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The ONW Salon:  Should Harjit Sajjan Resign?

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has been accused of lying by boasting he was "the architect" of Operation Medusa, a major offensive during the war in Afghanistan. Critics say its not the first time he has been caught stretching the truth. The Opposition is calling on him to resign, despite the fact he has apologized.  Should he step down?  Richard Mahoney, John Capobianco and Tom Parkin weigh the pros and cons.


Tom Parkin:

If you’re a university professor, and you lied about your PhD, you can be sorry, but that doesn’t mean you can continue as a professor. If you’re a news anchor, and you make up news stories about yourself, you can be sorry, but you can’t be the anchor. And if you’re the Minister of Defence, and you lied about your military service record, you can’t be Defence Minister. Because you can no longer be effective.

Harjit Sajjan says he’s sorry. He should be. But that’s not the point. When Sajjan sits at a NATO conference, the others will whisper that he’s the guy who lied about his military service. When he visits Canadian Forces bases, soldiers will be polite to his face, but angry underneath. In cabinet, he will be a weakened force, owned by the Prime Minister and, likely, his powers sub-contracted to the Minister of Global Affairs, Chrystia Freeland. When the Chief of Defence Staff or the Deputy Minister of National Defence need political support, they will have to find it elsewhere.

You cannot have a Minister of National Defence who lies about his military service record. It just doesn’t wash because he can no longer be effective. An ineffective Minister at DND is a non-starter. He needs to step down.


John Capobianco:

The resignation of a minister is a big deal, even more so if it is a senior minister within the government, which is why the Opposition are calling for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan to resign after it became clear and true that he lied about being the “architect” of a 2006 Canada-led mission in Afghanistan named Operation Medusa.

Since it is a huge deal for any minister to resign, the government of the day will do whatever it can to protect, divert and shield one of their own and, in contrast, the Opposition will do whatever it can to keep the issue at the forefront of the media and the public’s attention.

This is what is happening now, with PM Trudeau offering his support for the embattled Minister and both the NDP and the Conservatives being unrelenting in their collective call for his resignation. The Opposition have to be careful when they call for a minister’s resignation because if they do it too often and without just cause, the public and the media will discount it as pure political gamesmanship. I have seen it happen where it just doesn’t work or doesn’t have traction, so the calls last for a few days, maybe a week and they move onto something else.

This is different. My Liberal friend will protest and say this is the Opposition playing games and that he apologized, so let’s move on. Nope, not on this one. Richard would be the first to call for the resignation of a Conservative minister had he/she done what Minister Sajjan has done.

The resignation calls are real for no other reason than the credibility of the minister with his own stakeholders has been eroded – those being the men and women who fight every day for our country and expect their leaders to be forthright, honest and honourable. It is even more difficult to handle for those who were involved in Operation Medusa. It is the loss of trust that will make staying on difficult, if not impossible.

What puzzles me is that this minister is impressive and was by far one of the shrewdest appointments the PM made when the government was formed. Minister Sajjan by all accounts is a hero, served this country well, and deserved to be in government and as Defence Minister.

So why this lie? Why embellish a record that needed no embellishment? Was it bad judgment? Well, we have seen more than a few ministers resign over bad judgment.


Richard Mahoney:

My friends Tom and John have rightly criticized the minister for what he did. And there is no need for me now to reiterate that. I don't contest the basic idea that the minister made an error here and has to account for his actions.

As I said, both Tom and John have made that case. Let's centre on John's last point - why embellish a record that needs no embellishment? This is fair. Minister Sajjan is clearly a remarkable person, with a remarkable career of public service, first as police officer breaking new ground in BC with his service and then as, by all accounts, heroic service in Afghanistan. Service that changed the course of a significant operation there. Service that help save lives. That's a powerful record, and probably only part of what he had done before he entered politics in 2015.

It was a bold and courageous decision to put Minister Sajjan, not a career politician, in cabinet, and to give him an opportunity to be Minister of Defence - a key position. It was not that long ago in this country when we debated the notion whether Sikhs such as Minister Sajjan, should be allowed to wear their turbans while in uniform.

So Minister Sajjan is a fascinating story and an important demonstration of someone who contributed to his country significantly before he entered politics, and then overcame some serious obstacles to serve in cabinet.

John's right - he did not need to embellish. But he did. And then he apologized for that embellishment. Sincerely, publicly, frequently. He owned his actions. People make mistakes. People sometimes exaggerate. Politicians have been known to do so.

That is not to say this is not serious. But is it really what we want as a country out of this? Is that the standard of performance we expect of people in public life? Or do we give them a chance to apologize, account for their actions and still serve?

I don't think Minister Sajjan should resign, and, in contrast to what John says, if the same set of facts were in front of us, and he was in a Conservative cabinet, I would not howl for his head over one incident. And I don't think most reasonable people would, either.  


