OTTAWA // Sporting a turban and a thick beard, decorated soldier Harjit Sajjan stood out in the Canadian military, but as defence minister he is among several Sikhs appointed to key positions in Justin Trudeau’s administration.
The veteran of wars in Bosnia and Afghanistan was appointed to the senior ministerial post on Wednesday, when Mr Trudeau and his cabinet were sworn in, following the Liberals’ October 19 election victory.
At age 45, Mr Sajjan takes on one of the toughest jobs of the new administration.
He will be responsible for winding down Canada’s combat mission against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, withdrawing from the US-led F-35 fighter jet programme and quashing sexual misconduct in the military.
He will also sit on the new government’s most powerful cabinet committees, including public safety and espionage.
Born in Punjab, India in 1970, Mr Sajjan moved to Canada with his family at age five, settling in the Pacific coast city of Vancouver.
He worked 11 years as a police officer, including a stint as a detective with the gang crimes unit, before joining the Canadian military and rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel.
During his time in the military Mr Sajjan was deployed overseas four times, to Bosnia and Afghanistan, and became the first Sikh to command a Canadian army regiment. In Afghanistan he earned honours for helping to weaken the Taliban’s influence.
“He was the best single Canadian intelligence asset [in Afghanistan] and his hard work, personal bravery, and dogged determination undoubtedly saved a multitude of coalition lives,” said David Fraser, former commander of the Multinational Brigade in southern Afghanistan.
Entering politics, Mr Sajjan faced a messy nomination that split the large Sikh community in Vancouver.
Many ripped up their Liberal membership cards over the backing he received from former leaders of the World Sikh Organization (WSO).
The WSO, which has long advocated for the creation of a Sikh homeland, has been criticised in the past for praising Air India bomb-maker Inderjit Reyat, who remains the only person convicted in the 1985 attack on a jetliner that killed 329 passengers and crew over the Atlantic Ocean, south-west of Ireland.
Mr Sajjan is one of four Sikhs in the new cabinet, including infrastructure minister Amarjeet Sohi, innovation, science and economic development minister Navdeep Bains and small business and tourism minister Bardish Chagger.
“Punjabi is now the third most common language at Parliament Hill,” the seat of Canada’s government, WSO president Amritpal Sing Shergill said.
* Agence France-Presse