The West Block – Episode 2, Season 13 – National

Episode 2, Season 13
Sunday, September 24, 2023

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Vina Nadjibulla, University of British Columbia
Arif Lalani, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy
Bill Blair, Defence Minister

Ottawa, ON

Mercedes Stephenson: The stunning allegation from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that a brutal murder here in Canada may in fact have been a hit ordered by foreign intelligence agents, has Canada in a diplomatic standoff with India. What could we be bracing for next?

I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Welcome to The West Block.

India calls the Trudeau government’s bombshell allegations: false and politically motivated. But Ottawa says they’re based on credible intelligence. As India retaliates and Canada’s allies issue a muted response, we’ll look at what to expect and the economic and national security risks our country is facing.

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And while India gives the cold shoulder, Justin Trudeau found a warm embrace with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy on his first visit to Canada since the war began. We have Defence Minister Bill Blair on the show to talk about Canada’s promises to Ukraine and to rearm the Canadian military.

They were the shocking words that reverberated around the world uttered by the prime minister on the first day back in the House of Commons.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Canadian security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar.”

Mercedes Stephenson: The prominent Sikh leader was shot and killed by two mass gunmen outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, BC in June. The Indian government’s retaliation was swift, suspending visas and levelling allegations of their own.

Arindam Bagchi, Indian External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson, Delhi, September 21, 2023: “Any country that needs to looks at this, I think it is Canada and its growing reputation as a place, as a safe haven for terrorists, for extremists and for organized crime.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Mr. Trudeau now finds himself in a diplomatic battle with the world’s largest democracy and a critical counterweight to China in the region.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “India is a country of growing importance and a country that we need to continue to work with. And we’re not looking to provoke.”

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Mercedes Stephenson: Joining me now to discuss what’s at stake is former Canadian ambassador Arif Lalani, he was pretty high up in Canada’s Global Affairs department and he’s now at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. We’re also joined by Vina Nadjibulla, she’s an adjunct professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, but you probably remember her from her incredible advocacy to free the two Michaels once they were jailed in China.

Thank you both so much for joining us today. This was just a shocking and surprising development for everyone who was watching. Arif, can you walk us through a little bit of what is happening here and has led to this point?

Arif Lalani, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy: Well I think what you’re seeing is first; clearly, there must have been a real breakdown in the back channel of discussions. I mean, I know officials have been working very hard behind the scenes to try and get India’s cooperation. And the statement by the prime minister on Monday clearly reveals a breakdown in whatever communications were happening.

I think the second thing is the level at which this was done, this could have been done by other officials or other ministers, but you have the prime minister of the country in the House of Commons accusing another democratic ally of a criminal act on our soil. So I think that basically made it clear that we were going to have quite a high level response from the Indians. So we’re seeing this. I think unfortunately, as I had said earlier, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. And we’re really going to have to move now to try to contain this to the government issues and try and protect activities in the private sector, protect activities between people and we’re already seeing that that’s already being impacted. So it’s going to be a tough road ahead.

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Mercedes Stephenson: And there are huge economic, social and political ties between Canada and India so there’s a lot, potentially, in jeopardy here. Vina, it’s fascinating to me that it feels very different than what the diplomatic standoff with China did. That was a slower build. Once it happened, it went on and on. It went through, of course, the two Michaels. It went into allegations of interference in Canadian elections. A lot of people feel that this just popped up. What strikes you about the difference in how this evolved and how it’s being played out by the government versus the China situation which you were so deeply involved in.

Vina Nadijibulla, University of British Columbia: Yes, thank you, Mercedes. Well, first of all, these two diplomatic crises are really, really different. In some ways, and of course, our response of them seems to be—well similar, but it’s landing differently—in that in the case of China, we stood on values and we very much stood on the principle of rule of law and that Canada’s a rule of law country, but that value-based approach was aligned with the U.S. strategic interest and competition with China. And even though we stood on principle, at the end of the day it was the U.S. that had to engage in pragmatic negotiations and really difficult conversations with China to resolve that dispute and bring our hostages home.

In the case of India, we’re seeing the same language from the prime minister who said that we are grounding ourselves again in the rule of law and that we will stand on the principle that this kind of violation of our sovereignty is unacceptable, which is of course, correct and very much laudable, but the issue here is that there are also then, national interests. Both that U.S. and our allies have, and even we have, as articulated in our Indo-Pacific strategies, the fact that India is seen as a global leader, is seen as a counterbalance to China, and that we are also seeing the difference in the way our allies are responding while they stand with us on the principle that this kind of violation of sovereignty in a targeted killing of a Canadian on Canadian soil is a red line that shouldn’t be crossed. And if India is, in fact, responsible, then of course, countries like U.S. and Canada have to make it clear that that’s not acceptable and we have to deter it from happening again, but at the same time, nobody wants to pick a fight with India. And not even prime minister, who by Thursday was already kind of taking it back a bit and saying that nobody is trying to provoke India and that we’re still really very much hoping to have cooperation from India on this investigation. So, I guess the real question is what happens next? And what will India do next?

