Analysis

It's the Atwal effect — and nobody's immune

The tsunami is spreading far from the epicentre of the Jaspal Atwal earthquake. It doesn't discriminate between political parties.

For the opposition parties, pointing fingers over Sikh extremism is proving to be tricky

Justin Trudeau, right, is greeted by supporter Prem Vinning, past president of the World Sikh Organization, while attending the 20th Annual Mela Gadri Babian Da cultural festival in Surrey, B.C. in August, 2015. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The tsunami is spreading far from the epicentre of the Jaspal Atwal earthquake. And it doesn't discriminate between political parties.

The Liberals, of course, have been the ones swept farthest out to sea. A week after Atwal — a former wannabe hitman for the Sikh separatist cause — was summoned to dine with Justin Trudeau in India, the prime minister and his national security adviser were neck-deep and clinging to a conspiracy theory.

It was an Indian plot, they said, meant to make us look soft on separatism. So far, the theory isn't selling well.

But are the Conservatives and the NDP still high and dry? Not exactly. Take the case of the Conservatives first.

The motion that did not move

Hoping to paint the Liberals as soft on terror, the Tories drafted a parliamentary motion this week that states that the party "values the contributions of Canadian Sikhs" but condemns "all forms of terrorism, including Khalistani extremism and the glorification of any individuals who have committed acts of violence."

It was a trap, of course. Had the Liberals voted yes to the motion, they would have been repudiating some of their Khalistani allies. If they'd voted no, they'd have been caught in bed with them.

The word "glorification," of course, takes aim at a painful topic for families of the victims of the Air India Flight 182 bombing: the re-branding of the man who planned the terrorist act as a saintly hero.

A martyr poster of Air India bombing architect Talwinder Singh Parmar is seen fixed to the exterior of the Dashmesh Darbar Temple in Surrey, B.C. on Oct. 3, 2017. (CBC)

He is Canada's deadliest mass-murderer by far: Talwinder Singh Parmar, the architect of the 1985 bombing, whose portrait adorns Sikh temples in Surrey, B.C. and Malton, Ont. Children are being taught that the man who blew 329 innocents out of the sky was a model citizen and a persecuted martyr. (Parmar's role in planning the attack, which was accepted as fact by the Air India inquiry, was confirmed by the testimony of the man who admitted to making the bomb.)

So the Conservative motion had a sharp point on it. But there was a problem: as soon as they got wind of it, the separatist lobby, led by the World Sikh Organization, peppered Ottawa with complaints that this was an attack on all Sikhs, not just the violent ones.

A flurry of text messages went out. "They are targe[t]ing the Sikh community and tarnishing us as extremists," one of the messages said. "Canadians are starting to see us as terrorists when we are not ... Everyone please leave voicemails at the offices of Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer ... Please communicate to them that if the Conservatives carry through and bring this motion forward then we will not welcome them in our Gurdwaras and we will absolutely not support them in the future."

It was a familiar tactic: claiming that a critique of extremists is an assault on all Sikhs. But by morning, the blitz of messages seemed to have worked — or so the World Sikh Organization claimed.

So, the Conservatives reconsidered — and not for the first time.

​The veneration of Talwinder Parmar became an issue in 2007 at the annual Vaisakhi parade run by the Dashmesh Darbar temple in Surrey, B.C. Then-prime minister Stephen Harper sent two MPs on his behalf: Jim Abbott and Nina Grewal. The Liberals sent Sukh Dhaliwal — an MP again today — and the NDP sent then-MP Penny Priddy.

Conservative MPs Jim Abbott and Nina Grewal onstage at the 2007 Vaisakhi parade at Dashmesh Darbar temple in Surrey. At left rear, with a long grey beard, is Satinderpal Gill, a former leader of the International Sikh Youth Federation, which has been banned in Canada as a terrorist group since 2003. (CBC)

Along with then-B.C. premier Gordon Campbell, they all took the stage alongside Parmar's son and such other separatist luminaries as Satinderpal Gill of the banned International Sikh Youth Federation. The politicians all smiled and waved as the floats rolled by with tinselled portraits honouring Parmar and other martyrs.

