Harjit Sajjan: Canada’s ‘bad-ass’ defence minister

Trudeau’s commando-in-chief reveals a curiously unsoldier-like skill

Harjit Sajjan. (Liam Hennessey/Applehead Studio)

Harjit Sajjan. (Liam Hennessey/Applehead Studio)

Harjit Sajjan has an understated way of talking about his days combatting drug gangs as a Vancouver police detective or uncovering the secrets of Taliban networks as a reserve officer during three tours of duty in Afghanistan. But the voice of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s surprise choice as his minister of national defence takes on a tone of greater urgency when the subject is picking berries.

Sajjan, now 45, came to Vancouver from a village in India as a five-year-old with his mother and sister, joining his father who had immigrated to British Columbia a few years before to find work in a sawmill. As the family struggled to get established, the way immigrant families always have, his mother made money by working through the summer months on the berry farms of B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

So from the time Sajjan and his sister, who is two years older, were small children, until they were in adolescence, their mother would wake them before sunrise on summer days to catch a van that swung though their south Vancouver neighbourhood, picking up immigrants and driving them to the fields. “I hated it,” Sajjan says. “Imagine every single day getting picked up at 5 a.m. and you’re not going to get back until 7 or 8 p.m.”

Sajjan’s sister, now a Harvard-educated entrepreneur living in Seattle, still teases her little brother about how he played too much to be a good picker, and was too focused on eating the lunch their mother packed. “I whined about it for myself, but later I realized how hard my mom had to work,” he says. There were blueberries and raspberries at different stages in the picking season, but strawberries, which grow on lower bushes, were hardest to pick. “Either you’re on your knees or you’re sitting down,” he recalls.

While Sajjan’s combat-zone and policing exploits seem to be what set him apart from most politicians, his experience with agricultural piecework may have been more definitive. “My generation, other friends I grew up with, a lot of whom are very successful now, we met berry picking,” he says. “We’re the only kids that wanted a longer school year and wanted it to rain in the summertime.” Wet weather meant the vans wouldn’t be coming that day to collect the pickers.

Related listening: Sarjjan in conversation with Maclean’s on the Hill

In his early weeks as Trudeau’s defence minister, immigration figured prominently for Sajjan. His first pressing assignment was making sure the Canadian Forces contributed to the new government’s signature goal of bringing thousands of Syrian refugees to Canada quickly. Others might wonder how those Syrians will adjust, but Sajjan professes to have no doubts. “They’re going to be up and on their feet so fast—that’s how I remember it,” he says. “It’s not just about skills. It’s about the kind of people you bring in.” He sees the Syrian refugees as certain to be hard working, and their children as “the real immigration strategy.”

To hear him enthuse about the benefits of immigration for Canada, and the near certainty of newcomers achieving the Canadian dream, it’s possible to imagine that his own path might have been—those early berry-picking mornings notwithstanding—a smooth rise to success. That hasn’t been the case. Sajjan is a turban-wearing member of British Columbia’s Sikh minority, a community that has often attracted more than its share of bigotry from outside and been riven by more than its share of strife from within.

Sajjan talks of facing overt racism, particularly when he was training as a reservist in the Canadian military. As well, his entry into politics in 2014 as Liberal candidate in the Vancouver South riding revealed fault lines between Sikhs, although he says those tensions eased in 2015. He is one of four Sikhs in Trudeau’s cabinet—a remarkable contingent for a minority that represents only about 1.4 per cent of the country’s population. The others are Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains, Infrastructure and Communities Minister Amarjeet Sohi and Small Business and Tourism Minister Bardish Chagger.

Related reading: Meet eight Liberal ministers with the toughest portfolios

Bains is arguably the most powerful of the four, as an insider in Trudeau’s circle and a key lieutenant in the retaking of dozens of suburban Toronto ridings from the Conservatives in the Oct. 19 election. Still, in the days after Trudeau named his cabinet on Nov. 4, Sajjan attracted by far the most attention. The main reason was that a photograph circulated showing the new defence minister in full battle gear during one of his stints in Afghanistan, grinning from behind wraparound sunglasses. Backing up that arresting image were details of glowing accounts from Sajjan’s military superiors, prompting social media to dub him the “badass” of Trudeau’s cabinet.

