Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan met Esprit de Corps journalist Evelyn Brotherston In his constituency office on April 29. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
EdeC: How has your experience as a soldier shaped the kind of Defence Minister you plan to be?
Minister Sajjan: I thought of that a lot myself. Even though I’m the Minister of National Defence, having not too long ago worn the same boots, eaten the same dirt as the soldiers, I always look at what are we trying to achieve, and ask: “Will it actually have the desired impact?” Having that connection, you can almost see the ripple effect of whether it’s going to work or not, and what needs to be done.
EdeC: Tell me about the direction you see the Canadian Armed Forces going in the coming decades?
Minister Sajjan: For me, the one thing that is the staple of the military is that we always have to be prepared for the ultimate high-intensity conflict. We also need a force that has the flexibility to be responsive to different types of conflicts. We need to get better at understanding conflict. I think Canada does it quite well; we’ve proven that through some very tough lessons in Afghanistan. But we need to start working with our coalition partners to understand conflict around the world.
Potentially, we could look at certain areas that we take a responsibility for understanding. That understanding is critically important — not from an intelligence perspective of “Who are the bad guys?” — it means understanding the different dynamics, the political system, the economic system, the criminal gangs, and what is causing the youth to join radical organizations. By understanding the conflict, it allows you to make the best decisions and create a plan that’s going to have the desired impact.
Rather than thinking, “There’s a security problem there,” and launching the military directly into it, maybe it requires something else. Maybe there are other ways in which we can intervene early and build capacity. Preventing nations from becoming failed states, that is something we definitely need to focus on. So as we deal with the current threat, we need to get better at preventing threats from popping up around the world.
EdeC: Can you give us an update on the training operation in Iraq, with the recent increase in troop numbers?
Minister Sajjan: We went through the process of identifying the type of troops that are needed — certain equipment has already gone in — and capabilities. We’re doubling the intelligence assets. I’m not going to be mentioning what those assets are, because it gives away what we’re going to do, but they’re in the pre-deployment training phase right now. They’ll be starting to rotate in, and we’re hoping to see the full mission up and running with the increases probably by mid-summer.
EdeC: At what point will you decide that the mission has succeeded and you’re ready to pull out?
Minister Sajjan: We’ve committed for another two years, but we’re going to assess every single year. If things are going well, we may decide to put fewer resources into security and more into development. If things aren’t going as well, then we might make a shift. Assessing every year on how we’re going to move forward allows us to figure out what the progression is going to be.
EdeC: What does victory look like?
Minister Sajjan: Victory is about the Iraqi Security Forces being able to hold their own against radical organizations. This whole problem started when the Iraqi Security Forces couldn’t hold the cities. At the same time, the government needs to provide the right governance in a manner that they hadn’t done before. Instead of alienating certain ethnic groups, they need to make sure that they’re inclusive of everybody. Al-Qaeda, ISIS and the other radical groups, they’ll be fought with, they’ll be taken care of, but the real success is going to be the governments themselves making sure that they don’t allow this to happen again.
EdeC: So there’s a chance of continuing beyond the two-year period?
Minister Sajjan: Absolutely. As a responsible coalition partner we need to be there if the situation requires it.
EdeC: The Defence Review: where are you at now and what are your goals moving forward?
Minister Sajjan: The public consultation is online, and has been going extremely well — actually, better than we even anticipated — which is great. We’ve got some great feedback and comments that are coming through. MPs were given kits so they can hold their own public consultations. We just did the first private consultation with key stakeholders, and we’ve got about five more to do across Canada. We’re going to be making sure that we engage with First Nations communities, and making sure that we engage with industry. The plan is to end the consultation phase by the end of July, and then get into the analysis and the development of the policy itself, and it will be completed by the end of this year.
EdeC: Why go through this lengthy process and do a major overhaul? Why not just tinker with what was already there?
Minister Sajjan: It was tinkered with in the past and it didn’t allow for a thorough analysis for the long-term vision. Defence requires a long-term vision. We haven’t done one in over 20 years. It also allows people to be part of the conversation. The military belongs to them.
Where do they want to see the military going? Are we doing enough? Does the military have all the resources that are required? What should we focus on?
Making sure that our Defence Review is in line with Foreign Affairs priorities and linked in with the Public Safety Review that’s happening, in terms of cybersecurity, that’s important, because you can’t do defence alone. What we’re focused on right now is making sure that, at the end of the day, our troops are going to have the right equipment, the right training, that’s going to last 10 to 20 years from now, because our decisions do go out that far.
EdeC: You’ve been in the job six months now. What are three of the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far?
Minister Sajjan: Procurement, which we’re diligently working on. My job keeps me travelling a lot, so the distance from my riding, that’s been very difficult. And I would say the third one is showing the Public Service that I’m actually genuinely trying to empower them, that I trust them, and to push them to be more innovative.
EdeC: And your three biggest accomplishments?
Minister Sajjan: OP IMPACT. What we were able to put together was a meaningful contribution to the mission, because of the way we went about it. It wasn’t just about, “Hey, this is what we’re going to provide, you figure out how you’re going to use it.” We did it by saying, “What are your gaps?” So when we announced [the changes to the mission], it fit in very well with what the needs were.
We were also able to give confidence to some of our most elite troops that they are going to be very active [in Iraq]; they will have the right tools, and we’re going to support them. Unfortunately, I can’t get into any details on that. The third success story was putting a team together that works with me, who are going to be very humble and work very seamlessly with the entire department.
EdeC: What do you want to be your legacy as Defence Minister?
Minister Sajjan: That’s a tough one. The legacy is not what worries me. When you serve, whether you’re in combat or in training, you want the person next to you to know that you’ve got their back. At the end of the day, when I leave, if the troops out there said that I had their back, I’d leave with a smile on my face.
Favourite book? The Tom Clancy series with Jack Ryan.
Subject you most struggled with in school? Math!
Person, living or dead, you most admire? Nelson Mandela.
Favourite trait about yourself? Tenacity.
Least favourite trait about yourself? It’s like giving up your kryptonite! Sometimes I care too much, when I should have been pragmatic about something.
Favourite song? I listen to trance music so I don’t really have a favourite song... Bud I’d say it’s either AC/DC “Thunderstruck”, or one of the ZZ Top songs. They’ve got cool beards.
Guilty pleasure? Virgin Piña Coladas.
Quality you most value in a soldier? Leading by example.
Quality you most value in a politician? Wanting to make a difference.
Best advice you’ve ever received? Answer the question “Why is it important to succeed?” and “How will it become automatic?”