Afterwards, all of them insisted it was no big deal — although Campbell changed his mind the next day and said he would not have attended if he'd known about the martyr posters.

Abbott also changed his mind — in the other direction. First, he said he was "flabbergasted" to realize that the Air India bomber was being lionized in this way. But after consulting with the Conservative Party, he reversed himself and praised the parade unreservedly.

In later years, the temple management responded by fixing a large portrait of Parmar to the outside wall.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, centre, and Punjab state Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, right, gesture along with an unidentified person at the Golden Temple, the Sikhs' holiest site, in Amritsar, India, in November, 2009. (Prabhjot Gill/The Associated Press)

Still, there was not a word about it from Stephen Harper — who, like Justin Trudeau, endured his share of lectures on this topic from his Indian counterparts.

Like Trudeau, Harper emphasized that separatists have freedom of speech in Canada. Neither Harper nor Trudeau thought to mention that Canadian politicians also have freedom of speech — and have rarely used it to denounce the celebration of Parmar.

Or so it was until — oddly enough — the very day the Jaspal Atwal story broke.

The news we all forgot

Nobody remembers it now, but moments before the Atwal wave crashed into his Indian tour last week, Prime Minister Trudeau made some news of his own. In fact, it might have been the story of the day — on any other day.

Trudeau was facing constant demands to clearly repudiate Sikh extremists back home. Pressed in New Delhi by the CBC's David Cochrane, Trudeau at first ducked a question about the Parmar "martyr" posters. He merely condemned violence and extremism in general.

So Cochrane asked him again: What about those Parmar posters? This time, Trudeau said what so many Canadian politicians have refused to say: "I do not think we should ever be glorifying mass-murderers, and I'm happy to condemn that."

That was a first. No Canadian leader had said it before. Every Vaisakhi parade, after all, is a vote-rich environment. Condemning violence in broad terms is easy. Condemning voters who revere a specific martyr is harder.

Too hard, apparently, for a politician who has long identified with Sikh grievances against the Indian government. That would be Canada's first Sikh party leader, Jagmeet Singh, who was asked the same question about the Parmar posters after winning the leadership of the NDP last fall.

Jagmeet Singh, new leader of the federal NDP, sits down with Terry Milewski on his first day on the job 8:22

In an interview on CBC's Power and Politics, Singh repeatedly declined to say whether the Parmar posters were appropriate. The following week, when asked again if they should be taken down, he ducked the question (again), saying, "I'm not here to tell what a community should or shouldn't do."

Is Atwal a cause or a symptom?

Until Trudeau's forgotten comment in New Delhi, then, all three of these parties have been reluctant to confront Sikh extremists — and separatist sympathies have rarely been a bar to membership in any party. Jaspal Atwal, for example, was well-known in the Liberal party as an activist at both the federal and provincial levels.

If Randeep Sarai, the MP who invited him to Trudeau's dinner in New Delhi, thought Atwal was suitable company, he wasn't alone.

Sarai, in turn, was supported by the former president of the World Sikh Organization, Prem Vinning. The WSO was founded to fight for an independent Sikh state.

Vinning, a veteran rainmaker for both Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, worked hard for Justin Trudeau, too — notably during the 2014 walkout of Sikh moderates in Vancouver South. In a bitter nomination battle, a group of longtime Liberals angrily left the party to protest what they called the "hijacking" of the party by extremists. They said their candidate, a secular moderate named Barj Dhahan, was forced out by Trudeau and Prem Vinning's candidate — Harjit Sajjan, now the minister of defence.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan meet with Chief Minister of Punjab Amarinder Singh in Amritsar, India. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Sajjan himself denied being a member of the WSO and denied having any separatist leanings when so accused by the Chief Minister of Punjab, Amarinder Singh. (Singh and Sajjan later signalled they had patched up their quarrel when Sajjan met with the chief minister during the Indian tour.) But the other Canadian parties may not be so well-placed to point fingers.

And Indian leaders may conclude that the Atwal episode is not a cause of Trudeau's Khalistan problem, but a symptom of a much wider Canadian one.

About the Author

Terry Milewski

Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.