Martin C. Barry
With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government now half-way through its first mandate, Newsfirst Multimedia had the opportunity recently to touch base with one of the senior members of the Trudeau cabinet.
First elected an MP for the riding of Vancouver South in 2015, Harjit Sajjan was appointed Defence Minister by Justin Trudeau in November that year. Sajjan was the first Sikh Canadian to become Defence Minister.
Newsfirst Multimedia Co-publisher George Guzmas and journalist Martin C. Barry had the privilege to sit down with Sajjan for an interview at the federal cabinet’s Quebec region offices in Old Montreal. What follows is an abbreviated transcript of the interview.
Newsfirst: As an Indo-Canadian, you are seen as a role model by many young people in the Indo-Canadian community, including a good number in one of our readership areas. What is your message to young people in general, including Indo-Canadian youths?
Harjit Sajjan: I look at it regardless of what your origins are. What’s important is to have the confidence to believe in yourself. People think that looks attract. I always feel that actually confidence attracts. What I always say is believe in yourself. Don’t let anybody tell you what you can’t do. Just have pride in yourself and if you want to learn more about your culture learn it. But, more importantly, learn about others. That’s the biggest thing: to genuinely learn about other cultures. And when you learn about each other, that’s when you break down those barriers. The ultimate thing is if you want to make a difference and it’s your choice, go for it. That’s what really excites me – how we can set an example. Because we had mentors in our lives who helped us and now it’s our responsibility to help the next generation.
Newsfirst: Canada held a joint exercise recently with the U.S. to simulate a nuclear attack on both countries. Can you tell us a little bit about Canada’s preparedness for the possibility of nuclear war?
Harjit Sajjan: Certainly when it comes to the safety of Canadians this is what the Canadian Armed Forces are for. We’re looking at foreign threats, we look at all conflicts and especially anything that can impact us back at home. And we conduct joint exercises with our allies. In fact, I can hardly even keep track of how many exercises. But more importantly, on a daily basis we work with the U.S. quite regularly. And that’s why in our defence policy a part of it is called A Secure North America, with our most important ally the U.S. In fact, we probably have 800 personnel actually in the U.S. We actually have generals who are deputy-commanders of the U.S. corps’s, in making cases working at headquarters like Pacific Command out of Hawaii and many other places including CENTCOM [United States Central Command]. So we do a lot of exercises. But this is what good militaries do – prudent planning, making sure that we train. We always want to make sure that we train well. But let’s never forget the most important thing is diplomacy. And [Foreign Affairs] Minister Freeland is working extremely hard. Especially when it comes to North Korea, we’re working with the U.S. and other allies to allow diplomacy to work.
Newsfirst: Has there been a growing awareness lately of the nuclear issue given the tensions over North Korea?
Harjit Sajjan: We’ve been monitoring the situation with North Korea for some time. Obviously we’ve seen an increase in some of the missile testing, which we unequivocally condemn. We asked them to de-escalate the situation. Because it’s not good for them, it’s not good for our allies in the region. And we’ll continue to find different ways. Our government is committed to working with our allies. And, as I stated, Minister Freeland has stated that she’ll be working with the U.S. and many other allies in terms of trying to come up with potential solutions to this. And until then we’ll always keep planning and making sure that Canadians are always safe.
Newsfirst: In terms of support for civilian infrastructure like electricity, water, fuel in the event of a military cataclysm, does the Ministry of Defence have any plans for providing support to civilians?
Harjit Sajjan: Canadian Forces are here to provide all the necessary support needed for any type of disasters. As we prepare for any type of horrible disasters that we hope we never come to, we have to keep in mind what are the things that we mainly respond to in natural disasters. So whether, for example, it’s floods and a week later it’s something else we have to deal with, those are the things. For example, in Quebec here we will always be quick to arrive and slow to leave to make sure Canadians are confident that the Canadian Armed Forces, with all the other security partners working with the provincial government and with the municipalities, will always be there for them to give that sense of calm. I’m very proud of all the work the Canadian Armed Forces have done, because I like to visit a lot of the communities in the region, as I’ve done for the fires situation in B.C. as well. We’ll always be there for Canadians.
Newsfirst: It seems that the current policy of the U.S. is not to intervene should Canada come under ballistic missile attack. How endangered might we be from an attack by North Korea, for example?
Harjit Sajjan: As I’ve stated, we monitor these situations extremely closely and we’ve been doing this for a very long time. In fact, this is one of the reasons why in our national defence policy we look at the various threats. In fact, we actually had our national defence committee go down to NORAD to take a look at what they do to make a recommendation. So what some people sometimes look at is the defensive aspect of missile defence. What I look at is what are we trying to protect ourselves from. So when we talk about the air threat from ballistic missiles, we fully understand that and we work very closely with NORAD – it’s a bi-national command that we have. But what I also want to do, and it’s in defence policy, is how do we look at all perils and threats. So I don’t want to just focus on one threat and then not be set up for the next. The military is there to also potentially look at flexibility for dealing with new threats. So when we do the analysis for this as we move forward, especially when it comes to North American defence and modernization, we’re going to be looking at all sorts of threats – from the air, land, surface, on the water, and also underwater as well. And that will allow us to figure out what are the things that we need. So we don’t just want to focus on one issue, we want to make sure that we’re looking at it from a completely holistic aspect of things, and then we’ll make some decisions.
