Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

AdChoices

PROFILE

How Ahmed Hussen rose to become Canada’s border man

As a young boy, Canada’s new immigration minister fled war-torn Somalia to forge a new life in Toronto. Now, with U.S. anti-Muslim rhetoric on the rise and Canada facing an influx of desperate refugees, Ahmed Hussen must balance his hard-won empathy for outsiders with a mandate to ensure the integrity of our borders. Erin Anderssen and Michelle Zilio report


On a Saturday afternoon in late February, a lively crowd is squeezed along the narrow aisles of the Al Baraka Variety Store, waiting to shake the hand of Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s new immigration minister. Everyone wants a selfie, and Mr. Hussen, his close-shaven head a good foot above the crowd, happily complies, grinning broadly and greeting people in Somali. His staffers keep their eye on the clock – the minister has a full day ahead and another block yet to travel down Toronto’s Weston Road. Outside, as they see him on the sidewalk, families driving by beep their horns and shout greetings. At the corner of Lawrence Avenue, Nimo Hussein, a 20-year-old Somali woman in a plaid hijab, walking with her younger siblings, circles back to meet him. She tells him they’re on their way to the library, and he bends down to chat with her brother and two sisters. “He was an immigrant, too,” Ms. Hussein marvels. “He started there and he rose all the way up.”

Mr. Hussen talks with a resident on his tour of York South-Weston, one of Canada’s most ethnically diverse ridings.

In Canada, as elsewhere, refugee communities take time to get their footing. Toronto’s Somali community – the largest diaspora of Somali refugees in the Western world – has struggled more than most since their first wave landed in the city in the early 1990s. Ahmed Hussen was among them. Their experiences – with poverty, racism and culture shock – were his experiences. And this feel-good stroll down Weston Road, the business strip of the Somali neighbourhood here, plays out like a spontaneous celebration of a monumental first. A perfect success story in the year of Canada’s 150th birthday.

Except that this is also the year of Donald Trump – and, so, the year of border walls, refugee bans and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Along the U.S. border with Manitoba and Quebec, asylum seekers, many of them Somali, have for weeks now been braving deep snow and freezing temperatures in a resolute effort to enter Canada. On the other side of the world, droves of refugees, many of them children fleeing war, are making their own dangerous runs at a better life as many countries slam their doors shut.

The Midwest Passage

In February, Justin Giovannetti and photographer Ian Willms followed 22 asylum seekers who crossed the U.S. border into Manitoba. Read the full report here.

Ahmed Hussen’s first month on the job says it all. In early January, he was in Turkey, helping a Canadian project deliver school supplies to some of those child refugees, when he was called back to Ottawa for an unexpected meeting with the Prime Minister. The Saturday after he was sworn in to cabinet, he watched a room of newcomers in Toronto take their oath of citizenship – as he himself had done 15 years earlier. The next day, he held his first press conference just as chaos was breaking out in American airports over a proposed U.S. ban on travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Mr. Hussen’s own former homeland. Before week’s end, the new minister, himself a father with young sons, attended a funeral for three fathers gunned down in a Quebec City mosque.

It was not lost on the new immigration minister that one of the first questions put to him by a reporter, about whether he would be swept up in the ban, required him to clarify his citizenship: “I hold only one passport,” he said, “and I am Canadian.”

Mr. Hussen, 40, has spent most of his adult life studying, debating, and expounding on what it means to truly belong in a country – as a community organizer for the poor, as a political staffer to Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, as an immigration lawyer, and as the head of the Canadian Somali Congress. His rise is notable. But so, too, are the challenges he now faces: to manage an unpredictable, often-xenophobic American administration, to hold to Canadian values of openness against a worldwide tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. And, through it all, to keep Canadians safe.

This Friday, days after President Trump signed an amended immigration order in response to court challenges, Mr. Hussen met with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, in Ottawa, searching for common ground on a range of thorny border issues. Mr. Hussen has a reputation for courteous diplomacy, for treading carefully into contentious issues, and for having learned, as he puts it, “to focus on goals, not noise.” But the two men – one, a Muslim refugee turned immigration lawyer who speaks of the importance of balancing security and compassion, and who understands firsthand the plight of asylum seekers; the other, a hard-talking military general who has floated the idea of separating mothers from their children at the U.S.-Mexican border – are telling symbols of the diverging paths of their respective countries.

Mr. Hussen weaves his way through a crowd with Zubair Patel, his director of operations and outreach.

Weston Road is the business strip of one of Toronto’s major Somali neighbourhoods.

Mr. Hussen chats with Milton Esson while he gets his hair cut.

