OTTAWA — In the span of five days, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau has managed to alienate the government of the largest democracy on Earth; anger key allies from Washington, D.C. to Canberra; and outrage Jews around the world.
Now, the promise of Trudeau—the young, strapping progressive born into political royalty, with his ostensibly forward-looking ideas about medically assisted suicide, puberty blockers, and the suspension of truckers’ civil liberties—is on the brink of imploding.
Late Tuesday night, limousines clustered outside Parliament, as senior officials from Trudeau’s Liberal Party feverishly debated how to right this ship and save the prime minister.
That emergency powwow took place four days after Canada’s Parliament honored 98-year-old Ukrainian Yaroslav Hunka. The Speaker of the House of Commons, Anthony Rota, introduced Hunka as a “Ukrainian hero” and “Canadian hero” who fought against the Soviet Union during World War II. The whole of Parliament rose to give him a standing ovation. It later emerged that Hunka did indeed fight the Soviets—or, as Rota put it, the Russians—but alongside the Nazis.
Hunka’s appearance came as part of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s trip to Canada, where he hoped to bolster support for the war against Russia. Zelensky seemed unfazed by Parliament’s honoring Hunka (he gave a fist pump in support)—even though he is Jewish and lost family in the Holocaust. (It’s unclear how many people in Zelensky’s family were killed. The president has said that his great-grandparents were murdered when the Nazis burned down their village, which was common practice during the war.)
Trudeau refused to accept blame. Instead, he sought to link the controversy to Russia’s “disinformation” campaign against Ukraine while acknowledging that the Hunka affair was “deeply embarrassing” to Parliament—the leader of which is Justin Trudeau. Then, yesterday, he gave a short speech in which he blamed Rota for this “horrendous violation”—which, he noted, hurt Jewish people as well as “Polish people, Roma people, 2SLGTBQIA+ people, disabled people, racialized people.”
That debacle is competing for headline space with Trudeau’s other recent catastrophe: his decision to blame India for an extrajudicial murder on Canadian soil.
That happened earlier in the week, on Monday—the first day of the fall session of the Canadian legislature after a long summer recess. Trudeau declared that “agents of the government of India” were behind the recent murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in a Vancouver suburb.
Nijjar was a Sikh plumber who had been born in India, immigrated to Canada, and ultimately gained Canadian citizenship. He was also a vocal advocate for Sikh autonomy. He had long embraced the Khalistan movement, which calls for a separate Sikh state in the northern Indian province of Punjab. (The movement spawned a terrorist insurgency in the 1970s that included the 1984 assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi and the 1985 bombing of an Air India jet flying from Toronto to London, which killed 329 people—the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history.)
Nijjar was suspected of planning a bombing in Punjab and wanted in India on terrorism charges, and, in fact, Interpol issued a so-called red notice calling for his arrest in November 2014. On June 18 of this year, Nijjar was gunned down outside the Sikh gurdwara, or temple, where he was president. So far, no one has been apprehended for the crime.
Then, on September 18, Trudeau announced he had intelligence showing India was responsible for the murder. This was followed by a diplomatic tit for tat, with Canada expelling an Indian diplomat and India expelling a Canadian diplomat. Canadian authorities cautioned Canadians against traveling to India. India denies its involvement in Nijjar’s death.
There are two big problems with Trudeau’s claim: First, the evidence that the Indian government or its “agents” were involved in the murder appears wobbly. (On Sunday, Canadian Defense Minister Bill Blair indicated the evidence has yet to be confirmed.) Second, even if that evidence is airtight, pretty much everyone agrees that the smart, diplomatically astute thing to do is to speak with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi or his foreign minister behind closed doors to avoid a public spectacle.
That, presumably, is why longtime Canadian allies like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia have been signaling their displeasure with Trudeau’s tangle with Modi—who the West would like in its camp, especially given the escalating tensions with India’s neighbor China. (Recall that in November 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping publicly rebuked Trudeau at a G20 summit in Bali.) U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has expressed “concern” over Nijjar’s killing, but has yet to condemn India for it while encouraging the Canadians to press on with their investigation.
Now, the Americans and Brits and everyone else in the West finds itself in the awkward spot of having to say something indicating concern or dismay about Nijjar’s death while trying to avoid alienating Modi, who—say what you will about India’s nationalist prime minister—has been an important bulwark against Chinese hegemony in South Asia and elsewhere.
We should be clear about what prompted this protracted diplomatic disaster last week: domestic politics. Trudeau’s poll numbers are abysmal, with even young Canadians backing the Conservative Party over Trudeau’s Liberal faction, 32 percent to 24 percent.
When Trudeau was elected in 2015, he was seen as a breath of fresh air, a charismatic departure from the outgoing, stodgy Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper. But then, Trudeau’s government was engulfed by a series of corruption scandals, and then it came out that Trudeau had appeared in blackface at parties several years earlier.
Then the pandemic happened, and Trudeau projected the image of a statesman—but he went too far. He shut down the truckers’ protests. He declared an emergency. He was seen, increasingly, as having a quasi-authoritarian tendency. And he lost the heart of the country.
And it may not be long before the heart of the country ultimately dispenses with Trudeau.
Rupa Subramanya is a Canadian-based writer for The Free Press. Read her piece “I Report for The Free Press. And I Can’t Post My Stories on Facebook,” and follow her on X, formerly Twitter, @rupasubramanya.
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