David McKinnon is a former Canadian diplomat who has been posted to New Delhi, Canberra, Bangkok and, most recently, Colombo, where he served as Canada’s high commissioner to Sri Lanka.
The implosion of the Canada-India relationship, only months after our Indo-Pacific Strategy described India as a “critical partner,” is stunning. Canada’s relationship with a democratic and pluralistic India was intended, at least in part, to be a counterweight to our troubled relationship with authoritarian China. But after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last month that there were “credible allegations” that the Indian government was involved in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C., the two countries engaged in a tit-for-tat expulsion of senior diplomats; now, Delhi is reportedly further demanding the removal of 41 of Canada’s 62 remaining envoys.
The immediate cause of the breakdown may rest with Delhi, but the dysfunction has deep roots. A serious rethink is needed to get the relationship back on track. This includes consciously balancing national interests – Canada’s security and prosperity – against special interests, including the diasporas, in our relationship with India.
If the allegations are true, there will be implications for India’s international standing. It would no longer be seen as a largely benign democratic counterweight to China and Russia. Instead, it would prove that it is what it has always been: a complex giant focused on taking its place in the world and advancing its interests, albeit now under a leader in Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has overtly sidelined Jawaharlal Nehru’s original vision of a secular and tolerant democratic India. Canada and its allies must grapple with the contradictions of developing closer relations with an important country with an increasingly illiberal leadership – a more difficult task if there is serious evidence India is behind extrajudicial killings abroad.
A real challenge for Canada is that our allies have enough at stake in their own relations with India that they are unlikely to countenance their own serious ruptures with Delhi, even if they accept our version of events and want to be supportive. Despite tough talk in Canada, holding Indian officials accountable will be hard, to say the least, particularly if no one is put on trial. Nonetheless, a message needs to be sent that this cannot happen again.
But while I am shocked by this turn of events, I am not surprised that the long-standing misalignment in the relationship led to a deep cleavage.
As Canada’s trade and investment relationship with a booming India grew in the 2000s, a visit to the country became a priority for politicians from all levels of government. In my experience from that time, it was clear that for the most part, their interests were at least as much in the prospect of photos from an India trip playing well with voters in Canada than in seriously engaging the country. Politicians from across the spectrum wanted to see the country and the relationship in terms they could understand easily and convey to audiences at home, especially from Indian-originating diasporas. And so official visitors routinely described the Canada-India relationship as based on shared values of democracy and human rights, as well as strong people-to-people links.
Indeed, those links were seen by most Canadians to be an undiluted positive. From the Indian perspective, though, it was much more complex – the Indian diaspora, like the country itself, is diverse. The Indian diaspora in Canada is very large, with perhaps half of it Sikh, even as Sikhs represent only 2 per cent of India’s population. I recall reminding politicians who were heading to photo ops in the city of Amritsar that it was important to remember that Sikhs, an impressive and distinguished community, made up about the same percentage of India’s population as that of their home provinces, so they needed to appreciate how much of India they were not seeing.
Even then, though, little attention was given to the complex history of the relationship, or our more substantive and enduring interests (economic, geopolitical etc.) in a growing country that is home to 20 per cent of humanity. Or that it is in Canada’s interest to develop a substantive relationship with India, whether or not our values are precisely aligned. Instead, we mistakenly assumed that, because the relationship was based on shared values and our large India-originating diaspora, our relationship was assured.
But whatever pleasantries the Indian hosts might have offered visiting Canadians, you can be sure that they were much more focused on the hard edge of their interests and advancing them. Our view of the relationship would inevitably conflict with that of a country located in a difficult region where national interests were seen as paramount, and where the focus of the otherwise limited relationship with Canada touched on India’s national security.
Indeed, while the Canada-India relationship has difficult elements to its history – including the discovery that a Canadian nuclear reactor provided to India for peaceful purposes in 1954 had been used to launch India’s nuclear-weapons program in 1974 – the most significant continuing irritant is the support in Canada for the cause of Khalistan, the concept of a separate Sikh homeland. In the 1970s, Canada developed a reputation as a base for the Khalistani movement. While simply voicing support would clearly be protected speech under Canadian law, violence in Canada quickly became a problem, including the 1986 attempted murder of Punjab minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu, who was visiting Vancouver Island, and the 1985 bombing of an Air India flight travelling from Montreal to London in which 329 people were killed, overwhelmingly Canadian citizens. The failures of the Canadian security services to disrupt the plot and the ultimate inability of the Canadian justice system to hold the perpetrators to account are well-known in India; at the same time, memory of the bombing in Canada is shamefully weak.
