Winnipeg senator denies ‘cowardly’ fraud allegations Immigration Department accuses Marilou McPhedran of using fake government letters to help Afghan women flee Taliban in 2021
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Winnipeg senator, lawyer and refugee advocate Marilou McPhedran has denied using fake government letters to rescue Afghans desperate to escape the Taliban takeover in 2021.
In a tearful speech to the Senate late Thursday — after being granted leave to speak by Conservative senate leader Don Plett of Manitoba — McPhedran said she’s been falsely accused by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada of using “inauthentic” facilitation letters.
“This is not true,” said McPhedran, who used her office and position on a high-level working group on Afghanistan evacuation to write facilitation letters to help women in sport, parliament and rights advocacy get past western soldiers at checkpoints guarding the Kabul airport days before it closed.
She told the Senate she used the template provided to the group by then-defence minister Harjit Sajjan’s chief of staff in the rush to get vulnerable Afghans though checkpoints to the airport before it closed.
The authenticity of the letters was challenged by Canadian immigration authorities when six Afghans used them as part of their refugee applications and their claims were rejected.
Now their cases are being reviewed by a federal judge, and McPhedran told the Senate she’s filing a court affidavit that backs up refugee claims from the six by identifying the source and authenticity of the letters, and when and why they were issued in the midst of a crisis.
Two days before the fall of Kabul in August 2021, Canada announced it would resettle 20,000 Afghan interpreters, women and others who were most at risk from the Taliban seizing control. There was mounting chaos in the capital as international forces prepared to leave. Access to the airport — the only place no longer controlled by the Taliban — was rapidly deteriorating.
Canadian officials were earnest in wanting to help vulnerable Afghans leave, McPhedran told her fellow senators.
“It was often up to soldiers to make these life-or-death decisions because of… a vacuum of government mechanisms.”–Senator Marilou McPhedran
“Their good intentions couldn’t undo a perfect storm of crippling failures in communication, co-ordination and administration that combined to guarantee those failures,” she said.
“Not only were Afghans being shot, beaten and choked with tear gas, I kept getting reports from Afghan women that even when they made it to the line of western soldiers around the airport they were denied access, and often told they needed a form, but no one was defining what form,” she said.
“It was often up to soldiers to make these life-or-death decisions because of… a vacuum of government mechanisms.”
With the last Canadian plane expected to leave Afghanistan just two days later, McPhedran pleaded for the correct form to provide to the women desperate to escape. The defence minister’s chief of staff sent her the federal government letter template with the Global Affairs Canada insignia and the message “try it.”
Although the letter was intended to get vulnerable Afghans to the airport and on a plane going someplace safe, it said that the letter holder had been granted a Canadian visa when, in fact, they had not.
The letters succeeded in getting several evacuees to safety. When they were used to make refugee claims to come to Canada, six Afghans were rejected. The IRCC said they used potentially “inauthentic” facilitation letters. Their letters were traced back to McPhedran and reported in the Globe and Mail last fall.
She had declined to comment until Friday, after telling her side of the story to the Senate Thursday.
The senator appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who’s made waves questioning ethics in the red chamber, said she’s being accused of fraud by a government that mishandled its promised resettlement of vulnerable Afghans.
“What a cowardly way to try and excuse a department refusing to keep the promises that Canada made,” McPhedran said in an interview Friday.
“What a cowardly way to try and excuse a department refusing to keep the promises that Canada made.”–Senator Marilou McPhedran
In a statement Friday, the Immigration Department said it did not authorize her or any third parties to issue the facilitation letters on its behalf. It said IRCC couldn’t comment further “to protect the integrity of potential investigations, and given the existence of ongoing related litigation subject to a confidentiality order.”
McPhedran she said she hopes her affidavit concerning the authenticity of the facilitation letter helps the six refugees whose claims were denied.
She said the now-infamous letter helped several women — including soccer players who promoted sport for girls — escape the Taliban.
“It did work,” said Canadian journalist Laura Robinson, who’s reported extensively on sexual abuse in sport in this country and helped advocate for the Afghan women trying to flee. Robinson had worked with McPhedran before and connected with the female Afghan footballers and their families.
“(The soldiers) knew we were coming and we (had) been told just to shout out that we are football players and show the facilitation letter.”–Nilofar, Afghan refugee
One of those athletes, Nilofar (whose last name the Free Press agreed not to publish), described getting into the Kabul airport and flying out hours before a suicide bombing killed nearly 200 people and closed the airport.
“(The soldiers) knew we were coming and we (had) been told just to shout out that we are football players and show the facilitation letter,” Nilofar said in an email Tuesday.
Now, three of the young women and their mother are living in Ontario. Two of them are working and going to school with their mother, Robinson said.
A lawyer from Afghanistan also made it to the Kabul airport, thanks to the facilitation letter. Selsela, who did not want her last name published, wrote Wednesday that she and her brother were able to use it to get past the checkpoints and access the airport as the situation worsened. It was a life-or-death situation for the woman, who’d become a target.
“Given the fact that I was serving in the judiciary of the former Afghan government and remained vocal for advancing women’s and human rights, life had become incredibly difficult for me,” wrote Selsela.
After doubling its initial promise to resettle 20,000 Afghans, as of Wednesday, Canada had welcomed 27,780 refugees since August 2021.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.
Updated on Friday, February 3, 2023 10:27 PM CST: Fixes typo