National AffairsOpinionPolitics

Canada can’t just write off India

By Andrew Phillips
September 29, 2023 Edition

Does India have a point when it accuses the Trudeau government of pandering to extremists in Canada’s Sikh community?

In the wake of Justin Trudeau’s extraordinary accusation that Ottawa is pursuing “credible allegations” that agents of India were involved in the killing of a Sikh activist, the temptation is to circle the wagons and dismiss the Indian government’s claim out of hand.

To be clear off the top: nothing justifies the murder of a Canadian citizen, in Canada, by a foreign power.

Of course Canada is right to call out India on this, assuming (as seems very likely at this point) that the evidence it has in hand is solid.

But it’s also true that Canada can’t just write off India. It’s too big, too important, too strategic. It’s in Canada’s interests to figure out a way to get its relationship with India back on track at some point in the (hopefully) not too distant future.

And to do that Canada is going to have to take a hard look at its own behaviour. It needs to ask if it’s really done all it can to address any legitimate concerns India has about Canada being used as a base for agitation by those pushing the cause of Khalistan, an independent Sikh state in India’s Punjab region.

The answer, it seems to me, is no. It’s pretty obvious the Trudeau government has stumbled often enough on the Khalistan issue for it to be more than just coincidence. There’s more than a grain of truth in India’s long-standing accusation that Canadian policy toward India has been driven at least in part by the Liberal party’s desire to shore up support among Sikh Canadian voters.

To be clear on something else: there’s nothing wrong with Sikh Canadians, like anyone else, getting involved in politics, either as individuals or as part of a community. And they, again like anyone else, have a right to speak out on issues they care about, including the contentious cause of Khalistan.

The fact is they’ve been highly successful in politics. Trudeau famously boasted back in 2016 that he had more Sikh ministers in his cabinet (four) than India’s Narendra Modi had in his (two at the time). After the 2019 election, it was noted there were more Sikh MPs in Canada’s House of Commons (18) than in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament (13). And the great majority of those MPs were in the Liberal caucus.

Omer Aziz, who served as policy adviser to the foreign affairs minister, addressed this bluntly in the Globe and Mail the other day. The Indian government, he said, was seeking assurances from Canada back in 2017 that this country wouldn’t be used as a base for what it regards as “terrorist financing” around the Khalistan issue.

“By taking goodwill measures, it would have at least been possible to keep talking and find workable policy solutions,” he wrote.

“The only problem was, Mr. Trudeau did not want to lose the Sikh vote to Jagmeet Singh. So we dug in our heels.”

That may be overstated; I really don’t know. But it’s clear Trudeau has gone beyond simply defending Sikh Canadians’ right to speak out.

A few examples: In 2017, he became the first PM in more than a decade to attend a Khalsa Day event that featured Khalistan flags and posters of a particularly notorious Sikh extremist. The next year, during Trudeau’s first ill-fated trip to India, a Sikh man convicted of trying to kill an Indian diplomat in B.C. was invited to two official receptions. And in 2020, he offended the Indian government by publicly deploring the treatment of farmers in Punjab (who were mostly Sikh) – an issue he had no business meddling in.

Diaspora-driven politics are nothing new in this country. Groups from the Irish to the Tamils have pushed causes dear to their hearts, and it’s no surprise some Sikhs would do the same.

It’s the government’s job, though, to manage through all that and put the national interest above all, even if it means disappointing a particular community, or a passionate part of it. On the vital issue of relations with India, the Trudeau government has fallen short.

Andrew Phillips is a Toronto-based staff columnist for the Star’s Opinion page. Reach him via email:

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