Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly confirmed Thursday that 41 Canadian diplomats have left India after CBC News reported earlier that a large number of them had departed the country overnight.
The departures followed two weeks of negotiations between India and Canada after India issued a demand for "parity" in the number of diplomats present in the two countries, a source with knowledge of the situation told CBC News.
That demand was part of an angry reaction by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's allegation last month that Indian agents were involved in the murder of a Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in Surrey, B.C. on June 18.
India claimed to have only 21 accredited diplomats in Canada and said that Canada had 62 in India, spread across its High Commission in New Delhi and four consulates in Mumbai, Chandigarh, Kolkata and Bengaluru.
Joly said Canada will have to pause in-person diplomatic services at the Mumbai, Chandigarh and Bengaluru offices because of the reduced staff complement.
Immigration Minister Marc Miller told reporters that visa applications won't be affected because the application centres are run by a third-party contractor.
New Delhi gave Canada until October 10 to withdraw 41 diplomats to make the two diplomatic contingents equal in size. If the diplomats remained in the country, India said, they would lose their diplomatic immunity from arrest and prosecution.
But Canadian officials allowed the deadline to pass while they continued to talk to the Indian side.
Those conversations now appear to have come to an end. Joly said Thursday that India had said it would remove diplomatic immunity from the 41 Canadians and their families by Friday, a date she called "arbitrary."
"A unilateral revocation of diplomatic privilege and immunities is contrary to international law," she said. "Threatening to do so is unreasonable and escalatory."
Canada won't retaliate, Joly says
Canadian officials have questioned India's arithmetic, which they say does not give an accurate picture of the respective sizes of the two diplomatic missions.
India's claim to have only 21 accredited diplomats in Canada appears to conflict with the registry of accredited foreign representatives in Canada, which shows that India has 60 in Canada.
Joly wouldn't comment on the number of India's diplomats but said the government doesn't plan to retaliate by expelling any from Canada because it would put other diplomats at risk.
"Because this is so unprecedented and would put so many countries' different diplomats around the world in danger, we decided not to reciprocate," she said.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly responds to a question during a news conference, Thursday, October 19, 2023 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
The Indian demand came as a rude surprise for Canada, as it represented a dramatic escalation from the earlier tit-for-tat expulsions.
"I can't think of another instance ... short of breaking diplomatic relations with another country and taking everybody out," said former Canadian diplomat Gar Pardy. "I can't think of another incident over the last 40 or 50 years where something like this has happened. Even in our worst days of our relationship with the Soviet Union, usually there were smaller numbers are involved."
Former Canadian diplomat Jeff Nankivell, president of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, agreed that the sanction was extraordinary.
"I can't think of a of a precedent, certainly no precedent in the Canada-India relationship, and to do it on on the scale that is being reported certainly would be a significant drag on Canada's diplomatic operations across India," he said.
Nankivell said Canada needs large consular operations in India to handle the volume of visa applications from that country, which is both the top source country for international students to Canada and the top source country for immigrants to Canada overall.
Mike Burgess, head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), told Australia's public broadcaster on Wednesday that he had no reason to doubt the allegation that the Indian government was involved in Nijjar's death.
"I'd have no reason to dispute what the Canadian government has said in this matter," Burgess said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Australia is one of Canada's partners in the Five Eyes alliance — an intelligence sharing network which includes the U.S., U.K. and New Zealand.