While on a mission in India, Yukon Premier Ranj Pillai was not alerted prior to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement on Sept. 18 about Canadian security agencies “actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link” between the Indian government and the killing of British Columbia Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
“It was tense, you know, seeing it was really late at night [in India] on Monday night when that announcement was made,” Pillai said a Sept. 22 interview by phone from Vancouver.
“We were not made aware that that was coming.”
India has denied the link as the temperature rises between the two countries. Canada has expelled an Indian diplomat, and India has expelled a Canadian diplomat among other consequences, such as India suspending visa services in Canada, of the allegations.
Pillai’s first couple of days of meetings took place in South India, in the state of Kerala, where meetings, which were at the state level, went well, he said. The last couple of days were spent in Delhi.
On the morning of Sept. 18, Pillai was briefed by the high commissioner that’s stationed in Delhi, he said.
“During those meetings, definitely they touched on the fact that relations were chilled coming out of the G20, but there was no concern that anything significant or dramatic was going to happen, which happened later that night,” Pillai said.
“It was midnight in Delhi when I saw the news come out. I was just reading my briefing material for the next day.”
Scheduled meetings on health care, tourism, hospitality, film and mining took place the next day and the group left as planned that evening.
“My role quickly changed from being there as premier doing investment attraction and talent attraction to ensuring that the group of public servants that I was traveling with, and the business leaders, were safe and secure,” Pillai said.
He wanted to make sure that anxiety levels were tempered and that the right processes were in place to get everybody to the airport by working with the high commissioner’s office.
“I think that it was, you know, a really significant moment between the relation to the two countries while we were right there in Delhi,” he said.
“I would have to say there was moments throughout the day that were tense.”
Lots of preparation work went into the trip and laying out the logistics with the high commission in both countries, Pillai said.
“The morning of our first set of meetings in Delhi, the high commissioner again voiced that there was a chill coming out of the conversations at G20. We didn’t have any details on that,” he said.
“We were told that, you know, the business community and the others we would be working with would be very professional, which they were, but there was no direct comments to us, after the announcement in Parliament, from Global Affairs Canada.”
After returning to Canada from the mission in India, Pillai voiced his concerns about being left in the dark during the trip while meeting with Public Safety, Democratic Institutions and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc in Ottawa.
Pillai said there should’ve been more details provided about what was happening as it unfolded and continued to evolve while he was on the ground in India.
“I feel that there should have been direct contact to us, you know, ensuring that we knew there was good support from Canada. I would have liked to, you know, had greater information from the federal government, which we did not have,” Pillai said.
“I’m not shocked I didn’t get a phone call that night from the prime minister, but I think the next day, I would have appreciated direct contact from officials to me to say, you know, we’re making sure that you’re safe, and we’re making sure that we put the resources in place.”
Pillai said the tension was rising throughout the day as meetings went on — focused on the opportunities at hand. Officials made the right calls with the information they had at the time, he said.
In a press release on Sept. 19, the Yukon Party called the relationship between the two countries a “new low.”
The Official Opposition raised questions about whether the premier should cut the trip short, whether advice was sought prior to the trip and whether the premier failed to ask for advice or the federal government failed to inform him that a “major diplomatic incident would be unfolding.”
“The premier should, at the very least, be consulting with the Government of Canada about his ongoing participation in this trade mission,” Yukon Party Leader Currie Dixon said in the release at the time.
“Having a Canadian premier meeting with a top minister in the Modi government on the same day that the prime minister of Canada accused the Indian government of involvement in the assassination of a Canadian citizen clearly seems inappropriate.”
The Yukon NDP issued a Sept. 19 release calling on the premier not to meet with Indian government officials during the mission. Leader Kate White advised against “rubbing shoulders with anyone associated with the Indian government” before confirming if the Indian government was involved in the death.
The party condemned “any potential involvement” of the Indian government in the killing.
“Everyone deserve to be safe on Canadian soil. These allegations are serious. We condemn any violence in Canada by a foreign government,” White said in the release.
Pillai responded to “some of the stuff that was being said at home.”
“I think that that was really inappropriate, and our team did a great job, and everybody was making the right decisions,” he said.
A Sept. 20 advisory from the India government’s External Affairs ministry urges caution to Indian nationals in Canada and those contemplating travel “in view of growing anti-India activities and politically-condoned hate crimes and criminal violence.”
The ministry claims that recent threats have targeted “Indian diplomats and sections of the Indian community who oppose the anti-India agenda.” It advises Indian nationals to avoid going to regions and potential venues in Canada that have seen such incidents. The advisory states that Indian nationals and students from India must register with the High Commission of India in Ottawa or the Consulates General of India in Toronto and Vancouver to “better connect” in case of an “emergency or untoward incident.”
Before the end of the call with the News, Pillai had a message especially for Indo-Canadians in the Yukon:
“We want to ensure people feel safe. We want people to feel that this is their home, and they belong here, and that we highly respect their contributions to our community, both culturally and economically, and they’re, you know, hardworking people that add a lot to Canada,” he said.
“I know right now there’s a lot of people that have a ton of anxiety and there’s a lot of students — hundreds of thousands of students that are from India, and they’re in Canada — and I think as Canadians we just have to make sure that we are sending the message that you’re safe and that you do belong going to our academic institutions and being part of our social fabric.”
Contact Dana Hatherly at firstname.lastname@example.org