Canada’s defence minister did not dream up Operation Medusa in Afghanistan. But he was the architect of his own misfortune. Having grossly inflated his role in one of the largest Canadian military operations in recent history, Sajjan should have resigned. Failing that, he should have been fired.
By extending his “full confidence” to Sajjan — despite the comic explanation that his lie was just a “mistake” — the prime minister leaves it to others to bring accountability to this file.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair promptly answered the call. No one has laid out Sajjan’s chicanery better than Mulcair. In his May 2, 2017 letter to Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson, Mulcair described two Sajjans.
The first Sajjan is the one who refused an investigation into the Afghan detainee scandal after a House of Commons petition, E-70, called on the government to hold a public inquiry into Canada’s practices with respect to detainees in Afghanistan.
At the time, the defence minister told Dawson that he was not in a conflict of interest over that decision. Why? Because he was just a “reservist” involved in capacity-building with local police forces.
As such, Sajjan was not involved in the transfer of detainees, and had no knowledge in this area. Dawson took him at his word and closed the case without any finding of conflict of interest against the minister.
But Sajjan was being uncharacteristically modest with Dawson. He may not have been Napoleon in Afghanistan, but he was no mere reservist helping out local cops, either.
Sajjan was actually the liaison officer with the Afghan National Police working on behalf of the Combined Task Force, Aegis HQ. As such, he reported to the task force commander.
One of the reasons he was selected for this position was his prowess as an intelligence officer, drawing on what his own superior, Gen. David Fraser, described as “broad sources of information.”
For the record, this is how Human Rights Watch recently described the situation in Afghanistan in its submission to the Committee Against Torture: “Police and intelligence officers responsible for torture benefit from the general climate of impunity.”
Is it possible that Sajjan knew nothing about this? Are people to believe that someone as close to the Afghan National Police as Sajjan knew zilch about what was happening with detainees?
It’s an open question. Mulcair drew this conclusion in his letter to Dawson:
“This information casts further doubt on the Minister’s truthfulness in the account of his role that he provided to you. It is simply not plausible for a military intelligence liaison officer who had such a role on the battlefield to have had no access whatsoever to information relating to the capture and transfer of Afghan detainees.”
The other Sajjan is the one who, far from being a mere reservist, called himself the “architect” of Operation Medusa. He has since retracted that bogus claim, but the contradiction — the quandary for the Trudeau government — has deepened now that the PM has given him cover … just as Stephen Harper did for Nigel Wright in the early days of Duffygate.
Which Sajjan are Canadians to believe? And how will they know, when he makes other public pronouncements, whether he’s telling the truth, or merely making another ‘mistake’?
In Mulcair’s view, Dawson should review her earlier decision and launch a new investigation of Sajjan under the Conflict of Interest Act.
“The blatant discrepancies in his statements warrant immediate scrutiny from your office … This is a clear conflict between the Minister’s responsibilities and his personal interests regarding events before his appointment,” Mulcair wrote.
Time will tell, of course. Meanwhile, iPolitics columnist Susan Delacourt recently noted that the Liberals have started tanking in the fundraising department. Part of that, no doubt, is due to the deeper pockets of the CPC’s donor base.
Part of it also could be the practical effect of wiping out Liberal senators with a prime ministerial edict — neglecting (or forgetting) the critical role they played in fundraising between and during election campaigns.
But some of it comes down to plain, old-fashioned disappointment in Trudeau himself. Maybe he over-promised. He has certainly underachieved.
Just ask those who took him at his word when he pledged that 2015 would be the last election conducted under the antiquated, first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all electoral model. The PM’s defence of his indefensible minister is just the latest example of his slide into cynicism and politics-as-usual.
That is not why voters elected Trudeau. Canadians don’t need another plate of baloney from a leader acting in the interests of his political franchise instead of the country. Stephen Harper wore out the forced march of party self-interest years before Sunny Days dawned in 2015. Sooner or later, you have to offer better credentials than simply not being Harper.
It’s surprising that Trudeau has proven so remarkably inept when it comes to judgement calls.
In his first year in office, he skipped more question periods than he attended. Respect for Parliament?
What he talked up in Paris on climate change, he sold out in British Columbia. First Nations chiefs and David Suzuki have called him on it. To them, there’s only one word to describe his actions: lying.
He gave us Canada’s first Afghan MP and cabinet minister … except Maryam Monsef was born in Iran. Still, it was an irresistible marketing opportunity for the master marketers behind Trudeau.
Just as Harper used PMO staff to help negotiate trade deals like CETA, Trudeau is sending PMO staff to work on trade deals in Washington. Former international trade minister Ed Fast was entitled to wonder why Nigel Wright was eating his lunch on the TPP trade file. Chrystia Freeland should be wondering the same thing about Gerald Butts and Katie Telford on NAFTA.
Trudeau saw Peter MacKay get into a hot mess over taking a search-and-rescue helicopter out of a salmon camp in Newfoundland while on vacation.
But that didn’t stop the PM from hopping a billionaire’s helicopter to fly to a private island in the Caribbean. It happened to be owned by the Aga Khan, whose Foundation has received $300 million from the Canadian government since 2004, and engages in multiple joint ventures with Ottawa.
Bottom line? Trudeau helped deconstruct Harper by attacking his chief political vices: authoritarianism, obsessive secrecy and a lack of accountability. On too many days and on too many files, Trudeau is now filling Harper’s shoes.
Key promises have been broken. Others, like the long-promised amendment of Bill C-51, are in the dank limbo of ministerial review. All of its odious provisions still have the force of law into the second year of the Trudeau government.
Though he talks about the rights of a free press, Trudeau’s PMO blocked media access to the PM’s recent meeting with Chinese billionaires, as reported by James Munson of iPolitics. The PMO had no comment on this Harper-era tactic.
When Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance dumped his number two, Vice-Chief Mark Norman, not even Harper could have embroidered the cloak of unnecessary secrecy Trudeau threw over the whole affair.
The PM did the same thing when former fisheries minister Hunter Tootoo was fired over matters the PM refused to discuss. The cone of silence.
Read the words Trudeau wrote in his mandate letter to Harjit Sajjan: “If we want Canadians to trust their government, we need a government that trusts Canadians. It is important that we acknowledge mistakes when we make them. Canadians do not expect us to be perfect — they expect us to be honest, open and sincere in our efforts to serve the public.”
How is lying a commitment to honesty, even if it comes with a retraction and apology?
Incidentally, the minister decided not to go to a fundraising dinner for Afghan war veterans this week. No mystery there.
As every old soldier from Sir John Falstaff on down knows, discretion is the better part of valour.
Author: Michael Harris