How Could They Get it so Incredibly Wrong?
Just a few days into Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s official visit to India, friends from Kyiv to Khartoum messaged me to ask what’s happening to one of Canada’s most powerful brands.
Humiliating images and news reports had started to circulate about our ‘selfie PM’ making a clown of himself just moments after touchdown in the world’s largest democracy. The poking commenced as soon as Trudeau and his family emerged off their Government Airbus decked out in traditional Indian clothing, hands carefully folded into a ‘Namaste’ pose.
Reviews of the telegenic Prime Ministers fashion choices generated scorn both here and in India. The online newsmagazine Outlook India, wrote that the elaborate dress was “too Indian even for an Indian.”
Another outlet made fun of a photo of the PM and a female Indo-Canadian caucus member posing in what normally passes as traditional wedding attire.
The ethnic fashion show continued far into the official visit. It was only when Trudeau went to a cricket pitch and when he met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he shed the traditional clothes for purpose-made attire. And it wasn't only the Indian and Canadian media that heaped scorn on the Trudeau government: from the New York Times to the Washington Post to CNN - even the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah had a go at Trudeau, jokingly predicting his attire for a state visit to India.
Are they tone deaf? Who was advising the Prime Minister’s Office? Has the selfie culture so seeped into Trudeau’s mind that he might have rejected sage advice on dress codes and protocol from the Canadian High Commissioner in India or protocol officials from the Indian Government?
As one gaffe after another began to pile up for Trudeau - like a mid-winter car crash on Canada’s iconic Highway 401 - I began to wonder where was the diaspora community in all of this? For example, if Trudeau were to visit Ukraine, diaspora leaders would not only accompany him - but also scrupulously advise on everything from dress codes to language issues to potential ethnic conflicts. What’s especially baffling is that Trudeau did have several cabinet and caucus members in tow from the Indo-Canadian community. (Though, truth be told, diaspora leaders and politicians can be woefully out of sync with popular thinking in the homeland).
Actually the fashion gaffes were a side show to an incident of unimaginable proportions that will define the entire state visit: reportedly an invitation for a dinner at the Canadian High Commissioner’s residence in New Delhi was sent to a militant Sikh separatist convicted of attempting to murder an Indian cabinet minister in Vancouver in 1986. The invitation was later withdrawn - but only after CBC News broke the story. In what has been widely criticized as a security breach, the individual was photographed in Delhi along with Canada’s First Lady and separately with one of Trudeau's cabinet ministers.
For cash-strapped Canadian taxpayers, the visit reeked of tone-deafness and arrogance - once again with the Canadian PM projecting himself as a member of the Davos elite. The image was compounded by news of the PMO flying in a celebrity chef from Vancouver, and of how the delegation failed to articulate the investment payback from the visit.
Even if the the unwritten terms of reference of the eight-day trip consisted of grabbing the Indo-Canadian vote, to many Canadians it came across as a massively subsidized, Instagram-fuelled vacation for the Trudeau family. As one former Canadian diplomat with experience in India wrote to me: "And where the f**k is the deal to lower Indian tariffs on our exports?"
To top it off, Canadian media reported today that an unnamed Canadian Government official pointed the finger at India, or a faction within the Indian Government, for facilitating the travel of the aforementioned militant Sikh separatist to the country. When the PM was asked about this at his farewell press conference I could almost hear Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland grind her teeth.
Full disclosure, I've been a supporter of the Liberal Party of Canada since my university days. I took immense pride in how the senior PM Trudeau travelled the world and stood up to global leaders - including Ronald Reagan. It was our era of tremendous Canadian accomplishment.
In fairness the younger Trudeau has done more than many prime ministers combined to elevate Canada’s brand on the world stage. And under his leadership many of the draconian policies brought in by his predecessor have been rolled back. But that’s why the brand needs to be managed so carefully.
I like to subscribe to the explanation that Global News' David Akin gave for the present predicament: that Justin Trudeau is surrounded by too many fresh, unexperienced faces and that's a big factor for the India visit fiasco.
As the delegation wings its way back to frigid Ottawa, I don’t envy them the ridicule that awaits the PM next week in the House of Commons.