Canada’s New Defense Minister Made His Own Gas Mask to Work With His Sikh Beard

Canada's new defense minister is a combat veteran, gang detective, and one of four Sikhs appointed to the prime minister's cabinet.

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In 2006, Canadian Army Brig. Gen. David Fraser was deployed to Afghanistan and tasked with choosing one soldier to serve in a key intelligence role. Whomever he chose would need to balance knowledge of the local community with a keen understanding of military intelligence and act as the bridge between Canadian troops and Afghan officials to help beat back the Taliban.

He looked no further than Harjit Sajjan, a former detective who spent part of his 11-year career in the Vancouver Police Department investigating gang warfare and specializing in organized crime.

“I picked him because of his experience in dealing with gangs because the Taliban were nothing more than bunch of thugs and gangs,” Fraser told the Globe and Mail.

This week, that experience paid off again. Newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named Sajjan, who returned to Afghanistan again in 2009 and 2011, as Canada’s new minister of defense.

Sajjan, the first religious Sikh to serve in the role, replaced outgoing minister Jason Kenney. Like U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Kenney did not have an active-duty military background prior to taking the job.

In the United States, there are roughly 1.4 million active-duty members of the military. Only three of them are Sikh men, and they all serve in noncombat roles. Except under very rare circumstances, the Pentagon prohibits active-duty service members from having facial hair and wearing religious headwear. Sikh leaders in the United States have long pushed for reforms to policies they say deter Sikh men, whose beards and turbans are considered nonnegotiable articles of faith, from joining the military.

One reason the Pentagon prohibits Sikhs from wearing beards is because they argue they are not compatible with gas masks. But while serving in the Canadian military, Sajjan created his own version of the gas mask, which he later patented, in order to keep his beard. In 2011, when he served as an advisor to U.S. Lt. Gen. James Terry in Afghanistan, he noted the paradox of his situation.

“It’s ironic,” he said. “There I was advising the top generals, and the U.S. Army doesn’t allow Sikhs [in turbans] to join.”

Sajjan was born in India but moved to Canada at age 5. He wasn’t baptized as a Sikh until he was a teenager, when he fell in with a tough crowd and decided Sikhism would steer him on a straighter path. As a police officer working in Vancouver’s drug and gang units, he went on to arrest some of his former high-school classmates.

And when he first joined the military, his background as a religious Sikh who grew up speaking Punjabi helped him integrate in the communities where he served. During his tour in Bosnia, he was able to act as a neutral party in the conflict between Muslims and Christians. And while on tour in Afghanistan, he used his knowledge of Punjabi to communicate with Afghan elders, who could understand the language because of its similarities to Urdu.

For him, Sikhism built a natural path toward the military.

“It wasn’t really a religious thing. It was an identity thing,” he told the Vancouver Sun. “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.”

Sajjan has received 13 honors and medals for his service, including the Meritorious Service Medal, which he was awarded for his role in the fight against the Taliban in Kandahar province. Shortly after returning home from Afghanistan in 2011, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and named commander of the Duke of Connaught’s Own, a British Columbia reserve regiment, making him the first Sikh to command a Canadian army regiment.

Sikhs account for less than 2 percent of Canada’s population, but they are influential in the Liberal Party. In Trudeau’s 30-person cabinet, four ministers come from a Sikh background — double the number in the Indian cabinet.

And for Sajjan, his roles in the military and in the government align with what he values most in his religion.

“It’s important to defend your own rights,” he said. “But there is a requirement that you must defend the rights of others.”

Photo credit: Twitter