Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is defending a senior government official's suggestion that factions within the Indian government may have been behind the presence of a convicted would-be assassin during his recent trip to country.
In the House of Commons for his first Question Period since returning to Canada, Mr. Trudeau was grilled by opposition MPs about why a one-time Sikh extremist Jaspal Atwal was invited to two official events during the Prime Minister's tour of the India. Mr. Atwal was convicted of attempting to murder an Indian cabinet minister in British Columbia in 1986, and was charged but never convicted in the 1985 brutal beating of Ujjal Dossanjh, an opponent of the Sikh separatist movement who went on to serve as NDP Premier of B.C. as well as a federal Liberal cabinet minister.
The opposition parties demanded to know if Mr. Trudeau stood by what they called a "conspiracy theory" from an unnamed senior government official quoted in the media last week as saying that Indian factions may have been responsible for Mr. Atwal's presence in the country.
"A senior security official made these allegations. Does the Prime Minister agree or disavow those allegations?" Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer asked in Question Period. In the Commons, the Conservatives named the senior government official as national-security adviser Daniel Jean.
In response, Mr. Trudeau accused the previous Conservative government of disrespecting the public service. "I can understand where the opposition finds this difficult, because for 10 years it used the professional public service for partisan ends. It torqued the public service every possible way it could," Mr. Trudeau said.
"When one of our top diplomats and security officials says something to Canadians, it is because they know it to be true."
When asked if Mr. Trudeau's statements meant he stands by the comments from the senior government official, Cameron Ahmad, a spokesman for the PMO said, "The Prime Minister's comments were clear today – we respect and trust our professional, non-partisan national public service."
Mr. Trudeau said last week that Liberal MP Randeep Sarai – one of 14 MPs on the trip to India – invited Mr. Atwal to a reception at the Canadian High Commissioner's residence.
Mr. Sarai announced Tuesday night he would be stepping down as BC caucus chair. "I want to again apologize for my role in recent unfortunate events. … As I don't want to distract from the good work of the Pacific Caucus, I will be stepping down as caucus chair," he said on Twitter.
After initially pointing the finger at Mr. Sarai, the Canadian government later spread the blame to "factions in India" it says may have orchestrated the Atwal matter.
Both Mr. Scheer and NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus called on Mr. Trudeau to further explain the comments he made in the Commons on Tuesday.
"Justin Trudeau just made an incredibly serious charge against the Indian government – which has real implications for Canada's foreign relations and national security," Mr. Scheer said in a tweet on Tuesday after Question Period. "He needs to provide proof of this immediately."
Mr. Trudeau returned to the Commons on Tuesday after a week-long trip to India that garnered international criticism on everything from his family's lavish outfits to the scarcity of official meetings, as well as the revelation that Mr. Atwal was rubbing shoulders with the Liberal cabinet.
Mr. Atwal was invited to a dinner reception in New Delhi with the Prime Minister last Thursday. Earlier during the trip, he was photographed with the Mr. Trudeau's wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, and Liberal Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi at another event. Mr. Atwal was a member of the International Sikh Youth Federation, which is deemed a terrorist group in Canada and India, when he was convicted of the attempted murder of Indian cabinet minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu in 1986.
Speaking to The Globe and Mail on condition of anonymity last week, a senior government source said the Indian factions in question are concerned about the threat of Sikh extremism, especially among the Sikh diaspora in Canada, and believe that the Canadian government is too complacent on the matter.
The source also said Mr. Atwal was recently removed from a blacklist of people banned from India. Mr. Atwal said any suggestion that the Indian government helped him get off the blacklist or into the reception is a "total lie."