Hudson on the Hill

"Politics is a blood sport."
HUDSON ON THE HILL  |  Dec 10, 2015

Truth be told, there were more than a few “Whiskey Tangos” heard when Harjit Singh Sajjan, a newly-minted Member of Parliament and turban-wearing Sikh, was named Minister of National Defence. With such an unexpected choice, the reaction was predictable, but his appointment by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – from an almost embarrassingly-rich trove of new MPs elected or re-elected on 19 October – seemed inspired once Sajjan’s record as a combat soldier and police detective in Vancouver’s Gangs Division came to light.

Minister Sajjan’s geographically compact but ­ethnically diverse Vancouver South constituency has a fairly high percentage of Sikh voters, a demographic dating to the early 1900s. The swing riding saw Sajjan beat two other Indo-Canadian candidates as well as the Conservative incumbent, Wai Young, who, in 2011, had unseated the Liberal incumbent, Ujjal Dosanj, a Sikh and former federal cabinet minister.

Although Sajjan far out-polled Young, 21,775 votes to 15,108, it was hard-fought. Prominent Sikhs claimed that some 4,000 had quit the Liberal Party in 2014 (a number vigorously disputed by the party), saying Trudeau was being “manipulated” by members of the World Sikh Organization (WSO) into choosing Sajjan over former MP Barj Dhahan.

The allegations of WSO influence evidently flowed from the fact that Sajjan, who immigrated to Canada with his family at the age of five, is the son of a veteran WSO board member who led fundamentalists in a losing battle with moderates over control of a Sikh temple in Vancouver. However, the younger Sajjan, married to a family physician and who has two young children, has denied he was a member of the WSO.

There are some 27 million Sikhs worldwide, about 0.4% of the global population, but 83% live in India, mostly in the Punjab province, despite a long-running diaspora that resulted from growing animosity between Sikhs and Hindus in the 1960s and 1970s. Their monotheistic lifestyle dates to 15th-century Punjab, and ethno-religious ties are so strong that they are a designated religious group on the Canadian census. Sajjan and others wear a distinctive style of turban (many of the younger Sikhs don’t) to protect their uncut hair.

Sikhs have a proud, centuries-old military tradition dating to India’s northwest frontier and the famed Khyber Pass. After the British had annexed the Sikh Kingdom, they began to recruit seasoned campaigners. During the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny against British rule by the Indian army, Sikhs remained loyal to the colonial administration. Apart from legendary Nepalese Ghurka recruits, they remain the only community with exclusive regiments in India.

By the beginning of World War I, there were more than 100,000 Sikhs in the British Indian Army (20% of the force), and their battalions fought in Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Gallipoli and France. Six battalions of the Sikh Regiment were raised during World War II, fighting in the Second Battle of El Alamein as well as in Burma, Italy and Iraq, receiving 27 battle honours. At the end of World War II, 14 Victoria Crosses had been awarded to Sikhs (a per capita regimental record) and in 2002, all VC and George Cross recipients’ names were added to the Memorial Gates monument on Constitution Hill near Buckingham Palace.

Sir Frank Messervy, the General Officer in charge of India’s Northern Command in 1946-47, noted that 83,005 Sikhs were killed and 109,045 wounded while fighting for the British Empire. “During shell fire, they had no other head protection but the turban, the symbol of their faith,” he wrote. Winston Churchill lauded them too. “Within this century, we needed their help twice […] and they did help us very well,” he told his House of Commons. “As a result of their timely help, we are today able to live with honour, dignity, and independence. In the war, they fought and died for us, wearing the turbans.”

It could be argued that Sajjan has “warrior” genes. An image of him in full Canadian Armed Forces combat gear made the rounds on social media shortly after he was sworn into cabinet. With one tour in Bosnia and three in Afghanistan, and 11 years as a Vancouver Police detective in the gang crime unit, the former Lieutenant-Colonel was quickly labelled a “badass” by the media.

Eyes twinkling as he looked at the image on an iPad, he said he “actually chuckled” the first time he saw it. “I was really shocked at the interest in me, because when I got the job, I was like, ‘a big responsibility, I can’t mess this up.’” Pressed to acknowledge if he was, or is, a “badass”, he laughingly demurred. “Uh, no. My kids […] can say something to me and almost put me to tears.”

So there’s a soft core inside the hard shell, useful when considering the Canadian Armed Forces’ role in the new government’s proposed intake of 25,000 Syrian refugees. That has proven to be a bigger challenge than Trudeau originally expected when he announced the goal during the prolonged election campaign, mainly due to heightened security concerns. However, Sajjan said “absolutely we’ll be involved”, which will mean not only security checks but also transport and providing temporary housing on military bases across Canada.

