(OTTAWA) International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan told fellow MPs on Wednesday he was unaware that a Canadian senator was handing out unauthorized travel documents to hundreds of Afghans during the Taliban’s rise in 2021, as he was not checking his emails at the time.
Last week, Senator Marilou McPhedran testified to the House of Commons Immigration Committee that Mr. Sajjan’s chief of staff, George Young, had given him a model “facilitation visa letter” that people could use to pass through checkpoints on their way to the airport to flee their country.
She has shared this model with several “trusted stakeholders”, including FIFA’s human rights officer and a former Canadian Olympian.
Ms. McPhedran does not know how many letters were distributed, but puts the number at around 640.
Mr. Sajjan was Minister of National Defense at the time. Senator McPhedran maintained that she copied him and several other ministers numerous emails regarding his activities.
Minister Sajjan told the committee that he was so busy at the time that he had no time to check his inbox.
“During the evacuation, I really didn’t have time to check my emails,” he reiterated to reporters after his appearance before the committee.
Even at the federal election campaign launch in August 2021, Sajjan said he was fully focused on the situation in Afghanistan until the last Canadian evacuation flight left the capital, Kabul.
He said he was aware of genuine facilitation visa letters given by Global Affairs Canada, but did not authorize anyone else to use them.
In a statement, the Department of Immigration said it had sent several genuine letters directly to Afghan nationals eligible to come to Canada to assist them through checkpoints, but did not authorize third parties to distribute them on behalf of the government.
The situation was referred to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who ruled they could not pursue a viable investigation.
Meanwhile, the government’s refusal to honor documents allowing Afghans to enter Canada is now on trial.
Tory MP Michelle Remple Garner likened the minister’s explanation to the “dog ate my homework” excuse.
“The answer ‘I didn’t check my emails’ was nonsense,” she said after the meeting, pointing out what she saw as a lack of oversight and fairness in the process.
Ms. McPhedran has filed her emails with the committee, but they have not yet been shared with members.
In a written statement sent to La Presse Canadienne on Wednesday, she thanked Mr. Sajjan for his commitment to getting Afghans, including high-risk women and girls, out of the country.
She also thanked him for his “appreciation of his then chief of staff, George Young, for working diligently to try to save lives.”
Mr. Young never told him that the senator was distributing facilitation visa letters, the minister said, but he would not comment further on whether Mr. Young’s alleged actions were appropriate or not.
He said he had instructed his staff to redirect anyone concerned about getting people out of Afghanistan to the appropriate interdepartmental team, but he also described the frenetic atmosphere at the time.
NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said the minister is responsible for the actions of his chief of staff.
“I am appalled by the Minister’s comments and a bit shocked at the level of incompetence, frankly, if this is how he acted,” Ms Kwan said.
Conservative members of the committee tabled a notice of motion to call Mr. Young to testify.
“This testimony is going to be key to understanding exactly what happened, whether there was authorization, why he undertook this and whether he actually did it,” Ms. Remple Garner said after the meeting.