Everyone Thinks Canada's New Defense Minister Is a 'Badass'

Harjit Sajjan is one of four ministers of Sikh origin in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, making the total number of Sikhs in Canada’s federal cabinet the highest in the world. India only has two.
November 5, 2015, 11:30pm

Canada's new defense minister Harjit Sajjan has been proclaimed by the media a "badass" who single-handedly changed how the Canadian military gathered intelligence in Afghanistan — but before all that, as a teen, he fell in with the wrong crowd.

Struggling to find himself, he turned to his Sikh heritage; the warrior tradition of his people, who have historically been persecuted, resonated with him.

"It wasn't really a religious thing. It was an identity thing," he said in an interview with the Vancouver Sun in 2012. "I loved the warrior aspect of it."

Years later, as a detective on the Vancouver police's gang crime unit, he found himself helping to arrest people he used to know.

Sajjan is one of four ministers of Sikh origin in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet, making the total number of Sikhs in Canada's federal cabinet the highest in the world. India, which is home to most of the world's Sikhs, only has two.

Sajjan at his swearing in ceremony. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The 44-year-old Sajjan, who represents a riding in Vancouver, became a warrior in the literal sense of the word, as a decorated soldier in the Canadian army, experience that may serve him well as the manager of all things related to Canada's national defense.

One of his first challenges will be pulling the country out of the bombing campaign against the Islamic State, as promised by the Liberals.

The first Sikh-Canadian to hold the rank of lieutenant-colonel, Sajjan has served in Bosnia-Herzegovina and been deployed three times to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where his work on reducing the Taliban's influence earned him a Meritorious Service Medal and the Military Order of Merit.

"People were turning to the Taliban because of the corruption, and we couldn't defend that," he told the Vancouver Sun in 2012. "That stirred the hornets' nest. There were about 40 of us and we were getting hit every day."

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Having worked to prevent kids from getting sucked into gangs as a cop, Sajjan used his insights to fight the Taliban's recruitment efforts in Afghanistan.

He didn't know what counter-insurgency was until he got there. "But when soldiers' lives are on the line, you learn very quickly."

His prowess as an intelligence officer was highlighted in a 2006 letter from Brigadier-General David Fraser to then-Chief Constable Jamie Graham, obtained by the National Observer.

Fraser praised Sajjan as "the best single Canadian intelligence asset in theatre," crediting his "hard work, personal bravery and dogged determination" for saving many Canadian lives. According to the letter, Sajjan "singlehandedly changed the face of intelligence gathering and analysis in Afghanistan."

"Not only did [Sajjan] display a rare high level of intellect and experience in his analysis, he also demonstrated remarkable personal courage … often working in the face of the enemy to collect data and confirm his suspicions, and placing himself almost daily in situations of grave personal risk."

While his military resume (his release from the army is being processed) is longer than many defense ministers who came before him, Sajjan is a relatively new player in the Canadian political scene and has had a bit of a rocky start.

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A large group of Sikh Liberals left the party when he was selected as a candidate over business man Barj Dhahran. The group said Justin Trudeau had been "manipulated" into into picking Sajjan, who was supported by the World Sikh Organization, a nationalist group fighting for a separate Sikh state in India, considered extremist by some.

But in the race for the riding of Vancouver South, Sajjan proved to be a smart choice, beating out the Tory incumbent in his riding with 48.8 percent of the vote. The online reaction to his cabinet appointment has been overwhelmingly positive — the Liberal Party's tweet welcoming Sajjan into the role was retweeted more than any of the other welcome tweets.

He hasn't said much publicly since his inauguration, though. Pressed to talk about how quickly Canada will abandon the IS mission, he would only say, "I look forward to actually making an informed decision down the road."

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk