Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly urged India on Tuesday to thaw frosty bilateral relations through private diplomatic talks, after New Delhi reportedly ordered two-thirds of Canadian diplomats out of the country.
Indo-Canadian relations have sunk to a new low in the aftermath of allegations from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that agents of India were involved in the killing of a British Columbia Sikh leader who advocated for a separate Sikh country in the Indian state of Punjab.
Ms. Joly would not comment on a report by the Financial Times that India had told Ottawa it must withdraw 41 of 62 diplomats by Oct. 10, but she acknowledged the importance of having a diplomatic presence in each country.
“In moments of tension, because these are tensions between both our governments, it is more than ever important that diplomats be on the ground,” she told reporters on her way into a cabinet meeting. “That is why we believe in the importance of having a strong diplomatic footprint in India.”
But Ms. Joly said she does not want to get into a public discussion over the expulsion of Canadian diplomats.
“We will continue to engage privately because we think that diplomatic conversations are best when they remain private.”
The Prime Minister also weighed in, saying bilateral relations are “extremely challenging” and emphasizing the importance of Ottawa having “diplomats on the ground working with the Indian government.”
“We are going to be doing the work that matters and continuing to have constructive relations with India through this extremely difficult time,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters.
Jeff Nankivell, president and chief executive officer of the Asian Pacific Foundation of Canada and a former Canadian diplomat, said he does not think that Ottawa will respond in kind to India’s latest diplomatic salvo.
He said the reduction of Canadian diplomatic staff will hamper operations in India, but noted that Canada also employs many Indian staff at the high commission in New Delhi and its three consulates and four trade offices.
“We do have very large numbers of local staff, locally engaged staff,” he said, “including at the professional level who work on matters related to trade and immigration and political analysis and consular services.”
The biggest possible obstacle is the inability to process visas for Indians seeking to study, do business or travel to Canada, Mr. Nankivell said, adding that Canada could work around this by processing visas online, by mail or through Canadian missions in nearby third countries.
Canada and India have each expelled a senior diplomat from the other country over the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, while Ottawa has also halted talks on a trade agreement and cancelled a Canadian trade mission to India. The Indian government has strongly denied the allegations.
Soon after Mr. Trudeau raised the allegations, Global Affairs Canada announced it was reducing staff levels at its diplomatic missions in India, citing fear over the safety of its employees. But the Indian government said it had asked Canada to draw down its diplomatic footprint on the subcontinent.
India also suspended visa services for Canadians, including e-visas and visas issued in third countries.
India has more than 60 accredited diplomats in Canada, including three who are designated as non-residents, according to a list maintained by Ottawa’s Department of Global Affairs.
The Trudeau government and many of its Western allies, including the United States, have urged India to co-operate with Canada in helping to arrest the people responsible for the death of Mr. Nijjar.
In Washington on Tuesday, John Kirby, co-ordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council in the White House, told a news conference that India should not dismiss the allegations raised by Canada.
“These allegations are serious. They need to be fully investigated. We urge India to participate actively in the investigation,” he said.
The Canadian government has not said whether it will release classified intelligence to buttress Mr. Trudeau’s allegations that agents of India killed Mr. Nijjar. Britain, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates publicly released intelligence, including video evidence, when they alleged agents of Russia, Saudi Arabia and Israel, respectively, carried out state-sanctioned killings in those countries.
Last week, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he was provided with a classified intelligence briefing that points to the Indian government’s role in the gangland-style killing of Mr. Nijjar, who was gunned down in a parking lot of a Sikh temple in Surrey, B.C.
“It was very clear to me, as the Prime Minister said, that there is credible information that the Indian government was involved in the killing of a Canadian on Canadian soil.”
Mr. Singh said he did not think the government should release information on India’s alleged involvement at this point because it could compromise a continuing criminal investigation.
Intelligence from a Five Eyes ally – an intelligence alliance composed of U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – comprises part of the evidence that shows possible involvement of Indian agents in the killing.