Canada In Defence Of The Rights Of Others

Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
In defence of the rights of others

Harjit Sajjan found military service to be the best way to fulfil the requirements of his religion

By Daphne Bramham, Vancouver Sun - September 8, 2012


Lt.-Col. Harjit Sajjan is the first Sikh to command
a Canadian Army regiment. He has served in Afghanistan
and Bosnia with the Canadian Forces.

Photograph by: Ward Perrin, PNG, Vancouver Sun

It was during his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2006 that Harjit Sajjan distinguished himself.

A major in the British Columbia Regiment (Duke of Connaught's Own), Sajjan took time off from his full-time job in the Vancouver police department's gang squad to join the 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group in Kandahar.

His job was as liaison officer to the Afghan police. Although he'd been in dangerous situations before in Bosnia and had even been wounded there, Saj-jan was assured Kandahar was safe and far from the fighting.

It was anything but. "People were turning to the Taliban because of the corruption, and we couldn't defend that," he says. "That stirred the hornets' nest. There were about 40 of us and we were getting hit every day."

He and his team not only learned of the Taliban insurgency, they discovered every single enemy defensive position.

"I didn't know what counter-insurgency was until I got there. But when soldiers' lives are on the line, you learn very quickly."

Speaking to village elders, Sajjan drew on his childhood experiences in Punjab and used his first language of Punjabi, which is similar enough to be understood by Urdu-speaking Afghans.

Village elders began to tell him how the young men and boys were turning to the Taliban, who promised to end widespread corruption.

"It was kind of like when I was working on the gang squad. People were telling me, 'My son won't listen to me. But I know he's working for the Taliban.'"

Sajjan went to Canadian Maj.-Gen. David Fraser, who was heading NATO's regional command, and told him what they'd found. Fraser was so impressed with the major that he asked for his help in planning a major offensive west of Kandahar.

Operation Medusa began on Sept. 2, 2006, went on for 15 days and involved more than 5,000 NATO troops.

Four soldiers under Sajjan's command died. Eight other Canadians were killed during the operation, along with 14 British troops who were killed in a plane crash.

"We knew it would be a very tough fight," said Sajjan, who is reluctant to talk about his contribution because he feels responsible for the Canadian deaths.

(In fact, Sajjan was reluctant to be interviewed at all. "I'm just one of many. You should see my soldiers. They're the real rock stars.") But Fraser saw it differently. In his written evaluation of Sajjan's performance, Fraser described him as "nothing short of brilliant." He went on to use words like "fearless, smart and personable" with "outstanding and rare potential."

In another evaluation, Sajjan was described as having shown "remarkable personal courage - often working in the face of the enemy to collect data and confirm his suspicions and placing himself almost daily in situations of grave personal risk."


Sajjan admits now that he didn't decompress properly after that first of three deployments in Afghanistan. Operation Medusa had barely ended and he was on the flight home. He'd promised his wife, Kuljit, that after two extensions of what was to have been a six-month deployment, he'd be home on that day.

Soon after returning from Afghanistan, Sajjan quit the VPD. Since then, he's continued as a reservist and started a consulting business. He teaches military personnel in Canada and the United States about how to gather information in difficult places like Afghanistan.

In 2011, Sajjan went back to Afghanistan as a special adviser to U.S. Lt.-Gen. James Terry, who is now commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force joint command in Afghanistan.

"It's ironic," he says. "There I was advising the top generals, and the U.S. army doesn't allow Sikhs (in turbans) to join."

Sajjan came back to Canada in April 2011 and, last September, was promoted to lieutenant-colonel of the B.C. Regiment, a reserve unit.

He is the first Sikh to head a Canadian regiment as commanding officer.


Harjit Sajjan was born in Bombeli, a small village in India's Punjab. There were no proper toilets in the village. His pet was a black ox that once used its massive horn to pick Sajjan's sister up and toss her out of the way when she was teasing her brother.

Sajjan was only two when his father, a police officer with a promising career, left for Canada in search of better opportunities.

It was four years before his father returned. But in 1976, he collected his wife, daughter and son and brought them to Vancouver.

Sajjan remembers "the total sadness" he felt when he arrived. Not only had he lost the freedom to roam the family's small farm, and the warmth of a village where everybody knew everyone else, but Sajjan only spoke Punjabi.

"My sister and I were constantly crying and I remember my Mom finally slapping me and saying, 'You're not going back'."

He remembers the racism, going to the mall with his family and people swearing at them.

"It was just a part of life. But at school, I didn't have that issue. I played sports."

By 16, Sajjan knew he was travelling in the wrong circles. Among his classmates was Bindi Johal, the notorious drug lord and gangster murdered in 1998, and others who Sajjan later helped arrest.

Sajjan chose another path. He decided to become a baptized Sikh. Among other things, it meant no alcohol, no cutting his hair, wearing a turban, a silver bracelet and carrying a kirpan, the small ceremonial knife.

"It wasn't really a religious thing. It was an identity thing. I needed the commitment because I knew it would keep me on the right path. I found the true meaning of Sikhism and I loved the warrior aspect of it.

"When I was fighting to understand who I am, that (warrior) aspect was some-thing that I really identified with."

Sikhs became warriors because of persecution. But Sajjan says the main religious principle is that a Sikh must be a positive and contributing member of society.

"It's important to defend your own rights. But there is a requirement that you must defend the rights of others.

"When I was in Afghanistan, a man came up to me and said, 'You are a Sikh and I know you must help me'."


Sikhism is what pushed him toward the military. Yet, ironically, it was what almost kept him out of the Canadian Forces.

At the time Sajjan applied, the RCMP had just refused to accept a turbaned Sikh's application. The Canadian Forces had no such qualms; Sikhs first served in the Canadian Army in the First World War.

But the forces has a rule about gas masks and helmets: Every-body has to be able to wear them. But, at the time, there were no gas masks that worked over beards. Even the Indian and British armies didn't have any.

So, Sajjan invented an apparatus to make it work. He's since patented it.

As for the helmet, Saj-jan learned to tie his turban differently.

"I have never caved in to taking the turban off. I have integrated the principles of Sikhism in a very respectful way."

Not only has it been an enormous benefit to Sajjan, but to Canada.

While Canadian and Afghan forces were getting ready for Operation Medusa, an Afghan soldier was surprised Sajjan was with the Canadian Army, not the Indian.

He was more surprised to learn Sajjan was a major.

"He told me that if Canada lets you come to the country and be an officer, if they let you do that, then maybe Canada is here to help us.

"He said if they respect you and treat you the same, then maybe what Canada says here is genuine."

Sajjan says diversity is an essential part of the Canadian Forces.

"Diversity is an operational necessity. It's more than language skills. It's a way of thinking. - How we are raised in Canada is very important to the fibre of the Canadian Forces."

In Bosnia, Sajjan's turban caused a minor issue in some Serb neighbourhoods. He defused concerns by telling them that as a Sikh, he was likely the only neutral per-son in the Muslim/Christian conflict.

He eventually established such close rapport that an elderly woman knit him a pair of socks. Sajjan still has them.

Sajjan has been wounded in battle and had so many close calls he gave up counting after 40. So I asked him about fear.

"It doesn't matter whether it's Cyprus, the Sinai, Bosnia, Croatia or wherever, the fear is always there. - Fear is the healthy way to do the right thing to come home alive."

And Sajjan has a lot to live for. He's got two children, aged one and four. His wife, Kuljit, is a family physician.

Sajjan attributes to Kuljit the hard-won wisdom that it's not what you look like, but what you do that matters.

And, for the lieutenant-colonel, that means serving others.


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