OTTAWA — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan on Tuesday bowed out of an annual fundraising event originally set up for veterans of the war in Afghanistan, an event whose main beneficiaries include military personnel returning from combat.
He is pressing ahead with a major speech on Wednesday to industry and military experts that is expected to address the Liberals’ much-anticipated defence policy.
The embattled minister had been scheduled to speak at the 8th annual “To the ‘Stan and Back” event at Ottawa City Hall on Tuesday.
But founder Cheri Elliott said she was told at the last minute that a scheduling conflict had arisen and he would not be able to attend.
“The official reason for his not being able to attend is he was asked to be elsewhere at the time. That is what I was told,” said Elliott, who is the mother of a serving Canadian Forces member.
Sajjan spoke last year at the event, which raises money for service members as well as first responders dealing with PTSD and other psychological trauma.
The minister’s office would not reveal the nature of the scheduling conflict, but said Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr stood in for Sajjan at the fundraising event.
A spokeswoman also confirmed the minister still planned to deliver the keynote address to a luncheon hosted by the Conference of Defence Associations Institute on Wednesday.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan accused Sajjan of skipping the fundraiser to hide from veterans, especially those who had served in Afghanistan.
“If he walked away from that (CDAI speech), it would be vacating his responsibilities as a minister,” Bezan said. “But it is incredibly disappointing and cowardly for him not to be at the Afghanistan veteran fundraiser.”
Sajjan, a former soldier and veteran of the Afghan war, faced sustained fire again in question period on Tuesday over his comments exaggerating his role in Operation Medusa, a key battle involving the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan in 2006.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood alongside his minister as interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose repeatedly called for Sajjan’s resignation.
Ambrose accused Sajjan of having embellished his military record for political gain, while Trudeau praised Sajjan’s “exemplary record” as a soldier, police officer and minister.
The prime minister also rebuffed NDP calls to open an inquiry into the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan, which Sajjan had earlier refused.
New Democrats later released a letter from NDP leader Tom Mulcair to Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson asking her to look again at whether Sajjan was in a conflict of interest in this decision because of his work as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan.
Dawson earlier refused to open such an investigation, after Sajjan told her that he was not involved in, nor had any knowledge about the transfer of Afghan detainees.
The partisan bickering on Tuesday extended beyond question period, as the Liberals pushed back a so-called opposition day that they had promised to the Conservatives for Thursday.
Conservative House leader Candice Bergen accused the government of postponing the opposition day until next week to avoid a full day of questions about Sajjan’s conduct.
Central to that would have been a non-binding motion the Tories say they intended to table and which would have seen MPs vote on whether they still had confidence in the defence minister.
“The minister of defence has to resign, and this is a motion that would have forced the prime minister and the minister of defence to address this,” Bergen said.
Government House leader Bardish Chagger, however, said the scheduled opposition day had to be postponed because more time was needed this week to debate a budget bill.
“There’s a slight tweaking taking place in the calendar because we do need to debate certain pieces of legislation,” she said.
Meanwhile, a watchdog group that tracks military imposters says many veterans are still upset with Sajjan despite his apology Monday, but that Ambrose went too far in accusing him of “stolen valour.”
Ian White of Stolen Valour Canada said the term refers to the fraudulent wearing of military medals and other decorations, which is illegal under the Criminal Code, but which Sajjan didn’t do.
“We see absolutely no benefit the minister of defence could have derived from these lies — in fact it appears to be hurting his reputation more than anything,” White said.
“Regardless, it is not stolen valour in the context of the Criminal Code of Canada.”
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Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press