Trudeau ends troubled India trip in his comfort zone of hockey and youth

(Photo by The Canadian Press)

NEW DELHI — When the going for a Canadian prime minister gets tough, he turns to hockey.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau capped off a difficult state visit to India Saturday with a ball hockey game at the Canadian High Commission with India’s national women’s ice hockey team.

The players, aged 18-25, came to New Delhi from Ladakhi in northern India, as part of an outreach program involving former Canadian team captain Hayley Wickenheiser. They were joined on a tennis court at the high commission’s compound by Trudeau’s oldest son, Xavier, 10, who is himself a budding hockey player at home.

As Xavier raced around the court chasing the ball with the best female hockey players in India with his parents looking on and cheering, the tension of the last several days was lifting.

Gone were all signs of the Indian clothing that have been part of the criticism the Trudeau family has received during this trip, replaced by casual business attire for the adults and shorts and T-shirts for the kids.

Diskit Angmo, one of the members of the Indian team, said the only reason ice hockey exists in India is because of support from Canada and she was thrilled to meet Trudeau and his family.

“Meeting the prime minister is seriously, like I said, a dream come true,” said Angmo.

Among the delegation from Canada, there was a sense of relief that the trip was not entirely a write off, with positive coverage in the Indian press about Trudeau’s meeting Friday with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Indian media moved on from headlines screaming about the embarrassment of Canada having invited to two receptions in India, a man convicted of attempting to kill an Indian politician three decades ago.

The invitation to Jaspal Atwal to a reception with Trudeau in New Delhi was withdrawn after Canadian security officials were tipped off to his identity, though a Canadian official told reporters he posed no security risk, just a reputational one. Liberal MP Randeep Sarai, who put Atwal’s name on the guest list, flies home knowing he faces a meeting with Trudeau in Ottawa next week where his mistake will be discussed.

A framework agreement to fight extremism and terrorism marked the first time Canada has mentioned Sikh extremist groups in an agreement with India, a fact some Indian media said pulled the entire trip “back from the brink.”

But Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was less forgiving, calling the trip “a total failure” in a tweet.

“Outrageous! Is @JustinTrudeau seriously saying that the gov’t of India planted Jaspal Atwal at his official events? Why can’t he just accept responsibility?” he wrote in response to a government official who suggested that Atwal’s presence was linked to factions within the Indian government who refuse to believe there is no risk posed to a united India by Sikh separatists living abroad.

Snigdha Basu, a correspondent for Indian NDTV, said the Atwal incident was just as embarrassing for India, which is still looking to explain how it was that Atwal was suddenly removed last year from a black list of Sikh militants barred from entering India, a list he had been on since the 1980s.

The agreement was actually finalized by the national security advisors in both countries before Trudeau arrived in India and pledges both countries to work on disrupting recruitment by terrorist groups, as well as the flow of terrorist fighters, financing and the supply of weapons. It specifically names several terrorist groups including Babbar Khalsa International and the International Sikh Youth Federation, both Sikh separatist extremist organizations.

The latter is the organization to which Jaspal Atwal was affiliated.

Trudeau heads home pledging to reflect on this visit, as they do with all, but believing overall it was excellent and proved Canada-India relations are strong.

Despite some critics saying Trudeau was snubbed by Modi, who didn’t publicly acknowledge Trudeau’s visit until five days after he arrived in India, the red carpet was rolled out in many corners of the country. Governments in both Punjab and Gujarat erected billboards all over the cities of Ahmedebad and Amritsar welcoming the Canadian prime minister, and thousands of Sikhs showed up to the Golden Temple to witness Trudeau’s visit there.

Modi’s minister of food processing said Thursday she hoped Trudeau would come back for a longer visit next time, adding that Canada is beloved in India, particularly in Punjab, the state from which a majority of Indian Canadians hail.

The lingering feeling that this trip was not a success continues — one Indian foreign affairs writer called it a total disaster — but in his final event in New Delhi Saturday afternoon Trudeau resumed his rock star status. He was welcomed with a roar by 5,000 students at the United Nations Young Changemakers Conclave at Indira Gandhi stadium.

Trudeau, back in his comfort zone, told the students they are the leaders of today and are already changing the world.

“I don’t want anyone to tell you you are the leaders of tomorrow ever again,” he told them, to loud applause.

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