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International Development Minister and Pacific Economic Development Agency of Canada Minister Harjit Sajjan rises during Question Period, on Dec. 7, in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Harjit Sajjan counts himself lucky to have survived.

His brother and one of his sisters weren’t as fortunate; they died as babies, at the ages of six months and six weeks, respectively.

Growing up in a rural village in Punjab, India, infant and maternal mortality were not uncommon because of the lack of an established medical system. It’s a reality that Mr. Sajjan’s family knows all too well – his maternal grandmother died during childbirth and his mother stopped attending school to raise her younger siblings.

The problem persists in lower-income countries today, and is something Mr. Sajjan hopes to combat as Canada’s new International Development Minister.

“When you talk to a lot of the [Indian] diaspora here in Canada, my mom’s generation, this is not unique,” Mr. Sajjan said in his first interview since taking on his new portfolio.

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The decision to appoint Mr. Sajjan to the International Development file surprised critics, as the appointment puts the minister at the helm of the government’s feminist international assistance policy. The strategy, which focuses on improving the lives of women and girls around the world, was announced with fanfare in 2017 as a cornerstone of the Liberals’ foreign agenda.

“The fact that the Prime Minister chose somebody who had mismanaged a file that dealt with women in the military and is now in charge of our feminist international assistance policy is pretty shocking,” said NDP international development critic Heather McPherson.

Speaking to The Globe and Mail, Mr. Sajjan rejected questions about his credibility and said he is “extremely proud” of the work he did in Defence. He said feminist values have been engrained in him from a young age, growing up in a village where he witnessed inequality for women, and those principles will continue to inform his work.

“I’m not going to be apologetic to other people who want to brand me in another way,” he said.

Speaking at the cabinet shuffle, Mr. Trudeau said Mr. Sajjan’s international experience, which includes three deployments with the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan and one in Bosnia, will be “exceedingly useful” in the international development file.

The continuing crisis in Afghanistan will be a top priority for Mr. Sajjan. The country fell to the Taliban in August and now faces continued fighting, a collapsing economy and severe food insecurity. Concerns that foreign governments will cut their foreign aid because of the terrorist group’s takeover have amplified economic uncertainty in Afghanistan. International aid accounted for 42.9 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2020, before the Taliban seized control.

Canada continues to provide humanitarian aid through trusted multilateral agencies and non-government organizations, but direct bilateral funding previously destined for the Afghan government was frozen when the Taliban took power. Asked whether Canada would consider resuming bilateral aid under Taliban control, Mr. Sajjan said the terrorist group must first restore the trust of the international community.

“Are they going to put credible systems in place that are going to protect the rights of women, minority groups and making sure that people get support?” he said.

Cooperation Canada, an umbrella group that represents more than 80 non-profits, welcomed Mr. Sajjan’s international experience, particularly his perspective on Afghanistan.

“He’s seen those places, he’s seen those people, he’s seen what this looks like, and so his ability to understand the impact of a crisis like this is going to be really significant,” said Maxime Michel, interim CEO of Cooperation Canada.

Stephen Brown, a professor at the University of Ottawa who studies foreign aid, said the sector’s warm response to Mr. Sajjan’s appointment was “strategic” because it is forced to work with him. However, he suspects the sector is quietly “wringing their hands” over the minister’s track record in Defence.

Like many ministers before him, Mr. Sajjan is facing calls from the aid sector to increase Canada’s official development assistance (ODA) spending. Canada spent 0.31 per cent of its gross national income (GNI) on ODA in 2020 – a far cry from the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent.

Mr. Sajjan said that while the Liberals are committed to increasing foreign assistance in dollars, as noted in the November Throne Speech, he did not lay out a plan to reach the UN target as a percentage of GNI.

“Stay tuned,” said Mr. Sajjan, who added that there was a reason the foreign aid budget was included in the Throne Speech.

Equitable global access to COVID-19 vaccines will also be a major issue for Mr. Sajjan. Nearly 65 per cent of people in high-income countries have received at least one dose, compared with about 8 per cent in low income countries, according to the World Health Organization.

Canada has committed to donate at least 200 million doses to COVAX, the main source of vaccines for low-income countries, before the end of 2022; to date, 8.3 million vaccines have been delivered. Another 762,000 were donated to Latin American and Caribbean countries through bilateral agreements. In addition, Canada has committed $545-million to COVAX to support the procurement of 87 million vaccine doses for low and middle-income countries.

The NDP said the Liberals have said all the right things about global vaccine equity but the rollout has been too slow to keep up with the global spread and mutation of the virus.

“We’re running out of time,” Ms. McPherson said.

As Canadians receive their third booster shots, many people in low income countries haven’t received a single vaccine. Mr. Sajjan acknowledged international vaccine donation delays, but said it’s the government’s responsibility to look after its own citizens first.

The minister said Canada’s vaccine donations will ramp up as the government assesses recipient countries’ ability to receive them. For instance, he said the government needs to ensure countries can accept vaccine deliveries, properly refrigerate them and have enough needles to administer the shots before they expire.

The reality of vaccine inequity hits close to home for Mr. Sajjan. Although most of his family lives in Canada and the U.S. now – he immigrated to Canada from India when he was five years old – he can’t help but think about the impacts of the pandemic on remote parts of the world.

“What I’m really worried about is all those people we grew up with that don’t have that opportunity [to get vaccinated],” he said.

“Canada is absolutely committed to making sure that we do our part.”

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