His first deployment to the southern Afghan province of Kandahar was in 2006, when Canadian troops fought against fierce Taliban resistance in what was called Operation Medusa. Sajjan was on leave from his regular job as a police officer, and when he returned home, Brig.-Gen. David Fraser sent a letter to the Vancouver Police Department, praising Sajjan as “the best single Canadian intelligence asset in theatre,” and crediting him with saving “a multitude of coalition lives.” Not only was Sajjan brave, Fraser said, he had “single-handedly changed the face of intelligence gathering and analysis in Afghanistan.” Sajjan returned to Kandahar for another tour with the Canadian Forces in 2009, and then, the following year, was loaned to the U.S. as a special assistant to Maj.-Gen. James Terry, who was then commanding American forces in Afghanistan’s southern provinces.

The Honourable Harjit S. Sajjan, Minister of National Defence, addresses the ship’s company of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship WINNIPEG on the ship’s flight deck during his visit to the ship on December 23, 2015 during Operation REASSURANCE. (Cpl Stuart MacNeil/NCSM Winnipeg Camera)

The Honourable Harjit S. Sajjan, Minister of National Defence, addresses the ship’s company of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship WINNIPEG on the ship’s flight deck during his visit to the ship on December 23, 2015 during Operation REASSURANCE. (Cpl Stuart MacNeil/NCSM Winnipeg Camera)

Sajjan says his success in Kandahar grew mainly out of his ability to talk to village leaders over countless cups of tea, patiently earning their trust. His turban signified something important to them. They knew he wasn’t a Muslim, but respected the “warrior culture” of the Sikhs. Sajjan was able to meet Muslim religious leaders who carry a great deal of authority and prestige in the district. As well, there was enough similarity between his family’s native Punjabi language and a dialect spoken in Kandahar for him to converse without translators.

They came to trust him. “I don’t know how many times my life was saved and my soldiers’ lives were saved because I’d get a message [from a local leader] saying there’s going to be an ambush, or there’s going to be a suicide bomber, or you’re going to get hit tonight by mortar fire or something,” he says.

During Operation Medusa, Sajjan’s contacts among local leaders provided detailed information about where the Taliban was strong, allowing the coalition forces to strike in the right places at the right times. He also talked to Afghan fathers about keeping their sons from joining the Taliban. That was similar, Sajjan says, to conversations he’d had as a police officer back in Vancouver with parents who feared their sons were drifting into street gangs. “People think that ‘badass’ is about fighting, but we also got the population that was serving the Taliban to come back to our side,” he says. “And we reduced recruitment; a lot of sons who were fighting for the Taliban, we got them off the battlefield.”

Related reading: Inside Trudeau’s Zen army 

Although Sajjan describes making sense of Kandahar mainly through a combination of street smarts and cultural sensitivity, he also kept up on academic research. In early 2007, he sent an email to Barnett Rubin, perhaps the leading U.S. expert on Afghanistan, and author of several books, including most recently Afghanistan from the Cold War Through the War on Terror. Sajjan had read an article by Rubin in the journal Foreign Affairs called “Saving Afghanistan,” and passed along his own assessment about what to do about Afghanistan’s opium economy and its connections to state corruption and Taliban financing.

Rubin and Sajjan struck up a correspondence, met at conferences, and later collaborated as advisers to the U.S. military and diplomatic leadership in Afghanistan. In an interview, Rubin explained how Sajjan’s background in police work suited the challenges he encountered on the ground in Kandahar. “Harjit’s skill set as a police detective dealing with street gangs was exactly the right skill set for dealing with the Taliban,” he says. “Because of his contacts he was able to finally understand the Taliban information operation, and therefore provide the information for countering it.”

Sajjan also drew on a feeling for traditional rural life that stems from his family’s roots in India. He spent his earliest years in Bombeli, a farming village in Punjab, where the Sikh religion was founded in the 16th century. (Most of the world’s 20 million Sikhs still live in Punjab; in Canada, according to 2011 census figures, about 455,000 people reported they were affiliated with the Sikh religion.)

