International trade is vital for our country and province, but it should never come at the cost of turning a blind eye to human rights violations. Beyond advocating for greater access to consumer markets abroad, we need to go one step further and advocate for a higher quality of life for the people who are the driving force behind them.
With both Premier Kathleen Wynne and Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown competing for political points on their respective trips to India, it got me thinking; how can we take it one step further when it comes to the way trade agreements and negotiations are used?
While premier Wynne and her 72-person delegation meet with India's heads of state to talk trade and visit the country's picturesque backdrops for photo-ops, they do so while simultaneously ignoring India's abysmal track record on human rights, systemic inequity and institutional racism.
"When our premier is representing Ontario, she needs to pack her values in her suitcase and take them with her."
When we look at our relationship with India, most would agree it's absolutely time that Ontario benefits from an official agreement, but this is also an opportunity to use these negotiations as a way to address the systemic social injustices facing the 1.2 billion people we are seeking to partner with.
Injustices like the deeply disturbing rates of sexual assault, violence against women and allegations of both military and police abusing their positions of power to further violate women.
Documentaries like India's Daughter, a film about the brutal gang-rape and murder of a young woman from Delhi in 2012, are sadly based on real events that happen to women far too often in India with little or no attention from authorities and government to bring the perpetrators to justice.
I remember not too long ago, Kathleen Wynne said that ending sexual violence and harassment is a cause she feels strongly about, and that all Ontarians need to help end misogyny.
When the Indian Prime Minister Modi first took office, he mentioned the need for protection of women from violence and other abuses. Wynne had a unique opportunity when she met with Modi this week to ask him what programs and policies have been put in place and perhaps even offer some helpful suggestions that have proven to be effective for women's rights here in Canada.
But she didn't. And that speaks to the bigger issue of the low-key approach to human rights our premier has taken by choosing to ignore concerns about protection of women and other marginalized groups.
Canadians are known for having a social conscience, and so our political leaders need to do more to uphold that reputation on the international stage. Fighting for human rights, a commitment to social justice and treating people with dignity are all things that are important to us as Canadians. So when our premier is representing Ontario, she needs to pack her values in her suitcase and take them with her.
That means in addition to the meetings with foreign government officials, meeting with women's rights advocacy groups across India to address the systemic issue of gender violence and inequality also needs to be a priority on Wynne's itinerary.
During this trip, the premier should be adding meetings with community organizations, leaders and intellectuals to her itinerary, to help truly understand the country our government is looking to trade with.
Take India's large agricultural sector, a tremendous contributor to their national GDP, for example. Over the years the industry has faced serious problems, particularly concerning the plight of farmers. By sitting down with someone like Vandana Shiva, a renowned social justice advocate and scholar, the premier would get a chance to understand the other perspective on how government policies have led to a disturbing rise in farmer suicides across India.
In India, marginalized communities like the Jains, Christians, Muslims and Mulnivasis face ongoing violence and hatred, often indirectly or directly through government supported initiatives. Meeting with people like Arundati Roy award-winning author and social justice champion, would not only provide a great deal of perspective into the systemic abuse faced by minority communities, but could help provide us with new strategies of dealing with these types of abuses that exist right here in Ontario.
The premier's trip to India needs to be more than just photo-ops for the South Asian community in Ontario to see. Instead of merely posing at the beautiful Golden Temple in Amritsar, where the walls are still ridden with bullets from government guns, the premier should be meeting with the Sikh community to discuss recent and very troubling concerns around state political interference with the Akal Takht, located within the Golden Temple complex, which represents the most important Sikh institution in the world.
As Canadians who proudly demand the equal treatment of minorities, religious freedom, gender equality and basic human rights for its citizens -- allowing our political leaders to shamefully ignore these values in the name of business abroad, falls short of the high standard we rightfully set for ourselves.
I challenge our premier to prove her commitment to fighting for human rights both at home and abroad, and be vocal about improving the quality of life for those living in India. Raise even just one of these injustices that people have been trying to get the world to listen to for years.
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