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Poilievre says Trudeau soured India relations, as Modi government laments Liberals

OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is blaming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fora diplomatic chill with India, saying Ottawa needs a "professional relationship" with the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is blaming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for a spat with India, arguing Ottawa needs a "professional relationship" with that country. Poilievre rises during Question Period, Friday, October 20, 2023 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is blaming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fora diplomatic chill with India, saying Ottawa needs a "professional relationship" with the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Meanwhile, Modi's government says it is upset with the federal Liberals and not Canada as a whole.

Trudeau announced in the House of Commons last month that Canadian intelligence services are investigating "credible" information about "a potential link" between India's government and the killing of Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia.

The relationship between the two countries has been under strain ever since. Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly announced last week that Canada had removed most of its diplomats from India after New Delhi threatened to strip them of special rights and protections.

In an interview with Namaste Radio in Toronto, Poilievre blamed Trudeau for the mess.

"He's turned Canadians against each other at home and he's blown up our relations abroad," Poilievre said during the interview. A video was posted online Saturday.

"He is so incompetent and unprofessional that now we are in major disputes with almost every major power in the world and that includes India," Poilievre continued.

"It's fine to have our disagreements and to hold each other accountable, but we have to have a professional relationship," he said, adding that he would restore one should he become prime minister.

Later in the interview he said Trudeau "is considered a laughingstock in India — the world's biggest democracy."

Poilievre did not mention the Nijjar case, nor did the interviewer ask about it. Poilievre has previously said that those responsible for the homicide must be prosecuted, and has urged Trudeau to provide more of its information on the case.

His office declined to comment about the interview Monday.

The World Sikh Organization of Canada says Poilievre was wrong to point the finger at anyone but India’s government when it comes to assigning blame for strained relations between the countries.

"We're talking about the violation of Canadian sovereignty and the assassination of Canadian citizen on Canadian soil, (allegedly) by India," the group's lawyer Balpreet Singh said.

"I'm very disappointed to see His Majesty's loyal Opposition leader siding with a hostile foreign government against Canadian intelligence, Five Eyes intelligence and frankly the memory of a dead Canadian citizen."

Singh said his group condemns calls for violence against Hindu people, but he said Poilievre is siding with New Delhi against Canadian interests.

"We shouldn't be playing politics with a matter of this gravity," he said.

Poilievre did not mention Sikhs in Canada, nor a subset of those communities who advocate for a separate state in India they call Khalistan, during his interview with Namaste Radio.

The interviewer asked him about vandalism at Hindu places of worship.

"I strongly condemn all threats on the attacks on Hindu mandirs, the threats against Hindu leaders," Poilievre said, as well as “the aggression shown to … Indian diplomats at public events.”

"There should be criminal charges laid against anyone who attacks either the property or people at Hindu mandirs, just like anywhere else,” he said.

Poilievre did not cite a specific example during the interview. But a month ago on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Poilievre said Conservatives condemned "hateful comments targeting Hindus in Canada."

Earlier this year, before Trudeau's revelation regarding the Nijjar case, India lamented rowdy protests by Sikh separatist groups outside diplomatic missions in Canada, and posters offering cash rewards for the home addresses of India's diplomats.

New Delhi formally called on Canada to better uphold its duty to protect foreign diplomats and in late August, India's high commissioner to Canada, Sanjay Kumar Verma, said his country was "very satisfied" that the Liberal government had responded appropriately and that its diplomats were secure.

Also this past weekend, India’s Foreign Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said his country might end its freeze on Canadian visas if Canada better ensures the safety of Indian diplomats.

"We stopped issuing visas in Canada because it was no longer safe for our diplomats to go to work to issue visas," Jaishankar claimed on Sunday, despite his own envoy to Ottawa saying otherwise.

"Our diplomats are not safe. If we see progress there, I would like very much to resume the issuing of visas. My hope would be that it would be something which would happen very, very soon."

Jaishankar also claimed that New Delhi's decision to reduce Canada's diplomatic presence in India — leading to the majority being removed from the country — was the result of unspecified meddling by Canada in India.

"We invoked parity because we had concerns about continuous interference in our affairs by Canadian personnel," he said.

"We haven't made much of that public. My sense is over a period of time, more stuff will come out and people will understand why we had that discomfort with many of them."

India's envoy to Canada said on Aug. 31 that "we feel very satisfied" with Ottawa's response to a request for better protection. "Our concerns have been taken on board. It has been well understood," Verma said.

Joly revealed on Sept. 14 that Indian diplomats in Canada "have 24/7 security," which is a service Ottawa offers to very few diplomatic missions.

Jaishankar also said Sunday he takes issue with the federal Liberals. "The problems we have are with a certain segment of Canadian politics, and the policies which flow from that," he said.

University of British Columbia professor Vina Nadjibulla said that's the first time India has ever explicitly indicated its issues with Canada fall along political lines.

"It's quite surprising, for a foreign secretary like Jaishankar to say that … essentially pointing at the Liberal government and at the prime minister himself," she said.

Nadjibulla said she's seen "troubling" posters around Surrey, B.C., that call for violence toward Indian government officials.

"The challenge that … countries that have large diasporas of Sikh communities have is to obviously protect freedoms of expression and freedom of assembly, but also recognize that there is a serious concern for India when it comes to this issue," she said.

"We have to engage both sides."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 23, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. In a headline on an earlier version of the story, The Canadian Press erroneously reported that Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre cited Sikh aggression toward Indian envoys when blaming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for Canada's poor relations with India. In fact, Poilievre did not mention Sikhs during his interview with Namaste Radio Toronto, which was the basis for the story. The Canadian Press also erroneously reported that Poilievre blamed Trudeau for "aggression shown to … Indian diplomats at public events." In fact, Poilievre did not link those remarks to Trudeau. As well, the story erroneously reported the World Sikh Organization of Canada had argued that Poilievre was indirectly pointing the finger at Sikhs. In fact, the group's lawyer Balpreet Singh had argued that Poilievre was wrong to point the finger at anyone other than the Indian government.