Mr. Hussen talks with Cecilia Ortega of the Mount Dennis Neighbourhood Centre.

Mr. Hussen then helped out at the neighbourhood centre’s kitchen …

… where they made shepherd’s pie.

Mr. Hussen gives staffers Christine Whitten and Jordan Wilson encouragement for a job well done on their tour of York South-Weston.



Cabinet confidential

Learn the backstories of some of Justin Trudeau’s other ministers:

Karina Gould, Democratic Institutions

Maryam Monsef, Status of Women

François-Philippe Champagne, International Trade

Jody Wilson-Raybould, Justice (for subscribers)

Harjit Sajjan, Defence

Leaving civil war behind

His official landing in Canada is time-stamped in Ahmed Hussen’s memory: Feb. 27, 1993, Lester B. Pearson International Airport. It was two in the afternoon. He was 16.

And what he knew of Canada amounted to a newspaper photo he’d once seen of Pierre Elliott Trudeau congratulating an Olympic gymnast. Back in Nairobi, Kenya, his parents – who had fled Somalia with their children in tow the year before – had put him on the plane with a family friend as his chaperone, bound for Toronto, where two older brothers were already living. He wasn’t, Mr. Hussen recalls, given a choice in the matter. In Kenya, his parents might manage a life for themselves; for their youngest son, they wanted more. And there was no going home to Somalia, then two years into a raging civil war.

At first, in Toronto, he lived with his brother Mahammed, a delivery-truck driver. But it was soon decided that he should move to Hamilton, to share a place with a cousin attending Mohawk College. His apartment was walking distance to Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School – and, crucially, the grocery store. His cousin moved out during Ahmed’s last year of high school, and he found himself living alone. When asked to name the biggest challenge he faced in those first years, he grins: cooking. “I didn’t know how to make an egg,” he confesses, “before I arrived in Canada.”

The teenager may have been coddled by his mother in that respect, but he arrived with one essential skill that set him apart from many of the other young Somali men then struggling to find their way: He spoke English extremely well. Neither of his parents had been formally educated – his mother, Amina, ran the household; his father, Dirir, a quiet man from a large family in central Somalia (who since passed away in Mogadishu, in 2000), was a truck driver, and often away from home.

When Ahmed was a little boy, an older cousin who lived in their Mogadishu home would send him down the street to buy newspapers. Over time, Ahmed began to ask for an explanation of the headlines – and received lessons in current affairs. The cousin also taught him English grammar, and even introduced him to Shakespeare. Later, Ahmed’s mother hired a tutor, insisting her boy study each day after class. Ahmed missed a year of school in Kenya; but once in Canada, with his mother’s expectations on his mind, and his siblings on watch, he quickly got back to work.

He would later say that it was the high-school track team that gave him the closest thing he would find in those years to a Canadian family to guide him. He was lean and lanky, and hungry to prove himself. His teammates remember ribbing Ahmed (still adjusting to the Canadian climate) for training in a tuque and long pants when everyone else was in shorts. His coach, a minister named Peter Wright, recalls the time Ahmed got lost, and ended up running along Highway 403. (“This can’t be right,” Mr. Hussen himself now recalls thinking.) Beyond the athletics, he fondly remembers dinners at the Wright home, and finding friends in a country that he was still trying to understand.

After graduating from high school, and working briefly as a clerk with a local government social-service agency, Ahmed decided to go to university, and moved back in with Mahammed in an apartment in Regent Park, a social-housing project in Toronto largely populated by newcomers to Canada, including the city’s growing Somali population. He was still waiting to attain permanent residency, which would make a student loan possible. “Mine took forever,” he recalls.

As he waited, he says, he earned money by pumping gas at a Mississauga service station, a job that required him to leave Regent Park at 5:30 a.m., and take a streetcar, then a subway, then a bus. “All to make $6.85 an hour,” he says ruefully, “which at the time, to me, was a lot of money.” But by September, 1998 – five and a half years after landing in Canada – he’d saved enough to embark on a history degree at York University.

Still, in Regent Park, he experienced the toll of feeling powerless and poor. “Your ceiling would just leak,” he recalls. “My books would be ruined because I would wake up one morning, and there would be water everywhere. The elevator wouldn’t work. Things wouldn’t get fixed.” At the development’s only store, he says, customers were just as likely to be treated as criminals.

In his final year of university, during a community barbecue in Regent Park, Mr. Hussen met Toronto MLA George Smitherman, who in turn introduced him to a group of residents organizing a new neighbourhood association that they hoped would give them a voice in a $500-million plan to redevelop the ramshackle public-housing project, built in the 1940s.

