Ken Pole's picture
Cabinet Posts Cause for Optimism?
Posted on Nov 04, 2015

The new ministers of National Defence and Veterans Affairs in the federal cabinet, while brand-new to Parliament, offer a potential message of cautious optimism to the military community from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Harjit Sajjan, elected Oct. 19 in Vancouver South, brings a sterling record to the Defence portfolion. When he retired as a Lieutnant-Colonel, he was the highest-ranking Sikh in the Canadian Armed Forces, having served one deployment to Boznia-Herzegovina and three to Afghanistan. Among other things, he received the Meritorious Service Medal for reducing the Taliba’s influence in hotly-contested Kandahar Province.

A former commanding officer, Brigadier-General David Fraser, called Sajjan, a Major at the time, “the best single Canadian intelligence asset in theatre, and his hard work, personal bravery, and dogged determination undoubtedly saved a multitude of Coalition lives.” Moreover, “through his courage and dedication […] Sajjan has singlehandedly changed the face of intelligence gathering and analysis in Afghanistan.”

Out of the military, Sajjan – who is believed to be in his 50s and who immigrated with his parents at the age of five – went on to an 11-year career with the Vancouver Police Department, including assignment as a Detective Constable in charge of its Gang Crime Unit.

Meanwhile, at Veterans Affairs, Kent Hehr, 45, who won Calgary Centre, is a lawyer and had been a member of the provincial legislature since 2008 until entering federal politics.

Hehr was 22 when he was the victim of a drive-by shooting which left him a quadriplegic, which possibly will make him empathetic to the plight of many retired military personnel who struggle with post traumatic stress disorder and other issues.

The fact that Hehr also has been appointed Associate Minister of Defence could help to bridge the bureaucratic gap between Veterans affairs and National Defence which evidently complicated life for several of his predecessors at VA.

Sajjan comes to his role at a time when DND is faced with fulfilling Trudeau’s promises to withdraw Royal Canadian Air Force assets from the fight against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and to withdraw from the Joint Strike Fighter program.

In an election campaign blog with LGen (retired) Andrew Leslie, who won the Ottawa-area riding of Orleans after a 35-year military career, Sajjan challenged former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s assertion that the new Liberal leader had a “deep distrust” of the military.
“While Mr. Harper has always been quick to stand with our soldiers for photo ops, he has failed to have their backs when it counts,” they wrote. “The fact is that Mr. Harper's government has made significant promises on new equipment for our troops, but has consistently failed to deliver. In addition to axing nearly $5 billion from the Department of National Defence's budget since 2012, they have, since 2006, left nearly $6 billion in DND's capital budget unspent  – money that was allocated for new equipment like search and rescue aircraft, helicopters, trucks, ships, UAVs, the list goes on and on.”

(Leslie had been rumoured for a cabinet post and may eventually get one, given his stellar Army career and proven planning and strategic experices, but Trudeau, who evidently has other plans for Leslie, effectively limited his own options by going for a debut cabinet with gender equality as well as geographic and ethnic representation from among his 183 MPs.)

Sajjan and Leslie went on to say that Harper's failure to deliver on “desperately needed equipment” was just the tip of the iceberg.

“It is Mr. Harper's treatment of those who wear the uniform that reveals what he really thinks of them,” they wrote. “This is the Prime Minister who praises reservist members of the Forces, but who has decreased the budget dedicated to reservist pay, and reduced their training budget. . . Furthermore, our reserve units are now under strength due in part to this government's closure of recruiting centers.

“This is the Prime Minister who eliminated danger pay for our soldiers in Afghanistan, depriving military of pay for serving in incredibly dangerous places, risking life and limb in service to their country. It was only when this […] went public that the Prime Minister felt sufficiently embarrassed to reverse his decision.”

Moreover, they continued, “the shoddy treatment Mr. Harper displays towards our Canadian Forces members doesn't end with when they leave active duty. In fact, they continue to be treated terribly as veterans. Mr. Harper has closed nine Veterans Affairs offices that help retired Canadian Forces members access the services to which they need.”

They accused Harper of being “eager to use the Canadian Forces and our veterans when he feels it is politically expedient to do so” but that he simply could not be counted on to fulfill his promises.

“We have a sacred obligation […] which this Prime Minister has clearly rejected. By contrast, Mr. Trudeau is firmly committed to fulfilling our nation's obligation to our veterans, and to investing in the equipment and training that our troops need to get the job done.”

Time will obviously tell – and it won’t be too long – whether the Liberals will manage to fulfill those commitments, but the initial signs are positive.