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Canada told allies before sharing allegations about India over B.C. killing: Trudeau

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pushed back Tuesday on India's denial of allegations that it played a role in the death of a Canadian citizen, which New Delhi blasted as "absurd and motivated.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks to media on his way to a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Sept.19, 2023.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pushed back Tuesday on India's denial of allegations that it played a role in the death of a Canadian citizen, which New Delhi blasted as "absurd and motivated."

Yet while Trudeau is urging India to take the matter seriously, Liberals also say they hope to maintain normal ties with a country Ottawa has selected as a key partner in the Indo-Pacific. 

Trudeau revealed in the House of Commons on Monday that Canadian intelligence services are investigating "credible" information about "a potential link" between India's government and the death of British Columbia Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

Trudeau said Tuesday thatIndia's government "needs to take this matter with the utmost seriousness" but would not say whether it is co-operating.

"It is extremely serious and it has far-reaching consequences in international law," he told reporters on Parliament Hill.

Trudeau said he waited until he was able to raise the issue with allies and with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi earlier this month before telling the public about the possible link.

"We wanted to make sure that we had a solid grounding in understanding what was going on in analysis and indeed in facts," Trudeau said.

"We wanted to make sure we were taking the time to talk with our allies, to share what we knew. We wanted to make sure that we fully shared with the government of India, the seriousness and the depths of our preoccupations and indeed conclusions."

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said Trudeau ought to share more information about what led him to make his Monday statement in Parliament. He said the prime minister did not share more details with him than what he had said in the House of Commons.

"We need to see more facts. The prime minister hasn't provided any facts," he told reporters Tuesday on Parliament Hill.

On Monday,Ottawa ordered a senior Indian diplomat to leave Canada, and India responded by sending an unnamed Canadian diplomat packing, citing unspecified "interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal matters and their involvement in anti-India activities."

India's ministry of external affairs said after Trudeau's announcement that it rejects the accusations, arguing they mean to distract from Sikh separatists in Canada that New Delhi argue pose a security risk.

"The inaction of the Canadian government on this matter has been a long-standing and continuing concern," reads a statement from the ministry, which was posted before Trudeau's comments on Tuesday morning.

A senior government source who is close to the prime minister said Trudeau was confident enough in the allegations that he opted to raise them directly with Modi in New Delhi.

The source, who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the matter publicly, said Trudeau opted to share the news to clear the air in response to mounting questions from the media and rumours in diaspora communities about India's involvement.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has written to the newly appointed head of the public inquiry on foreign interference, asking Justice Marie-Josée Hogue to include India in her probe. The Liberals have suggested her terms are wide enough to include any country as well as the Nijjar case.

"In my experience, as a Sikh-Canadian, there have always been suspicions that India was interfering in the democratic rights of Canadians," Singh wrote in the letter. "Yesterday’s announcement by the prime minister confirms that these suspicions are valid."

Global Affairs Canada would not disclose the name of the diplomat that India has decided to expel. Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Monday that Canada's high commission has taken extra steps to protect its staff.

The United States, United Kingdom and Australia have all issued statements calling for theallegationsto be thoroughly probed.

"We are deeply concerned about the allegations referenced by Prime Minister Trudeau yesterday," the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa said in a statement.

"We remain in regular contact with our Canadian partners. It is critical that Canada's investigation proceed and the perpetrators be brought to justice.”

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc had confirmed Monday that the head of Canada's spy agency and Trudeau's national security and intelligence adviser, Jody Thomas, both travelled to India recently to confront their counterparts about the issue.

Thomas's predecessor, Vincent Rigby, said that would not have happened if Ottawa only had "a hunch or a gut feeling" about the intelligence.

"They have something, I suspect. I have a feeling it's pretty concrete, and it's enough to raise it to the most senior levels in the Indian government," Rigby said in an interview.

He said Washington will likely support Canada in private, but will need to sort out how much it's willing to upset New Delhi as the U.S. undertakes a "major charm offensive" to secure more trade with India.

Nijjar was shot outside his gurdwara in Surrey, B.C., on June 18. Members of the Sikh community have accused the Indian government of being behind the killing and attempting to silence voices advocating for an independent Sikh country.

LeBlanc said Tuesday that the RCMP has a plan to look after members of Canada's Sikh community, and he has instructed CSIS to share any pertinent information about Nijjar's death with police.

"We knew, as the prime minister has been saying for several weeks, that this news would at some point come out publicly. And the good news is that the RCMP has been developing plans for several weeks with their partners from other police forces," LeBlanc said in French.

He added that it is the jurisdiction of police officials, not government ministers, to determine who should receive protection and how.

"I have every confidence in the RCMP based on my extensive conversations with their leadership over the last number of months that they have the resources necessary and the plans in place to protect Canadians," LeBlanc saidin English.

Former foreign-affairs minister Marc Garneau said the situation is "quite an extraordinary event" and argued Trudeau needs to share more information if there's any hope of salvaging a relationship with a country of increasing importance to Canada.

"Now that it's in the public arena, the onus is very much on Canada to demonstrate unequivocally that its claim is based on factual evidence, that is irrefutable evidence that India won't be able to deny," Garneau said in a Tuesday interview on an unrelated topic.

Garneau said India regularly raised the issue of Sikh extremists with him while in office, and that Ottawa was aware of New Delhi's interference in Canada back when its Indo-Pacific strategy was first being drafted.

"It's always preferable to remain engaged, rather than close the door," he said. But to "resume productive relations," he said, "we need to resolve the extremely serious issue that's at hand."

Trudeau said he does not want to make things worse for relations with India.

"We are not looking to provoke or escalate. We are simply laying out the facts as we understand them, and we want to work with the government of India to lay everything clear."

Emergency Preparedness Minister Harjit Sajjan suggested he hopes Canada can maintain normal relations with India despite the incident.

"Right now, we're hopeful that the Indian government co-operates with the investigation. When it comes to all the other relationships that we have, we look forward to continuing as normal," he said.

Sajjan, who is Sikh, pushed back on the Indian government's contention that Sikh extremists have senior roles in Trudeau's government.

"India's been making those accusations for a very long time," he said, encouraging reporters to "draw your own conclusions."

Treasury Board President Anita Anand, the first Hindu person to become a federal cabinet minister, said it's "a very difficult time" for South Asians of any religion, noting her parents are from India.

She urged people to "be prudent" and remain calm.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims is calling for non-partisan co-operation to uncover facts about the alleged "state-sponsored terrorism" and make sure nobody else is targeted. 

"This is an unprecedented attack on Canadian sovereignty, full stop," the group's head Stephen Brown told reporters.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 19, 2023.

— With files from Mia Rabson, Jim Bronskill, Alessia Passafiumeand Mickey Djuric.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press