There was a time when Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan thought it would be impossible for someone like him to end up in his current position.
An immigrant from India running the Canadian Forces? He didn’t think he’d even be allowed to join the Canadian Forces, at least not if he wanted to keep wearing his turban.
Only when a recruiter at his school told him that the turban wouldn’t prevent him from being accepted did Sajjan start to consider the military as a serious option.
It’s the sort of story Canadians love to boast about: A country so accepting of others that even our most tradition-loving institutions will immediately welcome people of all colours and backgrounds.
It’s a story with a good ending, too, as Sajjan went on to rise through the ranks of the military, reaching lieutenant-colonel, and receiving numerous medals and awards for his service before moving into politics.
What it isn’t is the full story. It doesn’t include the part where Sajjan was rejected by the first unit he applied to join. It also leaves out that his early years in the military included plenty of the racism he thought he wouldn’t find there.
“That is when I really realized how intense racism can be,” Sajjan told CTV News during an interview that aired as part of a special broadcast about the realities of racism in Canada.
“I remember one person … saying to me ‘I let you join my military.’ Just that position of power and privilege that he was throwing in my face, it just upset me so much.”
Sajjan said he believed in himself enough that he vowed to prove his tormentor wrong. He did just that, eventually becoming the first Sikh man to command a reserve regiment of the Army – without giving up on his dreams, his beliefs or his turban.
Enrolling in the military might have been the catalyst for Sajjan discovering the depth of racial prejudice in Canada, but it was hardly his first experience with racism.
There were insults and slurs as he was growing up, of course. Then there was the realization that Canadians of colour could face serious harm for no reason other than their skin.
That happened one summer while Sajjan was working at a berry farm with his mother. He gravitated toward one of his coworkers – a man who he remembers as being in his 20s and very funny. One day, the man didn’t show up at the farm. Eventually word got out that the man had been attacked while walking through a park.
“Later on, we found out that it was actually an attack based on race – and he was killed,” Sajjan said.
“That’s when it really kind of dawned on me as a kid – OK, if you’re different, all those slurs or things that you hear can actually result in something so bad.”
Now that a few decades have passed and Sajjan has become a prominent public figure, the defence minister said he does not feel the need to be on a constant “yellow alert” when out in public, the way he did when he was younger.
But that doesn’t mean racism has left his life. Last year, while taking his son to school, he heard another boy making fun of his son’s turban. Sajjan said he wasn’t used to seeing his son as angry as he was after hearing those comments.
After giving it some thought, Sajjan decided to see the taunts as an opportunity for teaching, rather than punishment. He spoke to his son’s class, taking off his turban to show the students the hair underneath, explaining why he wears the turban and why it is important to him, and then retying it.
That education-over-confrontation approach was equally evident when Sajjan was asked what he would say to any young Canadians disappointed in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau not singling out U.S. President Donald Trump in his recent comments on racism.
“When I talk to young people like that, I’ll say ‘I completely agree with you, but what is our main goal here?'” he said.
“Some of us will be able to have that voice, but sometimes … that change happens by leading by example.”