Surrey Liberal MP Randeep Sarai has offered in a prepared statement an “apology without reservation” for his role in what is proving to be a public relations disaster for the federal Trudeau government.
Sarai has not yet responded to calls from the Now-Leader for comment on how a Sikh extremist found guilty of trying to assassinate an Indian cabinet minister in 1986 was invited to attend a reception with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Mumbai and New Delhi.
Jaspal Atwal was photographed posing with the prime minister’s wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, as well as Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi and Sonia Sidhu, Liberal MP for Brampton South.
“As you know, an individual planning on attending tonight’s reception had his invitation rescinded. Let me be clear - this person should never have been invited in the first place,” Sarai’s statement reads. “I alone facilitated his request to attend this important event. I should have exercised better judgment, and I take full responsibility for my actions.
“I apologize without reservation for my role in this situation, which has become an unfortunate distraction from the work, achievements, objectives of the Prime Minister and his team during this historic trip to India,” said Sarai, MP for Surrey Centre.
Trudeau didn’t name Atwal in a press conference but said “the individual in question never should have received an invitation and as soon as we found out we recinded the invitation immediately. The member of parliament who included this individual has and will assume full responsibility for his action.”
It’s not yet known if Sarai will be disciplined by his party.
At a separate press conference, Trudeau told reporters that “Canada supports one United India.
“We are unanimous as a government, as ministers on this issue, as a prime minister on this issue, and that we look forward to continuing to work together understanding of course that Canada values freedom of expression, defending human rights and a broad range of perspectives. We will always stand against violent extremism, either at home or abroad, but we understand that diversity of views is one of the great strengths of Canada.”
Meantime, former NDP B.C. premier and Liberal federal cabinet minister Ujjal Dosanjh took to Twitter to voice his outrage.
“You what? Do we have no shame?” Dosanjh tweeted. “Khalistan has seeped deep into the veins of this administration.”
Atwal was formerly a member of the International Sikh Youth Federation, which aimed to secure an independent state in India called Khalistan. He was acquitted in a 1985 attack on Dosanjh, an opponent of Sikh extremism who would become Canada’s first Sikh premier.
Meanwhile, Media Waves Communications has an Oct. 20, 2015 photo showing Atwal with Randeep Sarai and fellow Surrey Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal.
This is of course not the first time a local politician has found his or herself in damage control after posing for a photo with a controversial figure.
Last September, a photo of Premier John Horgan, Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner and Surrey-Panorama MLA Jinny Sims with a convicted gunman generated heat for the politicians.
The picture showed the politicians posing with former Radio India managing director Maninder Gill at a private residence. Gill was sentenced to four years in jail for a shooting that took place outside a wedding at a Sikh temple in 2010. Gill appealed the conviction.
The photo was taken at a private event hosted by Kulwant Dhesi.
Hepner said at the time that she attended the event as a guest and posing with Gill was “a mistake.” She said she didn’t consult with anyone prior to attending and wasn’t made aware of the guest list.
“People just said, ‘Come in, come in, take a picture.’ And I didn’t pay enough attention as I should have given that I know Maninder Gill and it’s not my intention to give a mixed message because I’m very clear about how passionately I feel about gun violence…. It’s heading into silly season, so I do have to be a bit more careful with whom I’m being photographed.”
Hepner said she looked at the event as an opportunity to speak with Horgan.
“Kulwant Dhesi called me and asked me to attend a function with the Premier. I did see it as an opportunity as the mayor to start creating a good kind of relationship when he’s in my city. So off I went.”
If she knew who was in the photo, she wouldn’t have been in it, she stressed.
Hepner said she also said she didn’t pay to attend and no one said it was a fundraiser.
“I didn’t stay for dinner,” she added.
Sims, who is standing right in front of Gill in the photo, released a statement saying she, too, was unaware of the guest list, or that Maninder Gill would be in attendance.
“Anyone who knows me understands that I abhor violence. I have spent my life fighting against violence of all types,” said Sims in her statement. “Maninder Gill was convicted of a very serious crime that I do not condone in any way. He should not have been there.”
Surrey Councillors Mike Starchuk and Tom Gill were also at the event.
Tom Gill was also photographed with Maninder Gill, who is the brother of Tom Gill’s mother-in-law.
In 2012, then-B.C. Liberal premier Christy Clark also found herself in hot water after Atwal showed up at provincial government budget event. Clark told the media she might have shook his hand but denied knowing him.
And in 2008, Dhaliwal found himself in the spotlight after writing a letter of support for international drug trafficker Ranjit Cheema to California District Judge Stephen Wilson, urging him to give Cheema a chance at rehabilitation.
Dhaliwal described Cheema as a man who would one day return to his family in Canada and seemed committed to rehabilitation.
“I personally believe, along with tougher laws, rehabilitation is fundamentally essential to make our society, our country, and our planet a better place to live,” Dhaliwal wrote in the letter on Government of Canada letterhead. “I have no doubt that if he (Cheema) is given support and direction, he will be a strong, active member of his community in years to come.”
Despite the support, Cheema was sentenced in California to five years in prison for conspiring to smuggle 200 kilograms of heroin from Pakistan to North America in 1998.
Dhaliwal, when confronted about the correspondence in the middle of a re-election campaign, regretted not having checked with police before writing the letter. Cheema was gunned down in Vancouver in May, 2012.
Dhaliwal could not be reached for comment Thursday morning.
— With files from Black Press