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Mercedes Stephenson: Arif, where do you foresee this going? Do you foresee this being another China situation that drags on for years and potentially has very serious economic consequences for Canada? Or do you think that there’s a possibility that this could be resolved relatively quickly despite the seriousness of the allegations?

Arif Lalani, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy: Well, I don’t think it’s going to be resolved quickly. But I do think that actually, the next step really hinges, in some ways, on what Canada would do. So the Indians have, you might suggest, escalate it by suspending visas for all travellers, which is a major step, has financial and social implications. But this file is ultimately going to hinge on a Canadian investigation of a criminal act, in which we have found that a foreign country may have been involved. So ultimately, we’re going to have to proceed with our investigation. That’s exactly what the British did when they felt that the Russians were responsible for assassinating, by using poison, somebody on their territory. And ultimately, the British investigation had to conclude and then others could decide whether they supported it. So I think there are a couple of things that have to be done here. One, we really have to work to contain this crisis to the central issue, which is a criminal investigation in which we want India’s cooperation. And I think until that’s done, our friends and allies will remain our friends and allies, but it’s really going to be for us to take this fight. I think they have done what they can do, and I’m not sure that there is more that our friends are going to be able to do because what more can they do in the absence of intelligence that we can publicly.

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Mercedes Stephenson: There’s some realpolitik here with the interests of other countries who also need to build with India because it can counterweight China, so a little bit different than everyone could rally around and say something very tough to China, or something very tough to Russia. India’s supposed to be the alternative. Now Canada finds itself in this situation. I want to get your opinion on this too, Vina, but I want to go to you first, Arif, because you were in Global Affairs for so long. Were you surprised that the government came out and talked about classified information in this case but they didn’t appear to have certainty on. I know they believe it very strongly. I’ve spoken to a number of national security officials who say that they believe the intelligence is very strongly indicating India was behind this, but they haven’t been categoric in saying it and it’s very different than how they’ve treated it in other cases. What do you think led to that decision?

Arif Lalani, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy: Well it seems, I understand, that the government needed to say something publicly because it seemed that it was going to get out into the media, and Canadians have a right to know and the government should inform them. So I think everyone understands that. I suspect what has surprised people is the level at which this case or this file was broken to the public, which is at the highest level of the prime minister. And so one has to wonder, you know, how is that going to help India come to the table? Maybe there was a different way to do that, but we are where we are now and I think that’s why we’ve seen a rather dramatic and very quick set of developments here. And, you know, you refer to the geo-political situation. Look, it’s going to be very hard for our friends, I think, to go much further than they have without some cost not only to their relations, but this issue of everyone having an Indo-Pacific Strategy on which India is a strong element to counter the Chinese projection of power, is in everyone’s interest and frankly, our allies need us to be there. And until this is resolved, we’re not going to be there, and I think this going to take some time to resolve. So we may be a little bit on the sidelines here as we try to manage this crisis.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Vina, we just have a few moments left, unfortunately, but I want to give the last word to you.

Vina Nadijibulla, University of British Columbia: Yes. I want to say a couple of things. One is on this issue of meeting to contain this. I agree with Arif on this, but I also want to make sure that we understand that there are a couple of broader things at play here as well. Like one is obviously, to make sure that there is a full investigation and that justice is served. The other one is to deter this kind of practice from happening in the future. This really is a red line that should not be crossed and I think Canada is right to make that principle and stand on it. And then the third is to preserve our broader bilateral relationship with India, as well as our engagement in the Indo-Pacific. So in other words, yes, we have to do quite a few things and we have to do them in a very difficult environment. And so far, it looks like India is really doubling down and not willing to engage, but I’m hopeful that there is room for actual collaboration. But for that to really happen we also have to engage India on its concerns and of course, we haven’t touched on this, but this really gets into the diaspora politics. And I guess the only thing that I would say there is that our national interest has to come before diaspora domestic politics and I think this case is going to force us as a country to have some conversations that are long overdue.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Thank you both so much for joining us. We appreciate your time and your insight.

Arif Lalani, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy: Thanks, Mercedes.

Vina Nadijibulla, University of British Columbia: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, Canada steps up support for Ukraine during a historic visit.


