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Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe's government is accusing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of damaging relations with India and keeping the provinces in the dark about trade talks.

In a letter Moe released Monday, Saskatchewan Trade Minister Jeremy Harrison argued Trudeau is picking a fight with India for domestic political gain and risking access to one of his province's most important export markets.

"It is very difficult to come to any other conclusion that your government has once again put its own domestic political interests ahead of the national economic interest — particularly as it relates to exports and trade of western Canadian-produced commodities," Harrison wrote.

Last month, Indian High Commissioner Sanjay Kumar Verma told The Canadian Press in an interview that Ottawa sought a pause "within the last month" to ongoing talks for an Early Progress Trade Agreement.

The news stunned business leaders, and Harrison wrote that his peers have had a "complete lack of updates" on the negotiations since at least late July.

"It is unacceptable to our government that we first heard of a pause in the EPTA negotiations through the media one week ago, and have received no explanation from (the) Government of Canada subsequent to that," reads Harrison's letter, dated Sept. 8.

"Clearly, what your government has done has put the already strained Canada-India relationship in even further peril after some improvement following the prime minister's disastrous trip to India in 2018," he wrote, a reference to Trudeau being mocked for wearing traditional outfits and for inviting a convicted terrorist to a reception he hosted in India.

Harrison added that provinces and territories ought to be present in the negotiations, saying this has been done in talks for past trade deals. Harrison also claimed that Trade Minister Mary Ng had not replied to a late July letter seeking an update on the negotiations.

The Liberals have given no clear reason why they ordered a pause in the trade talks.

Sask. premier @PremierScottMoe accuses @JustinTrudeau of risking trade with #India, hiding status of talks. #CDNPoli #Trade

"We know the negotiations around free trade are long and complex, and I won't say any more," Trudeau told reporters last Friday in Singapore.

On Monday, Ng's office did not dispute Harrison's claim that Ottawa has left provinces in the dark about trade negotiations.

"Minister Ng looks forward to seeing her counterpart in Ottawa later this week for our federal-provincial-territorial ministerial trade meeting, where we will be meeting as Team Canada, working together to deliver benefits for Canadians here at home, and abroad," wrote spokeswoman Shanti Cosentino.

Saskatchewan makes up roughly a third of Canada's exports to India, amounting to more than $1 billion per year. The trade includes commodities such as lentils, which India has occasionally blocked or delayed as it tinkers with pest-control policies.

Trudeau briefly met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi this weekend on the sidelines of the G20 leaders' summit.

India's external affairs ministry said Modi expressed strong concerns to Trudeau about "anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada," particularly Sikh separatists who want to carve out a state they call Khalistan from India.

The Indian readout made no mention of themes Ottawa included in its summary of the meeting, such as economic growth, support for lower-income countries and reforming global financial institutions.

Trudeau told reporters he had concerns about foreign interference from any state, including India, and that Canadians of any origin have a right to free speech.

India has long accused Canada of harbouring extremists, while Ottawa has continually maintained that freedom of speech means groups can voice political opinions if they don’t use violence.

Tensions escalated this spring over a series of incidents, including with posters referring to India's diplomats in Canada as "killers" and seeking their home addresses.

Ng is set to lead a trade mission to India next month with Canadian businesses.

She met with her Indian counterpart Piyush Goyal at a two-day G20 event that started Aug. 24, telling media they would take stock of the EPTA negotiations.

Human Rights Watch says the Modi government has overseen a "serious regression in human rights and constitutional protections," with attacks on Muslims and other minorities met with impunity and restrictions on journalists.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 11, 2023.

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