Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in India Day parade in Montreal. Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

The embarrassing case of Jaspal Atwal, the unwanted Mumbai dinner guest, suggests the Trudeau government has a problem with terrorists.

Atwal is the Sikh extremist who served prison time in Canada for attempting to murder a visiting Indian cabinet minister on Vancouver Island in 1986. He was invited to attend a dinner in Mumbai hosted by the Canadian High Commission during the recent Indian visit of our resplendent prime minister, Justin Trudeau.

Atwal was disinvited as soon his history became known, but not before he managed to appear in a photograph with the PM’s wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau. Considerable bad press was generated for Trudeau and Canada’s Liberal government.

A B.C. Liberal MP has now fallen on his sword, metaphorically speaking, taking responsibility for the blunder. This has persuaded no one, of course, that the blame doesn’t belong elsewhere, presumably in the Prime Minister’s Office.

This, along with Trudeau’s sartorial extravagances, led many pundits to describe his mission to India as a disaster, even a catastrophe. It might be right and just if that were so. But don’t count on that being the way it works out.

The fact is, yes, the Trudeau government has a problem with bad actors abroad, including some outright terrorists. But it’s not just the Trudeau government.

Recent Canadian governments of both the Liberal and Conservative persuasions have consorted with unsavoury characters, and will continue to do so.

This means that while the Conservative Opposition will understandably try to squeeze some short-term political gain from Trudeau’s embarrassment, it and the media are unlikely to dig deeply into why this sort of thing occurs.

Canada’s habit of playing footsie with extremists and their supporters happens for two reasons: domestic politics and geopolitics, sometimes a combination of both.   

Geopolitics, in the case of both Liberal and Conservative governments, usually means carrying water for the Republic next door. And the United States has been none too fastidious in the way it distinguishes between the bad terrorists it targets in its so-called Global War on Terror and the “relatively moderate rebels” it arms and supports to help its various geostrategic regime-change projects.

For example, in Syria, where the United States has long desired regime change, it has covertly armed a branch of Al-Qaeda, the organization it accused of attacking the Twin Towers in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

Meanwhile, the U.S. relationship with the so-called Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq is murkier, but there’s plenty of evidence there is a relationship of some sort. Consider the strangely passive approach the U.S. Air Force took when ISIS could be used to put pressure on the Syrian government, and the USAF’s “accidental” bombing of Syrian troops as ISIS fighters waited unmolested nearby to fill the gap. Lately, there are reports defeated ISIS commanders from Iraq are turning up in Afghanistan. If true, they didn’t go commercial!

On the domestic political front, meanwhile, Canada is a country of immigrants with multiple large diaspora populations. Whether these Canadians come from European countries like Ireland or Ukraine, or from Asian ones like India, it is inevitable that political conflicts from away will find expression here.

As long as large groups in Canada with ties to their home countries can mobilize blocks of voters in the service of political parties, the temptation for Canadian governments to get too close to extremist factions in those communities will be overpowering.

All we can ask is for our governments and security agencies to deal with them judiciously — say, by not appointing a foreign minister with strong historical family ties to a foreign government supported by fascist sympathizers engaged in a civil war with their fellow citizens.

This is why, notwithstanding Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s recent rhetoric about Trudeau’s Indian junket, we can expect the Tories not to push too hard.

Cozy relationships with extremist factions in expatriate communities from Punjab, Tamil Sri Lanka, Western Ukraine, Latin America and Iraqi Kurdistan are nothing new for Canadian political parties, or Canadian governments.

Jason Kenney would be the man to ask about how that worked under the Conservatives. After all, the Alberta Opposition Leader was the Harper government’s successful point man on wooing immigrant community votes.

Kenney certainly showed up in the Kurdish region of Iraq in 2015 and posed for controversial photos under the Kurds’ sunburst flag with his mentor Stephen Harper, then the prime minister. This annoyed the governments of both Iraq and Turkey, the latter our NATO ally.

And who can forget how the National Post, Pravda of the Harper government, functioned as a virtual recruiting agency for Canadian mercenaries to serve the Kurdish cause?

At least in the case of Sikh separatism in India, there are influential and articulate members of both sides of the debate over an independent “Khalistan,” so we have a better chance of properly understanding the issue. No one is using “national security” to hide the facts.

But if Indian officials distrust Canada’s assurances it has no sympathy with Khalistan, perhaps our military support for the Kurds and our recognition of Kosovo separation from Serbia in 2008 contribute to that. Knee-jerk loyalty to American regime change projects drove both, but they were nevertheless strange policies to be taken up by a country that has its own challenges with national unity.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Atwal embarrassment, Canadian officials were in full damage-control mode, with everyone from the PMO down suggesting the cock-up was someone else’s fault.

Former employees and anonymous sources within Canada’s security services worked feverishly to insist there was nothing they could have done to prevent the embarrassment. This is baloney, of course.

Still, in terms of the political consequences, it’s the PMO that will have to wear the egg on its face.

Given that political reality, others were naturally in full damage-maximization mode.

The Toronto Star gave ample space to Scheer’s claim it was “dangerously irresponsible” to suggest Indian officials knowingly allowed Atwal to enter their country after years of banning him. “The implications of saying that elements in the Indian government have played a role in this are profound,” he huffed.

But if anything, one imagines, the Indian government is delighted with the short-term advantage it has gained in its dealings with Canada — a fact that lends credence to our government’s leaked damage-control theory.

Regardless, the Star, which seems to have been excluded from the original scoop, quoted the Times of India saying, “Justin Trudeau’s visit was a disaster that has little parallel.”

The Toronto newspaper, however, omitted to tell its readers that the Times took an optimistic view of the affair, concluding in the same sentence that it “may have provided the opportunity to reset relations between Canada and India.”

In terms of realpolitik, it’s hard to see much real danger here. The ties between Canada and India are too deep for that.

Embarrassing for the PMO and the security agencies? Certainly, and properly so. The long-term political consequences for Trudeau and the Liberals, though, are unlikely to be serious.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog,

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

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David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...