Well, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got a lot of global publicity last week … not much of it good. Even the staid Financial Times, which rarely stoops to deal in gossip or scandal, had to report that “Justin Trudeau’s troubled trip to India ran into further trouble on Thursday after it emerged that a man convicted of trying to kill an Indian politician in 1986 had been invited to an official dinner with the Canadian prime minister.“
Troubles upon troubles, in no particular order …
- Trouble 1 arose when the media wondered at why Prime Minister Trudeau and his whole family needed what appeared to be an eight day all-expenses paid vacation cum photo-op in India when he only had a handful of appointments ~ only one, at the end of his trip with Indian Prime Minister Modi;
- Trouble 2 came when the media wondered about why he wasn’t visiting e.g. Bangalore to drum up tech investment in Canada, the trip, some pundits said, was more about voters in Canada in 2019 than jobs for Canadians;
- Trouble 3 came when he had to ask for a meeting with Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, an important Indian leader who has accused Trudeau of harbouring Sikh separatist sympathizers, including Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, in his cabinet;
- Trouble 4 came when the international media ridiculed Prime Minister Trudeau for playing “Mr Dressup” rather than getting down to business;
- Trouble 5 came when the global media observed that Prime Minister Modi was administering a very polite, very gentlemanly snub to Canada’s prime minister;
- Trouble 6 came when it was revealed that someone ~ it appears to have been Surrey Centre MP Randeep Sarai ~ added convicted terrorist Jaspal Atwal’s name to the invitation list for a dinner-reception hosted by the Canadian High Commission. That flub, had it not be caught in the nick time, would have been a major diplomatic set back for Canada, not just for Justin Trudeau. Mr Atwal had already been photographed at another event with Mrs Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and Liberal cabinet minister Amarjeet Sohi and Brampton South Liberal MP Sonia Sidhu, further fuelling the feeling in India that Canada, and especially Prime Minister Trudeau’s government, is soft of Sikh separatism and terrorism; and
- Trouble 7, if there weren’t already more than enough, was the optics of flying an Indo-Canadian celebrity chef to India at taxpayer’s expense ~ that isn’t unheard of, or even “wrong,” it just smacks of Liberal entitlement in 2018, and it only served to add insult to the injury Prime Minister Trudeau had already inflicted on Indo-Canadian relations.
All in all, I believe, we must regard Prime Minister Trudeau’s trip to India as a failure, potentially a serious failure that may do real harm to Canada’s relationship with the world’s greatest democracy and one of our oldest friends in Asia … and that follows on the heels of his problems on earlier trips to Asia where he was accused of reneging on promises regarding the Trans Pacific Partnership and being rude to foreign leaders. While the Indian media’s ridicule of the prime minister for his wearing of over the top costumes may have stung, I suspect the Jaspal Atwal incident may have done some real, serious damage. The Canadian Press in a story that was published in the Globe and Mail says that “The embarrassing setbacks [the Atwal affaire] raise questions about the adequacy of both security and diplomatic preparations for Trudeau’s trip.“
First, let me clear: Mr Atwal was convicted of a crime that a judge described as an act of terrorism but his conviction was overturned on a legal point and he must be presumed to be innocent of anything else … unless evidence to the contrary surfaces.
That being said, he appears, according to Sun journalist Candice Malcolm ~ who is a fierce critic of Prime Minister Trudeau ~ to have a long standing acquaintance with Justin Trudeau as these photos Ms Malcolm unearthed, one from a 2015 event in Vancouver and the second from some times much earlier, given Justin Trudeau’s appearance, seem to show:
My concern is that someone is not managing Justin Trudeau well enough because “the adequacy of both security and diplomatic preparations” were not just called into question: they proved to be totally inadequate … his key staff, the people who are supposed to make his foreign trips work, failed him and they failed Canada.
I’m not blaming the prime minister, himself, personally for any of this ~ well, maybe for the vacation and fashion stuff, that smacks of something a under-educated trust fund kid might do ~ in fact, I think he is honestly and sincerely both a feminist and, in a way, envious of Canadian immigrants who, as he says, chose to be Canadian rather than being Canadian by accident of birth. But he’s been a celebrity Liberal MP since 2008 and leader of the Liberal Party of Canada since 2013. Even back-bench MPs get some advice about risky associations from the Party central office and the Party leader has a staff, including people who have access to government security files.
Mr Atwal should have been flagged as a political risk, at the very least. Jaspal Atwal was convicted of the attempted murder of an Indian cabinet minister, Malkiat Singh Sidhu, on Vancouver Island in 1986, at the time the trial judge called it a terrorist act and Atwal was, then, a member of a group that is still on terrorist lists in Canada and several other countries.
Mr Atwal has been active in the BC Liberal Party and Liberal Party of Canada since, at least 2012, and that is going add more fuel to the fir that is bringing Indian suspicions of Canada to a boil.
