Harjit Sajjan keeps apologizing but questions about his past keep mounting

Photo from CP.
Photo from CP.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan faced more criticism Monday as he apologized once again for mischaracterizing his service in Afghanistan. But based on his statements, the politician appears poised to remain in his cabinet post.

“I would like to apologize for my mistake in describing my role,” Sajjan said during a scrum with reporters Monday before Question Period. He repeatedly told members of the media he is “not here to make excuses” but wants to learn from his mistakes.

“I work very diligently in everything that I do and I want to be able to continue to do that,” Sajjan said when asked about the statements that got him in hot water and planted seeds of doubt regarding his truthfulness.

But the questions continued a short while later in Question Period with opposition leaders calling for the minister to resign.

Sajjan, however stuck to his original message.

In a speech in India on April 18, Sajjan described himself as the “architect of Operation Medusa,” one of the largest battles fought by Canadian troops in Afghanistan. Since then, several people with appropriate knowledge have described Sajjan’s role in the Afghan role as that of a liason officer who provided important insight and intel that shaped the battle but who did not help plan the September 2006 operation, CBC News reported.

“There was no one hero of Medusa, no one architect,” a senior officer who asked not to be named told CBC News in a widely-shared story published last week.

As a Liberal candidate during the election campaign, Sajjan used similar language while on a podcast based in British Columbia called Conversations That Matter.

“If I could quote him, he said I was the architect of Operation Medusa, one of the biggest operations since the Korean War that Canada has led,” Sajjan said on the podcast while referring to Gen. Jonathan Vance, the current chief of defence staff.

Sajjan apologized multiple times over the weekend, posting a note on Facebook reading “I made a mistake ‎in describing my role. I wish to retract that description and apologize for it. I am truly sorry.”

On Monday, interim federal Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose told reporters that Sajjan lied, and if he doesn’t resign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should remove him from his cabinet position.

Despite what appears to be an exaggerated claim during his speech in India, Sajjan downplayed his role in Afghanistan in comments made to ethics watchdog Mary Watson a few months ago in order to avoid a conflict of interest complaint, according to former New Democrat MP Craig Scott.

“While his boast in New Delhi was indeed less than truthful, the much bigger deception is his attempt to make Commissioner Dawson believe he was only a mere reservist working with police on ‘capacity-building,'” Scott told CBC News.

Scott, a Toronto-based lawyer who lost his seat in the 2015 election, told CBC News that Sajjan had a vested interest in rejecting Scott’s online petition to Parliament asking for an inquiry into the treatment of suspected Taliban prisoners, given his previous role in Kandahar.

The former MP complained to the ethics watchdog when his online petition was rejected by the defence minister, who said the matter had already been investigated by military police on behalf of the government. Dawson declined to investigate though she sent Scott a letter saying she was left with concerns, and after questioning Sajjan she said she was satisfied. On Sunday, Scott called for the investigation to be reopened.

Also on Sunday, NDP defence critic Randall Garrison said Sajjan has told three different stories about his role in Afghanistan and the MP wants to know if that role in Afghanistan was diminished in the defence minister’s comments to Dawson, The Globe and Mail reported.

In early April, the Conservatives accused Sajjan of lying about another matter: the withdrawal of CF-18 jet fighters from the fight against ISIS, CBC News reported. Documents that came to light last month showed that contrary to the government’s assurances that Canada’s allies supported the decision to remove jets from the conflict, Iraq’s defence minister repeatedly asked the Trudeau administration to consider keeping the jets involved in the bombing campaign, according to a Global Affairs Canada report from the meeting dated Dec. 22, 2015.

Sajjan’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.