OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his embattled defence minister endured a withering question-period offensive Monday as opposition MPs accused Harjit Sajjan of “stolen valour” for overstating his role in planning a 2006 battle in Afghanistan.
Opposition parties trained their sights squarely on Sajjan, who apologized again in the House of Commons for having described himself as the architect of Operation Medusa, one of the bloodiest and most pivotal battles of the Afghan war.
Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose went so far as to accuse Sajjan of stealing credit for the actions of others — a cardinal sin in military circles.
“How much more does the prime minister need to hear before he understands why our men and women in uniform have lost confidence in the minister,” Ambrose said.
“People in the military have a name for what he did: it’s called ‘stolen valour,’ when someone takes credit for the brave actions of another.”
Trudeau, however, would not be moved from his talking points.
“The minister made a mistake,” the prime minister said repeatedly. “He acknowledged his responsibility and apologized for it; that’s what Canadians expect when one makes a mistake.”
Trudeau went on to insist that Sajjan had served his country with distinction in a number of capacities, including as a police officer and as a soldier. As a minister, he added, “he has my full confidence.”
Sajjan, for his part, later rose and repeated his apology.
“I would like to apologize for my mistake in describing my role, and retract that statement, and I’m truly sorry for it,” Sajjan said.
“I in no way intended to diminish the great work that our men and women in the Canadian Armed Forces have done …. and I’m truly sorry for it.”
What Sajjan didn’t do is explain his “mistake,” which Ambrose noted he’d made twice — once in 2015 and again two weeks ago. As such, his apology did little to assuage the opposition, with both the Conservatives and NDP calling on Trudeau to sack him.
“There’s no question that Minister Sajjan is going to have to resign,” NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said after question period.
“It’s not an error when you keep repeating the same lie. He’s lost all credibility with the military. And frankly, the behaviour today in the House — refusing to answer — is what convinces us that there’s no possible way for him to stay.”
In speech in Delhi on April 18, Sajjan told the Indian think tank Observer Research Foundation that he had been the “architect” of Operation Medusa, which the minister has since acknowledged was wrong.
“On my first deployment to Kandahar in 2006, I was kind of thrown in an unforeseen situation and became the architect of an operation called Operation Medusa, where we removed about 1,500 fighters, Taliban fighters, off the battlefield,” Sajjan said in his speech.
Sajjan was a major with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan during Operation Medusa, and received a special commendation for “his understanding of counter-insurgency tactics,” which helped the operation.
But the minister himself has acknowledged that then-major-general David Fraser and his command team were responsible for the operation’s success, which saw hundreds of Taliban fighters killed or captured over a two-week period.
Twelve Canadians were also killed in the fighting.
It was the second time Sajjan claimed to have been the “architect” of Operation Medusa, the first being during an appearance on a podcast when he was running as a Liberal candidate in July 2015.
“In 2006, Gen. (Jonathan) Vance, who is going to be the chief of defence staff, if I could quote him, he said that I was the architect of Operation Medusa,” Sajjan told host Stuart McNish.
In a statement Monday, Vance said: “Minister Sajjan has issued an unequivocal apology for statements related to the nature of his involvement in Operation Medusa and as far as I’m concerned, the matter is closed.”
Conservatives say Sajjan is guilty of a pattern of misleading statements, including his assertions about the urgent need for Super Hornet fighter jets and that allies didn’t object when Canada withdrew its CF-18s from Iraq.
They have also asked Speaker Geoff Regan to rule on whether Sajjan misled members of Parliament when he blamed the previous government for cutting the tax benefits available for Canadian soldiers in Kuwait.
They say documents tabled in the House of Commons show it was actually the Liberals who cut the tax benefits, which have since been extended.
Regan has said he will wait for the government to respond before making a decision.
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Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press