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A Defence Minister Who Knows Reality of War







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.

Harjit Singh 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.”

Harjit, sworn in Wednesday (November 4, 2015) as Canada’s new Minister of National Defence, was, in military lingo, “a trigger puller.”

He was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina and three times to Afghanistan, for which he was awarded one of the military’s highest recognitions, the Order of Military Merit, for reducing the Taliban’s influence in Kandahar Province.

“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.

Although few details of Harjit’s military service are widely known, his personal story has brought accolades of being a “war hero” and a “trailblazer.”

Now 44, he arrived in Canada from Punjab 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.

Harjit 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.

Harjit’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, Harjit 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.

[Courtesy: National Post. Edited for]
November 5, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Ishverjeet Singh Sidhu (Klang, Malaysia), November 05, 2015, 6:50 AM.

"You are only 2% of India's population? Really?" asked a surprised Gulf (Arab) colleague when he read the recent cabinet announcements from Canada. "I see them a lot in ... ", and he proceeded to name a few cities around the Gulf. Besides the obvious proud moment for Sikhs, this news is timely and fitting as we reflect on 1984 and the current situation in Punjab and India.

2: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), November 05, 2015, 5:02 PM.

"Dae sivaa bar moi eihai shubh karman tae kabhon na taron" (Dasam Granth) - "Grant me this boon, O Lord, that I may never deter from performing righteous deeds." Harjit Singh ji, may you always be blessed with this Guru's Prayer.

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