Battle tested: Canada's new defence minister is a street-smart, combat-hardened soldier
If there is one defining character trait Canada’s new minister of defence possesses, it’s an ability to assess someone else’s agenda.
Harjit Sajjan’s been doing it most of his life. First as a teenager growing up in the same neigbourhoods he now represents as the Member of Parliament for Vancouver South.
He was in grade eight and about to transfer with his crowd to the closest high school when he figured out where that might lead him. Many of his friends were starting to join gangs which were rife in the Indo-Canadian community at the time. So Sajjan chose to go to a different school for grade nine, which meant a much longer commute, but removed him from what might have been a life of crime. He figured out what they were up to.
“And I kind of surprised myself to be honest, after the fact, I think why I actually made that choice,” he told W5 during an hour-long interview in his new office in the headquarters of the Department of National Defence.
Later in life, Sajjan dedicated himself to fighting crime, embedding himself within his own Indo-Canadian community. Not a lot is known publicly about the police work he did as a member of Vancouver’s gang unit, but it was sufficiently dangerous that he is cautious to this day about revealing much of what he did.
There are very few public pictures of him from this period and a personal social media trail (as opposed to his political one) is non-existent. It is reasonable to assume he played a central role in trying to figure out who was trying to do what to whom in the hotbed of Indo-Canadian politics in the nineties. Figuring out agendas would have been an important asset in trying to reduce the violence within the community at that time.
It was also a valuable asset during his soldiering in Afghanistan. On a tour in 2006 just before Operation Medusa launched in September, Sajjan collected much of the raw information that enabled a team to determine how many Taliban fighters Canadians would be facing, and who their commanders were. Maj- General (ret) David Fraser credits him with helping to make the battle a decisive win.
“That gave us enough information that we used with other pieces of intelligence to put together a map of what was going on the battlefield and able to create plans to actually address it,” he told W5.
Sajjan says he’s able to extract clues to what people are up to by appealing to their innate decency, and approaching them with humility.
“When you’re genuine and you build genuine rapport, you care in a meaningful way, when you’ve earned their trust, you never have to ask for anything,” he explained. “I wasn’t asking for anything, but people started offering information, explaining what’s really going on.”
Below image courtesy of Jason A. Das www.jasonadas.com
Spotting agendas and building trust are qualities which may come in handy for Sajjan’s current mission. Many previous ministers of national defence have spoken of the intensely political nature of the department, and how often they found themselves entangled in competing agendas. Change isn’t something the military embraces easily, and the Liberal platform is proposing a lot of change, along with reductions in headquarters staffing.
A minister with a lifetime experience in judging character, building rapport, and the toughness to confront those who try to cross him is better positioned than most to take on the agendas.
But as Sajjan has already discovered in his new job, sometimes the agendas aren’t internal -- sometimes they are thrust on you by the world. And in the case of the prime minister’s pledge this week to provide more support on the ground to fighting ISIS, Sajjan hasn’t been given much time to figure out who’s going to give him what he needs to succeed, and who might be working against him.