Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says Canadians needn't fear ISIS

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says Canada will contribute to fighting the threat posed by ISIS — but says Canadians do not need to fear the militant group. Sajjan also laughs at the reputation he's been given as a "badass."

Says he 'chuckled' over being called 'badass' — 'I was really shocked at the interest in me'

Minister Harjit Sajjan answers the question: Are you a badass?

8 years ago
Duration 0:51
The CBC's Susan Ormiston asks the new Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan if he's a badass, as many people on social media have been calling him.

Canada's new defence minister, Harjit Sajjan, says the country must contribute to the defeat of ISIS, but he rejected the idea that Canadians should be afraid of the jihadist organization.

"ISIS is a threat, no doubt about that. Should we fear it? No. The Canadian population should have full confidence in all the security services to keep us safe."

In an exclusive wide-ranging interview with CBC News, Sajjan said the government is in discussions over what role Canada will take in the fight against ISIS, but that there was no date yet for withdrawing Canada's fighter jets from the U.S.-led coalition in Syria and Iraq.

Asked whether the Canadian flights might continue to the end of the current commitment in March 2016, Sajjan said Canada is in discussions with its allies.

Pressed whether Canada has been asked to continue its contribution to the bombing mission, Sajjan again said he wanted "to make sure that we have good discussions with our allies before we make a decision."

The Department of National Defence said in a statement today that two Canadian fighter jets took part in coalition air strikes earlier in the day in support of Iraqi forces, striking an ISIS ammunitions cache near Sinjar in Iraq.

Capt. Kirk Sullivan said Canada's mission would continue "for the time being under the mandate previously directed by government."

"The Canadian Armed Forces stands ready to implement government of Canada direction when it comes and will liaise with coalition partners to investigate options, and transition our military operations in the region," Sullivan said.

Sajjan said that in confronting ISIS, there is more that can be done.

"We need to get better as an international coalition … better at looking at the threats early on, to making sure that we identify them early so they don't balloon into these big threats," he said. 

"They were smaller at one time, we need to get better at identifying the subtle indicators so we might be able to have dealt with it diplomatically."

Training key to 'long-term solution'

Sajjan is a former military reservist who did three tours in Afghanistan and worked also with the U.S. part of the coalition.

He spent more than a decade with Vancouver's police, much of it as a detective.

Going forward, he reiterated Canada's experience with training other forces like Afghanistan's national army and police.

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan says Canadians should have confidence in Canada's security system to keep them safe from ISIS. (CBC)

"When we look at fighting ISIS and the overall picture, it's not just strictly about the air campaign. Canada has a lot to offer, we want to make sure that anything we do as part of that is going to have a meaningful impact to the mission."

Many military experts say training efforts have been mostly ineffectual in combating ISIS, but Sajjan made it clear training will be part of Canada's future mission.

"Training is absolutely necessary if we're going to be looking at a long-term solution to this," he said. 

On Syrian refugees, in spite of the ever-tightening deadline, the minister stuck to a recurring refrain from most of the new cabinet ministers:

"All the options are currently on the table, when the plan is in place we will make sure we inform everyone in a full and transparent way."

Sajjan said the military stands ready to "help" bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada before the new year.

"Absolutely, we'll be involved in a big venture like this," Sajjan said.

That could mean helping with security checks, transport and temporarily housing the refugees on military bases when they arrive in Canada.

Badass? 'Uh, no'

After the rookie MP won a seat for the Liberals in Vancouver South in the Oct. 19 federal election, Sajjan leapfrogged his former mentor, retired general Andrew Leslie, to get the nod as minister of defence.

His appointment to cabinet went viral on social media — with a picture from his days in Afghanistan tweeted with the line "Canada's new minister of defence is 'badass.'"

"I actually chuckled. I was really shocked at the interest in me, because when I got the job I was like, '[This is] a big responsibility, I can't mess this up.'"

As Canada's first Sikh in the role, he said "if my position here gives anybody hope of where you might be, and your potential, I'm happy that it does that."

"But in terms of 'badass?' Uh, no."

"I have done a lot of interesting things in the Vancouver police and in the military, where I would say that I worked with some very professional soldiers, police officers. But my kids, my little daughter, can say something to me and almost put me to tears."

Watch for more on this story tonight on The National (9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network, 10 p.m. (10:30 NL) on CBC Television), and watch the extended interview Sunday on The National.


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.