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As spat builds, India claims students at risk in Canada despite envoy avowing safety

OTTAWA — Experts warn a months-long diplomatic row with India is only just beginning — and they suggest that better transparency around the investigation of a Sikh leader's killing and ramped-up efforts against foreign interference can inhibit the em
The High Commission of India is shown in Ottawa on Thursday, August 31, 2023. Canada may be just at the start of a months-long diplomatic spat with India, as allies await more information on accusations New Delhi played a role in the death of a Canadian citizen.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Patrick Doyle

OTTAWA — Experts warn a months-long diplomatic row with India is only just beginning — and they suggest that better transparency around the investigation of a Sikh leader's killing and ramped-up efforts against foreign interference can inhibit the emboldening of other countries. 

"The work needs to be done in-house, to make sure that we're in a position that next time any state tries to interfere to this extent, that we're able to detect and disrupt that operation," said Jessica Davis, a counterterrorism expert.

On Wednesday, India warned students headed to Canada of security risks, contradicting comments the country's top envoy made in Ottawa three weeks ago.

It was another sign of tension from New Delhi after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Monday that Canadian intelligence services are investigating "a potential link" between India's government and the death of Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in B.C.

India has called those claims "absurd and motivated," leading Trudeau to urge New Delhi to take the allegations seriously and co-operate with a police investigation.

Canada expelled a senior Indian diplomat Monday, and India has responded in kind, claiming the move came out of concerns that Canada is harbouring extremists who want a separate country for Sikhs.

In New York on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seemed to reference foreign meddling writ large in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, though he did not directly mention Nijjar.

"As leaders, protecting the sovereignty of our nations is one of our most sacrosanct duties," he said. "Any violation is unacceptable."

On Wednesday, India announced a travel advisory for its citizens, warning them to "exercise utmost caution" in Canada due to "growing anti-India activities and politically condoned hate crimes and criminal violence in Canada," without providing examples.

"Given the deteriorating security environment in Canada, Indian students in particular are advised to exercise extreme caution and remain vigilant," the advisory reads.

India is the largest source of foreign students for Canadian post-secondary institutions, many of which rely on their higher tuition payments to fund costs for domestic students.

The Tuesday statement came three weeks after India's high commissioner to Canada insisted that he had no major concerns about his country's students in Canada, other than "possibilities of fraud."

"We are happy, largely," Verma said in an interview with The Canadian Press on Aug. 31, mentioning the exploitation of students working in Canada as the only safety concern he had. He noted both countries are working to prevent such fraud.

Hours after India's advisory Tuesday, Immigration Minister Marc Miller dismissed the new claims, saying it's important to maintain calm in Canada but the country remains safe.

"People should read that statement for what it is," he told reporters on Parliament Hill. "Canada, by any standard, is one of the safest, if not the safest, country in the world that is governed by the rule of law."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who is Sikh and has long been critical of India, dismissed the "very irrational" travel advisory.

"I think it's a bit ridiculous that a country with serious human-rights violations and a horrible track record of treatment of minority communities is suggesting that it's not safe to come to Canada," he told reporters.

Roland Paris, who leads the University of Ottawa graduate school of international affairs, says a chill with India is likelyjust starting, and it's unclear whether those tensions will get better or worse as the investigation of Nijjar's death continues.

"We're at the early stages of this period of diplomatic tension between the two countries," he said in an interview.

"It will be difficult, now that the Indian government has so publicly dug in their heels and offered a categorical denial of these allegations."

Nijjar was shot outside his gurdwara in Surrey, B.C., on June 18. Members of the Sikh community have accused the Indian government of being behind the killing and attempting to silence voices advocating for an independent Sikh country.

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Tuesday that the RCMP has a plan to look after members of Canada's Sikh community, and he has instructed CSIS to share any pertinent information about Nijjar's death with police.

Some of Canada's closest allies have expressed concern and support for an investigation, but have resisted condemning India.

The White House has rebuffed a Washington Post report that Canada made unsuccessful overtures asking the U.S. and others to publicly condemn the killing.

"Reports that we rebuffed Canada in any way on this are flatly false," spokeswoman National Security Council wrote on Twitter, without condemning India. "This is a serious matter and we support Canada’s ongoing law enforcement efforts."

Paris, a former foreign policy adviser to Trudeau, said it's unclearwhether India will further retaliate against Canada, such as by blocking trade or delaying visas. He notedOttawa might take similar steps against India.

"It looks like they were really trying to work back channels and use behind-the-scenes diplomacy to produce results directly with the Indians, and with the help of close Canadian allies. That clearly didn't work in the end," he said.

Xavier Delgado, a Canada analyst with the Wilson Center in Washington, noted that the episode may impede Ottawa's efforts to join the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

"The tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats from Ottawa and New Delhi is likely the first, not last, step towards a new diplomatic normal," Delgado wrote in a Wednesday analysis note.

Carleton University professor Vivek Dehejia studies Canada-India bilateral relations, which he said are in a "deep freeze" after Trudeau's "bombshell" announcement. 

He said Canada is an important for India since it's a G7 country with a huge Indian diaspora chock-full of personal and business relationships, even if relations had been strained in recent years.

"This is really the lowest ebb we've been at with India in forever, to be honest," the economist said. 

Davis said Canada has existing laws that can prevent foreign-interference activities, but they're not always used. She said Canada could also send a message that it takes meddling seriously by fulfilling promises to launch both a beneficial ownership registry and a foreign-agent registry.

"We have a lot of room for improvement, but we are also facing a bit of a changing geopolitical context, that maybe we haven't entirely woken up to yet," said Davis, the head of Insight Threat Intelligence.

She said it's hard to craft policy that deals with threats that are "difficult to quantify in the short term."

"Our law enforcement security services have taken it quite seriously for a good number of years," she said. "The problem comes when you try to get the attention of policymakers, either senior bureaucrats or elected officials."

Davis, a former analyst for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said Canada could also share more information publicly about threats, arguing there is a tendency to keep silent and to only name-and-shame states for political gain. 

"They need to provide a little bit more (detail on the Nijjar case) so that we can verify the allegations to a certain extent," Davis said.

"There's going to be real limits on that, obviously, because of the nature of the intelligence; some of it may not even be ours to share," she said.

Charles Burton, a former diplomat in China who worked for Canada's signals-intelligence agency, said countries like India may feel emboldened to work outside Canadian laws because Ottawa has been less aggressive against foreign interference than its intelligence allies.

"I think that they feel some latitude, in terms of using agents under diplomatic cover to further their national interest, through activities that are not compatible with the function of diplomats," said Burton, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

He argued Canada should provide more details on its allegations, similar to what the U.K. shared after it gathered information about the poisoning of a Russian dissident or the dismembering of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his government's Istanbul consulate. 

Burton also suggested Canada could expel India's high commissioner and take many of the steps Davis outlined.

"It just seems to me that we're not sending out a clear enough and a strong enough signal to our allies to get them to support us," Burton said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2023.

— With files from Sarah Ritchie in Ottawa andRob Drinkwater in Edmonton.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press