It was only a few meetings later that the group decided to make Mr. Hussen its chair – he was young, well-spoken, a voice for the multicultural residents of Regent Park. Meeting with government officials and police officers, to share the perspective of residents, served as Mr. Hussen’s first introduction to local politics, and his first lesson in how to sell his message in a way that would make other players sit up and listen.

Among their goals, the group was trying to make the case for basic services in Regent Park, but getting nowhere. “Why don’t we simplify this?” Mr. Hussen remembers thinking. “I counted the number of Canada Post mailboxes in Regent Park, and there were none. I am not saying none, rhetorically. There were none. And something like 20,000 people live there. A kid who wanted to send a job resumé had to leave Regent Park to put it in a mailbox. I thought that was crazy.” On a trip to Wasaga Beach in Ontario’s cottage country, he walked around and counted the mailboxes there: 22. That comparison became a central point in his presentation.

“Everything you can think of, we got the short end of the stick,” he says now. “It wasn’t until this group started to ask questions, and point out those peculiar stats, that things started to change.”

Says Derek Ballantyne, who was then the CEO of Toronto Community Housing: “He was attentive to the different points in the room. He definitely didn’t let himself get provoked, and he was always smart about how to assess the situation without being overdramatic or angry.”

Mr. Hussen’s experience at Regent Park, he says, showed him how “small-p politics can be a force for good.” Although he had no plans to run for office, he knew he wanted to somehow shape public policy. “For me, it was like something you could touch. I started valuing politics as a public service, as a tangible thing that can actually deliver for people.”

He had also begun to build what would become a cadre of mentors. His mother, he says, had taught him one particular Arabic proverb at a young age: “Saying to someone, ‘I don’t know. Can you tell me?’ is 50 per cent of knowledge.” He has learned, he says, to use the experience of other people. (He still regularly calls Mr. Smitherman, a former Ontario deputy premier and a father himself, to seek advice, especially on juggling political responsibilities with family life.)

In 2001, his newly minted history degree in hand, Mr. Hussen was introduced by Mr. Smitherman to the chief of staff of Dalton McGuinty, then Ontario’s opposition leader. Offered a job working the phones as a receptionist, he grabbed it.



Mr. Hussen helps his middle son, Maahir, with his lunch at a fish-and-chips restaurant.

Mr. Hussen sets out for his riding tour with his wife Ebyan, at the rear with a stroller, and his three children: Mayhab, 7, right, Maahir, 3, and five-month-old Saalim.

Mr. Hussen’s family says goodbye as he goes about his tour.



A master of arcana

Ahmed Hussen is a scholar by nature, and, especially, a student of history. “History is truly about now and what happens in the future,” he says. “If you really study history, you can see it repeating itself, you can see the patterns.”

Although he declines to join the chorus of observers drawing parallels between the current American administration and darker times gone by, he does say this: “We are at a point in history when many countries are making the choice to close their borders to people, to ideas, to new ways of thinking. Other countries have their sovereign right to do what they want with their policies. In Canada, we made a different choice.” And he’s proud to now play a pivotal role in that choice: “History will judge that countries that are open will be more successful at the end of the day.”

He is a prolific reader, by all accounts – from the memoir of onetime British Labour Party MP and foreign secretary Robin Cook, to the history of the Reformation, to the food travels of Anthony Bourdain. (Mr. Hussen’s wife, Ebyan, volunteers that he also has an insatiable appetite for the Food Network, with results she appreciates: He makes a fine risotto.)

His friends describe having lengthy, wonky discussions into the night about the American Civil War or the evolution of Sweden as a society. “He can talk a lot,” jokes friend Rachel Pulfer, the executive director of Journalists for Human Rights. “He has more energy than the average person for topics that are unspeakably dull.”

A knowledge of arcane historical tidbits has proven useful over the years. Arnold Chan, now an MP himself, but once Mr. Hussen’s boss in premier McGuinty’s office, recalls the day Mr. McGuinty, on short notice, had to get on the phone with the leader of Myanmar. Mr. Hussen rhymed off several facts about the country, from memory, and Mr. Chan immediately sent him in to brief the premier.

On the campaign trail, door-knocking in the predominantly Italian neighbourhoods of his riding, he was often able to bond, first over soccer, and then – often drinking espresso at kitchen tables – by talking about the Italian influence on Somali culture: the words that are the same in both languages, the fact that spaghetti is a Somali staple. (Mr. Hussen’s family has its own Italian ties. His father’s youngest brother served as Somalia’s ambassador to Italy during the 1960s, before a military coup saw him recalled, and then jailed for a period.)

