute

Part Three – Ties that bind: Perceptions of the Indo-Canadian community in Canada

The story of Indian migration to Canada is one that begins on the west coast – in British Columbia – at the turn of the last century. It is a story – particularly the first half – of tenacity, discrimination and political disenfranchisement. Indeed, until 1947, the Government of Canada kept on its books the so-called continuous journey requirements that were instituted in 1908 to make it virtually impossible for legal immigration from India.

Generations later, our views and laws regarding immigration from non-European countries have changed wholesale. The 2011 Canadian census shows there are 1.2 million Canadians of Indian heritage in this country – people who were born here or who immigrated.

Those surveyed were asked for their overall feelings towards the Indo-Canadian community as a whole:

  • Almost half (46%) of Canadians reported they feel very (12%) or mostly positive (34%);
  • Almost as many (42%) say they feel “neither positive nor negative”
  • Only one-in-ten (10%) voiced very or mostly negative feelings towards the Indo-Canadian community.

Views are fairly consistent across the main population segments. Notably, younger Canadians are more likely to express very positive views than middle-aged or older Canadians (17% 18-34 versus 7% 55+)

On a more personal level, roughly half of the Canadians surveyed indicated a personal relationship with one or more Canadians of Indian heritage: 17 per cent said they know at least one member of the community “well” and another one-in-three said they have one or more Indo-Canadian “acquaintances”. That leaves half of Canadians (48%) having no relationship with the community whatsoever.

Angus Reid Institute

There are some big differences in exposure across some key population groups. Most notably by region, seven-in-ten British Columbians and six-in-ten Albertans indicated a personal relationship with an Indo-Canadian, whereas most Canadians living east of these regions reported an absence of such a relationship (as high as three-quarters in Quebec).  Younger Canadians are over twice as likely to have a closer relationship with an Indo-Canadian, and the poll also shows greater exposure among Canadians with higher incomes and more formal education.

Personal relationships matter. Canadians who know one or more Indo-Canadians – well or as an acquaintance – are much more likely to have a favourable overall view of the community as a whole: two-thirds of those with a close relationship and half of those with an acquaintance report a positive overall feeling toward the Indo-Canadian community compared to less than four-in-ten of Canadians who have no relationship with the community.

Likewise, further analysis of the poll results shows, not surprisingly, that those Canadians with a positive overall disposition towards the Indo-Canadian community are much more enthusiastic about the economic opportunities India offers and about the prospects of free trade with that large and growing economy. Indeed, as noted earlier, this positively disposed group has a more “pro-India” disposition on the range of issues assessed in this poll.

Click here for full report including tables and methodology

Click here for Questionnaire used in this survey

Image Credit: Jason Ransom/PMO

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