OTTAWA, Nov 7, 2015:
Sporting a turban and a thick beard, decorated soldier Harjit Sajjan stood out in the Canadian military, but as Defence Minister he is among several Sikhs appointed to key positions in Justin Trudeau’s administration.
The veteran of wars in Bosnia and Afghanistan was appointed to the senior ministerial post on Wednesday, when Trudeau and his cabinet were sworn in, following the Liberals’ Oct 19 election victory.
At age 45, he takes on one of the toughest jobs of the new administration.
He will be responsible for winding down Canada’s combat mission against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, withdrawing from the US-led F-35 fighter jet programme and quashing sexual misconduct in the military.
He will also sit on the new government’s most powerful cabinet committees, including public safety and espionage.
Born in Punjab, India in 1970, Sajjan moved to Canada with his family at age five, settling in the Pacific coast city of Vancouver.
He worked 11 years as a police officer, including a stint as a detective with the gang crimes unit, before joining the Canadian military and rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.
Ironically, he was reportedly rejected by the first unit where he applied 26 years ago, but stuck it out.
He would go on to deploy four times overseas to Bosnia and Afghanistan — where he earned honours for helping to weaken the Taliban’s influence — and became the first Sikh to command a Canadian army regiment.
“He was the best single Canadian intelligence asset in theatre (in Afghanistan) and his hard work, personal bravery, and dogged determination undoubtedly saved a multitude of coalition lives,” said David Fraser, former commander of the Multinational Brigade in southern Afghanistan, in a short biography of the Liberal candidate for the Vancouver South electoral district.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Fraser said Sajjan was a “true warrior” who thrives in the face of adversity.
“I picked him (for the Afghanistan job) because of his experience in dealing with gangs because the Taliban were nothing more than bunch of thugs and gangs,” Fraser told the daily.
Entering politics, Sajjan faced a messy nomination that split the large Vancouver Sikh community.
Many ripped up their Liberal membership cards over the backing he received from former leaders of the World Sikh Organisation (WSO), including Sajjan’s own father.
The WSO, which has long advocated for the creation of a Sikh homeland, was criticised in the past for praising Air India bomb-maker Inderjit Reyat, who remains the only person convicted in the 1985 attack on a jetliner that killed 329 passengers and crew over the Atlantic Ocean, southwest of Ireland.
“I am not a member of the WSO. I’ve had no negative vibes from anybody,” Sajjan told public broadcaster CBC last year.
On Wednesday, WSO president Amritpal Sing Shergill praised the record number of Sikh MPs that would be serving in the new Parliament.
They include three men and a woman in the cabinet — Sajjan, Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains and Small Business and Tourism Minister Bardish Chagger.
This comes nearly two decades after Herb Dhaliwal became the first Indo-Canadian to be appointed to the cabinet.
“Punjabi is now the third most common language at Parliament Hill,” the seat of Canada’s government, Shergill said.
Settling into his new job while still a lieutenant in the army reserves, Sajjan is in the unusual position of maybe having to take orders from generals who answer to him as minister.
Among them are the chief of the Defence Staff, General Jon Vance, who requested Sajjan’s specialised skills in counter-insurgency and Afghanistan tribal politics for a 2009 mission in Kandahar.
Sajjan has asked to be released from the Canadian forces, but it has not yet been finalised.
“If we all of a sudden send soldiers in harm’s way and my skills are absolutely needed for the mission, I’d be happy to take a leave of absence from being a member of Parliament and share the risk with the other members of the CAF (Canadian Armed Forces),” Sajjan told the Canadian Military Family Magazine during the campaign.