Mercedes Stephenson: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reaffirmed Canada’s steadfast support for Ukraine during a whirlwind visit by the Ukrainian president.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Canada was clear, as we always are, that we will stand with Ukraine with whatever it takes, for as long as it takes. And today, we’re backing up this commitment with further support.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Trudeau announced an additional $650 million in military aid over the next three years. That brings Canada’s military aid to $2.4 billion. Canada’s support for Ukraine comes at the same time that the Canadian military is under increasing pressure and could certainly use a major financial boost, according to a lot of experts and the troops.

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To talk about all this, I’m joined by Defence Minister Bill Blair. Welcome. Nice to see you again, minister.

Bill Blair, Defence Minister: Thank you very much, Mercedes. Good morning.

Mercedes Stephenson: I’d like to start out by taking a step back from Ukraine, which we’re going to get to in just a few seconds, to ask you to put on your police officer hat again. You, of course, were a chief of police. We’ve had this allegation that Indian intelligence agents carried out a murder here in Canada, a hit on a Canadian citizen and your government came out and actually spoke about it, which surprised a lot of people. As a police officer, are you at all concerned that disclosing that kind of information in public could jeopardize the investigation or the prosecution of the people who committed this murder?

Bill Blair, Defence Minister: Well, first of all, Mercedes, we are deeply concerned by the credible evidence that we have received and intelligence that we have been privy to, that caused us to be deeply concerned and at the same time as a former police officer and certainly as a parliamentarian, we are concerned about the integrity of the criminal investigation. It’s a very important criminal investigation that’s currently being conducted by the RCMP. And I will be very cautious and need to be very cautious about, you know, how we discuss that matter and the intelligence that we are acting on in order not to in any way interfere with that investigation. It needs to proceed. We have reached out, of course, to the Indian government. We’ve spoken to our allies and we’ve asked for all the support that is necessary to make sure that justice and the truth can be determined in this case.

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Mercedes Stephenson: One of the biggest commitments your government has made on the defence file is to the Indo-Pacific Strategy, and it seems like now you’re in a bit of a difficult situation with India. And the experts who we’re speaking to on this show are saying they don’t expect this standoff to disappear quickly. Has this jeopardized your government’s ability to proceed with that if you have India basically very angry with Canada and likely not looking to cooperate?

Bill Blair, Defence Minister: Well, Mercedes, just to be very clear, if the intelligence that we’ve received is proven to be accurate, then there is a very significant concern that Canada will have with respect to the violation of our sovereignty and the murder of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil, and at the same time, I also want to acknowledge the importance of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. We’ve been working very hard over the past several years and most recently, building trade agreements in the region and through the Canadian Armed Forces, we have been increasing our presence and patrols in the region. And so the Indo-Pacific region, including our relationship with India, is important to us, but also standing up for the international rules based order and ensuring that we defend our sovereignty and our citizens is our first priority. And so, you know, we understand that that is—this can be and has proven to be a challenging issue with respect to our relationship with India, but at the same time, we have a responsibility to defend the law, defend our citizens, and at the same time make sure that we conduct a thorough investigation and get to the truth.

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Mercedes Stephenson: I know you had the opportunity to meet with the Ukrainian president as well as the Ukrainian defence minister. You’ve pledged more money for Ukraine as well as helped training on F16s, which just for our viewers to differentiate is not the same as what Canada flies, that’s the CF-18. So I understand this is going to be contracted out. We were previously providing actual Canadian military equipment, but it seems like we’ve run out of that and one of the concerns that I keep hearing from the troops, minister, is that they see money and equipment flowing to Ukraine but they don’t see it flowing back into the Canadian Armed Forces. Are you going to address that?

Bill Blair, Defence Minister: Yes, absolutely. Mercedes, my responsibility is for the Canadian Armed Forces. We have made a commitment to significantly increase defence spending, almost 70 per cent since 2017 as part of our Safe, Secure and Engaged strategy. We are also working on bringing forward our new defence policy update, and we have made significant investments. In the 2023 budget, for example, we pledged $8 billion in order to enhance the ability and the capacity of the Canadian Armed Forces, and we’ve committed nearly $38 billion to the NORAD update that is taking place and at the same time. I would very closely now, and I’ve had the opportunity to be briefed. I know some of the challenges that the Canadian Armed Forces is making with respect to people, with respect to the platforms that they work on and the equipment that they need. We are—I am absolutely committed to working with them and to ensure that we give the Canadian Armed Forces the people, the tools and the support that they need to do the important job of defending Canada’s interests at home and abroad, and upholding our responsibilities. I was recently, for example, in Germany, and talking to many of our NATO allies. We understand our obligations there. We’re building out a new forward presence in Latvia as part of that NATO commitment. We also have significant responsibilities in our own country with respect to the Arctic, with the NORAD updates and upgrades, and as well, in the Indio-Pacific region. And so we’ve got to make sure that we give and support the Canadian Armed Forces with the resp9onses that they need to do the important job we ask of them.

