Dec­o­rated Sikh soldier takes com­mand of Canada’s army

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

OT­TAWA: Sport­ing a tur­ban and a thick beard, dec­o­rated soldier Har­jit Sa­j­jan stood out in the Cana­dian mil­i­tary, but as de­fense min­is­ter he is among sev­eral Sikhs ap­pointed to key po­si­tions in Justin Trudeau’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. The vet­eran of wars in Bos­nia and Afghanistan was ap­pointed to the se­nior min­is­te­rial post on Wed­nes­day, when Trudeau and his cabi­net were sworn in, fol­low­ing the Lib­er­als’ Oc­to­ber 19 elec­tion vic­tory. At age 45, he takes on one of the tough­est jobs of the new ad­min­is­tra­tion. He will be re­spon­si­ble for wind­ing down Canada’s com­bat mis­sion against the Is­lamic State group in Iraq and Syria, with­draw­ing from the US-led F-35 fighter jet pro­gram and quash­ing sex­ual mis­con­duct in the mil­i­tary.

He will also sit on the new gov­ern­ment’s most pow­er­ful cabi­net com­mit­tees, in­clud­ing pub­lic safety and es­pi­onage. Born in Pun­jab, In­dia in 1970, Sa­j­jan moved to Canada with his fam­ily at age five, set­tling in the Pa­cific coast city of Van­cou­ver. He worked 11 years as a po­lice of­fi­cer, in­clud­ing a stint as a de­tec­tive with the gang crimes unit, be­fore join­ing the Cana­dian mil­i­tary and ris­ing to the rank of lieu­tenant-colonel. Iron­i­cally, he was re­port­edly re­jected by the first unit where he ap­plied 26 years ago, but stuck it out.

He would go on to de­ploy four times over­seas to Bos­nia and Afghanistan-where he earned hon­ors for help­ing to weaken the Tale­ban’s in­flu­ence-and be­came the first Sikh to com­mand a Cana­dian army reg­i­ment. “He was the best sin­gle Cana­dian in­tel­li­gence as­set in theater (in Afghanistan) and his hard work, per­sonal brav­ery, and dogged de­ter­mi­na­tion un­doubt­edly saved a mul­ti­tude of coali­tion lives,” said David Fraser, former com­man­der of the Multi­na­tional Brigade in south­ern Afghanistan, in a short bi­og­ra­phy of the Lib­eral can­di­date for the Van­cou­ver South elec­toral dis­trict.

‘True war­rior’

In an in­ter­view with The Globe and Mail, Fraser said Sa­j­jan was a “true war­rior” who thrives in the face of ad­ver­sity. “I picked him (for the Afghanistan job) be­cause of his ex­pe­ri­ence in deal­ing with gangs be­cause the Tale­ban were noth­ing more than bunch of thugs and gangs,” Fraser told the daily. En­ter­ing pol­i­tics, Sa­j­jan faced a messy nom­i­na­tion that split the large Van­cou­ver Sikh com­mu­nity.

Many ripped up their Lib­eral mem­ber­ship cards over the back­ing he re­ceived from former lead­ers of the World Sikh Or­ga­ni­za­tion (WSO), in­clud­ing Sa­j­jan’s own fa­ther. The WSO, which has long ad­vo­cated for the cre­ation of a Sikh home­land, was crit­i­cized in the past for prais­ing Air In­dia bomb-maker In­der­jit Reyat, who re­mains the only per­son con­victed in the 1985 at­tack on a jet­liner that killed 329 pas­sen­gers and crew over the At­lantic Ocean, south­west of Ire­land. “I am not a mem­ber of the WSO. I’ve had no neg­a­tive vibes from any­body,” Sa­j­jan told pub­lic broad­caster CBC last year.

On Wed­nes­day, WSO pres­i­dent Am­rit­pal Sing Shergill praised the record num­ber of Sikh MPs that would be serv­ing in the new par­lia­ment. They in­clude three men and a woman in the cabi­net-Sa­j­jan, In­fras­truc­ture Min­is­ter Amar­jeet Sohi, In­no­va­tion, Sci­ence and Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Min­is­ter Navdeep Bains and Small Busi­ness and Tourism Min­is­ter Bardish Chag­ger. This comes nearly two decades af­ter Herb Dhaliwal be­came the first In­doCana­dian to be ap­pointed to the cabi­net. “Pun­jabi is now the third most com­mon lan­guage at Par­lia­ment Hill,” the seat of Canada’s gov­ern­ment, Shergill said.

Set­tling into his new job while still a lieu­tenant in the army re­serves, Sa­j­jan is in the un­usual po­si­tion of maybe hav­ing to take or­ders from gen­er­als who an­swer to him as min­is­ter. Among them are the chief of the De­fense Staff, Gen­eral Jon Vance, who re­quested Sa­j­jan’s spe­cial­ized skills in coun­terin­sur­gency and Afghanistan tribal pol­i­tics for a 2009 mis­sion in Kan­da­har. Sa­j­jan has asked to be re­leased from the Cana­dian forces, but it has not yet been fi­nal­ized. “If we all of a sud­den send sol­diers in harm’s way and my skills are ab­so­lutely needed for the mis­sion, I’d be happy to take a leave of ab­sence from be­ing a mem­ber of Par­lia­ment and share the risk with the other mem­bers of the CAF (Cana­dian Armed Forces),” Sa­j­jan told the Cana­dian Mil­i­tary Fam­ily Mag­a­zine dur­ing the cam­paign. —AFP

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