Cover

CSIS and the Sikhs

Secret documents obtained by Maclean's show that the community remains under special surveillance

John Nicol February 21 2000
Cover

CSIS and the Sikhs

Secret documents obtained by Maclean's show that the community remains under special surveillance

John Nicol February 21 2000

CSIS and the Sikhs

Secret documents obtained by Maclean's show that the community remains under special surveillance

John Nicol

Cover

It began with the June 23, 1985, bombing of Air India Flight 182, in which 329 people, most of them Canadian citizens, died. That act of terrorism, allegedly by Sikh extremists in Canada but still unsolved to this day, set the stage for the Canadian Security Intelligence Services preoccupation with the Sikh community in Canada. At the time of the bombing, the security agency was barely a year old. Now, almost 15 years later, CSIS documents obtained by Maclean's give some indication of the agency’s continuing concern with alleged Sikh extremists.

The papers, labelled “Secret” and “Canadian eyes only,” are wide-ranging. Some claim that militant Sikhs may be channelling government grants to terrorist organizations. In others, CSIS acknowledges its concern over the flow oi alleged militants and former hijackers in and out of Canada. One report, entitled “Sikh extremists and uranium: cause for concern?”, even raises the possibility that Sikh warriors may be involved in uranium smuggling. It sounds farfetched. But, according to the document, in February, 1995, a leather bag marked with the label “Uranium-235” was found in India at a hideout of the Khalistan Liberation Force, a Sikh terrorist organization. The bag, which could have originated in the

United States, had no actual radioactive material in it, but how it arrived in India flummoxed officials, who thought it could be used as a threat to use radioactive material. CSIS operatives were subsequently put on alert for KLF agents working in Canada—the document suggested there may have been a Canadian connection.

Fantasy, Sikh spokesmen respond. The World Sikh Organization, based in Ottawa, maintains that CSIS has been infiltrated and misinformed by agents of the Indian intelligence services. According to Gian Singh Sandhu, president and CEO of Jackpine Forest Products in British Columbia and former head of the WSO, the Sikh community “is as peaceful as any other group of people in Canada,” and has been unfairly tainted by “the poor operations of CSIS and the government.” And tainted, as well, by the Air India bombing and the lack of conclusive evidence leading to any arrests. The longer the investigation drags on, some Sikhs say, the more the community’s reputation remains sullied. “For the last 15 years, CSIS has everything on the who’s who of Sikhs,” says Irvinderpal Singh Babra, publisher and editor of the Sikh Press, an English-language paper based in a Toronto suburb. “But no one has made any arrests—nothing. The police have all the information, they have investigated, re-examined. It’s a very painful experience.” Adds Kuldip Chaggar, a Burnaby, B.C., lawyer: “The entire Sikh community is labelled, and Joe Blow citizen thinks the suspects must come from within this community. Where are the checks and balances?”

There was one arrest—albeit for a different terrorist act. In 1991, Chaggar’s client, Inderjit Singh Reyat, a mechanic and electrician from Duncan, B.C., was convicted of indirect

manslaughter for building bombs intended for another flight from Canada. The explosives, placed in luggage, detonated in Japans Narita airport, killing two baggage handlers, on the same day Flight 182 went down. Investigators have determined that the luggage for both flights originated in Vancouver; Reyat, 47, remains a suspect in the Air India tragedy. But no charges have yet been laid. Both CSIS and the RCMP are investigating, which has resulted in what intelligence sources describe as a turf battle. In fact, one CSIS officer reportedly destroyed 150 hours of taped interviews with informants rather than hand over the tapes to the RCMP and compromise his sources. CSIS spokesman Dan Lambert says the agency “categorically denies” that such destruction occurred, and has asked the RCMP to launch a criminal investigation to determine whether any obstruction of justice took place.

The Official Secrets Act forbids CSIS from discussing ongoing operations, or boasting about its successes. But CSIS officials say their interest in the Sikhs is understandable. “Counterterrorism is the top priority of CSIS, and Air India was the single most heinous terrorist act in relation to Canada that has ever occurred,” said Lambert. “There are individuals in Canada who still support politically motivated violence, in relation to India, and the service has a role to investigate them vigorously.” Lambert stressed that CSIS does not investigate the community, just “specific threats and specific individuals who represent these threats.”

That includes following the flow of money out of temple donation boxes—the financial support of international terrorism is also considered a threat to Canadian security. According to the documents viewed by Macleans, CSIS is investigating how some Sikhs, as well as several Middle Eastern groups and Tamils from Sri Lanka, have allegedly raised money in Canada for terrorism through charities, religious temples—even through federal and provincial grants.

In the early 1990s, the CSIS documents claim, two B.C. temples controlled by the International Sikh Youth Federation—“probably the best-organized of the Sikh extremist groups,” CSIS says—each received $1 million in provincial grants. And the Babbar Khalsa Society, a front for Babbar Khalsa International, which carried out the assassination of the chief minister of India’s Punjab state in 1995 and has been linked by CSIS to the Air India bombing, had charitable status in Canada. That ended after CSIS informed the government of an impending official complaint from the Indian High Commission.

Just last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy took the advice of CSIS and told the United Nations that Canada plans to strip charitable status from groups suspected of fund-raising for terrorism. CSIS had complained of its inability to interfere with groups that gain credibility by achieving charitable status. Not only is it hard to track the end-use of funds, one report said, but “this veneer of deniability often leads to difficulties in linking these charitable fronts to terrorist organizations.” Under the new plan, which is part of an international agreement to halt the financing of terrorism, CSIS can notify the solicitor general and revenue minister of suspicious “charities.” If the two ministers agree with the agency’s assessment, they can strip groups of their status.

But CSIS s biggest coup has been the January deportation of Iqbal Singh, whom the service alleged was “actively involved in the Sikh extremist milieu in Toronto.” In the CSIS offensive against what one official says is an “out-of-control” flow of terrorists using false passports to get into Canada, the deportation ended a two-year battle against a man who arrived with false documentation in 1991, claimed refugee status and denied extremist links. One CSIS report claimed that the expulsion of Singh shows “the resolve of Canadian authorities to take action against Sikh extremists in Canada. Sikhs within Canada may become more reluctant to espouse extremist viewpoints for fear of possible immigration action, while those contemplating relocating to Canada from abroad may consider their resettlement options vis-a-vis other countries before making final decisions.”

So much for freedom of expression, says Anne Lowthian, executive director of the WSO. “That’s not what Canada was built on,” she says. Ottawa’s new offensive, she adds, has one clear message: “ We don’t want Sikhs, and we’re going to do our best to discourage them from coming to this country.” CSIS insists the goal has always been to limit infiltration by terrorists. The problem, of course, is ensuring that a whole community does not suffer because of the actions of a few.