Canadian attitudes towards a newly-independent India can be best summed up by an editorial that appeared in the Edmonton Journal on the morning of October 22, 1949, hours before Jawaharlal Nehru and his small delegation comprising his daughter Indira Gandhi and sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (then Indian ambassador to the United States) entered the country.

Calling Nehru “one of the most remarkable men who has ever crossed our borders”, the newspaper said, “Public opinion in Canada, as elsewhere in the Commonwealth, long regarded Nehru with a certain reserve. His leadership in the Indian nationalist movement, which aimed at ending the British rule in India, did not commend him to the Empire-minded, especially during the war.” However, the newspaper added, “in the two years since India attained dominion status, his stature has grown enormously, and he is now recognized as one of the greatest statesmen of the present-day world.”

The praise did not end there. “Nehru’s achievement since 1947 has been a truly astonishing one. Coming to power in a scene of virtual anarchy, he has ended the hideous religious massacres, reached at least a partial settlement with Pakistan, liquidated, almost without violence, the old princely states and created a stable government capable of maintaining order at home and making the country respected abroad,” the newspaper said. “What makes this success all the more remarkable is that it was achieved without resort to tyranny and repression, and without any effort to maintain internal unity by rousing hatred against the foreigner.”

India, at the time, was still a dominion of the British Empire. It had agreed to join the Commonwealth of Nations once it became a republic, but worries persisted about which camp it may support in the Cold War. For its part, the Canadian establishment saw India as a potential bridge between the two opposing sides. Just ahead of what was called a “goodwill visit”, Canadian Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent told reporters that he hoped Nehru’s efforts would be “helpful in bringing about a realisation of the importance to the world of good East-West relations”.

Schoolmate’s guest

After crossing over to Canada via the International Peace Bridge that links Buffalo, New York, to Fort Erie, Ontario, the delegation flew to the Canadian capital Ottawa, where they received a 19-gun salute.

The Nehrus were guests of Viscount Alexander, the governor general of Canada, who was no stranger to the Indian prime minister. The “two men who were schoolmates more than 40 years ago and had not met since have been reminiscing at Ottawa,” Reuters reported. “One had led his armies to victory in a great war: the other had led his country’s millions to independence.”

Nehru and Alexander studied at the same time in Harrow, an elite public school in Greater London, and slept in the same dormitory. “Viscount Alexander recalled that the Indian boy, then two years his senior, was slightly the taller at the time,” Reuters said.

“Pandit Nehru was highly thought of by other boys of his form,” Alexander told the news agency.

The Indian prime minister seemed to genuinely like what he saw of Canada, telling the Associated Press that he was impressed by its parks.

Of course, this was not a leisurely holiday and the short trip was packed with official engagements. Nehru’s counterpart St Laurent was well aware of the Indian prime minister’s affection for China. During their talks, he shared a report about the Communist government in China that had been sent by the Canadian ambassador. It can be assumed the report was intended to sway Nehru while Western countries put immense pressure on India not to recognise the People’s Republic of China, which was founded by Mao Zedong on October 1, 1949. The effort clearly did not work. India went ahead and established diplomatic relations with the new Chinese government in April 1950, making it the first country in the non-Socialist bloc to do so.

The talks between the prime ministers covered a range of issues, inclduing decolonisation in Asia and Africa as well as Canada’s discriminatory policies against immigration from India. Nehru told St Laurent that he wanted Indian people to stay in the country but also wanted to ensure that they would not be discriminated against in any part of the world.

Address to the Parliament

Given the excitement and enthusiasm about Nehru’s visit, he was invited to address a joint session of the two houses of the Canadian parliament. When the moment arrived, the room was packed with parliamentarians, diplomats, civil servants and members of the general public.

Before Nehru delivered his 3,000-word speech, he was welcomed to the session by St Laurent.

“You come to us, both as one whose deeds and thoughts have commanded widespread attention in these troubled times, and as a most distinguished leader of that great portion of mankind which constitutes the population of India,” the Canadian prime minister said.

St Laurent expressed his happiness about India – as well as Pakistan and Ceylon – being open to the idea of becoming a full member of the Commonwealth. “When India, the largest and most populous of these new states, reached the stage where its desires with regard to its constitution prompted it to settle its future status in relation other Commonwealth countries, most people in Canada realised, I think, that the constitution of India was of course a matter for the Indian people to decide for themselves,” he said. “At the same time we felt that any reasonable arrangement providing for the full membership of India in the Commonwealth as a republic, if that form of constitution should be India’s wish, would be welcome.”

