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Defending Canadian sovereignty is half the fight
Of course Justin Trudeau is getting mixed reviews for his sortie against India’s prime minister Narendra Modi. When you’re desperately unpopular and you’ve already dug a deep crater in your credibility on India, it’s risky to say anything surprising. And “We think the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy took out a contract hit against a guy in Surrey” — here I paraphrase — is plenty surprising.
My task here today is to defend, even congratulate, Trudeau — at least in part. I may be rusty. It’s been a while.
In Ottawa diplomatic circles there is much concern that the PM showed himself, yet again, to be a hick from the sticks with his loutish behaviour in grown-up salons. One sees a lot of smirking.
Three or four reactions over the last week have been common. First, that Trudeau has made life inconvenient for key allies who need Modi’s India on their side. Everyone’s courting Modi. Joe Biden gave him a state dinner. Emmanuel Macron pinned a medal on him on Bastille Day. This week’s prime minister of Australia, whose name escapes, called Modi “the boss.” And here’s Trudeau pissing in the cornflakes. He’s gone and wrecked the tone.
The second concern one hears is that his evidence is not considered top-notch. In New Delhi Trudeau shared his evidence with the Americans, the Brits and the French. The French are unpersuaded. The Brits are inscrutable. Only the Americans seem convinced.
The third concern is that Trudeau has made it all terribly personal, by speaking in his own voice and implicating Modi’s government directly in Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s murder. I’ve been surprised to hear a few people say: He made his statement in the House of Commons because he knew the Globe was going to publish. But why’d he have to speak? Let the Globe have their story. He could react, instead of making the story all about him.
I don’t buy any of this.
First, to hell with tone. I’m pretty happy to have a prime minister who states a simple principle: you don’t get to kill Canadian citizens on Canadian soil. I think that’s something we should all be able to agree on. It may even be something Narendra Modi needs to hear. If it makes him so angry he wants to revisit the trading relationship, he can try to buy half a million tons of red lentils a year from Emmanuel Macron. Good luck with that.
Second, on the evidence: Of course I don’t know who killed Hardeep Singh Nijjar. Occam’s Razor suggests it really might be allies of the Indian government, since Nijjar wrote to Justin Trudeau about his longrunning dispute with the Indian government seven years ago, and CSIS was meeting Nijjar weekly before he was killed.
Standards of evidence are higher than “This seems reasonable,” of course. But that’s precisely why Trudeau’s opening gambit was to seek a joint investigation, an offer Modi could, after all, have accepted. And whatever Trudeau does have, it seems to have persuaded the Americans. Shoe-leather reporting in Surrey by the Washington Post suggests Nijjar’s murder was far more elaborate than some simple case of road rage. Given everything that was known before the killing, and everything that’s been learned since, I don’t think it’s outrageous to put a name on perfectly obvious suspicions.
Third, letting the Globe carry the can by breaking this story would have bought Trudeau about five minutes of breathing room, tops. So I really don’t understand why anyone thinks it would have been sophisticated to let them have their story.
One of Trudeau’s superpowers — and worst flaws — is that sometimes he’s quite good at not caring about what people think about him. In fact, he’s grown up, from the cradle, knowing that they would be thinking about him, and it seems to have messed with his head pretty profoundly. This excerpt from his 2014 memoir, Common Ground, about his behaviour in high school, makes for eerie reading once you realize it’s the closest he ever came to explaining why he wore blackface compulsively at public events throughout his young adulthood:
But even the most astonishing bug can be a feature. Sometimes shamelessness comes in handy. Trudeau’s top national-security advisor, Jody Thomas, visited India twice this summer. She put the suspicions of CSIS and the RCMP directly to Indian authorities. The next step was for the head of government — that would be Trudeau — to name his suspicions and state his objections. As he has now done. There’s no room for squeamishness. So give the job to the guy with the flamingo tie and the unicycle.
So that’s my defence of Trudeau. Here’s where I think he’s fallen short. Just as Canada mustn’t be the venue for other countries’ state vendettas against Canadian citizens, neither should Canada provide shelter and comfort for vendettas against other states. Too often, that’s what the so-called Khalistan movement in Canada has represented.
I’m not the guy to judge specific claims against Nijjar before his death, but to say the least, there were claims: News stories in both Canadian and Indian outlets about the Modi government’s assertion that Nijjar used to run a terrorist training camp in Mission, B.C. At the time, the RCMP said it was “not in a position to speak to specific allegations, threats or ongoing investigations.” Note that what Trudeau just did, last Monday, was to speak to specific allegations, threats or ongoing investigations. So apparently it’s sometimes possible.
