Politics·Analysis

After an odd boast, Harjit Sajjan faces the queries and catcalls of question period

Harjit Sajjan arrived in the House of Commons as the Speaker was calling for the start of question period, the defence minister taking his seat just in time to hear the leader of the opposition read the indictment against him.

Commons sketch: The opposition hounds the embattled defence minister

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Monday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Harjit Sajjan arrived in the House of Commons as the Speaker was calling for the start of question period, the defence minister taking his seat just in time to hear the leader of the opposition read the indictment against him.

"Mr. Speaker, it's been revealed that the minister of defence led Canadians astray once more," Rona Ambrose reported, en francais.

"Not only did he do this, but he also violated the code of ethics of the military. He dishonoured himself and he dishonoured them. Does the prime minister still trust his minister of defence?"

Justin Trudeau stood and attempted to reassure the Conservative leader.

"The minister made a mistake. He admitted his mistake, he took responsibility for it and he apologized. That's what Canadians expect when someone makes a mistake," Trudeau said. "The minister served his country as a police officer, as a soldier, and now as a minister. And he still has my full confidence."

The leaders would then repeat these statements in English.

There were grumbles from the opposition side. The noises would grow louder as the afternoon progressed.

With her third question, Ambrose would suggest that the minister might need to be replaced. With her fifth question, she would finally ask that he be removed from his post.

The defence minister's odd boast

At issue is the defence minister's odd boast that he was "the architect" of Operation Medusa, a significant offensive conducted during the war in Afghanistan.

Sajjan's military record is already celebrated, honoured even in the pages of a comic book. His contribution to Medusa, in particular, has been touted by a leading general

A defence minister's preening is generally limited to posing in cockpits and such. But Sajjan's military credentials were also not obviously in need of buffing.

What's more, it is not the first time he has described himself as such. And in the first case, from 2015, he credited the description of his role to Gen. Jonathan Vance, the current chief of defence staff.

Vance has not backed up the minister's assessment, though he did issue a statement saying he considers the matter closed now that Sajjan has apologized. 

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan apologizes for claiming to be the 'architect' of Operation Medusa 2:19

The minister retracts and apologizes

On Friday, he expressed regret. On Saturday, he posted an apology to Facebook.

On Monday afternoon, just before question period, he appeared in the House foyer, wearing a grey suit and dark blue turban, to repeat that apology for the cameras. His low voice was barely audible.

"I'm not here to make excuses," he said when asked to explain the mistake. "I'm here to acknowledge my mistake, apologize for it, learn from it and continue to serve."

This would be his refrain.

In the House, the opposition was unpersuaded. In keeping with the traditions of Westminster democracy, it would now pound away.

"Mr. Speaker, it is beyond an apology at this point," Ambrose ventured. "How can the prime minister allow him to remain as minister of national defence when he continually misstates the facts?"

(It is the Conservative side's contention that Sajjan also misstated the Iraqi government's view of a Canadian decision to withdraw fighter jets from the region.)

Trudeau described Sajjan as having "extraordinary capacity," but otherwise merely repeated himself. 

As Ambrose persisted and Trudeau repeated his point, the catcalls came out.

"You're not a leader!" cried one voice.

"Fire him!" yelled another.

Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose says the defence minister has a pattern of misleading Canadians 0:47

Conservatives backbenchers join in

The Conservative backbench then rounded on Sajjan.

Pierre Paul-Hus suggested the minister would have violated the military's code of service.

John Brassard confronted Sajjan with the fact that the word "honesty" was used eight times in the minister's mandate letter. 

Brassard also wanted it noted that people had been making fun of the minister on Twitter with a sarcastic hashtag. 

Standing brave against the meme, Sajjan declined to resign on the spot.

Speaking humbly, he apologized, he retracted and he repeated his vow to learn and to not make excuses. He used the word "mistake" 16 times, the word "apologize" five times and "retract" three times. 

There were guffaws and grumbles and heckles from the opposition side.

"You have no credibility left!" called a voice.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair notes the prime minister breached protocol and tradition by not answering his question 0:49

Can Sajjan stay on?

This is not the first time the minister has found trouble with his public comments.

But, perhaps more unfortunately for Sajjan, the new tempest has prompted one analyst to question his general handling of the defence file. Generally speaking, the more a minister can say for himself — either now, or 10 years from now — the easier it is forget the unfortunate moments.

The opposition piled up 17 questions, 15 from the Conservatives and two from NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who pronounced that the minister should step down.

Sajjan was accused of stealing the valour of those who served in Operation Medusa. The military was said to have lost trust in him, though it is perhaps problematic to suggest the forces should have any say over their civilian leadership.

"Mr. Speaker, I made a mistake in describing my role," Sajjan said.

'You're a liar!'

"It wasn't a mistake, you're a liar!" yelled a voice. 

"Does he really believe that our men and women in uniform deserve a defence minister who is willing to fabricate the truth in order to bolster his own record?" Conservative Candice Bergen asked of Sajjan.

"Mr. Speaker, I have apologized for my mistake," Sajjan said. "I will be learning from this, owning the mistake, and not making any excuses for this."

"Why did you do it?" asked someone on the opposition side.

"You're a disgrace!" yelled another.

"Mr. Speaker," Mulcair shot back, "most people learn that it is important to tell the truth before they turn 50."

In Sajjan's defence, he is only 46.

 The House moves on

With that, the House moved on to other matters. Sajjan sat quietly.

When the 45 minutes were through, Sajjan began packing up his things. A Liberal backbencher walked down the aisle, crouched near the minister and patted him on the back. The trade minister came over from his spot to offer a pat as well. 

As the defence minister made his way toward the government lobby, there were supportive handshakes from the Liberal MPs in his aisle. The last backbencher he passed, flashed a thumbs-up.

Sajjan had at least made it through another question period.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.