In his address, Nehru called Canada a “pioneer in the evolution of Commonwealth relations” and said the country was “one of the builders of the Commonwealth as an association of free and equal nations”. On the future of the Commonwealth, he said, Canada and India shared identical points of view. India’s bitterness from British colonisation had “largely faded away, giving place to friendly cooperation between free and equal nations,” he added.

Decolonisation was a cause close to Nehru’s heart and he did not hesitate to criticise the continuation of European imperialism, especially in South East Asia.

“The troubles and discontents of this part of the world and indeed of the greater part of Asia are the result of obstructed freedom and dire poverty,” Nehru said. “The remedy is to accelerate the advent of freedom and to remove want. If this is achieved, Asia will become a powerful factor in stability and peace.”

Nehru spoke passionately for an Africa and Asia that was free of colonialism. “India’s championship of freedom and racial equality in Asia, as well as in Africa, is a natural urge of the facts and geography of history,” he said. Unlike the present Indian establishment, which brands itself as the “leader of the Global South”, Nehru’s India, at least officially, did not harbour such ambition. “India desires no leadership of dominion or authority over any other country,” he said.

The Indian prime minister called on India and Canada to think globally, adding that neither could afford to be “purely nationalistic or even continental” in their outlook. East-West divisions had “little reality,” he said.

Media reports suggest Nehru received several rounds of applause.

Visit to Vancouver

Nehru returned to the United States from Ottawa, but while he was in Canada, he was invited to visit Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver. He chose Vancouver as it had a small Indian community.

Since Nehru was scheduled to depart from New York on November 4, 1949, he crammed in a hectic two-day visit to the city on the Canadian west coast on November 2. He flew in on a US Army transport plane from Hamilton Army Airfield, California, and once again received a 19-gun salute.

“A 100-man Royal Canadian Air Force precision squad stood by while travelling dignitaries alighted from the plane,” the news agency United Press International reported.

The small India community, almost entirely Punjabi, was thrilled with Nehru’s visit and ardently celebrated the occasion. “Prime Minister Pandit Nehru was pelted by thousands of flower petals thrown from a low-flying aircraft at Vancouver’s City Hall where he spoke an hour after arriving from California, the Edmonton Bulletin reported. “British Columbia’s East Indian colony chartered the plane and heaved out the flower petals while Nehru addressed thousands of citizens on the city hall steps.”

Nehru went to a gurdwara, where a crowd had been waiting for him for hours, Hugh JM Johnston wrote in his book Jewels of the Qila: The Remarkable Story of an Indo-Canadian Family. “In the gurdwara, Nehru heard Sikhs say that everything was not right for them in Canada: they faced widespread prejudice when they looked for jobs and were not able to bring over their relatives as other Canadians could,” Johnston wrote.

The Sikh community collected money and handed it over to the prime minister’s delegation. This was meant to be donated for those starving in India.

“From the gurdwara, the whole Sikh crowd took chartered buses to the Denman Arena and Auditorium – once the home of Vancouver’s earliest professional ice hockey team – to hear Nehru speak at greater length,” Johnston wrote.

The Vancouver Sun tasked local journalist Malkit Singh to cover Nehru’s visit to the country, according to Johnston. “Now that Vancouver people have seen Pandit Nehru perhaps they will no longer look down on us,” Singh wrote in the article.

Although no financial agreements were signed between India and Canada during the trip, and Nehru remained adamant on India staying out of any blocs, the visit helped set up mechanisms for intergovernmental cooperation.

“Over the next few months, the Canadian and Indian governments shaped an agreement; when it came into effect on the first day of 1951, this was exciting news in British Columbia,” Johnston wrote. “What it amounted to was an annual quota of 150 immigrants from India, a stingy number considering India’s population of 360 million, but a significant gain for Sikhs and other Punjabis in BC (now numbering about nineteen hundred). This was mainly a quota from them, or the relatives they could help to immigrate.” They could only bring spouses and dependent children until the agreement and after the agreement they had the right to help a wider range of relatives.

Nehru stayed friends with St Laurent, who remained Canada’s prime minister until 1957, with the countries expanding cooperation to various areas.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.