There’s a well-worn yarn that surrounds Canada’s minister of national defence. Aged 19, while training with the Canadian army reserve, Harjit Sajjan noticed a problem. As a religious Sikh, army-issue gasmasks wouldn’t fit over his beard, barring him from frontline combat and training in chemical warfare. Unwilling to be hampered by the requirements of his faith, Sajjan invented his own: a mask that seals around the neck, beneath the beard, with a built-in cooling pack at the back. He even won a patent for his design.
Early ingenuity aside, Sajjan was something of a surprise choice when prime minister Justin Trudeau appointed him to helm Canada’s defence ministry in 2015. A former detective with the Vancouver police department, where he and his team garnered praise for tackling organised crime in the city, and a decorated veteran of three tours of duty in Afghanistan with the Canadian army reserve, the Punjab-born politician had been a member of parliament for barely a month when the top job at the defence ministry came up.
Sajjan took over the defence portfolio at a time when Canada’s military persona was shifting; under his Conservative predecessors a hawkish defence policy made joining the fray a higher priority than the country’s storied peacekeeping efforts. Not anymore. Sajjan has been tasked with implementing a more nuanced defence policy in Trudeau’s Canada, where the training of foreign militaries, gathering intelligence and peacekeeping in conflict zones are the focus. His calm, softly spoken approach, which earned him praise as an intelligence-gatherer in Kandahar province, qualify him for the task, his supporters say.
But a divisive new surveillance policy, a near-miss attack on home soil in August and a fluid security climate overseas have posed significant difficulties for Canada’s newest minister of defence during his first year in office.
Monocle:The previous Conservative government boosted Canada’s participation in training militaries involved in conflicts overseas. That’s a policy you have continued. Why is that an area you believe Canadian forces can be particularly effective in?
Harjit Sajjan: It’s our strongest card. We felt that we shouldn’t only be looking at the immediate threats. For example, in Iraq we’re doing a lot of training with the police and looking at how to professionalise the military there even further, making sure that they have a bureaucratic system that can support the functioning of a robust military. What we’re trying to really do is prevent a country or a region from actually getting into a conflict situation in the first place.
M:Does that mean a shift from active combat to other areas for your military forces?
HS: Our core capability will be for high-intensity conflict so we will always have a full-combat capability. But we also need to be agile enough to be able to deal with different conflicts and the changing nature of conflict around the world.
M:But Canadian fighter jets were withdrawn from the international coalition against Isis in Syria and Iraq earlier this year. Why was that?
HS: I travelled to the region in my second month in office and I asked myself, hand on heart, are we really having an impact on the ground? If you don’t get the use of military force right are you potentially making the problem worse? We analysed the gaps in the campaign and offered up what we thought could fill them most effectively. We doubled our intelligence operations and tailored them to what the commanders told us they needed. In terms of capacity-building we didn’t just triple our number of military training personnel in the region but sent specialists whose expertise would be of use in the longer term, on the ground. When it comes to conflict, a non-combat approach might make it seem like you’re taking a little bit longer in your mission but we wanted Canada’s contribution in the region to be meaningful.
M:This summer you announced that Canada’s military forces will once again play a role in international peacekeeping. Why had contributions to missions such as these declined so significantly since 2009?
HS: It’s regrettable that we pulled out from a lot of UN peacekeeping missions because, at the end of the day, when conflict arises it impacts all of us. So we will be doing more but we will, I hope, be doing it in a much smarter fashion.
M:How nimble do you believe Canada’s defence policy needs to be when facing security challenges that are increasingly fluid?
HS: Every nation has its challenges, whether it’s those we face today or those we’ll face 10 years from now. The important thing is to have a conversation and to make it as broad as possible. We need to include the full range of expert opinion, the structures of our military and assess our capabilities regularly. We concluded Canada’s first full defence review in more than 20 years this year. It has given us a great opportunity to shape our future defence policy.