Ward Elcock, former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, says supporting separatism is not a crime in Canada, be it the demand for a Quebec nation or a Khalistan state. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Elcock speaks about the diplomatic row and how it escalates global tensions. He says although Canada has indicated a willingness to talk, there is no easy way out of the crisis. Edited excerpts:
Q/ There are reports of Indian diplomats being put under
surveillance in Canada.
A/ The source of the intelligence has not been made clear so I would have no idea whether the information was based on surveillance of Indian diplomats in Canada, or not. But the reality of counter-intelligence is that frequently people in other countries carry out activities that can come under the purview of security agencies of host countries. I am sure Indian counter-intelligence agencies are similarly pursuing their own interests actively in their country. Their representatives are here as well for a long time. American National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan is learnt to have said that the US agencies have had close consultations with Canada. So, if we take into consideration Canada’s own capacity to develop intelligence and indications of added intelligence by the US, which is a close ally, it becomes significant.
Q/ Shouldn’t Canada come out with evidence and put to rest speculation triggered by Prime Minister Trudeau’s comments?
A/ The pressure is surely growing on the Canadian government to disclose the facts, but intelligence issues are not shared broadly for obvious reasons. It cannot also be publicly disclosed how and when certain intelligence was developed. In a way, a lot has been shared in public domain already and it is unlikely Canada will be sharing more information under present circumstances in the short term.
Q/ Don’t you think counter-terror laws in Canada need a re-look to include secessionist acts impacting sovereignty of other countries?
A/ Simply supporting separatism is not a crime in Canada. In fact, we do not prosecute advocates for separation of Quebec from Canada. Holding demonstrations or asking for Quebec to separate from Canada is not a crime here so similar demonstrations by Khalistan groups are not crimes that will attract penal provisions.
However, whenever there have been terrorist acts or assassination attempts in Canada in the past, Canadian laws have dealt with those strictly and will continue to do so. These laws also apply to Canadians who carry out terrorist activities in other parts of the world. So while I do not know whether Canadian security services are seeing the actions of certain Khalistan groups or their leaders rising to a level of terrorism, I believe they will be assessing it. However, I think there is a perception that India’s reference to or definition of terrorism is at a lower threshold than Canada’s.
Q/ How important is it for India and Canada to resolve their
A/ I think both governments have taken a hard stand and I do not foresee an easy way out. The government of Canada has expressed willingness to talk to the Indian government. The Canadian NSA had met Indian officials before the visit of the Canadian prime minister to India. But there has to be readiness from both sides to have a government-to-government discussion on the issues at hand. Considering that the huge people-to-people contact did not deter India’s decision to close visas for Canadians, I don’t know how this relationship can come to normal anytime soon.
Q/ Canada has accused China of interference in its domestic and political affairs.
A/ The interference by China is considerable in Canada. In fact, there has been a fair amount of information with the Canadian security services on Chinese interference for a long time. It is an area of deep concern for Canada which is an immigrant country and has immigrant communities from many countries. I think we have to factor in these issues more because of the very nature of Canada where many communities from different countries are living and our concerns hold true for both China and India as well, where on different occasions, foreign interference cannot be ruled out.
Q/ Couldn’t this issue been better handled given the importance of the Indo-Pacific and interests of all countries involved?
A/ I don’t think at this point that Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy is likely to move quickly but I cannot say about other countries interested in the region. The Americans have policy interests in the region where they are keen to develop cooperation with different countries.
Q/ How do you see the diplomatic standoff with Canada turning into an anti-colonial struggle for a rising power like India?
A/ Canada has never done acts that can be seen as assisting or even carrying out killing in another country. I cannot say for anyone else, but to see it as an anti-colonial struggle in the context of Canada would be a stretch of imagination and its relevance seems to be hard to draw in the present scenario.