Tom Parkin:

Sajjan’s fabrication about being the “architect” of Operation Medusa raises another concern: it seems he also deceived Conflict of Interest Commissioner Mary Dawson when describing himself as a low-level reservist who simply helped Afghan police with “capacity-building.”

One moment a master strategist and battle plan architect, then next a reservist drill sergeant. In that low-level role, he told Dawson, he had no role in the transfer of battlefield detainees to Afghan prisons where they were tortured by Afghan police or intelligence.

But whether he had a direct role isn’t the question. As we read now, Saajjan was an intelligence attaché, harvesting the “goldmine” of intelligence coming from the palace of the governor of Kandahar. His role was to liaise with the regional heads of the Afghan police and intelligence – the very men who were accused of organizing the torture in the Afghan detainee issue.

Did he ever hear whispers? What did he do about them? Where did he think that goldmine of intelligence came from?

In Opposition, the Liberals pledged to investigate the detainee issue. The Canadian practice of handing-over prisoners, a deal signed by General Hillier, was unacceptable to the Red Cross and to Canadians. It brought our troops into disrepute, damaged our reputation and undermined our efforts to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan. As you’ll remember, the issue was so incendiary the Harper government prorogued the Commons rather than allow it to hear evidence. For ten years, Stephen Harper made sure Canadians did not hear the truth about who knew what.

And now Harjit Sajjan has sided with Stephen Harper: no investigation. And when Mary Dawson asked if perhaps Sajjan was in a conflict for making that decision, Sajjan suddenly presented himself as a simple low-level reservist.

That seems to have been more fabrication – and Mary Dawson now must re-interview Sajjan to find out whether he killed the inquiry because he had a personal stake in ensuring the facts are not heard.


John Capobianco:

The matter here is more serious than a mid level minister who might have made an error or misspoke on an issue or was simply incompetent and can survive or get shuffled. Richard's valiant attempts to make this seem as if it was nothing big, he apologized, so nothing to look at here, is undervaluing the heart of the problem and who we are dealing with.

We are talking about the Minister of National Defence who represents our country abroad and is the chief spokesperson for the men and women who protect Canada. If anyone needs to be honest and above reproach, this minister does. That is why this is not a small or insignificant error in judgment. He completely fabricated his position on a battlefield - how do you come back from that?

Richard, we have had many discussions on these pages about ministers who have made mistakes  - some big, some small - which resulted in calls for resignations, and some of those calls were successful, some not. I have even defended some ministers who really shouldn't have been cut or reshuffled out of fairness and in recognition of political machinations. However, as impressed I am with Minister Sajjan's credentials, I just can't see why he did this and how he is going to regain the trust of our military and of his stakeholders across Canada and around the world.


Richard Mahoney:

John - you are taking liberties. I did not say this was nothing big. I said it was serious. But we are now faced with the question of whether he should resign. The two of you, and your leaders, Rona Ambrose and Tom Mulcair, say he should. But the Conservatives and the NDP don't speak for members of the Canadian military. The Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance does. And he says the minister has apologized, he accepts that, and he considers the matter closed. ,

You and your parties say he has demeaned his service. But Minister Sajjan knows what it means to serve, more than any of us do, more than Tom Mulcair or Rona Ambrose does. I think he made a serious error. But he did not invent or lie about his service in Afghanistan - he embellished it. If he had simply said he was "one of the architects" of the success in Operation Medusa, we would not be debating this, because that is accurate. He embellished, exaggerated, misspoke. It seems nastily personal for folks to bray for his political blood, and a huge exaggeration, or to use your words, a lie, to say he lied about his service. He did not. He served in Afghanistan and was a key player in Operation Medusa, by all accounts.

Finally, Tom's point about the Ethics Commissioner is a puzzling one, and it is sad that the NDP are raising this in a blatant attack on the man's character. They say he misrepresented himself to the Ethics Commissioner about his knowledge of Afghan detainee abuse. As a member of the Canadian Forces, if the minister had known anything about detainee abuse, he would have been required to bring that information forward. He has repeatedly said he has no knowledge of this issue, and the Ethics Commissioner declined to even open an investigation into this baseless accusation by the NDP.

It's reprehensible that they would ignore the multiple Military Police investigations, an inquiry by a federal judge, and an ongoing Military Police inquiry into the issue in order to pursue their attack on their opponent - an opponent who surprised both the NDP and Conservatives by winning a riding they covet, Vancouver South.

So, yes, this has been an unfortunate outing for a serious person who served his country first as a policeman, and then heroically in military service, about which he spoke and embellished his service via a poor choice of words. He apologized, owned his mistake and is clearly paying the price for it. To demand more of him at this point doesn't seem like the right thing to do. It seems like folks settling political scores.


Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance.  He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. John Capobianco is a Senior Partner and National Public Affairs Lead at FleishmanHillard. He has been a Conservative strategist with over 30 years of political activism at all three levels, including as a former federal Conservative candidate. Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist and a frequent commentator on national issues. 




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