'I don't know when we'll go': Travel plans upended amid fraying Canada-India ties

MONTREAL — Members of the Indo-Canadian community are reeling after the Indian government suspended visa services for citizens of Canada, upending travel plans for those set on visiting the country but now caught in the crossfire of a diplomatic blowup.

India's visa application centre in Canada announced an immediate halt on Thursday, widening a rift between the two countries that broke open this week when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said New Delhi may have been involved in the killing of a Canadian citizen.

In Montreal, Sukhwinder Dhillon said he was planning to visit his birthplace in India's Punjab state to see family and sort out affairs with his deceased father's estate, but has now put the trip on hold.

“My father passed, and my brother passed,” said Dhillon, 56. “I want to go now.”

The grocery store owner, who came to Canada in 1998, said he makes the trip every two or three years, and hopes the visa halt will be short-lived.

“Where you’re born, where you grew up — you see this and you’re happy. Now I don’t know when we’ll go.”

Relations between the two countries have spiralled rapidly since Monday, when Trudeau told Parliament there were “credible allegations” of Indian involvement in the assassination of Sikh independence activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar. He had been wanted by India for years and was gunned down in June outside the gurdwara he led in Surrey, B.C.

Ottawa also expelled an Indian diplomat, and New Delhi followed suit by booting a Canadian representative on Tuesday and then issuing a travel advisory that warned of violence against Indian nationals and students in Canada. India’s external affairs ministry called the allegations being investigated in Canada “absurd” and an attempt to shift attention from the presence of Nijjar and other wanted suspects in Canada.

In 2021, 80,000 Canadian tourists visited India, making them the fourth largest group, according to India’s Bureau of Immigration.

Some 1.3 million residents of Indian descent call Canada home, according to the 2021 census, including about 772,000 Sikhs — the highest number of any country, save India.

For Mohinder Singh, who made the move across the Pacific Ocean a decade ago, nearly any reprisal from the Indian government would be a necessary cost of calling out alleged wrongdoing. That's true even amid a "big hinderance" for travellers.

"For a person who has relatives, it is important to travel for family or whatever reason, for business associations too," said the 48-year-old insurance broker, adding that he has loved ones in India and a strong emotional connection to his homeland.

"I was thinking of applying and going for a vacation, but if I have to postpone it, I don't care," he said. "You have to sometimes sacrifice for a bigger good."

Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi confirmed a temporary suspension of all visa services for Canadians, including e-visas and visas issued in third countries.

"Security threats being faced by our high commission and consulates in Canada have disrupted their normal functioning. Accordingly, they are temporarily unable to process visa applications. We will be reviewing the situation on a regular basis," Bagchi told reporters.

He called for a reduction in Canadian diplomats in India, saying they outnumbered India's staffing in Canada.

"We have informed the Canadian government that there should be parity in strength and rank equivalence in our mutual diplomatic presence,” Bagchi said.

The Canadian High Commission in New Delhi said Thursday that all of its consulates in India are open and continue to serve clients. It said some of its diplomats had received threats on social media, prompting it to assess its “staff complement in India.”

It added that Canada expects India to provide security for its diplomats and consular officers working there.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press