Those failures are exacerbated by Canadian politicians frequently being photographed at events where violent Khalistani extremists are lauded as martyrs. By and large, this is excused as carelessness while in pursuit of votes in diaspora communities. In India, it is viewed altogether differently, and not just by the hard-line Hindu nationalist supporters of Mr. Modi.
Diasporas are an important part of Canada’s diversity and dynamism, and they reinforce our links overseas. But they also complicate them. Members of diasporas from other countries often have their perspectives frozen at the time they left, without full appreciation of current realities. This is not to say the views of diasporas should not be heard; of course they should be. But politicians and policy makers need to have a broader and up-to-date understanding of a country into which they can contextualize the views of individuals or groups from whom they are hearing. That’s especially true if those groups are advocating for the breakup of their country of origin. We need to tread very carefully around separatism, particularly given our own experience.
While the Sikh population in Canada is the largest in the world outside of India, other countries that have significant Sikh populations and active groups of Khalistan supporters – notably Britain, Australia and the United States – still manage to have constructive strategic bilateral relationships with India. That is essentially because those countries have developed substantial political, economic and security links to New Delhi that underscore their importance to a broader set of India’s interests. They have not simply rested on the naive assumption that (supposedly) shared values and having a diaspora are a sufficient base for an enduring relationship.
Canada’s lack of broader links with India means that Delhi believes it can act in a heavy-handed way on this file. Little else is at stake for the Indian government; in fact, the domestic political benefits to taking action against Canada are potentially significant for Mr. Modi. Our long-term interests in the purely bilateral relationship are relatively greater than India’s, given its size and status as a rising global power, and so we need to find a way out. That said, the stakes for India rise considerably as this becomes a global reputational issue that has the potential to damage its broader interests, and so at the end of the day, it must realize it cannot act with impunity in Canada or other countries.
So how do Canada and India get out of this situation?
Diplomacy, supported by high-level political engagement, is crucial to limit the broader fallout as much as possible. Effective diplomacy requires a clear understanding and acknowledgment of the issue at hand, along with a thoughtful strategy to make progress. Integral to this will be a willingness to listen more, and not just to friends, but also those with whom we do not regularly see eye-to-eye.
Our team in India needs to be able to do its job. The same is true for Indian representatives here, who can help Delhi better understand the situation in Canada. Hopefully, Delhi will soon realize how counterproductive a forced, rapid and significant drawdown of our diplomatic staff in India would be.
Ottawa needs to work with friends to whom Delhi will pay attention. We also need to understand, at the highest level, what Canadian interests are at stake, and to lift these above transactional or very short-term considerations. Presumably, our allies and other potentially influential countries (beyond our Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partners) have been made aware of the evidence we have about alleged Indian complicity in the murder, and if not, they should be, because we will need support from more than just the usual “like-minded” countries. Ideally, there should be at least some cross-party understanding of the way forward too, as this will be a long game. It also goes without saying that the police investigation into the Nijjar murder and any subsequent legal process must continue unhindered here.
The credibility and reputations of both India and Canada are now at stake, but perhaps especially for us. We make a lot of assertions about our importance, but our lack of substantive commitments compared with our rhetorical flourishes on the global stage over the years has been noticed.
Our governments – both politicians and officials – need to engage with Canadians about our national interests and international priorities, not just deliver pre-scripted sound bites or limit engagement to special-interest groups or particular diaspora communities. Such engagement can encourage Canadians to think about the challenges that our country faces and to be supportive of serious debate about Canada’s place in the world, including what we need to secure our future as a country. The Indo-Pacific Strategy provides a good basis for such a discussion about the region with Canadians, but there must be an openness to differing views.
Values are important, but they should guide how we pursue our interests, rather than define them. Too much focus on values rather than other common interests inevitably marginalizes Canada’s influence in the very relationships where we might want to encourage improvement in human rights or governance. We are taken less seriously because we are seen as primarily interested in broadcasting our judgments rather than engaging with other countries to find common ground.
The world has dramatically changed, and it will continue to do so. Without a serious rethink of how we engage internationally, it will be difficult to ensure Canada’s security and prosperity in an ever more uncertain world.