In the final days of a chaotic and inadequate government effort to rescue people from the Taliban last summer, Senator Marilou McPhedran and one of her staff members sent travel documents to a family attempting to flee Afghanistan. The documents, called facilitation letters, were supposed to help the Afghans bypass checkpoints that had been set up around Kabul’s airport, so they could catch one of the last evacuation flights out of the country.
The letters, copies of which were obtained by The Globe and Mail, have the appearance of official Canadian government documents. They say that each of the Afghans named on them has been “granted a VISA to enter Canada” and ask that the group be given “safe travel to the Hamid Karzai International Airport so that they can board their organized flight.”
A year later, the people who received those documents are still stuck in Afghanistan. And the Canadian government has at last explained why: The facilitation letters they received from the senator and her office were not authentic, and the people named on them had not been approved to come to Canada.
Behind the scenes, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the federal immigration department, had conducted an internal investigation and referred the matter to police.
Ms. McPhedran, a long-time human-rights activist and lawyer, says she was trying to help, and that she acted in good faith. But communications obtained by The Globe show that receiving the documents from her office could have hampered the Afghans’ efforts to escape by giving them the mistaken impression that they had been cleared for travel.
The family had formally applied for resettlement in Canada, but they would later discover their application had been lost. A second application, which they made this year, was rejected because Canada’s immigration programs for Afghans were already at capacity. The group remains at risk in Afghanistan, hunted by the Taliban.
“The use of inauthentic facilitation letters is a serious matter,” IRCC spokesperson Rémi Larivière said in an e-mailed statement. Following the department’s internal investigation, he added, it “made a referral to the appropriate law enforcement partners.”
The RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency declined to say whether they have launched investigations, adding that it is generally their policy not to comment on cases unless charges are laid.
E-mailed statements from IRCC about the matter do not name Ms. McPhedran, but two government sources said the internal investigation was directly related to the documents sent by the senator and her office. The Globe is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.
One source said the government is not aware of anyone coming to Canada using the inauthentic documents, but they were unable to say if anyone had successfully used them to get out of Afghanistan.
In an interview, in e-mails to The Globe and in letters sent by her lawyer, Ms. McPhedran defended her efforts to save vulnerable Afghans, who are now subject to the Taliban’s brutal fundamentalist regime. She acknowledged using a template version of a government facilitation letter, but she denied that the documents were fake, or that she had used them in an unauthorized way.
She said the facilitation letter template was sent to her by a “trusted high level Canadian government official,” whom she declined to identify. She also would not say who added the names to the facilitation letters sent by her and her office. And she did not answer a question about whether she knew the Afghans had not been approved for resettlement in Canada.
“There is nothing fraudulent or illicit about any actions I took with regard to the Afghanistan rescue efforts last August,” she said in an e-mail.
”That my good faith efforts to help save Afghan lives are now being mischaracterized as unauthorized or an overreach is a sad commentary about our governance and nothing more than a politically motivated smear campaign.”
Despite repeated requests to IRCC and Global Affairs Canada, the government has refused to say whether any federal officials helped Ms. McPhedran. IRCC’s Mr. Larivière said he would not comment further, to “protect the integrity and privacy of investigations.”
The senator said she had worked around the clock with advocates and non-governmental organizations in August, 2021, as she tried to rescue the people most at risk from hard-line Taliban rule – namely, women and girls. She has spent most of her life fighting for women’s rights. In 1985, she was invested into the Order of Canada for her work ensuring equal rights for women were enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recommended her for a Senate appointment in 2016.
For years before the events of 2021, the Canadian government had promised Afghans who had worked closely with the country’s military and diplomatic missions in Afghanistan that they and their families would be able to resettle in Canada. In 2012, embassy staff in Kabul asked the government to launch a special immigration program for those Afghans. Such a program was finally created in July, 2021, just weeks before the Taliban took over on Aug. 15.
