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B.C. Sikhs ask for protection after Trudeau links Nijjar killing to India

SURREY — Harkireet Kaur said she had a relationship with Sikh community leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar that was like “father and daughter” before his killing in Surrey, B.C., in June.
A photograph of late temple president Hardeep Singh Nijjar is seen on a banner outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canadian intelligence services are investigating "credible" information about "a potential link" between the government of India and the murder of Nijjar. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

SURREY — Harkireet Kaur said she had a relationship with Sikh community leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar that was like “father and daughter” before his killing in Surrey, B.C., in June.

The 19-year-old Sikh activist said she was initially relieved to hear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tell Parliament on Monday that "credible" intelligence linked India's government to the shooting death of Nijjar, who supported an independent Sikh homeland in India's Punjab province.

But that soon turned to “resentment” about why it took months to acknowledge what the community had been saying since Nijjar was shot dead in the parking lot of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara where he was president.

“Why did it take so long? Why did it take someone to be killed for us to have a little bit of acknowledgment of what is happening?” Kaur said outside the gurdwara.

Trudeau's announcement is spurring calls from B.C.'s Sikh community to better protect its members.

British Columbia Premier David Eby is also among those expressing concern. He said Monday he had received a briefing from Canada's spy agency about the "assassination" of Nijjar and was "deeply disturbed" by what he was told.

He called on the federal government to share all information related to ongoing foreign interference and "transnational organized crime threats."

"Canadians across the country must be safe from the interference of foreign governments, including being targeted for threats or physical harm, including murder," he said. 

"Our democracy depends on it."

Eby said he needed more information from the federal government so the province could protect people at risk.

India's Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement on Monday, rejecting allegations of a link between the Indian government and any act of violence in Canada. 

Nijjar was shot dead as he sat in his pickup truck on June 18, in what police say was a targeted attack.

"I join with those in the Sikh and Punjabi community, and the broader province, demanding justice and answers," Eby said in his statement. 

Surrey's mayor said she would monitor the situation.

"I am confident that law enforcement agencies will ensure that the integrity of Canadian democracy and the safety of our citizens are protected," Brenda Locke said in a statement Monday evening.    "I hope that this investigation provides Mr. Nijjar’s family with the closure I am sure they seek."

Nijjar had been organizing an unofficial referendum in India for an independent Sikh state at the time of his death.

Moninder Singh, spokesman for the B.C. Sikh Gurdwara Council, said a public inquiry into Indian interference in Canada "needs to happen immediately."

Singh, speaking at a press conference and subsequent interview at the Surrey gurdwara, said intelligence sharing with India put Sikh activists in Canada at risk. 

In 2018, a framework for co-operating on anti-terrorism activities was established between Canada and India.

It commits both sides to co-operate in finance, justice and law enforcement, including “at the operational level.”

Singh said “those intelligence-sharing agreements to us have always been problematic.”

“They've always placed Sikh activists at risk. We don't know what type of information is being shared. We don't know what type of monitoring goes on social media,” Singh said. “All of those things are very risky to us.” 

He said rallies would be held outside Indian diplomatic missions on Sept. 25.

Police in B.C. said in a statement late Monday that they were aware of Trudeau's comments but were not in a position to discuss specifics about their investigation.

Sgt. Timothy Pierotti of the province's Integrated Homicide Investigation Team said in the statement that investigators were working closely with "local, provincial and national police agencies and partners" in order to advance what he called a "priority investigation."

In June, IHIT said it had not linked the shooting to foreign interference and there was no reason to believe the Sikh community in Canada was at risk.

IHIT has said it is seeking two "heavy-set" gunmen who killed Nijjar. They are also seeking the driver of the suspected getaway car, a silver 2008 Toyota Camry.

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the U.S.-based lawyer for the advocacy group Sikhs For Justice, said in a statement Monday that Nijjar had been killed for his leading role in organizing the unofficial referendum to establish a Sikh homeland that supporters call Khalistan.

The group, which has been staging a series of non-binding votes in several countries on the independence issue, said last week that the first stage of balloting in B.C. on Sept. 10 attracted more than 135,000 voters.

It said the second stage would be held on Oct. 29 — and would add a second question about whether Indian High Commissioner Sanjay Verma was responsible for Nijjar's killing.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Monday she had deemed a different Indian diplomat, Pavan Kumar Rai, as persona non grata. Joly said Rai is the Canadian head of New Delhi's Research and Analysis Wing, an intelligence agency.

In July, Joly had denounced posters accusing senior Indian diplomats of being "killers," saying they were "unacceptable."

India announced Tuesday that they were expelling a senior Canadian diplomat themselves, accusing Canada of interfering in "internal matters."

Kaur said that reflecting on the events since the death of Nijjar makes her "want to cry."

"The fact that it's been three months, and the fact that someone who was a prominent leader was killed. This is the first martyr from our community to be killed on Canadian soil. And the fact that it's taken three months (to blame India) — this is insane."

— With files from Chuck Chiang in Vancouver.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2023.

Nono Shen, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled the name of Harkireet Kaur.