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Mercedes Stephenson: So minister, I guess I question how you square that with an internal document that came out. It’s publicly available, anybody can read it. It’s on the Canadian Forces app. And it’s titled: Reductions in Defence Spending. It’s from the deputy minister and the chief of the defence staff, and it talks about the literal government saying that they need to reduce their spending. So, the money that you’re citing, with all due respect, was already promised. None of it’s replacing the equipment that was sent to Ukraine. And at the same time, you have a memo talking about reductions to defence spending. That seems to be incompatible logic.

Bill Blair, Defence Minister: Well and let me very clear. We have a responsibility. We’re spending hard-earned and needed Canadian tax dollars, and the responsibility of every department of the government, including the Department of National Defence, to make sure that we spend those dollars as efficiently as possible. And so I’ve asked the deputy minister and the chief of defence staff, to look for those efficiencies and make sure that we’re getting the best values for that money and at the same time. There are resources available and we are seeking additional resources to invest in the Canadian Armed Forces. You know, we have, our national ship building strategy and we’re building those platforms. I’ve also committed to the new fighter jet. We also—and as you mentioned—we’ve made commitments to the Ukrainian people to the Ukrainian president about providing resources in artillery, in light armoured vehicles and other items that are important, also to CATH. And so what my responsibility, and what we’ve been working to do, it’s to make sure that we fulfil our commitments to Ukraine and at the same time, we make sure that we get that production in order to continue to supply the Canadian Armed Forces with what they need. I’m not going to suggest it’s not challenging, but it is the work that we are laser light focused on to make sure that, for example, as those light armoured vehicles are coming off the line at our production facility in London, Ontario that some of them will be available to the Ukraine and we will also take from that assembly line, that which is required by CATH.

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Mercedes Stephenson: I understand that, but I don’t believe any of that covers the tanks, which you’ve not signed a contract for yet. Bigger picture, though, in all of this, are you prepared to commit that there will not be any cuts to defence spending?

Bill Blair, Defence Minister: Well what I’m prepared to commit to is on behalf of my government, and it’s our responsibility to Canadians to make sure that we’re spending their tax dollars as efficiently as possible. And so I’ve asked the deputy minister and the chief of defence to make sure that they go through all of our expenditures sand make sure that we are doing those expenditures, doing the important work of supporting the Canadian Armed Forces as efficiently as possible. And that can involve a number of civilian positions, but Mercedes, one of the greatest challenges we face in Canada right now, as armies right around the world—and I’ve been discussing this with my colleagues: ministers of defence, from all of our allies and partners, and there is a real challenge in making sure that we get the people that we need in the Canadian Armed Forces, to do the important work that is required of them. And so I think my greatest responsibility is to people and make sure that we provide them, you know, we get the right number of them, but they also have the training, the equipment and the supports that they need, and we also know that we’re going to have to invest, you know, significantly in reconstituting the Canadian Armed Forces because we are in an increasingly dangerous world. Our obligations to NATO, to NORAD, to the Indo-Pacific, and right at home, is critically important to Canadians, and I have to make sure that the Canadian Armed Forces have the people and resources they need to do the important job that we ask of them at home and abroad.

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Mercedes Stephenson: I’m that will be difficult in an environment if there are defence cuts. That’s all the time we have for today, minister, but thank you so much for joining us.

Bill Blair, Defence Minister Mail: Of course, Mercedes. Thanks very much. Hopefully I can come back and talk to you again, soon.

Mercedes Stephenson: Anytime. We’d love to have you back.

Up next, why standing with Ukraine really matters.


Mercedes Stephenson: Now for one last thing…

There’s a fatigue growing in the western world when it comes to the fight in Ukraine. But on Friday, Canada got an inspiring reminder of what the war is really about.

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Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukrainian President: “Freedom will be the winner. Justice will be the winner.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Zelenskyy’s address was reminiscent of another historic speech to Canada’s Parliament…

Winston Churchill: “Hitler and his Nazi gang have sown the wind; let them reap the whirlwind.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Like the Second World War, the war in Ukraine has a moral aspect. It is not simply a fight for territory, but for democracy and human rights. A defeat for Ukraine could be an existential threat to NATO and to Canada.

And while our lives have gone on here at home, the atrocities carried out by the Russian military have continued, and the terror that Ukrainians live with daily must not be forgotten. Just because the war is becoming drawn out and difficult doesn’t change what our values or our fortitude should be, which is being tested in this shifting world. And while our support for Ukraine certainly comes at a cost, the bigger cost would be to do nothing.

That’s our show for today. Thanks for spending time with us, and we’ll see you next week.

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