Indian-born Harjit Singh Sajjan, 44, a former police officer and veteran of three military deployments to Afghanistan, was named Canada’s new minister of defense Wednesday, bringing first-hand expertise to one of the country’s top cabinet positions, agencies report.
Sajjan will oversee an anticipated change in Canada’s military involvement in the battle against militants in Syria and Iraq.
“He has a taste for the reality of war and that’s very, very important,” David Bercuson, director of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, told National Post.
“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.
Newly sworn-in Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already said he wants to end Canada’s air strikes in the region in favour of providing humanitarian help.
Elected to Parliament for the first time in last month’s election, Sajjan is illustrative of the younger, more diverse cabinet Trudeau had aimed to create.
Outgoing Conservative defence minister Jason Kenney had taken a hardline stance on security, saying Canada needed to be fighting against Islamic State militants to prevent them from becoming a threat to Canada.
The issue has been at the forefront after a gunman killed a soldier and stormed Canada’s Parliament last October.
Sajjan is a Lieutenant-Colonel in Canada’s armed forces and was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
He was Canada’s first Sikh commanding officer and received a number of recognitions for his service, including the Order of Military Merit.
“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 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 there 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.
He played a key intelligence advisory role to Brig.-Gen David Fraser in the successful Operation Medusa offensive against the Taliban.
He won the riding of Vancouver South where he grew up, defeating a Conservative incumbent.
Sajjan’s hands-on combat experience will be appreciated by soldiers, but it also comes with some baggage.
“His appointment will be cause for enormous joy within the reserves and of substantial concern within the regular force,” Jack Granatstein, a military historian and fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute told Post.
“There currently is, and there has been for, well, forever, tension between the reserves and the regs,” he said.
Sajjan came to Canada from India with his parents at the age of six. His father worked in a mill and mother picked berries to supporting their children through school.
He is married with two young children.