Sajjan was the first Sikh to command a Canadian army regiment: The British Columbia Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own). He has also been awarded several military honours, notably the Meritorious Service Medal in 2013 for moderating the Taliban’s influence in Kandahar province when he headed up the Multinational Brigade for Regional Command South in Afghanistan (February to October 2006).

“He was the best single Canadian intelligence asset in theatre, and his hard work, personal bravery, and dogged determination undoubtedly saved a multitude of coalition lives,” BGen David Fraser wrote in a letter to the Vancouver police. Fraser, NATO’s southern Afghan command during the early months of the Kandahar campaign, said that Sajjan, “through his courage and dedication […] has singlehandedly changed the face of intelligence gathering and analysis in Afghanistan.”

After the election, Fraser said that “nobody should underestimate” the new minister. “Some people in Ottawa are going to want to pick on him because he’s new, but let me tell you: he is tough, smart and determined […] I’m a fan and I admit it.” He explained that he had chosen Sajjan for the liaison challenge “because of his experience in dealing with gangs, because the Taliban were nothing more than bunch thugs and gangs.”

The only advice for his former subordinate is that he shouldn’t make the same mistake as Gordon O’Connor, an Ottawa-area Conservative who was then Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s first defence minister. The former BGen, who retired after more than 30 years in the Army and then tried to run the military as well as DND, didn’t last on the portfolio.

In that vein, there were inevitable questions about why Andrew Leslie, the retired Lieutenant General who won an Ottawa-area seat for the Liberals in his first bid for elected office, hadn’t been chosen for the Defence portfolio. The answer is straightforward: as a rising star in the Canadian Army, he had annoyed many at DND when, in his role as Chief of Transformation, his restructuring report recommended ways to cut bloat within the leadership levels of the department. Even though he had been an unelected foreign affairs and defence advisor to Trudeau for two years, putting Leslie in charge at DND could have been problematic.

Instead, Leslie’s proven organization skills and command experience made him a natural fit for Government Whip, responsible for keeping Liberal MPs informed on House and Senate business and for ensuring they turn out for votes and committee meetings. A role occasionally likened to “herding cats”, it could be even more of a challenge for Leslie in that Trudeau has promised that his caucus will be free to vote their conscience except on “critical” issues.

Meanwhile, the government struggles to meet not only Trudeau’s refugee targets for refugees but also Trudeau’s commitment to pull Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornet fighters out of the international campaign against the so-called Islamic State (IS) or Daesh (a derogatory term used by the rest of the Muslim world).

Then there is the long-running debate about what will replace the Hornets as the RCAF’s line fighter. The ousted Conservative administration’s sole-source approach to acquiring Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II through the multinational Joint Strike Fighter program had been a political millstone, thanks mainly to uncertainties about cost and the secretiveness surrounding the capability itself.

Trudeau has promised an “open” competition, which could include the Boeing FA/18 Super Hornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Saab Gripen from Sweden and the Dassault Rafale from France. It is hard to imagine that an “open” competition will be “closed” to Lockheed’s F-35, however, the requirements (which were never previously written) will likely eliminate any chance for the F-35 to compete. The Conservatives tried to distance themselves from the controversy by setting up a fighter secretariat, but now the Liberals, with the rebadged Public Services and Procurement Canada, have kick-started a new Fighter Procurement Office.

In a wide-ranging CBC interview in late November, Sajjan said there was no date set for withdrawing the Hornets and, asked whether they might continue until the end of the current commitment next March, said he wanted “to make sure that we have good discussions with our allies before we make a decision.”

What will Canada do in that theatre afterward? Possibly limit the RCAF presence to its Airbus CC-150 Polaris tanker and Lockheed Martin CP-140 Aurora intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform, both of which have been critical to successful missions against Daesh.

“We need to get better as an international coalition […] making sure that we identify [threats] early so they don’t balloon into these big threats,” Sajjan told the CBC. “They were smaller at one time, we need to get better at identifying the subtle indicators so we might be able to have dealt with it diplomatically. Canada has a lot to offer, we want to make sure that anything we do as part of that is going to have a meaningful impact.” As well, training locals will remain a key element of whatever role Canada chooses. He says it is “absolutely necessary if we’re going to be looking at a long-term solution.”

Clearly, the new minister’s credentials and influence within cabinet and caucus certainly are going to be tested in the coming months, not to mention the world stage. With politics aptly described by Welsh politician Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960) as a “blood sport”, Sajjan’s warrior genes will come in handy.

Hudson on the Hill
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