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

Ottawa has ordered a senior Indian diplomat to leave Canada, and India responded by sending an unnamed Canadian diplomat packing

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is calling on India to take seriously allegations that the country had a role in the death of a Canadian citizen. | Oleksii Liskonih / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is urging India to take allegations that the country had a role in the death of a Canadian citizen seriously after New Delhi rejected the claims, calling them "absurd and motivated."

Yet the Liberals say they're trying to maintain a relationship with India and not escalate tensions 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.

"One of the things that is so important today is that India and the government of India take seriously this matter," Trudeau told reporters Parliament Hill.

"It is extremely serious and it has far-reaching consequences in international law."

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."

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 it rejects Trudeau's 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.

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 after to clear the air after mounting questions from the media and rumours in diaspora communities about India's involvement.

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.

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."

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly is in New York for events at the United Nations. Her office has not disclosed the name of the diplomat India has decided to expel. 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 expressing concern about the allegations.

"All countries should respect sovereignty and the rule of law," British foreign secretary James Cleverly said on social media. "We are in regular contact with our Canadian partners about serious allegations raised in the Canadian Parliament."

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.

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

"We're going to follow the evidence and make sure that the work is done to hold people accountable," he said Tuesday.

"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, when asked what impact it has on bilateral ties.

"Right now, we're hopeful that the Indian government cooperates 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."

Sajjan also noted that he was raised learning the history of India's targeting of its minority groups in the subcontinent and abroad.

"We grew up with a lot of these concerns," he said. "This is something all Canadians must be mindful of; something our community and other communities have been very mindful of for a long time."

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.

"We need to be empathetic because this is a time that families who come from India, regardless of religion, are going to find is difficult," she said, urging people to "be prudent" and remain calm.

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

— With files from Mia Rabson and Mickey Djuric.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press