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Published September 22, 2023

White House rejects reports of tension with Canada over India interference allegation

By James McCarten in Washington

The White House is pushing back against reports that Canada-U.S. relations are straining under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's seismic allegation that the government of India was involved in the killing of a Canadian citizen. 

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan says the U.S. shares Canada's "deep concerns" and denies any suggestion of a wedge between the two countries. 

Recent U.S. efforts to woo India as an economic and geopolitical ally have fuelled speculation that the White House was hedging its bets with its neighbour and vital trading partner. 

Hardeep Singh Nijjar, prominent supporter of the Khalistan separatism movement that advocates for a Sikh homeland in India's Punjab province, was killed in June outside the gurdwara he led in  Surrey, B.C. 

The Indian government designated him as a terrorist in 2020, accusing him of belonging to a banned militant group.

A Canadian official told The Associated Press that the allegation of India's involvement is based on surveillance of Indian diplomats in Canada, including intelligence provided by a major ally. 

The official said the communications involved Indian officials and Indian diplomats in Canada and that some of the intelligence was provided by a member of the "Five Eyes" intelligence-sharing alliance — Canada, the U.S., Britain, Australia and New Zealand. 

The official did not say which ally provided the intelligence or give any details of the communications or how they were obtained. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The Prime Minister's Office refused Friday to either confirm or deny the details, which were first reported by CBC News. 

"We are consulting with (Canada) closely, we support the efforts that they are undertaking in this investigation, and we have also been in touch with the Indian government as well," Sullivan told the White House press briefing Thursday. 

"I firmly reject the idea that there is a wedge between the U.S. and Canada. We have deep concerns about the allegations, and we would like to see this investigation carried forward and the perpetrators held to account." 

On Friday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre refused to elaborate on Sullivan's comments or release any additional details beyond saying the U.S. is in close contact with officials in both countries. 

"He was not going to comment about private diplomatic conversations; I'm not going to do that either," Jean-Pierre said. "But yes, there has been conversations with our partners in the Indian government." 

As he wrapped up two days at the UN General Assembly on Thursday, Trudeau urged India to co-operate with its investigation and work with Canada to ensure accountability and justice. 

But he steadfastly refused to elaborate on the evidence that prompted him to tell the House of Commons of "credible allegations" of Indian involvement, except to say it "was not done lightly." 

On Friday, he offered little new information beyond rejecting the claims of Indian officials that Canada has not shared the details of its charges. 

"We did that many weeks ago," Trudeau said during a news conference alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who wrapped up a North American whirlwind visit with a speech in Parliament. 

"We are there to work constructively with India and we hope that they engage with us so that we can get to the bottom of this very serious matter."

Canada and India each expelled one of the other's diplomatic emissaries in the ensuing fallout. 

Foreign ministers from the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a coalition including India, the U.S., Australia and Japan known informally as the "Quad," met Friday on the margins of the UN assembly in New York City. 

"We are committed to countering terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, including preventing the international and cross-border movement of terrorists, and countering terror finance networks and safe havens," the group said in a joint statement.

"We stressed the need for a comprehensive and balanced approach to effectively curb terrorist activities through whole of nation and whole of international community efforts." 

The Quad, originally formed in 2007, was resurrected in 2017 in hopes of building an economic and geopolitical counterweight to China's growing influence around the world and in the Indo-Pacific region in particular. 

Canada was excluded from that alliance, as well as from AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between the U.K., the U.S. and Australia that took shape in 2021 as an undersea military triad separate from the Five Eyes group.

Washington also included India as a founding member of its Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a nascent trading bloc into which Canada was not invited until Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly expressed interest in joining in 2022.  

India, which has halted visa services in Canada, called the allegations absurd and an attempt to shift attention from the presence of Nijjar and other wanted suspects on Canadian soil. Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi called them "politically driven."

"No specific information has been shared by Canada on this case. We are willing to look at any specific information, we have conveyed this to the Canadians," Bagchi said.

He also accused Canada of being a safe haven for extremists.

"Very specific evidence about criminal activities by individuals based on Canadian soil has been shared with the Canadian authorities on a regular basis, but not been acted upon."

Nijjar was working to organize an unofficial referendum among the Sikh diaspora on independence from India at the time of his killing. He had denied India's accusation that he was a terrorist.

The second stage of B.C. voting on whether a Sikh homeland should be established in India's Punjab province is scheduled to be held on Oct. 29. 

"There is not some special exemption you get for actions like this," Sullivan said. 

"Regardless of the country, we will stand up and defend our basic principles. And we will also consult closely with allies like Canada as they pursue their law enforcement and diplomatic process."

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Susan Walsh

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2023.

— With files from The Associated Press.

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