Jaspal Atwal wants to testify before committee about Trudeau's India trip
'I am seeing all this circus going around, sick and tired with that, and I want to tell the truth'
The man at the centre of the prime minister's trouble-plagued trip to India says he wants to testify before a parliamentary committee — just as MPs prepare to hear from Trudeau's own national security adviser about what went wrong on the visit.
During Trudeau's official trip to India in February, Jaspal Atwal — a Canadian of Indian descent who was convicted of attempted murder for trying to assassinate Indian cabinet minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu while he was visiting Vancouver Island in 1986 — turned up at an official event and got an invitation to another at the Canadian High Commission in Delhi.
Photos of Atwal posing with a Liberal cabinet minister and Trudeau's wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, at an Indian film industry event in Mumbai were sent to media outlets, including the CBC, touching off a public relations firestorm for the Trudeau government.
The incident complicated Trudeau's efforts at the time to convince India that Canada stands firm against extremism and does not back Sikh separatism, or the violence that has been employed by some to pursue it.
Daniel Jean, Trudeau's national security adviser, will on Monday tell a House of Commons committee about comments he made to media in an off-the-record briefing as the controversy unfolded. Jean suggested to journalists Atwal's appearance was somehow orchestrated by rogue political elements in India to compel Trudeau to crack down on Sikh extremists in Canada.
Atwal maintains that he is not an agent of the Indian government, has reformed and regrets his youthful actions. He said he would like to clear the air before the parliamentary committee.
"I am seeing all this circus going around, sick and tired with that, and I want to tell the truth," said Atwal. "I want to come to committee and they can ask me any question they want.
"They can [use a] lie detector or they can ask [me] under oath. I have no problem with that."
After CBC News published the photos and reported that Atwal had managed to get himself invited to events in India with the Trudeaus, his invitation was withdrawn.
"The individual in question never should have received an invitation and, as soon as we found out, we rescinded the invitation immediately," Trudeau told reporters after the news broke. "The member of Parliament who included this individual has, and will, assume full responsibility for his actions."
Liberal Surrey Centre MP Randeep Sarai said he was the one who submitted Atwal's name to the High Commissioner to be added to the guest list for the dinner-reception. The Vancouver-born Sarai was one of 14 Liberal MPs travelling with Trudeau on the official visit.
Once the media reports about Jean's off-the-record briefing surfaced, the Conservatives accused the Liberals of trying to shift the blame for the affair onto Indian officials to avoid accepting responsibility for having invited Atwal themselves.
Atwal was never a part of Trudeau's official delegation to India. He says he travelled there of his own accord to get medical attention and has hospital documentation from the Feb. 13 visit to prove it.
"I went to India because I have the reason medical, that's the reason I went there and ... no Indian government or anybody told me to go there and show up," Atwal told CBC News. "I don't know where this is coming from, or who their source is."
Atwal told CBC News the photos sent to the media during the trip were taken by his friend; he said he did not think his friend is the one who gave the photos to the media.
New photos with ministers
Atwal also shared a new series of photos with CBC News, taken at an official Canadian delegation event during the India trip.
In different shots, he is seen posing with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains. As well, he's snapped smiling with Liberal MPs, including Raj Grewal and Sonia Sidhu from Ontario and Jati Sidhu from British Columbia.
Separate officials speaking on behalf of Bains, Grewal, and Sonia Sidhu say all three did not know who Atwal was at the time the photos were taken.
But spokespeople representing Sajjan and Jati Sidhu, the two politicians from Atwal's home province of B.C., provided less definitive responses.
Speaking on background, an official said Sajjan did not know Atwal "personally." When asked if Sajjan knew Atwal by reputation, the official would not clarify.
"As the prime minister has said, Mr. Atwal should never have received an invitation, and as soon as we found out we rescinded the invitation immediately," said Sajjan's press secretary Byrne Furlong.
"Minister Sajjan attends many events, and meets with hundreds of people every year. At these events and out in public, people sometimes ask to take a picture with the minister," she said.
A spokesperson for Jati Sidhu did not answer the question about whether he knew who Atwal was at the time of the photo.
"MP Sidhu met with and took photos with many people that evening, as he often does at events and out in public," said Andrew Johnson, Sidhu's legislative assistant.
Liberal MP John McKay, chair of the public safety and national security committee, said no formal request has yet been made for Atwal to appear at the committee.
"If in fact a request is received, it will be dealt with in the usual form," he told CBC Radio's The House in an interview with host Chris Hall that will air Saturday.
Jake Enwright, a spokesman for the Conservatives, said they would be open to hearing from Atwal.
"We would not object to Mr. Atwal telling the committee whether or not rogue elements in the Indian government invited him to the prime minister's events in India. Mr. Atwal should reach out to the Liberals for an invitation to the committee, as others have done," he said.
The Conservatives also asked that Jean provide the same briefing to MPs that he had given to reporters. Trudeau offered instead to have Jean give Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer a classified briefing.
Frustrated by the offer, Conservative MPs carried out some procedural trickery two weeks ago — including a marathon voting session on a series of motions in the House that lasted the better part of 24 hours — to protest efforts by the Liberal government to kill a motion that would have demanded Jean appear before the committee to answer questions about Atwal's invite.
Scheer eventually agreed to the classified briefing, on the condition that Jean gives the House of Commons national security and defence committee an unclassified version of the briefing first.
Jean has agreed to the appearance and will testify before the committee on Monday, April 16 at 12:00 p.m. ET.
Separately, Conservative senators introduced a motion calling on Jean to appear before the Senate defence and security committee to answer questions about the trip.
That motion was amended in late March to instead ask the joint Commons-Senate national security oversight committee to review the matter behind closed doors. Earlier this week, the committee approved the request.
"The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) is conducting a special review of the allegations that have been raised in the context of the prime minister's trip to India," a statement from the committee said Monday.
"Specifically those [allegations] relating to foreign interference in Canadian political affairs, risks to the security of the prime minister, and inappropriate use of intelligence."
With files from the CBC's Katie Simpson