Many defence ministers pose for photos with military hardware, but few pull off the true badass combat stance as well as Harjit Singh Sajjan — draped in flak jacket and camouflage, gripping an assault rifle on an actual battlefield.
Sajjan was, until recently, a decorated Lieutenant-Colonel in the Armed Forces, the first Sikh Canadian to command an army regiment.
“Command breaks down barriers because no one looks at what you look like when the bullets are flying,” he said in 2011. “Having to carry your, you know, wounded soldiers off the battlefield, not just wounded, but the ones that have been killed and place them into a helicopter, nothing prepares you for that.”
Sajjan, sworn in Wednesday as Canada’s new Minister of National Defence, was, in military lingo, “a trigger puller.”
“He has a taste for the reality of war and that’s very, very important,” said David Bercuson, director of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.
“He will have seen the aftermath of the effect of war on some of our men and women, which is a major issue with veteran’s affairs,” said Bercuson.
Now 44, he arrived in Canada from India with his parents at the age of six. His father worked in a mill and his mother picked berries with an eye to supporting their children through school.
He served as a reservist, and was deployed with the Canadian peacekeeping forces to Bosnia in 1996.
In 2006 he served in Afghanistan, playing a key intelligence advisory role to Brig.-Gen David Fraser in the successful Operation Medusa offensive against the Taliban. He returned to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2011.
Rising to the rank of reserve lieutenant-colonel, he was named commander of the B.C. Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own), in 2012.
Sajjan joined the Vancouver Police Department in 1999. As a detective, he worked in Vancouver’s gang squad to help pull kids off the path to a gangster’s life.
He took the techniques he learned in B.C. to Afghanistan, to fight recruitment to the Taliban.
He previously said a small team of Canadian soldiers built rapport with locals that yielded crucial intelligence on the Taliban defences.
Sajjan’s hands-on combat experience will be appreciated by soldiers, but it also comes with some baggage, said Jack Granatstein, a military historian and fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
“His appointment will be cause for enormous joy within the reserves and of substantial concern within the regular force,” said Granatstein.
“There currently is, and there has been for, well, forever, tension between the reserves and the regs,” he said.
There are many measures of a minister, but when it comes to grassroots knowledge of military service, Sajjan replaces Jason Kenney who, before politics, was president of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. The two ministers before Kenney were both lawyers.
In 2006, Gordon O’Connor, a retired Brigadier-General, was defence minister in a short, unsatisfying tenure.
Prior to O’Connor, Gilles Lamontagne, a bomber pilot in the Second World War who was shot down in 1943 and held as a prisoner of war, was named to the defence portfolio in 1980. The most popular defence minister for many in the military was Barney Danson, who lost an eye in the Battle of Normandy, who was named to Cabinet in 1976.
Both Granatstein and Bercuson said high-ranking military officials often have a hard adjustment to life as a defence minister. Having dodged bullets is not the be-all of what the military wants in a minister.
“A major part of what they will be looking for is how much clout the minister brings to the Cabinet table. Jason Kenney, no doubt, brought a lot of clout,” Granatstein said.