On the same day as the takeover, 10,000 kilometres away from Afghanistan, Mr. Trudeau called a snap election, and the government shuttered its mission in Kabul and evacuated its staff from the city.
The speed of Afghanistan’s fall surprised NATO countries. They were left scrambling to evacuate Afghans whose work with foreign governments put them at risk of Taliban reprisals.
Ms. McPhedran’s lawyer, Matthew Gottlieb, said the senator received the facilitation letter template from a government official on Aug. 25. Flights out of Afghanistan were about to end, and the federal government’s immigration programs for Afghans had buckled under overwhelming demand and a cumbersome application process. Advocates say the eligibility criteria were opaque, and that the process was difficult to navigate in a war zone.
At the time, Kabul’s airport was constantly surrounded by thousands of Afghans hoping to be among the lucky minority allowed to pass through military guards and board flights out. The stakes were so high that some resorted to desperate measures. In at least one instance, parents passed an infant to American soldiers over a barbed wire barricade. In other cases, people tried to cling to the outsides of planes as they took off. On Aug. 26, a suicide bombing at one of the airport’s entrances killed scores of civilians.
Ultimately, tens of thousands of people who had helped NATO in its war in Afghanistan were left behind. Some are being tortured by the Taliban.
Ms. McPhedran told The Globe she acted how anyone would have in a life-or-death situation. She said her efforts “were known by high level government officials.” In some cases, she said, those officials “participated directly in these rescue efforts.” She added that there are e-mails that show people in government knew about her work.
Her lawyer, Mr. Gottlieb, said the senator lacked “the authority or permission” to provide those e-mails.
Mr. Gottlieb added that she “understood, and was told,” that the facilitation letters “could and should be used in assisting Afghans to get to the tarmac” at the Kabul airport.
IRCC’s Mr. Larivière said the government was using facilitation letters in August, 2021, to help ensure Afghans were able to get through security checkpoints on their way to the Kabul airport. But he said authentic documents were sent only by Global Affairs Canada and IRCC, and only through official government e-mail addresses.
Ms. McPhedran and her staff member sent at least two identical e-mails to a recipient of the facilitation letters in Afghanistan. The messages said Ms. McPhedran had learned the person’s name from the New York-based Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, where the senator is a board member. The organization did not reply to questions from The Globe.
The e-mails were brief. They said there was “no guarantee” the attached documents would help. They directed the recipient to a specific gate at the Kabul airport and ended by saying: “Please do not discuss; just present this document first to any Canadian soldier – flights end on the 26th!” The Globe is not naming the recipient of the e-mails or the other people named on the documents to protect their safety in Afghanistan.
The Globe also obtained a letter sent by MP Michelle Rempel Garner, whose constituent’s family members in Afghanistan are the people who received the inauthentic documents.
Ms. Rempel Garner’s letter, dated July 7, was sent to the constituent, as well as Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, Global Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and Ms. McPhedran.
The letter detailed almost a year of work that Ms. Rempel Garner’s office had done to help the constituent’s family navigate the immigration system. It said her office at first believed the facilitation letters were legitimate government documents and tried to help the constituent understand why some members of her family had been approved to come to Canada while others had not been.
Over the course of that work, the letter said, Ms. Rempel Garner’s office began to have concerns about the validity of the facilitation letters. Ms. Rempel Garner wrote that, despite 10 months of work and after corresponding with government officials more than 30 times, no one in government had said whether the documents her constituent’s family had received were legitimate.
The letter also said that, because the family had believed they possessed legitimate documents, they had come out of hiding to travel to the airport and exposed themselves to danger.
Mr. Fraser clarified the status of the facilitation letters in a response to Ms. Rempel Garner later in July. He said IRCC did not issue the documents, nor did it have a record of the first of the family’s two resettlement applications.
“Since finding no record of the application, IRCC took steps to understand the nature of the letter you raised and related communication,” Mr. Fraser wrote. “The use of inauthentic facilitation letters is a serious matter, and IRCC has treated the matter with the attention it deserves.”
With a report from Stephanie Chambers
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