In The Media

Sajjan apologizes — again — but remains under fire

by Amanda Connolly (feat. Stephen Saideman)

May 1, 2017

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan came under heavy fire in question period Monday after he delivered a brief apology in a scrum with reporters over how he described his role in the planning of a major battle in Afghanistan in 2006.

“I would like to apologize for my mistake in describing my role. I would like to retract that, and I’m truly sorry for it,” Sajjan said. “I in no way would like to diminish the great work that my former superiors and our soldiers have done on operations.”

Sajjan has been facing intense criticism for the past several days over an April 18 speech he made while on a trip to India in which he described himself as “the architect” of Operation Medusa, Canada’s largest and most pivotal operation during the Afghan War.

The National Post first reported the comments in a report that quoted unnamed serving military members suggesting the minister’s comment was an outright lie.

While Sajjan did serve in Afghanistan, he worked as a community liason gathering intelligence and building relationships with local Afghan leaders. Brig.-Gen. David Fraser was the Canadian general commanding the NATO force at the time.

Reporters asked several times why Sajjan described his role that way but he offered no explanation.

“I’m not here to make excuses,” he said. “I made mistakes and I have learned from it.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also backed him up, saying Sajjan has taken responsibility for his mistake.

“That’s what Canadians expect when one makes a mistake,” he said.

Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose said that’s not going to be enough; she called on Sajjan to resign or, failing that, forTrudeau to dump him.

“In military circles they call it ‘stolen valour,'” she said. “He has dishonoured his role. No one is questioning his bravery as a soldier but he himself has put himself in this situation by making up a story about his own service record. Why, I don’t know, but he lied.”

Conservative defence critic James Bezan echoed those comments during question period, suggesting that an apology “does not repair the damage done.”

Steve Saideman, who is the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University, disagreed.

He said while the situation is indeed “significant,” that does not necessarily make it “serious” and calls for Sajjan’s resignation are overblown.

“He’s a politician,” Saideman said. “Politicians are known to exaggerate so this is, in the larger scheme of things, not a huge deal compared to other things that are going on.”

He suggested that the more important question is whether Sajjan has made choices that hurt the military, which the Conservatives argue he has by making a claim they say is false that Canada’s coalition allies in the fight against ISIS were fine with him pulling out the country’s six CF-18 bombers.

In fact, they said documents shared with some media outlets by the party’s researchers suggest allies urged Canada not to remove its jets.

While Saideman said he would not rule out Sajjan being shuffled in the medium-term, he does not think there will be any move in the near-future to get rid of him given the expected launch of the Defence Policy Review, which some say could come this month.

“You don’t want to change the horses this week, I think, if this is a major priority,” he said. “If the defence review goes well they can change him and say, ‘he’s done his job setting the course for the future, it’s time for him to move on.’ I think the defence review gives the government the opportunity to push this particular can down the road, at least until the summertime.”

While resignation over this issue may be unlikely, Sajjan still faces the possibility of further criticism over more claims that he misled the House of Commons.

The Conservatives have lodged a formal complaint with Speaker Geoff Regan asking him to rule on what they say are more misleading comments from Sajjan related to a statement in which he blamed the previous government for cutting tax benefits available to Canadian soldiers in Kuwait.

They say documents tabled in the House of Commons show it was actually the Liberals who cut the tax benefits, which have since been reinstated.

Regan said he will wait for the government to respond before making a decision.

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