Although he was only five when he left Bombeli for Vancouver, Sajjan’s memories are vivid. “We were a farming family,” he says. “We ate what we grew: wheat, corn, sugar cane. Different vegetables for making dinner.” He remembers his grandmother carrying huge bundles of fresh-cut fodder for their animals on her head. They owned three oxen, two that worked, and a lazy black one that preferred following around a little boy. “People had pet dogs, I had a pet ox,” he says.

There was no plumbing in their house; they fetched water from one of the village wells in clay vessels. Meals were cooked over an open fire. He and his sister went barefoot most of the time, not because they were too poor to own shoes, but because they preferred it.

When they moved with their mother to Vancouver in 1976, they had to get used to being indoors more often. But Sajjan says they adapted well. After-school hours were filled by “your typically Canadian things—street hockey was huge.” He attended Walter Moberly Elementary School, which is not far from a large Sikh temple, and where many of the students are of South Asian descent. “A lot of interesting characters came out of Moberly, the good and the bad,” Sajjan says. “There were racial issues. But our group of friends hated bullies; we’d always band together.”

As he was entering his early teens, Sajjan says he was an indifferent student. He came to a turning point. He credits a Grade 9 social studies teacher with encouraging him in his school work and instilling new confidence. It happened the teacher was also a naval veteran, and spoke inspiringly of military service. While he grew more focused in the classroom, Sajjan also decided to start wearing the turban and following a more strict form of Sikhism. “I needed a commitment to stay out of trouble, including alcohol and other things,” he says. His parents didn’t push him in that direction, he says, although his father was a prominent member of the World Sikh Organization, which is widely identified with a traditional form of the religion.

Deciding to wear the turban as a teenager made Sajjan a much more visible Sikh. “Some people from our own East Indian community said, ‘Oh, you’re going to have problems. How are you going to go dating?’ I didn’t have any problems with that,” he says. “I realized early on that people are attracted by confidence.”

Aspiring to become a military pilot, he joined the army reserves straight out of high school in 1989. Basic training in Vernon, B.C., was a jolt. “That’s when some of the racial issues really hit,” he says. “At that time the Canadian Forces were going through that transition to be more inclusive.” Instructors told him he didn’t belong in the army, and, as Sajjan terms it, “beasted” him more than other recruits. He talked to his father about quitting. “He said, ‘Yeah, sure, come on home. But do realize that every other person who wears a turban, or every other person in a minority, will be labelled a failure if you leave now.’ So I sucked it up.”

He graduated as the top candidate from his class. Instructors had gradually eased up on him when he outworked his peers. “If you just perform, it’s the best way to change somebody’s viewpoint,” he says. His commanding officer suggested he continue on to officer training, which led him to Gagetown, N.B., and later to bases all over Western Canada.

His first overseas deployment as a junior captain was on a NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, after the former Yugoslavia’s messy disintegration. “I connected with the Serb community,” he says. “Everybody back then was saying the Serbs were evil because of what they had done. But when you talked to people in these villages, they were just regular families.”

Making friends among the Serbians was a precursor to the approach Sajjan would use so successfully in Afghanistan. “I’d be invited to their homes for meals—I had the freedom to do that. I wasn’t an intelligence officer, but they would share information. I never asked for anything; they knew the challenges we were facing. If you’re genuine and you really genuinely want to help people, they will look after you.”

Returning home, he decided against a full-time military career. Instead, he joined the Vancouver Police Department, which assigned him to his familiar South Vancouver neighbourhood as his first patrol in the summer of 1999. “I loved it,” he says. “You can make a difference every single day.” He was settling down, having married a University of British Columbia medical student in 1996. Dr. Kuljit Kaur Sajjan now has a family practice in Vancouver. Sajjan says they haven’t yet decided how to organize their family life, with their two young children, between Vancouver and Ottawa.

