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India among top actors for foreign interference in Canada: national security adviser

'That obviously has to do with our diaspora communities and the politics there,' says UBC professor
The Prime Minister's national security adviser says India is among the top sources of foreign interference in Canada. | Oleksii Liskonih / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's national security adviser says India is among the top sources of foreign interference in Canada, a public designation Ottawa has largely limited to authoritarian states.

"When I talk about foreign interference and economic security, I'm now talking about a number of state actors and non-state proxies," Jody Thomas said last Friday.

"This includes Russia, Iran, India. That said, the actor that comes up most on these issues, and it's no surprise to anybody, is China."

Thomas's remarks, at a conference held by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, come months after the Liberals highlighted India as part of their Indo-Pacific strategy and as a priority for establishing closer economic and scientific ties.

India's high commission in Ottawa has not responded to a request for comment.

On occasion India has argued that elements in Canada are behind interference in Indian domestic affairs, particularly a separatist movement led by some Sikhs that at times has involved violence. That includes the 1985 bombing of an Air India flight from Toronto to New Delhi.

University of British Columbia professor Vina Nadjibulla said it was "striking" Thomas listed India along with the three other countries, and she noted that these concerns pose a challenge to Canada forming closer ties with India.

"That obviously has to do with our diaspora communities and the politics there," Nadjibulla said during another part of last Friday's conference.

"The relationship we have diplomatically with India is improving rapidly, but I think we would be kidding ourselves if we were not to acknowledge some of the diaspora politics and local issues here in Canada, which will have a significant impact."

Federal agencies have indirectly warned in recent years of India exerting improper influence in Canada, but rarely by name and almost always in internal documents.

Records disclosed through the Access to Information Act last year cited the potential for foreign interference stemming from Indian students' concerns that Canada was slow to grant required study permits. The heavily redacted records noted social media was an active component of these student activist campaigns.

A 2018 report obtained by The Canadian Press warned that Indo-Canadians and Chinese-Canadians were among diaspora groups facing "the risk of these communities being influenced, overtly or covertly, by foreign governments with their own agendas."

The report was prepared for deputy ministers attending a retreat on national security. "The lines between legitimate advocacy and lobbying and pressures imposed to advance the economic and political interests of foreign actors are becoming increasingly blurred," it mentioned.

That same year, Thomas's predecessor Daniel Jean suggested rogue elements in the Indian government sought to embarrass Trudeau during his 2018 visit. 

Jaspal Atwal — a man with a serious criminal record and a history of violence — was invited to two events with Trudeau during his trip to India, and a report from the national security committee of parliamentarians found the RCMP failed to alert Trudeau's protective detail of that risk.

The report starts off exploring whether foreign interference played into the incident, but the public version of the report does not include most of the information related to that theme, including all of the committee's six findings.

The report also lists the multiple times India had raised Sikh extremism with high-level Canadian authorities, and how Ottawa had responded to that concern.

The NDP has often cited India as a source of foreign interference, arguing Canada should limit its ties to the country over human rights concerns.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press