SURREY, B.C. — A man at the centre of a controversy over Sikh separatism that is hounding the prime minister says he has worked with politicians from a number of parties since he was released from prison for the attempted assassination of an Indian cabinet minister.
Jaspal Atwal said he has asked his social network in Surrey, B.C., to vote for different politicians because he supports what they are trying to achieve in his community.
After working to rebuild his reputation following the 1986 attempt on the cabinet minister's life, Atwal said he's frustrated that some of those who have asked for help have turned on him in public.
"If I'm that dangerous, then why the hell are they calling me?" Atwal said in an interview with the Canadian Press on Saturday. He declined another interview on Monday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office has distanced itself from Atwal, saying he is not a "friend" of Trudeau, after Atwal was invited to a pair of events during Trudeau's recent official visit to India.
Atwal said the pair once sat together in Atwal's Hummer, about nine years ago, and the prime minister knows him by name. While he called it a "good relationship," he said he did not consider Trudeau a "friend."
He said Trudeau has never asked him for help on a campaign.
Atwal was convicted of attempting to kill Indian cabinet minister Malkiat Singh Sidhu during a visit to Vancouver Island. He was also charged, but not convicted, in connection with a 1985 attack on Ujjal Dosanjh, a staunch opponent of the Sikh separatist movement, who later became B.C. premier and a federal Liberal cabinet minister.
New Democrat Jinny Sims and former Liberal legislature member Brenda Locke both asked for his help in the 2017 B.C. election, Atwal said.
Sims, who is now minister of citizens' services, denied the claim in a statement, saying she has met Atwal but she does not know him well and has never invited him to campaign for her.
"During campaigns, extensive outreach for volunteers takes place including through mass messages. It is possible that Mr. Atwal has received such a message, however it would not have been at my request," Sims said.
Locke said she asked everyone she knows to talk to their friends about voting for her, including Atwal.
"He obviously knows a lot of people in Surrey. He's lived there a long time and is active in the community. And so, like every politician in Surrey does, you talk to people you know who know people. That's how politics works," said Locke, who lost her seat in Surrey-Green Timbers.
"The Jaspal Atwal I know is a community-minded person in the city of Surrey. He's a grandfather, his grandkids play hockey. That's who I know."
Atwal said he doesn't understand why there is controversy when he attends some political events but not others. He said he attended several events in Ottawa hosted by the former Conservative government when it was led by then-prime minister Stephen Harper, with no issue.
Atwal shared with The Canadian Press photos of himself with former B.C. premier Christy Clark and former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, plus a copy of a reference letter that he says former Conservative MP Gurmant Grewal wrote for him in 2002.
"Since his release from prison in 1992, Mr. Atwal has been coping with his rehabilitation and is becoming a productive member of society," the letter says.
Grewal couldn't be reached for comment, but in an interview with the Vancouver Sun at the time he said he didn't remember writing the letter.
Atwal said he gets no personal gain from helping politicians win votes, only the satisfaction of helping his community.
"If you're not involved, how are you going to change (things). I never ask them to do anything for me," Atwal said.
Atwal said he's frustrated that he can't seem to escape the label of "terrorist" so many years after he paid his dues. He doesn't understand why people don't remember him for getting a gash across his throat when he tried to stop a suspected shoplifter in Vancouver when he was 29.
"It's not just in Punjab, Vancouver. All over the world, they're showing I'm the biggest terrorist," Atwal said.
He said he feels disappointed, "but at the same time, I'm not going to stop. I'm against the Khalistan. I learned my lesson."
Amy Smart, The Canadian Press