COMMENTARY: Harjit Sajjan is dead centre in the opposition’s crosshairs

Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan during a 2016 visit to the U.S.
Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan during a 2016 visit to the U.S. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

So just how close is Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan to changing his status from badass to backbencher?

The high-profile minister is in hot water over having claimed to have been the “architect” of Operation Medusa, a pivotal battle in the Afghanistan war. “Stolen valour!” thundered Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose, referring to the practice of taking credit for military service or accomplishments one has not achieved.

It’s a major taboo in the Canadian military community and a crime in the United States, where the Stolen Valour Act imposes fines and jail terms on those who fraudulently claim to have received military honours such as a Navy Cross or Purple Heart. In Canada, Section 419 of the Criminal Code makes it an offence to wear a Canadian Forces uniform if one has not served in the military, or wear a medal, badge, or any other decoration that one has not earned.

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There’s a good reason for this: Impersonating a soldier allows one to enjoy unearned respect accorded to real men and women in uniform — respect earned through service to country, and frequently, physical danger.

READ MORE: Tories accuse Harjit Sajjan of ‘stolen valour’

This kind of deception is more common than you might think. There was the case of Carl Dale, who pretended to be a captain in the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry. Then there was David Dodd, a Peterborough man who falsely claimed to be a combat veteran on Facebook, prompting the launch of a Canadian website devoted to tracking down military imposters. And who can forget Franck Gervais, the fake soldier who glibly gave an interview to CBC reporters on Remembrance Day 2014, and later pleaded guilty to illegally wearing a military uniform. (Free advice: Don’t impersonate a soldier while the cameras are rolling.)

Of course, Sajjan didn’t “steal valour” like these men did. He wouldn’t need to: He’s a decorated vet who served in a variety of capacities in Afghanistan, including intelligence. But even exaggerating one’s accomplishments violates the military code of honour, because it implicitly diminishes the service of others.

The sticking point for Sajjan is his use of the word “architect,” which he employed not once, but twice in the past few years to describe his role in Op Medusa. “Architect” implies that he devised or led the mission, which was not the case, according to soldiers who served in Kandahar in 2006 who were interviewed by CBC News. They claimed that Sajjan did have a key role but at “no time was he in on the planning of the operation.”

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“There was no one hero of Medusa, no one architect,” according to one senior officer who had direct knowledge of Sajjan’s role in Afghanistan.

READ MORE: Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan to face symbolic confidence motion in House of Commons

However, retired Senior British Officer Chris Vernon, who was chief of staff at the Canadian-led headquarters in Kandahar, painted a somewhat different picture. In an interview with AM640 radio in Toronto, he said that Sajjan was “… a major player in the design team that put together Operation Medusa. He was able to put together an intelligence picture of the Taliban and the tribal dynamics west of Kandahar, without which we probably would not have been able to mount Operation Medusa.”

When asked to describe Sajjan’s level of importance, Vernon said that he was “more than integral [to operation Medusa] … 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. It was quite a small discrete group … and a critical part of it was played by Major Sajjan.”

We may never get the full picture of Sajjan’s involvement in Medusa since, as an intelligence officer, a lot of what he did likely would be considered classified information. That’s a problem both for him and for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has stood by his apologetic minister and is refusing to demand his resignation — at least for now.

READ MORE: PM Trudeau stands firm supporting Defence Minister Sajjan

But even for a minister in the midst of a scandal, Sajjan has been keeping a curiously low profile. He withdrew from a fundraiser for Afghan veterans, officially due to a “scheduling conflict.” And over the weekend, it was cabinet colleague Marc Garneau who gave interviews about defence spending in Sajjan’s stead — because, according to the Prime Minister’s Office, the defence minister simply “wasn’t available.”

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Coincidence? Maybe not. Sajjan is a juicy target, and the opposition will now scrutinize every word he says in an effort to take him down. And they have no shortage of options: the exposure of a culture of sexual assault that saw 77 officers sanctioned last week in Operation Honour, a hole in military spending which Sajjan will be expected to fill, and most recently, a Senate defence committee urging the Liberals to cancel their decision to buy 18 Super Hornet fighter jets without a competitive bidding process. And crowning it all is the government’s across-the-board review of defence policy and spending. Talk about a target-rich environment.

Speaking of the Senate: The Sajjan saga gives the Conservatives a welcome distraction from a scandal of their own making: the tawdry tale of Sen. Don Meredith, appointed by former prime minister Stephen Harper, now facing expulsion from the Senate over his sexual relationship with a teenage girl. The day the upper chamber began debating a motion to expel Meredith, the Conservatives presented a symbolic confidence motion condemning Sajjan in the House of Commons — accomplishing nothing concrete but keeping the issue alive another day.

READ MORE: Expel Meredith, Senate ethics committee says

Live by the sword, die by the pen? If Sajjan’s cabinet career does come undone, it won’t be just because of one word in a speech. It’ll be because the opposition now has him in their crosshairs and will keep pulling the trigger until he becomes a political liability for Trudeau.

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If that happens, or if Sajjan loses the confidence of military personnel, then the PM likely will move him out — not immediately, but in the next cabinet shuffle, perhaps when the House is in summer recess and the Twitterati are paying less attention.

It would be an ignoble end to Sajjan’s time in the portfolio, but Trudeau can’t afford to make mistakes with the defence community — the way the Conservatives did with Veterans’ Affairs and procurement issues. Sacrificing Sajjan may end up being a necessary move.

Tasha Kheiriddin can be heard between noon and 2 p.m. ET on Toronto Talk Radio AM640. She’s also a columnist with Global News and, where this piece first appeared. 

READ MORE: COMMENTARY: The Senate needs to solve its Meredith problem — fast