Ties between India and Canada have come under severe strain following Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegations of “potential” involvement of Indian agents in the killing of Khalistani separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia in June. India had designated 45-year-old Nijjar, the chief of the banned Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF), as a terrorist in 2020. After Trudeau went public with the accusations on Monday, India outrightly rejected them as “absurd” and expelled a senior Canadian diplomat in a tit-for-tat move to Ottawa’s expulsion of an Indian official over the case.
In an exclusive conversation with CNN-News18, Canadian opposition leader and former minister of national defence Peter MacKay described the situation as “bizarre” and emphasised that Trudeau must provide credible evidence to back his allegations. He also warned that in the soon-to-be-held Canadian elections, “there is going to be a reckoning”. Edited excerpts:
It’s been a week and we are still waiting for what’s the evidence to back those claims…
It’s completely bizarre… and I think there are two tracks…There is a political track and then there is a criminal investigation but both seem to be sorely lacking in terms of answers and evidences. The Prime Minister made a statement in parliament that kicked off this explosive controversy… He speaks of credible allegations… Well at a criminal standard that doesn’t meet even the basic threshold of reasonable and probable grounds…And not to get into legality but this is an open murder investigation and I have never seen anything like this in my career…where the head of state essentially fingers another country in such a broad and defamatory way without any evidence. Some evidence must exist, and there must be some shared intelligence, either signals intelligence or human intelligence that points to certain individuals perhaps in government but none of that should be in my opinion playing out in public.
If they hope to apprehend those responsible, you need cooperation from the Indian government, and accusing them in such a blatant and public way doesn’t bring about the type of cooperation you want in an open murder investigation.
What would the threshold of that evidence be?
The threshold for a charge to be laid is reasonable and probable grounds… what you speak of would bring about conviction, that is proof beyond reasonable doubt…At this point, we haven’t even arrested a suspect…We haven’t named a suspect…It isn’t unusual of course for police to go out and seek the assistance of the public but very rarely. If ever I think we are in unprecedented waters, when you see the politicians, the head of the government in our country, stand up and make such frankly vague allegations…I have not seen or heard anything that lands itself to that step that the prime minister has taken nor what I expect to be back channel information that often comes from allies in the Five Eyes…It might be shared intelligence, but it is all intended of course to get to the perpetrator of the crime and making broad allegations like this doesn’t really bring about cooperation…In addition to that, we know two weeks ago the prime minister met with the Indian prime minister and made this allegation which was refuted…And yet just a short time later, he stands on the largest stage in our country and makes this allegation. It’s beyond odd.
Is this a diversionary tactic from the accusation against Trudeau that he has gone soft on China?
One would certainly hope not, given the stakes and at this point, 8 years as prime minister, one would hope he has come to understand the importance of his role and everything he says diplomatically…I wouldn’t put this down to malice as much as I would to incompetence…We saw something happen yesterday in the House of Commons when the Ukrainian President was visiting and we have a former Nazi participant who fought against Russians in the gallery who was recognised…We cannot forget as well the serious incident of the Air India bombing that originated from Canada. So one would hope the prime minister has a much firmer grasp of history, let alone reality, and not just trying to change the channel here. I still come back to the rule of law argument, which is certainly we cannot have foreign interference to the degree where an individual who does certainly have a spotty record one would note in terms of his immigration to Canada but he does hold a Canadian passport…How that came about is still a bit of a question but nevertheless, he is still entitled to the protection of the rule of law, and police should be investigating this fully.
The political part of this is what does not make sense and we are going to have in our country a judge, a sitting judge, examine the issue of foreign interference, and this has now expanded more broadly because it was almost solely focused on China. This is now obviously going to entail looking at the circumstances of what has happened here with the assassination of Mr Nijjar. But was this an attempt to change the channel? I can’t imagine that any sitting prime minister in a G7 country, a Commonwealth country, a rule of law country would sink to such depths. I hope that is not true.
The threshold of evidence in a court of law has to be more than diplomatic chatter…
You would need to have eyewitnesses… individuals and most importantly in my opinion a person who was arrested, the so-called trigger man, the person who committed the crime then confessing and saying I was paid to do this or I was put up to this by officials in India and clearly that’s not what we have here. We don’t have any arrest, we don’t even have suspects. We have finger-pointing at an entire government, which to me, if you are relying on that government for cooperation to find the perpetrators…it’s blown up spectacularly and there is a cost to this diplomatically. We both expelled diplomats from our countries. There are visas that have been frozen. We have over a million people of Indian descent… Sikhs, Hindus, people from Punjab, people from other parts, all parts of India in Canada, and want to see their relatives. They want to do business. So there is a massive knock-on effect that is now happening as a result of this one statement that happened on the floor of the House of Commons in parliament.
So it’s an entirely bizarre situation in terms of how it unfolded and I frankly cannot think this has not interfered in the investigation to the point where we may never find the perpetrators. I’ll be quite surprised if they are still in Canada.
Now we have very very embarrassing stuff with the Nazi war veteran…But at the end of the day, the buck stops with the Prime Minister…
Clearly, that’s true and in most cases, there would be consequences and accountability taken by individuals who had to be responsible for vetting who was going to be in the gallery on such an important historic occasion. So, yes, it’s highly embarrassing. As a Canadian, I am mortified that happened. I am equally deeply concerned by what is happening in terms of the relationship between Canada and India as a result of the handling of this matter and it’s a police matter.
I come back to this being a rule of law issue around a murder case, an open murder investigation. Whether there has been political interference in waiting at the highest level in our country…it’s highly inappropriate in my view and yet I don’t know how we get this back in the box short of finding the perpetrators, those responsible for the murder of Mr Nijjar, and that is going to be extremely difficult now in the current circumstances. But I do want to assure you and your listeners that this is not the view of our country. We do not tolerate this type of violence. We should not allow the open expression of violence by any individuals or groups. There are hate crimes in our country, there are criminal code offences for certain behaviours that need to be applied, and this type of behaviour, all the behaviour here, is reprehensible and has resulted in a loss of life but making accusations that cannot be backed up with evidence and… so I come down to very much these incidents…on the side of evidence…We need cold hard facts before we go out and start pointing the finger at individuals. You cannot undo the reputational harm as we are seeing in this incident.
Has Trudeau made the political calculation to consolidate votes for the Liberal coalition with the Sikh vote bank?
That is certainly one interpretation of these events…The actions of one individual or even a group of individuals in this government are not indicative of the Canada-India relationship, which is strong and abiding and truly something that we cherish in our country. And so as far as the political fortune of Mr Trudeau and the Liberal party…They are in real jeopardy frankly. And I am biased of course as a conservative, but I do believe this is costing him dearly in terms of credibility not only outside the country but domestically as well. I think this has blown back on him.
There is also this tenuous relationship with Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the NDP that may help preserve their hold over parliament in the short term but I believe that when we have a Canadian election that could come within the next 18 months, there is going to be a reckoning. And I think you are going to see an effort by Canadians to renew their democracy with a new government and obviously my hope is it will be a conservative government and that we can get back to normalising relationships and working together collectively in the best interest of Indian and Canadian citizens.