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Why Canada is forced to reexamine its policies and its identity

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Canada enjoys a reputation of being a friendly country, but over the past year, it has found itself in spats with some powerful nations, China and India among them. Ottawa accuses both of meddling in everything from politics to domestic security, which is forcing Canada to reexamine its policies and its identity. NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam reports.

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JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Ice skaters bundled up against the cold zip around an outdoor rink in front of Ottawa City Hall. Trees around the rink sparkle with Christmas lights. Their bright colors bounce off snow covering the lawn and sidewalks. It is a quintessential Canadian scene, one that for years shaped how many Canadians saw their place in the world.

JONATHAN BERKSHIRE MILLER: I think about when I was a kid and where we - you know, we had a rosy view of our international role. And nobody was out there to harm Canadians. And Canadians could be all friends to all people on all issues.

NORTHAM: Jonathan Berkshire Miller is a foreign affairs specialist with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a think tank in Ottawa. He says that benign view of Canada has been sorely shaken recently.

MILLER: And we're starting to wake up to some of these very hard realities that many states around the world have interests adversarial to Canada.

NORTHAM: That became apparent in September, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood before Parliament and accused the Indian government of taking part in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh activist in British Columbia.

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PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty.

NORTHAM: The news of an extrajudicial killing stunned many Canadians. The Sikh community was not as surprised.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

NORTHAM: At the Gurdwara Sahib, a Sikh temple on the outskirts of Ottawa, a religious leader wearing a dark turban reads from a holy book. A collection of swords is on display on the dais. Canada has a sizable Sikh community. And New Delhi claims many are extremists trying to carve a homeland, Khalistan, on Indian soil. Balpreet Singh is legal counsel and spokesperson for the World Sikh Organization of Canada.

BALPREET SINGH: The history of India's targeting of Sikhs in Canada - it's something that Sikhs have lived with for many, many years. And people in the mainstream are finally aware that India is engaging in very nefarious activities targeting Sikhs.

NORTHAM: But foreign interference in Canada goes beyond India. In 2010, the head of Canada's intelligence service, the CSIS, warned about China meddling in Canadian affairs. There are large ethnic Chinese communities in Toronto and on the West Coast.

DAN STANTON: The threat of foreign interference is so nuanced that it's easy to look at it and say, what's the big deal?

NORTHAM: Dan Stanton is a former senior intelligence officer with the CSIS and ran its China program for a time.

STANTON: Incrementally, you see a very comprehensive approach towards a country like Canada. Like, they're hitting all the sectors - media, political, government and diaspora communities to facilitate the promotion of their policies.

NORTHAM: China's also focusing on universities and think tanks. Colin Robertson is a former diplomat and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, a think tank in Ottawa. He says for years, Canada was complacent about the threats facing it because of its geographic position.

COLIN ROBERTSON: There was some sense that we were simply sleeping through this because we've got the protection of the American security umbrella. And we've got three oceans. And we don't really have to worry about this kind of thing.

NORTHAM: This is a view echoed by Senator Peter Boehm, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

PETER BOEHM: If a large power wants to make an example of a middle power, we are almost a sitting duck as the 11th or 12th-largest economy in the world. And we would also be seen as a bit of a surrogate for the U.S. if a country wants to send a message to the U.S. Blame Canada. But I think that was on "South Park" at one point, too.

NORTHAM: There have been a number of other incidents that have shaken Canada from a security stupor. In 2018, China arrested two Canadian citizens. It was broadly seen as retaliation for Canada detaining a senior executive of the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei at the behest of the Trump administration. The relationship soured further after leaked intelligence reports showed China was trying to pressure members of Parliament and skew political campaigns.

KENNY CHIU: When I went door knocking, people opening the door - and they heard my name, and they just basically shut it in my face, just within a very short 22-months period.

NORTHAM: Kenny Chiu was elected to Parliament in 2019 and was widely expected to be reelected in 2021. But he started calling for a registry for foreign agents as a way to curb outside interference. Speaking from his home near Richmond, B.C., he says he criticized a Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong. Shortly after, his political fortunes changed.

CHIU: And just recently, in October, Canadian Security Intelligence Services had a debriefing, finally, with me, confirming with me that I was under the disinformation campaign attack during last election.

NORTHAM: The Canadian government is now taking action.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Inaudible) for parade.

NORTHAM: Canada's Parliament has launched an inquiry into foreign interference in national elections in 2019 and 2021.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Le president, the speaker.

NORTHAM: Stephanie Carvin, a former CSIS intelligence officer now at Carleton University, says Canada has underfunded its national security. She says it's hoped the inquiry will lead to more robust, enforceable national security policies.

STEPHANIE CARVIN: The fact is that our laws are very much out of date. The national security tends to be neglected by politicians who would rather provide things like dental plans, like daycare.

NORTHAM: But Jonathan Berkshire Miller with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute says there's only so much Canada can do compared to, say, the U.S.

MILLER: The United States still has that heft where it can push back on certain issues. I think increasingly, Canada is seen as a very, very soft and easy target, even though we have strong affiliations and alliances with the United States.

NORTHAM: And that could be tested more in the future as economic and geopolitical power shifts more towards countries like India and China. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Ottawa.

(SOUNDBITE OF A PICTURE OF HER'S "PINBALL MACHINES FOR SALE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.