Harjit Singh Sajjan, PC, OMM, MSM, CD, soldier, policeman, politician, Minister of National Defence 2015–21, Minister of International Development 2021–present (born 6 September 1970, in Bombeli, Hoshiarpur, India). Harjit Sajjan enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces at age 19 and joined the Vancouver Police Department in 1999. He served for 11 years and became a detective. He also served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, where he was hailed as Canada’s “best single intelligence asset.” Sajjan rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and became the first Sikh Canadian to command an Armed Forces regiment. He was elected as a Liberal MP for Vancouver South in 2015. He was Minister of National Defence for nearly six years — one of the longest tenures in the country’s history. He has been Minister of International Development since 2021.
Seeking a better life for his family, Harjit Sajjan’s father, Kundan Singh Sajjan, moved from India’s Punjab region to British Columbia in 1974. He found work in a sawmill. When Sajjan was five years old, the family was reunited in Vancouver. To help with the family’s meagre finances, Sajjan and his older sister often picked berries from early in the morning until late at night. Sajjan later said that he hated the work but respected how hard his parents were struggling to make a good life for their family. He was grateful to be a Canadian.
While attending Sir Charles Tupper Secondary School, Sajjan found himself among a group of young people that he determined were headed for a life of drugs and crime. He changed schools and embraced his Sikh heritage. He began to wear a turban, learned more about his religion and adhered to its practices. He suffered many racist taunts.
Military and Law Enforcement Career
In 1989, when he was 19, Sajjan enlisted with the military reserves and trained as a trooper with the British Columbia Regiment (Duke of Connaught's Own). Though he suffered much racial discrimination in his early years in the reserves, Sajjan graduated at the top of his class. He did officer training in Gagetown, New Brunswick; completed service at bases in Western Canada; and was part of the military effort to assist with the Red River Flood in 1997. In 1998, Sajjan served for a year as a junior captain as part of Canada’s involvement in NATO’s peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He also invented and patented a hood for a gas mask that fits safely over a beard.
Instead of joining the Armed Forces full-time upon his return to Canada, Sajjan joined the Vancouver Police Department. He remained in the military reserves. His first police patrols were in 1999 in the South Main neighbourhood where he had grown up. He was with the VPD for 11 years, many of them as a detective with a special squad established to combat drug gangs.
In 2006, Sajjan took a leave from the police department to serve with the Canadian Armed Forces in Kandahar, Afghanistan. (See Canada and the War in Afghanistan.) He and others developed new ways of gathering and analyzing intelligence to help coordinate troop actions. Brigadier-General David Fraser later wrote that Sajjan was “the best single Canadian intelligence asset in theatre [who saved] a multitude of coalition lives.”
Sajjan took another leave from the VPD in 2009 for a second tour in Afghanistan. In 2010, he resigned from the police. He taught intelligence-gathering techniques as a consultant and returned to Afghanistan as a special assistant to American Major-General James Terry. Back in Canada, Lieutenant-Colonel Sajjan commanded the British Columbia Regiment (Duke of Connaught's Own); this made him the first Sikh-Canadian to command a regiment in the Canadian Armed Forces.
In 2014, Harjit Sajjan was recruited to run as a star candidate for the Liberal Party in the next federal election. He contested the ethnically and racially diverse riding of Vancouver South. Sajjan campaigned diligently in the months preceding the fall 2015 election. On 19 October, he earned 48.9 per cent of the vote to defeat Conservative MP Wai Young.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Sajjan to Cabinet as Minister of National Defence. Sajjan told the media he understood that to accomplish anything in that role would demand the teamwork he had learned in the military and police.
Minister of Defence, 2015–19
In a 12 November 2015 mandate letter, Prime Minister Trudeau made Sajjan responsible for ensuring that the Canadian Armed Forces were adequately equipped and prepared. He was tasked with pursuing 10 specific goals; these included ending Canada’s combat missions in Iraq and Syria, replacing Canada’s old CF-18 fighter aircraft and developing a new defence strategy for the country. Progress on these and other goals proved difficult.
In April 2017, Sajjan became embroiled in minor scandal involving his time in Afghanistan. In a speech in India, he claimed that he had been the “architect” of Operation Medusa, an important 2006 battle that took place while he was serving in Afghanistan. Senior British officer Chris Vernon defended Sajjan, explaining that he was “a critical member of the planning and design team. He worked hand in glove with the Australian lieutenant colonel who was the lead planner.” Sajjan apologized for appearing to exaggerate his service record and fully retracted his previous comment.
Minister of Defence, 2019–21
On 22 October 2019, Sajjan won re-election in Vancouver South with 41.1 per cent of the vote. The Liberals remained in power, although with a minority government. Sajjan retained his position as Minister of National Defence.
Sajjan’s mandated priorities included devising a new defence strategy; purchasing new fighter jets and naval vessels; improving service delivery to armed forces members; supporting defence in the Arctic; and working closely with NATO and NORAD allies while participating in UN peacekeeping efforts. One of his biggest stated goals was to “Work with senior leaders of the Canadian Armed Forces to establish and maintain a workplace free from harassment and discrimination.” Problems within the Armed Services workplace environment were brought to the fore by a 2015 external review on sexual misconduct within the ranks and leadership.
In June 2021, the Opposition parties voted in the House of Commons to censure Sajjan for mishandling several files, including the high-profile issue of sexual misconduct in the military; specifically, the 2018 case against former chief of the defence staff General Jonathan Vance. Prime Minister Trudeau supported Sajjan, telling reporters, “He continues to have my confidence. He is the right person for the job.”
Also in June 2021, Sajjan oversaw the implementation of a new defence policy: Strong, Secure Engaged. It promised to increase defence spending, largely to appease US President Donald Trump. However, other issues within the department remained unresolved. It took years to finally provide a one-year peacekeeping mission to Mali. The pace of providing new jets and ships also proved to be very slow. More importantly, the sexual misconduct debacle surrounding former defense chief Vance; the litany of sexual misconduct allegations against other senior officers that subsequently emerged; and the controversial arrest and aborted trial of then Vice-Admiral Mark Norman for leaking a cabinet secret all cast a pall over the department.
Minister of International Development
In the federal election on 15 September 2021, Sajjan won re-election in a landslide. Despite the censure motion and the negative press surrounding the defence department, he took 49.4 per cent of the vote, nearly double that of the second-place candidate, Sean McQuillan of the NDP. Following the election, however, Trudeau shuffled his Cabinet. Sajjan was removed from the defence portfolio and appointed Minister of International Development.
The department’s first priority was to continue to help developing countries fight COVID-19 and assist in their economic recovery from the global pandemic. He was to ensure that Canada took a feminist approach to international development; provided more help for refugee children; advanced LGBTQ2S+ rights around the world; and built the newly created Pacific Economic Development Agency of Canada. In August 2022, Sajjan promised to boost foreign aid spending to counter food shortages caused by droughts and the war in Ukraine.
- Chief of Defence Staff Commendation (1998)
- Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal (2002)
- Mention in Dispatch (2008)
- Order of Military Merit (2012)
- Meritorious Service Medal (2012)
- Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)
- Southwest Asia Service Medal (Afghanistan)
- General Campaign Star (Afghanistan)
- Canadian Peacekeeping Service Medal
- NATO Service Medal (Bosnia)
- Canadian Forces’ Decoration
- US Army Commendation Medal
- Deputy Minister Award, Department of National Defence