Omer Aziz is a former foreign policy adviser in the government of Justin Trudeau and the author of Brown Boy: A Memoir.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood up in the House of Commons on Monday and made the unprecedented allegation that “agents of the government of India” assassinated a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil, I cannot say I was surprised. It was a brazen and violent encroachment upon Canadian sovereignty, done in public, meant to be discovered, and over one of the issues that the Indian government of Narendra Modi takes most seriously.
I should know. In 2017, I was the Policy Advisor in the Foreign Minister’s office, working closely with the Prime Minister’s Office on India. From the first briefing, it was clear that India-Canada relations were headed in the wrong direction. There had been rumours of Indian intelligence services operating in the Canadian suburbs for years (along with others). The Indians counter-alleged that Canada was giving shelter, if not encouragement, to Khalistani extremists – supporters of an independent Sikh homeland, partitioned out of India. Sikhs in Canada, meanwhile, have likened the Indian government’s violence against them to genocide. The two sides had been talking past each other for years.
The sore point in this, which young Canadians have no memory of, is the tragic Air India bombing of 1985. Until 9/11, this was the worst act of terrorism in the sky, whereby Sikh extremists planted a bomb on an Air India flight, resulting in the deaths of 329 passengers and crew.
By the time I served in government in 2017, two things had recently – and radically – changed. First was the election of Mr. Modi in 2014, and his Hindutva politics. Mr. Modi’s ideology sees India as a primarily Hindu nation, and it stokes ethnic chauvinism and grievance against anyone who dares criticize it. Mr. Modi was a strongman, and would no longer take lecturing from Canada.
The second factor was the election of Donald Trump, which moved everyone’s attention and focus to Washington dramas. India, meanwhile, had gone fully nationalist by this point. Since coming into office, Mr. Modi has silenced critics, targeted Muslims, locked up political opponents, and rewritten the Indian curriculum to blot out India’s syncretic history. Mr. Modi has rolled back India’s democracy, and remains an ally of India’s far-right. When I met with India’s greatest economist, Amartya Sen, last fall, he warned me that the regime was getting worse. There can be no doubt that Mr. Modi has used state violence against minorities in frightening and authoritarian ways.
Over the years, the politics of this issue in Canada had also grown more difficult. There are some 770,000 Sikhs in Canada, one of the most politically organized communities in the country. Canadian Sikhs have kept the issue of Sikh justice on the agenda by continually advocating and pressuring politicians. Because foreign policy in a democracy is ultimately informed by domestic public opinion, the Sikh issue has an enlarged influence on our bilateral relations with India. It came up in every meeting, in every talking point, in every pull-aside. Unfortunately, Canadian politicians then didn’t care enough about either Sikhs or India to give this the policy attention it deserved.
By 2017, when I worked in government, India did not take Mr. Trudeau or Canada seriously. They viewed Canada as a bit player in world affairs, America’s loud-mouthed neighbour. In Ottawa, at least in my experience, officials did not respect India, either – to our peril. Canada’s political establishment is old and white, and infused with an ignorant Eurocentrism that still affects foreign policy priorities. Western Europe and the United States were our focus, and some ministers could hardly see beyond London or Berlin. There’s a reason why, along with India, relations with China, with Latin American countries, with much of Africa have deteriorated. It was a great abdication of our long-term priorities, given where we have ended up.
When Mr. Trudeau went to India in 2018, the trip became a debacle for Canada. Mr. Modi did not greet him on the tarmac, Mr. Trudeau got a chilly reception in general, and the PMO was put on its heels after it was reported that Jaspal Atwal, a Khalistan supporter once convicted of trying to kill an Indian cabinet minister, had been invited to two receptions during Mr. Trudeau’s visit.
Canada should have at least begun to take steps to ensure our land was not used for terrorist financing – a reasonable demand, given that the overwhelming number of Canadian Sikhs are peaceful and uninterested in using violence to create a separate Sikh homeland. (Coincidentally, Khalistan is almost entirely a diaspora issue; there is little organized support, even among Sikhs in India, for a separate homeland.) By taking goodwill measures, it would have at least been possible to keep talking and find workable policy solutions. The only problem was, Mr. Trudeau did not want to lose the Sikh vote to Jagmeet Singh. So we dug in our heels.
What I saw in government was how Canada’s ethnic domestic battles were distorting our long-term foreign policy priorities, and politicians, who never understood South Asia or India anyway, were pandering in lowest-common-denominator ways in B.C. and Ontario suburbs, and playing up ethnic grievances to win votes. This was especially true within internal Liberal Party politics, meaning that we could hardly focus on foreign policy and strategy without factoring in which ridings might be lost because a certain group might be upset. Canada, as a country, has suffered great reputational damage by such thinking – and none of our allies are going to come to our help on this issue.
Not that Mr. Modi would have necessarily been a great friend to Canada. In my research on right-wing nationalist regimes, it is apparent that governments pursuing state violence internally – against minorities, against critics – will ultimately pursue such aggression externally. It is why the rise of the new authoritarians is so destabilizing for the world order. But Canada ultimately got the worst of all possible deals – nearly ruptured relations with India, and now a potential split in the Western alliance.
The global chessboard is shifting. The United States is strengthening its Asia alliances, something we could and should have been doing six years ago. The new influential club is the Quad – the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India. Canada is not part of it. At the G20, Canada is demeaned. The world powers will eventually face the contradiction between Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist regime and his foreign policy influence. What’s worrying is that Canada isn’t even at the table where those decisions are being made.
We have entered a critical period in world affairs. Major realignments are taking place – and now the murder of a Canadian citizen, allegedly carried out with the knowledge if not support of another country, could go many different ways. It is imperative the investigation continues, that its findings are made public, and that Canada seeks de-escalation with India. Canada may never be a major power in international affairs. But it can still be a serious one.