OTTAWA A Manitoba senator is defending herself against federal allegations she sent “inauthentic” documents in the summer of 2021 to help Afghan women get past Kabul airport checkpoints, revealing that the travel documents came from a top aide to Canada’s then-defence minister for that purpose.
Sen. Marilou McPhedran stood in the Senate chamber Thursday night and said George Young, chief of staff to former minister Harjit Sajjan, provided a “facilitation letter for travel” featuring the Government of Canada logo and a Global Affairs Canada seal to help Afghan women get past army checkpoints and into the airport.
“It was conveyed to us, to our group, by the chief of staff for the then-defence minister. And if somebody can’t trust that as a source, I don’t know what source you can look to.”
It is the first time McPhedran identified the official source of a letter which she said helped “hundreds” of vulnerable Afghans leave. Other recipients of the facilitation letter, however, were not successful, and some of them are suing the federal government to compel the government to grant them entry to Canada.
The immigration department previously said an internal review led it to believe the documents were inauthentic or fake, and it referred the matter to the RCMP. Late Friday, immigration department spokesman Jeffrey MacDonald did not dispute McPhedran’s claim they were authentic but distanced the department from them.
“In order to facilitate the evacuation of vulnerable Afghans, the Government of Canada sent letters directly to Afghan nationals who were eligible to come to Canada in order to help them clear checkpoints on the way to and at the airport in Kabul. IRCC did not authorize any third party to issue these facilitation letters on its behalf,” the statement said.
He said when the department “became aware of the potential use of inauthentic facilitation letters,” it “undertook an internal review.”
The revelation of the high-level official government source of the document is key to McPhedran’s effort to push back at suggestions she acted improperly.
It is also central to a lawsuit filed by a group of six Afghan plaintiffs in the Federal Court, who want the goverment to honour the visa facilitation letters and are seeking a court order granting them a right to enter Canada.
“With Senator McPhedran’s revelations, the government cannot in good faith continue to deny the authenticity of letters she provided,” lawyer Sujit Choudrhy told the Star, adding it should “stand by its letters.”
McPhedran identified Sajjan’s aide, Young, by title in her senate speech. And volumes of emails and two versions of the travel faciliation letters, which the Star has seen, back up McPhedran’s claim.
Young on Aug. 25, 2021 emailed Laura Robinson, McPhedran’s colleague assisting in the evacuation effort, the senator, and others, and attached the form he “got from a colleague at GAC” and urged her to “try it.”
Young is now retired from the federal government and told the Star in an interview Friday he does not recall the facilitation letters or emails sent to McPhedran and others. However he did not dispute that he may have done so.
“I don’t have any recollection of it, to be honest,” said Young. “There was so much going on then.” He said he has no second thoughts about any of those efforts.
“Everybody was just trying to save as many lives as they could,” he said.
Canadian Forces on the ground had full discretion they needed to make decisions about whether to allow people through, Young added.
The travel document Young finally provided came after repeated failed attempts by Afghan women at risk — whom McPhedran and other rights activists had identified to the Canadian government — to gain admission inside the Hamid Karzai international airport compound.
By then, 10 days after the Taliban marched on Kabul, the international airport was a scene of chaos. The Afghan government had collapsed on Aug. 15, prompting a mass exodus of people trying to flee.
Also on Aug. 15, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called an election, the government’s rescue efforts stumbled as violence in Kabul erupted, the Canadian embassy closed, online application portals were swamped, and the government’s mishandling of the Afghan evacuation effort dogged Trudeau on the campaign trail.
McPhedran and Robinson, a consultant she had enlisted to help, bombarded various government ministers and officials with Afghan names, passport information, and requests for assistance. Oz Jungic, then a policy adviser in the office of former foreign affairs minister Marc Garneau and now at PMO, told McPhedran he’d been tasked with working with her. Young had forwarded McPhedran’s list of Afghan names to him, which Jungic said he passed on to GAC officials.
McPhedran and Robinson told Young, Maryam Monsef, then minister of women and gender equality, and others that the women on the list were being turned away at the checkpoints by Canadian soldiers who said they did not have the right “ ‘forms’ — whatever they are” that were needed to get into the airport compound.
By Aug. 25, after another group of Afghan women were turned back at the airport, McPhedran and Robinson pleaded for a document that Canadian forces on the ground would recognize. Young replied to the group, including Jungic, saying “I have received this from a colleague at GAC … try it. George.”
McPhedran said they sent the letter directly to individuals, and via the advocacy networks she was working with. She estimated it helped “hundreds” depart Afghanistan, including a handful to Canada.
She said she would file an affidavit in support of the Federal Court lawsuit by half a dozen Afghan plaintiffs’ who were recipients of the letter but could not get out.
The documents and names in that lawsuit are subject to a sealing order, and the Star is not naming any of the Afghan women who were the subject of McPhedran’s and Robinson’s efforts to protect their and their family members’ safety.
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner, a former immigration critic who has supported a constituent whose family members in Afghanistan also received the faciliation letters, said in an interview Friday McPhedran’s revelation “certainly begs further inquiry. This is a fairly serious situation and what actually happens needs to come to light. The government needs to explain why this happened.”
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