He served on the Vancouver police force for 11 years, rising to become a detective in a unit specializing in combatting drug gangs. Asked if he encountered any old school acquaintances on the wrong side of the law, he answers, “Quite a few.”

He describes his police work as “multi-layered.” Realizing that breaking and entering spiked near dilapidated houses after they were rented to drug users, Sajjan and his partners persuaded landlords to be more selective about their tenants. They worked at sorting out the players in drug networks, targeting for arrest the individuals whose imprisonment would most hurt distribution. But early intervention, he concluded, is the best strategy. “If you don’t prevent these kids from getting into a life of crime, and you deal with it after the fact, you may pat yourself on the back for getting somebody off the street, but they still create victims.”

Having already taken two leaves of duty from the police force to serve in Kandahar, Sajjan had to resign to accept his assignment to advise Gen. Terry for a third stint in Afghanistan in 2010. He returned to take up the position of commanding officer of the British Columbia Regiment, although still as a reservist, rather than a regular soldier. Asked about how he began the transition to politics, he is circumspect. By the winter of 2014, however, Trudeau’s team was making a point of showcasing Sajjan at a key Liberal policy convention in Montreal. Late that year, with their backing, he won the Liberal nomination in Vancouver South, after former Liberal MP Barj Dhahan, a prominent businessman and a pillar of the B.C. Sikh community, withdrew from the race. Their rivalry was reported in Vancouver as pitting fundamentalist Sikhs who backed Sajjan, including World Sikh Organization members, against non-turban-wearing moderates, who lined up behind Dhahan.

But Dhahan said in an interview he didn’t see it that way. He told Maclean’s his complaint, which led him to leave the Liberal party, was over what he viewed as Trudeau’s organizers throwing their weight behind Sajjan to a degree that distorted what should have been a local, grassroots contest. “So it wasn’t an issue about the Sikh community as such, that there was an element supporting me and an element supporting Harjit Sajjan,” Dhahan says. “I wasn’t seeking the nomination as a Sikh candidate.”

As for Sajjan, he also argues news reports exaggerated the split between Sikh factions. To the degree that the nomination opened up rifts, he says they have healed over the past year or so. “Just because I may wear a turban doesn’t put me in a different category,” he says. “Having known my community quite well, I knew [my candidacy] was going to unite the different groups.”

After his victory over a Tory incumbent in Vancouver South on Oct. 19, Sajjan’s name circulated in cabinet speculation. However, another rookie MP, retired general Andrew Leslie, who had won an Ottawa seat, was more widely touted as a likely defence minister. After all, Leslie had commanded the army in which Sajjan merely served.

But Trudeau went with the less obvious choice, catching Ottawa by surprise and sparking an unintended social media sensation. Even those who had seen Sajjan as a rising star were surprised. “I knew that Harjit was very ambitious,” says Rubin. “I called him right after the election and we had a couple of conversations. He kind of wanted to see if I could help him get himself publicized in the press, so that people would know what he did from sources other than him.” Sajjan didn’t tell Rubin what post he was hoping for, though, and the U.S. academic says, “It never occurred to me that he would be minister of defence.”

If Sajjan is daunted, he doesn’t show it. “I have a deputy minister and a chief of defence staff,” he says. “I have full confidence in them.” Yet he faces tough early decisions. Foremost among them is how to fulfill the controversial Liberal campaign promise to withdraw Canadian fighter jets from the U.S.-led coalition bombing Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria. Trudeau has pledged to instead boost Canada’s contribution to training Iraqi forces for that fight. Already, though, Canadians advising local Kurdish forces in northern Iraq have been involved in combat.

Would an expanded training mission inevitably mean bringing Canadian troops more into harm’s way? As he ponders the alternatives, Sajjan says he views the options through the lens of his own experience. “It does give me a unique perspective,” he says. He means, in this case, his experience in combat zones. But given his background—from berry picking, to overcoming bigotry, to battling criminals and insurgents—Sajjan’s perspective is unique in many ways. If that first glimpse of him in a snapshot piqued our interest, it’s the layers behind the sunglasses and beneath the camouflage that make Sajjan a figure to watch as the Trudeau era unfolds.

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