Canada is finally getting its act together on an Indo-Pacific strategy. It would be a shame if NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh fouled it up.
Although the Trudeau government’s plan for that region has yet to be released in its entirety, the preliminary details suggest it is headed in the right direction on both economic and national security issues.
Diversifying trade away from China and fighting foreign interference in Canada’s internal affairs are among Ottawa’s objectives. Success, of course, hinges on Canada forging stronger ties with a number of Indo-Pacific countries, chief among them India. With its fast-growing economy, India is a promising market for Canadian businesses, but bilateral relations have been suboptimal since Mr. Trudeau’s gaffe-filled trip there in 2018.
Ottawa and New Delhi want to turn the page on the past and focus on shared goals, including commerce. That’s why it’s disappointing that Mr. Singh, whose party is propping up the minority Liberal government with a supply-and-confidence agreement, took it upon himself to make clumsy comments about Khalistan independence that risk derailing Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy before it’s even off the ground.
Khalistan refers to the aspirational homeland for Sikhs that secessionists want carved out of Punjab, a state in northern India. Although the Khalistan movement is largely dead in India, it is kept alive by sympathizers in Western countries, including ours – making it a sore point in Canada-India relations.
Mr. Singh, who has been previously criticized for attending secessionist rallies, knows darn well this a divisive issue. But that didn’t stop him from wading into the topic last month on a Punjabi-language radio program called Sher-E-Punjab on 600 AM in Richmond, B.C.
Roughly 13 minutes into the interview, the host asked Mr. Singh about the first of two Khalistan independence referendums that recently took place in Canada.
Those unofficial plebiscites, denounced by New Delhi and not recognized by Ottawa, were held in the Ontario cities of Brampton and Mississauga. Conducted by a secessionist group that has been banned in India, the Canadian referendums attracted large numbers of Sikhs who voted on the question: “Should India-governed Punjab be an independent country?” Similar referendums have also taken place in Britain, Switzerland and Italy.
That brings us back to Mr. Singh, who was asked by the B.C. radio host to opine on the Khalistan referendum – including his position on that development, the related travel advisories subsequently issued by India and Canada and reports of vandalism at places of worship.
“People are deliberately trying to mislead the people and making statements to create divisions among them,” Mr. Singh replied in Punjabi. (The Globe and Mail has verified the English translation of his remarks and provided a copy to the NDP. His director of communications, Mélanie Richer, did not dispute it.)
As Mr. Singh continued his response, he drew parallels with other separatist causes, including in Quebec.
“It is not a bad thing if they [Bloc Québécois] want to separate, whereas we want to keep Canada together,” Mr. Singh said. “Neither [do] we put them in prison nor [do] we commit any violence against them. It is their right/wish. Every person in the world has the right if they want to talk about freedom, if [they] wish to. It has nothing to do against any religion or against any people, but it could be against the government.”
“People in Scotland sought [a] referendum because they did not like [the] U.K., because of historical reasons or any other reason. Similarly, in any place if people seek freedom, it is their right to seek freedom,” he added.
His comments about freedom may seem anodyne. But given Mr. Singh’s previous participation in Sikh separatist rallies, they could be construed as implied support for Khalistan independence. When The Globe sought clarity about his comments, his spokespeople offered additional ambiguity.
“Jagmeet has always been clear that he supports the internationally protected right to freedom and self-determination anywhere in the world. As prime minister, Jagmeet would only ever recognize governance changes brought about through an officially recognized peaceful and democratic process,” wrote Ms. Richer in an e-mailed statement.
The Globe once again gave Mr. Singh an opportunity to set the record straight on whether or not his comments were meant to encourage people to vote or were a tacit endorsement of the referendums.
“The answer is that his comments about the Khalistan referendum were not meant to encourage nor discourage people from voting. Jagmeet has not endorsed the referendum, and to claim otherwise would be incorrect,” his deputy chief of staff, Jonathan Gauvin, wrote in response. “He believes in the internationally protected right to self-determination, which means this decision is simply not up to Canadian politicians.”
All this effort to explain what Mr. Singh does and does not believe just illustrates why he should have avoided weighing in on the issue altogether. When it comes to Khalistan independence, Mr. Singh has a history of playing with fire, so he should be wary of even carrying a match.
Perhaps he should take a cue from Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre who said he believes in a “united India,” while acknowledging that Sikhs living here have the right to “freedom of expression.”
No one is suggesting that ordinary people shouldn’t have an opinion on the matter. But national leaders are expected to focus their comments on issues that advance Canada’s interests.
Mr. Singh’s remarks about Quebec separatism were problematic enough. But prattling on about the “freedom” of Khalistani and Scottish secessionists while Canada is negotiating free-trade deals with India and Britain was reckless.
Mr. Singh has pledged that his party will support the Liberal government until June, 2025, so why is he making comments that undermine its efforts to promote Canada’s economic interests?
India is integral to Ottawa’s Indo-Pacific strategy and an important market for our businesses. There are ample opportunities for Canadian pension funds and for companies in sectors including energy, financial services, technology, health sciences and manufacturing.
The Trudeau government has finally figured out who Canada needs as allies in the Indo-Pacific. For this effort, it needs Mr. Singh to be an ally as well.