Marieke Walsh The Globe and Mail 8 February 2023
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser told MPs Wednesday he has “serious concerns” that Afghans desperate to flee the Taliban were misled when they were sent inauthentic Canadian travel documents, leaving them with the mistaken belief that they had been cleared to come to Canada.
Mr. Fraser made the comments at a hearing of the House of Commons immigration committee, which is considering launching a probe into unauthorized facilitation letters sent to Afghans by Sen. Marilou McPhedran and her office, and the roles of other government officials in spreading the inauthentic letters.
“Where I have some serious concerns is about the idea that someone may have been given the indication that they would be permitted to come to Canada without having the authorization to give such direction,” Mr. Fraser said.
He said it’s possible that a “few hundred people” received the unauthorized letters, but that his department is unable to verify just how widespread the issue was. Mr. Fraser was responding to questions about Ms. McPhedran’s actions, but never specifically named her.
A legal challenge against the government in Federal Court alleges that Afghans who received those letters remain stranded in Afghanistan. Their lawyers are asking that the court require the government to honour the documents.
During the scramble to evacuate people from Afghanistan in August, 2021, as the Taliban rapidly took over the country, the federal government issued authentic facilitation letters to Afghans who had been approved to come to Canada. The letters were supposed to help people get through Taliban checkpoints on their way to the airport in Kabul. Mr. Fraser said his department became aware in January, 2022, of the possibility of people having received inauthentic versions of those letters.
In September, The Globe and Mail first reported that the federal Immigration Department had investigated facilitation letters that were sent to Afghans by Ms. McPhedran and her office. The documents said that the each of the people named on them had been “granted a VISA to enter Canada” and asked they be allowed to enter the airport. Through its internal review, the department determined that the documents were inauthentic and referred the matter to police.
At the time, Ms. McPhedran defended her actions, saying she had been given the letters by a trusted senior government official. She added that she believed the letters she sent were legitimate, and that she had been under the impression they could be used to help people escape the Taliban.
Ms. McPhedran said she couldn’t disclose who gave her the letters, and she repeatedly declined to explain whether she was sent a template, or whether someone had sent her documents with the names of people already added to them.
A government spokesperson told The Globe at the time that the only sources of authentic facilitation letters were Global Affairs Canada and the Immigration Department, and that the real letters were sent only through official government e-mail addresses. Mr. Fraser and senior department officials repeated that to MPs at the immigration committee on Wednesday.
In the Senate last week, Ms. McPhedran for the first time identified other people involved with her efforts to save Afghans. She said they included former minister for women and gender equality Maryam Monsef, and the chief of staff to Harjit Sajjan, who was then defence minister. Ms. McPhedran did not directly name the official from Mr. Sajjan’s office, but at the time the chief-of-staff position was held by George Young. She told the Senate the official sent her a template of a facilitation letter.
Ms. McPhedran’s lawyer Zain Naqi declined to answer questions from The Globe on Wednesday.
Mr. Young declined to comment on the allegations, noting it is likely he will be called before the committee to testify.
Ms. Monsef, who is no longer an MP, also did not reply to requests for comment on Wednesday. Ms. McPhedran told the Senate there was a “small circle of high officials into which I had been invited by Minister Monsef.”
At the committee, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner tabled a motion calling for Ms. McPhedran, Mr. Young, Ms. Monsef and Mr. Sajjan to testify at a future committee meeting. The motion also called for testimony from Marc Garneau, who was foreign affairs minister in 2021, and Marco Mendicino, who was immigration minister.
Debate on the motion was quashed by Liberal, NDP and Bloc Québécois MPs, and it will be discussed at a later meeting.
Some of the Afghans who received the inauthentic letters are family members of one of Ms. Rempel Garner’s constituents. She told the committee the Afghans were left stranded for more than a year because of the letters. And she said that even though they qualified for resettlement in Canada, the federal government refused to grant them entry. Ultimately, she said, the U.S. government got the family to safety.
Ms. Rempel Garner said that although Ms. McPhedran may have been well intentioned, her actions had negative consequences. The Conservative MP also said the alleged involvement of other government officials raises questions about “why a workaround inauthentic process may have been used by senior persons in the government to evacuate Afghan nationals.”
NDP MP Jenny Kwan said the committee had been trying to get Mr. Fraser to appear before it since October to answer questions about the government’s botched evacuation efforts, which left many stranded in Afghanistan.
“The whole process around this is in question,” she said, “because of the mismanagement of the entire file.”
“The government actually put people’s lives in jeopardy, and it continues today.”