Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan grilled by MPs in special Commons session

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan appeared before MPs in the House of Commons Monday, where he was grilled about his department’s spending for the coming year.

Committee of the whole appearance brings questions about missile defence, shipbuilding and a $3.7B deferral

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan appeared before MPs in the House of Commons Monday to answer questions about defence spending. (Canadian Press)

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says opposition accusations that his government has cut $3.7 billion in defence spending from his department "couldn't be further from the truth."

Sajjan made the remarks at the committee of the whole, a special session of Parliament in which the Commons turns into a large committee meeting for a few hours, with MPs questioning the defence minister on his department's spending plans.

"The concerns that the member has raised couldn't be further from the truth.… Our government's commitment to our men and women was rock solid and we delivered on that," Sajjan said.

"The $3.7 billion that the member has been talking about is money that has not [been] cut. It is actually re-profiled to further years, which will allow for the procurement to catch up," Sajjan said.

The minister was answering a question from Conservative defence critic James Bezan, who suggested Sajjan had cut funding to Arctic patrol vessels, the plan to replace CF-18 fighter jets and the Cyclone helicopters that are replacing the Sea Kings for the Royal Canadian Navy.

"I fear that this is just the beginning of another era of darkness that we saw under the Liberals during the decade of darkness," said Bezan. "Are we looking at shutting down bases and consolidating some of our assets?"

Sajjan said the Liberal government has "absolutely no plans to shut down any bases."

The minister also said the $6.4 million his department spent upgrading and winterising barracks on five military bases in anticipation they would house refugees was not wasted money, though the buildings were never used to host refugees. 

"When I was advised that we had to move forward in making sure that some of the barracks had to be upgraded, I thought it was an opportunity, because our troops also use the facilities as well," Sajjan said. "Now they will be used for the benefits of all our troops."

Ballistic missile defence 

NDP MP Randall Garrison questioned Sajjan about the minister's national defence review. He wanted to know why the review was addressing the possibility of joining a national ballistic missile defence shield with the United States and the wisdom of pursuing such an option.

"It seems to me when we have very many other major questions that we need to be discussing, this is some kind of diversion for us … addressing a threat that doesn't really exist to Canada at this time," Garrison said.

Sajjan said the threat of a ballistic missile attack is a real possibility in years to come considering the sabre-rattling of North Korea in recent months.

"That is a significant threat as time goes on … and as part of the defence review we are not just looking at the now," Sajjan said. "Ten, 20 years from now, where can technology take us — and this is the reason why we need to have a thorough discussion as part of the defence review."

Shipbuilding strategy

Steven Blaney, Conservative MP for Bellechasse-Les Etchemins-Lévis, asked about the national shipbuilding procurement strategy and the five Arctic patrol ships being built by Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax.

"Why are you making a cut of $173 million of the ships that are built in Halifax right now. These ships are important to maintain the sovereignty of Canada in the Arctic," Blaney asked.

Sajjan said the cost of those ships was $3.5 billion, including the cost of refurbishing the northern port, but only $424 million would be spent on the program this year.

"Those ships are currently being built right now. We are currently on track for the building of those five ships and potentially having a sixth one," he said. "Our government is fully committed to making sure those ships get built."

Sajjan also said there were no funding cuts to the procurement of 28 Cyclone helicopters for the Royal Canadian Navy. Some Cyclones had been delivered and more will follow, he said.