It now been reported, by the Vancouver Sun, that someone may have warned the government about Mr Atwal, giving officials time to have prevented this highly publicized diplomatic faux pas, and, further, that Mr Atwal’s story that the was in India representing a Surry, BC, radio station has been denied by the station’s owner.
Finally, the Times of India reports, Prime Minister Modi appears to have given Prime Minister Trudeau a bit of a public “dressing down” at a joint press conference, saying that India will not tolerate support for Sikh separatism: ““There should be no space for those who misuse religion for political motives and promote separatism. We will not tolerate those who challenge unity and integrity of our countries,” PM Modi said as he addressed a joint press meet with the Canadian PM.“
Canada has been, at the very least, embarrassed on the world stage … perhaps humiliated is a better word. One can only hope that someone might learn something from the experience.
Prime Minister Trudeau doesn’t plan his own trips, in fact, given his remarks to the Conflict of Interest Commissioner about seeing his job as being largely ceremonial, it’s not clear what he does. The real problem, I suspect, lies in his office, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), especially with:
- His Chief of Staff: Katie Telford;
- His Principal Secretary: Gerald Butts; and
- His Director of Communications: Kate Purchase …
Now, as an avowed, partisan Conservative since 1965* it is not my place to say who ought to advise a Liberal prime minister ~ in fact many Conservatives are possibly rubbing their hands with glee as they contemplate the PMO ~ but my Liberal friends (and yes, I have some) should be worried about a team that is so intensely focused on the 2019 election that they have lost sight of the business fo governing, and I suspect and fear, they have shut out the non-partisan, professional Privy Council Office (PCO) which, I believe, would have shovelled Mr Atwal back into oblivion in late 2015 as a major security risk. David Akin, reporting for Global News, says that “One national security source told Global News that the RCMP did not vet Atwal and do not currently have the responsibility to vet guests at events attended by the prime minister overseas … [but] … the source said that is the role of the government where the event is taking place.” It is, most likely, a role of the national security and intelligence staff in the PCO, but if they are being shut out or ignored by a hyper-partisan PMO then the proper screening would not have happened. As the embarrassment worsens, Canadian officials, CBC News reports, are trying to lay the blame off onto “rogue elements” in the Indian government and the RCMP security detail … that India allowed Mr Atwal to enter the country is beyond dispute; the why and how might be interesting but they don’t alter the fact that he attended one Canadian reception and was invited to another, by a Liberal MP, on Canadian soil, at the High Commission, itself.
The Liberals then fought back against their critics by, at the very last moment, rescinding the invitation sent to the Bureau Chief of Outlook magazine to attend that same High Commission reception because it was highly and visibly critical of Canada’s role, specifically Prime Minister Trudeau role (April 2017) in tolerating Sikh separatism. That smacks of political desperation and reaffirms my contention that the Trudeau mission to India was a massive political and diplomatic failure and the PMO knows it and is running scared.
That Mr Atwal, a terrorist sympathizer at the very least, was active in Liberal Party politics in Surry, BC, is that party’s problem ~ but it is one that I suspect and fear, again, is shared by too many Conservative and NDP rising associations.
Once again: Someone should have learned something from this fiasco and someone should be thinking about remedial action.
I think that Mr Butts, Ms Purchase and Ms Telford formed part of a brilliant election campaign team in 2015; they’ll almost certainly do a good job between now and the 2019 election, too … at campaigning, but the big problem is that they are the “office” of the man who is supposed to be leading Canada and they seem, to me, to be “just not ready” for that task. Senior Liberals should be asking themselves if their country and even their party is being well served.
If my guess is right, if the PMO has bungled our foreign and trade relationships throughout Asia while in pursuit of partisan political advantages at home, then that chicken may come home to roost and the Liberals may pay a price in 2019. If I was a senior Liberal ~ someone like, say, Scott Brison, Mark Garneau or Ralph Goodale and their equivalents in the Party’s backrooms ~ I would be asking the prime minister to reestablish his winning campaign team (Butts, Purchase, Telford et al) in the Party’s central office, we’re only 18 months from the election, so it’s time, and rebuild his PMO with better political, policy and governance professionals.
But, of course, there is a problem … a real prime minister would need a staff to help coordinate his or her plans and policies and goals, but, as I said, Justin Trudeau isn’t a real prime minister, not even in his own mind … he seems to think he is a ceremonial head of state, not the leader of a working government. The plans and policies and goals belong to Gerald Butts and Katie Telford and other Liberals, Justin Trudeau is just their ventriloquist’s dummy who’s primary role is to charm young people and make them love him … and I suspect he’s still doing that; my guess is that the Indian fiasco will not dim the real affection which many, many Canadians have for Justin Trudeau.
But, the India trip should be a wake up call for Canada.
* That when I decided that Lester B Pearson’s decision bring the “Three Wise Men” (Jean Marchand, Gérard Pelletier and Pierre Trudeau) from Quebec into the Liberal Party and government was a dreadful mistake which made the Liberals impossible to trust with the government of Canada. My views of that decision and the Liber al Party have not changed.