Newsfirst: You served in Afghanistan. What sort of impact did that have on you personally, compared to other learning experiences in your lifetime?
Harjit Sajjan: When it comes to my experience, I’m very fortunate. I had the opportunity to serve. It allowed me to see the tremendous impact that our Canadian soldiers can have on the ground, and the need also for them. But we need to support them. And so as the minister now, I realize that if we’re going to sustain something like this we’re going to have to make sure that they’re well looked after, and our defence policy now does just that. And so it really helped form my thinking on this, and that’s one of the reasons for putting our people first – it’s because of our experience in Afghanistan. Coalition members always want us to be part of the solution when it comes to many different conflicts. So it also gives us a far better understanding of what type of tools are needed to understand conflict. And our defence policies put in the right resources into certain areas, especially when it comes to intelligence. That’s why we’re going to be making sure that our Canadian forces can have the technology and the tools for the future. But let’s never forget our number one asset is always our women and men in uniform. And looking after them and then giving them the right tools is really going to make the difference.
Newsfirst: There was controversy over your role in Operation Medusa in Afghanistan. We understand from reading various sources that you made a significant contribution to the operation in terms of intelligence gathering, although perhaps it has been misunderstood. Can you set the record straight on this matter?
Harjit Sajjan: I’ve been very clear on this. Regrettably, to talk about your own experience in this political realm, people often want to take it a different way. I’m very proud of my service. I got to meet people who served in those areas and I’ve very proud that I was able to serve with them. They know what I’ve accomplished and I know exactly what other people have accomplished. I think what people should know is that regardless of anything, you should be proud of the impact that you have. In fact, for me I found it very disappointing from the opposition on how they tried to portray and attack my service when at the end of the day it’s not what I did nor how I served. So I’ll always be very proud of my service, because when my children look at me, my daughter she looks at me to this day and she knows how long I’ve been away from her, and I have a son now who didn’t know this. So I want my children to be very proud of the fact so that they can have an impact on this world. My daughter knows that I gave up a career to go serve in Afghanistan. I actually gave up my policing career because I couldn’t get leave of absence to deploy a third time when I deployed with the Americans on their request. But I gave it up because my service was needed, so I went. So I am extremely proud of what I’ve been able to do and it serves me well as a minister now that I can ask the right questions, I can put the right resources, and it is my privilege to be able to serve them.
Newsfirst: In terms of Canada’s role as a peacekeeper, the government has said it wants the country to resume its past role as an international peacekeeper, although so far we are seeing relatively little of that resolve being turned into action. Is there more peacekeeping in Canada’s future?
Harjit Sajjan: It isn’t always just about peacekeeping, it’s about what is Canada’s contribution going to be to the U.N. on peace-support operations. And Canada is committed. We’ve made the announcement of how we’re going to do this. We committed a little over a year ago what we’re willing to contribute based on our analysis and how we’re going to do it. What we want to do is make sure that when we contribute something it’s actually going to have an impact on the ground. For any government, it is a difficult decision anytime you send your most precious treasure into conflict zones. So you want to make sure they’re going to have the right impact on the ground, and to do this they have to be well-supported, trained and equipped, have the right rules of engagement and the right mandate, as well. But what we’ve offered the U.N. right now is exactly what the U.N. was looking for: innovative ways on how to have an impact on their peace-support operations, rather than just picking locations and putting all your resources in one area and expecting a mass of changes, which is not going to happen. What we’re trying to do is, there are already missions that are ongoing, great work has been done. But there’s been challenges, as well. So what we want to do is our contributions have an impact and support the United Nations’ work that’s going on. At the same time, some of those challenges, for example, were troop-contributing nations having been part of the problem. There have been peacekeepers who have not done their jobs well. We need to make sure that these things change. And so we’ve offered up an initiative on how to help the entire peace-support operation. So what we’re trying to do is help the U.N. to make all their missions better. Imagine if other nations also followed suit in doing this with the principles we have outlined, now you might actually see for the long-term of having a substantial impact for not just one mission, but potentially across the board.
Newsfirst: Based on the allocation of budgets, in what state (equipment and personnel) are the Canadian Forces in now?
Harjit Sajjan: Our government’s new defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged, establishes a new vision and approach for defence. Our government has laid out an ambitious yet realistic plan so that Canada can meet defence challenges now and into the future. Defence spending will increase over the next 10 years from $18.9 billion to $32.7 billion annually. The regular force will grow by 3,500 members and the reserves by 1,500. Investments will also be made to acquire, maintain, and upgrade CAF capabilities.
Newsfirst: What would be the ideal number of troops and equipment for the Canadian Armed Forces?
Harjit Sajjan: To ensure the CAF has the people and capabilities it needs to succeed on its missions, we will increase the size of the regular force to 71,500 personnel, and the reserve force to 30,000, and better support their health and welfare. Our government will also undertake the largest defence modernization effort in decades, supported by a rigorous, evidence-based capability planning process. Additionally, we will invest in areas such as intelligence, targeting and Arctic capabilities. We will also pursue critical enablers in the space and cyber domains.