Trudeau and other Canadian officials have sometimes said they can’t stop people from advocating for political outcomes, since Canada is a land of free speech. And I’ve sometimes heard people compare the Khalistan movement to a sensitive internal Canadian debate — the one over Quebec sovereingty. In Canada, nobody tries to stop separatists from being separatists, and indeed a bunch of them are more or less permanently on the King’s payroll in Parliament. So none dare ruffle the feathers of Khalistan advocates, the thinking goes.
This strikes me as terrible logic. First because there’s a strong consensus of 50 years’ standing in Canada, on all sides, that violence is unacceptable in the Quebec sovereignty debate. The exceedingly rare cases of people resorting to violence are harshly prosecuted. In Canada, it’s just talk.
In India, too often, it’s been a bloodbath. For decades. The Hindu majority and the Sikh minority may count the corpses and allocate the blame differently, but the numbers are shocking. So it’s easy to understand why Indian officials are concerned when they see evidence of fundraising and logistical assistance, outside India, for activities that are illegal in India. Incidentally, one place where there’s markedly little support for the Khalistan secession movement is in Punjab, among Sikhs who actually live there. India’s Sikh diaspora would hardly be the only case of a diaspora movement that kept old grudges alive longer than the community at home did.
So appeals to “free speech” aren’t the get-out-of-preserving-the-rule-of-law-free card that some Canadian politicians seem to want it to be. A government that isn’t afraid to alienate Narendra Modi shouldn’t be afraid to alienate Canadians who flout the law to prosecute grudges. A good template for suggested language could come from Rishi Sunak, this week’s UK prime minister, who said as he arrived in New Delhi for the G20:
“Let me just say unequivocally that no form of extremism or violence like that is acceptable in the UK…I don't think (Pro-Khalistan extremism) is right. Our security Minister was just recently in India talking to his counterparts. We have working groups together to share intelligence and information so that we can root out this kind of violent extremism."
That wouldn’t be so hard, would it?
Last thing. As I pondered how Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to Ottawa on Friday could have gone so spectacularly wrong, it occurred to me that part of the reason was that until Friday, last week wasn’t supposed to be about Ukraine. It was all India, all week, wall-to-wall, for a prime minister and his entourage with a demonstrated history of limited multi-tasking ability.
Consider Thursday, the eve of the Zelensky visit. Trudeau was in New York for yet another climate summit, and a three-hour hole in his public itinerary turned out to be filled with a visit to the New York Times, where he became the subject of Nicholas Kristof’s Sunday column.
So back up. Spectacular speech Monday in the House of Commons, Tuesday and Wednesday watching fallout and reaction, commenting here and there to respond to the growing controversy. Thursday in New York tending the biggest news organization in America. It was a busy week.
But rewind even further and you find a PM who’s been keeping up a punishing schedule for weeks. Personal experience is part of any politician’s story. Take another look at Trudeau’s September from hell.
On Sept 5 he began a week on the other side of the Earth, at the ASEAN summit in Jakarta. Most business executives would refuse to fly that far without a first-class upgrade; Trudeau got there in a rattling shitbox because generations of political leaders have been afraid to pay for proper kit. After Jakarta and Singapore, Trudeau landed in New Delhi for the G-20. where he accused his host of taking out a hit — and then found his ride home grounded. For two days. Imagine, knowing what we know now, what was going through his head.
Back in Ottawa, Trudeau had only a handful of hours on the ground before he had to fly to London, ON, for a “very, very tough” caucus meeting with distraught MPs, who it turns out can read polls. Abbas Rana’s Hill Times story, which will be behind a paywall for most of you, says the PM’s upbraiding at the hands of his MPs lasted four times as long as expected — and that for the first time he didn’t have senior members of his staff in the room to keep him company. (There’s entertaining business in Abbas’s story about Katie Telford being “visibly upset” at this turn of events, but other sources contradict this version. Whatever. It was a tough meeting.)
The caucus retreat ended on Thursday, Sept. 14. Trudeau spent the next day stumping in three suburban Toronto ridings for Liberal incumbents. The next day, Saturday, was given over to that weird Tony Blair-adjacent leaders’ summit in Montreal.
So Sunday, Sept. 17, was supposed to be Trudeau’s first day off in 13 days of travel and confrontation. Except that’s the day Bob Fife called the PMO to say he was about to publish a story about the accusations against Modi. Sunday became about how to handle that mess, and Monday was the speech in the House. And now you know… the rest of the story.
Why did nobody handle the Anthony Rota/ Waffen SS thing in the House better? Whatever else was going on, they were all fried and worn to a nub. And his marriage ended in August. And it’s not even October yet.
We’ve got a dynamite podcast tomorrow: my interview, which happened this week in Ottawa, with British Columbia premier David Eby. We cover a lot of topics in this episode. Something to look forward to.