TORONTO – Canada expelled a top Indian diplomat on Monday as it investigates what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said were credible allegations that the Indian government may have been linked to the assassination of a Sikh activist in Canada.
Trudeau told parliament that Canadian intelligence agencies are looking into the allegations after Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a strong supporter of an independent Sikh homeland known as Khalistan, was shot dead on June 18 outside a Sikh cultural center in Surrey, British Columbia.
Trudeau told parliament he had discussed the killing with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 last week. He said he told Modi that any involvement of the Indian government would be unacceptable and that he had asked for cooperation in the investigation.
Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly said the Indian intelligence chief in Canada had been suspended as a result.
“If confirmed, it would be a major violation of our sovereignty and the most fundamental rule of how countries deal with each other,” Joly said. “As a result, we have expelled a top Indian diplomat.
The Indian embassy in Ottawa did not immediately return calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.
The expulsion comes as relations between Canada and India are strained. Trade negotiations have been derailed and Canada has just canceled a trade mission to India that was planned for the fall.
At the G20 meeting, Modi expressed “great concern” over Canada’s handling of the Punjabi independence movement overseas during a meeting with Trudeau at the G20, according to a statement issued by India’s Ministry of External Affairs.
The statement described the Sikh movement as “supporting secessionism and inciting violence” against Indian diplomats. He urged Canada to work with India on what New Delhi said was a threat to Canada’s Indian diaspora.
Canada has a Sikh population of over 770,000, about 2% of its total population.
“Over the past several weeks, Canadian security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a possible link between Indian government agents and the killing of Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau said Canada has expressed its deep concern to the Indian government. “Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty.”
Trudeau said his government is working closely and coordinating with Canadian allies on the case.
“I urge the Indian government in the strongest possible terms to work with Canada to get to the bottom of this matter,” he said.
Trudeau said he knows some members of the Indo-Canadian community feel angry or scared and called for calm.
Public Security Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Canada’s national security adviser and the head of Canada’s spy service traveled to India to meet their counterparts and confront Indian intelligence agencies about the allegations.
He called it an active homicide investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
“We are deeply concerned about the allegations that Prime Minister Trudeau is making,” said White House National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson. “We remain in regular contact with our Canadian partners.” It is vital that the Canadian investigation continues and that the perpetrators are brought to justice.”
Joly also said she would raise the issue with her G7 colleagues on Monday night in New York before the United Nations General Assembly.
Opposition Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre said the allegations, if true, were an “outrageous affront to our sovereignty”.
Leader of the opposition New Democrats, Jagmeet Singh, himself a Sikh, called it outrageous and shocking. Singh said he grew up hearing stories that questioning India’s human rights record could prevent you from getting a visa to travel there.
“But to hear the Prime Minister of Canada confirm a potential link between the murder of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil by a foreign government is something I could never have imagined,” Singh said.
The Khalistan movement is banned in India, where officials and affiliated groups consider it a threat to national security. But the movement still has some support in northern India and beyond, in countries like Canada and the United Kingdom, which are home to a sizeable Sikh diaspora.
At the time of this death, Nijjar was organizing an unofficial referendum in India for an independent Sikh state. Indian authorities last year offered a cash reward for information leading to Nijjar’s arrest, accusing him of involvement in an alleged attack on a Hindu priest in India.
British Columbia Premier David Eby said he was briefed by Canada’s spy agency about the “assassination” of Nijjar and was “deeply troubled” by what he was told.
He said he is calling on the Canadian government to share any information related to ongoing foreign interference and “transnational organized crime threats.”
The World Sikh Organization of Canada described Nijjar as an outspoken supporter of Khalistan who “often led peaceful protests against the human rights abuses actively taking place in India and in support of Khalistan”.
“Nijjar has been speaking publicly about threats to his life for months and said he was targeted by Indian intelligence services,” the statement said.
Nijjar’s lawyer Gurpatwant Singh Pannun of New York said Nijjar was warned by Canadian intelligence officials before he was shot by “mercenaries” to kill him.
Janice Stein, a political scientist and international relations expert at the University of Toronto, said the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is staggering.
“This is tragic for Canada because we have problems with foreign interference in the two largest economies in Asia, China and India. And we have two very large diasporas from both countries. That’s not what we want,” Stein said.
“In Canada, we have the most diverse community in the world. We have people from all countries. We accept it and give Russia a license to hunt Canadian Ukrainians. You can’t.”
Associated Press reporter Aamer Madhani contributed to this report from New York.