His appointment was applauded and he was described as “Canada’s new badass” minister for national defence on social media. But just over a month since he assumed charge of that department, Harjit Sajjan finds himself heading a ministry deeply involved with politically charged challenges.
The minister, a veteran of Afghanistan where he earned kudos for intelligence work, is dealing with the blowback for Canada’s proposed withdrawal from air strikes on the Islamic State, a measure the government is likely to implement “within weeks”.
As David Bercuson, director of the Calgary-based Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies (CMSS), said: “France has increased its role, Britain has decided to join the campaign and now Germany is dispatching fighter jets to join it as well. It certainly doesn’t look good for Canada in these foreign capitals to be going the exact opposite direction.”
That issue has already been raised in initial sittings of Canada’s new Parliament, with marked criticism from the Opposition.
At the recent Halifax Security Forum, Sajjan said “the solution is not based on one tool”. Bercuson, who met Sajjan at Halifax late last month, countered, “You can do a lot of damage from the air and Canada’s major European allies have figured this out.”
However, Montreal-based George Petrolekas, fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said, “The part where he will primarily play a role is in discussion on the military-to-military basis with his colleagues, with other defence ministers, to ensure that the transition does not leave any gaps in operations.
“Certainly the government has articulated fairly clearly that it’ll do so in a responsible fashion.” His “gut feel” is that Canada will keep its military refuelling and two surveillance aircraft active in that theatre.
Meanwhile, Sajjan’s department will also play a role in bringing the proposed 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of February. Sajjan has already travelled to West Asia and met refugees in a Jordan camp.
But over 60% of Canadians disagree with the refugee policy, according to the polling agency IPSOS.
As these political minefields confront Sajjan, Petrolekas said his service background would be a “huge plus”.
Bercuson concurred on that point: “I think his experience with the military, actually as field grade officer, is very important. We have the potential of having a very good minister of national defence here. The question is whether or not government policy and the Prime Minister will allow him to reach his full potential.”
That question may well be answered within the early months of 2016.