It was a jolt for Canada when China retaliated for the arrest of a Huawei executive in Vancouver by locking up two Canadian bystanders, the two Michaels, five years ago. Now a second shock shows us foreign governments are continuing to reach into Canada to intimidate.
This time, agents of a supposedly friendly country, India, are alleged to be linked to the death of a Canadian, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh community leader who in June was shot in his truck in the parking lot of the Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Surrey, B.C.
There has never been anything like this before: an explosive public allegation that a foreign government’s agents targeted and killed a Canadian citizen, in Canada.
Certainly, there has never been a moment like the one on Monday afternoon when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood up in the House of Commons to tell the country that Canada’s security agencies are pursuing “credible allegations” of a potential link to the Indian government.
India is not supposed to be an enemy, or even an adversary. There are tensions, because the Indian government has for decades accused Canada of being soft on Khalistani terrorists, who seek to carve an independent Sikh state out of what is now northern India. But India has often conflated non-violent Sikh separatist advocates with terrorists and extremists. Mr. Nijjar was organizing an unofficial referendum on the creation of a Sikh state when he was killed.
The idea that New Delhi might send agents to kill a Canadian in Canada is stunning.
Mr. Trudeau said on Monday that he had spoken to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the allegation “in no uncertain terms” at last week’s G20 summit in New Delhi, but there was no word from the Canadian government on Mr. Modi’s response. There’s no sense Mr. Trudeau was given a satisfactory answer, or that he was promised Indian co-operation on an investigation.
Canada has already expelled an Indian diplomat who was the chief of the Indian foreign intelligence agency in Canada, but it’s not clear what, if anything, will happen next.
Again, Canada is jolted into recognizing a new world in which foreign governments reach out to influence, intimidate and coerce Canadians in Canada. Again, there is new reason to believe foreign interference might be a bigger, broader danger than this country is prepared to counter. This time, the allegation is assassination, which underlines the direct threat to the security of Canadians – especially those who belong to diaspora communities here.
Already, many in Canada’s Sikh community believed that the Indian government had been involved in Mr. Nijjar’s killing, and his death had sparked anger and protests. Indian diplomats had complained to Mr. Trudeau’s government that those protests were becoming threatening. The killing brought tension to Canadian streets.
It wasn’t quite the same thing in 2018, when China arrested Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on U.S. charges. But that was an attempt to intimidate Canada for exercising its own laws. It showed Canadians can’t expect sovereignty without foreign coercion.
And there have been more examples of China and other countries feeling they can reach inside Canada. The RCMP said earlier this summer that they had shut down illegal Chinese police activity in several Canadian locations. The Globe and Mail has reported on a series of attempts by Beijing to influence Canadian elections. Canadian relatives of victims of the 2020 downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 by Iranian armed forces reported that people close to the Iranian regime had approached them in Canada, in an attempt to intimidate them into silence.
Now, Mr. Trudeau has made an explosive, albeit unproven, allegation of an extreme example – an alleged assassination in Canada – and promised to work closely with allies “on this very serious matter.” In the Commons, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called on allies to “condemn this violence … in the harshest terms possible.”
But it is far from certain that the U.S. and other Canadian allies will rush to hold India to account.
For one thing, credible allegations in the hands of intelligence agencies aren’t the same as evidence gathered by police for a trial. And in a world where Western allies have imposed extensive economic sanctions against Russia and are increasingly seeking to counter China’s influence, the U.S. and European nations won’t relish the prospect of conflict with another major power.
But if the allegation is true, it will be fuel for the coming public inquiry into foreign interference. Foreign governments apparently feel as though they can reach into Canada with impunity. Countering that is now a pressing national priority.