At a time when mosques are being fired upon and synagogues defaced, the new minister’s personal history, as well as his understanding of global affairs, informs his take on the racist vitriol now ricocheting in circles both political and pedestrian. “It is important,” he says, “to call particular types of intolerance by their name – anti-Semitism, Islamophobia.”

And while the anti-Muslim bombast coming out of the White House make headlines, Mr. Hussen points out that Canada is not faultless: Statistics suggests that hate crimes against the Muslim community have been increasing. “What we can learn from history is that those who peddle in hate tend to be always in the minority,” he says, “but the key force that changes the dynamic is the silent majority. The day that the silent majority is activated and educated about the danger of intolerance – that is when things change. That lesson was true in the civil rights movement, and it is true today.”

Extremists of any stripe, he says, should not be allowed to control the narrative. “Why should radicals define my religion?” asks Mr. Hussen, who describes his faith as a “personal moral compass” that doesn’t directly inform his decisions on public policy.

Asked about the asylum seekers risking so much to enter Canada – a new group this week braved a blizzard while crossing into Manitoba – he treads carefully. He’s guided, he says, by his own experience, his legal background and his political responsibilities. “Asylum seekers are people in need of protection, they are not criminals … I don’t subscribe to the notion, espoused by some conservatives today, that we should lock up these people, or just throw them over to the United States – in fact, it is illegal.” He is quick to add, however, that “we have an obligation to make sure compassion is coupled with a screening process.”



‘Are you kidding me?’

One of Ahmed Hussen’s first acts as an MP was to propose a name-blind hiring process for the public service. Anonymous resumés would aim to prevent managers from making biased choices based on gender and race, even unconsciously; the idea is being considered by the Treasury Board.

As a black man in Canada – who has an Arabic name, and slightly, though elegantly, accented English – Mr. Hussen has had his fair share of personal experiences with racial profiling.

In July, 2004, Ahmed Hussen, then a policy adviser to Dalton McGuinty, stood on the edge of a crowd gathered at the Shaw Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., for a meeting of the Council of the Federation, an event attended by the provincial premiers and other Canadian movers and shakers. As guests headed to dinner, a wealthy Toronto businessman (Mr. Hussen, ever the diplomat, won’t identify him) stopped short, looked him up and down, and posed the following question, in apparent reference to the South African performers that had just finished playing their set: “Are you in the band?”

For his boss’s sake, Mr. Hussen would admit later, he should have let it pass. But he couldn’t. “I just got angry,” he recalls, his voice rising even now, in the telling. “Because: Are you kidding me? Do I look like an entertainer?” Mr. Hussen was in a suit and tie; the band was dressed entirely in black. Could it have been an awkward attempt to make conversation? Mr. Hussen scoffs. “He was poking me. He said, ‘The only black people in my circle are either servants or entertainers.’ In his mind, I had to fit into one of those two.”

Mr. Hussen told the man that he was working for the premier. “He said, ‘How on earth did you get that job?’ And I said, ‘I got a degree, I volunteered, I got it the hard way.’”

It was not the first time he experienced the negative side of being a black man in Canada. Two years earlier, while finishing up his degree, he was grocery shopping when he noticed two security guards pacing behind him. As he stood in line to pay, and in front of other customers, the guards asked him to empty his pockets. “I have never stolen anything in my life,” he says, looking back on the incident. “It was very humiliating.” Recalling the story in his bare-bones office in an industrial section of York South-Weston, he says, “I am very proud of this country. I love this country, and it’s been very good to me. … You try to find the reason why it could be something else.”

He is quick to point out that there were plenty of times when he’s been fully embraced by the citizens of his adopted home – during his days on the track team in Hamilton; in the helping hand he received from Mr. Smitherman and the community organizers at Regent Park who coached him into a leadership role. But he also, however subtly, experienced the world differently than most of those who helped him out along the way. Sriram Raman, a friend from his time with Mr. McGuinty, says that Mr. Hussen remains highly attuned to the nuances of day-to-day racism. During the Liberal nomination meeting, a voter asked if Mr. Hussen would “only” represent his own community. His response: Would you put that question to a candidate of Italian heritage?

In the fall of 2007, Mr. Hussen and Mark Persaud, a Toronto lawyer who came to Canada as a refugee from Guyana, were driving to New York to participate in the launch of a project helping street children in Nigeria. On the freeway one night, they were pulled over by state troopers as part of a routine traffic stop. Mr. Hussen put his hands on the wheel, in plain sight, only moving them after asking the trooper’s permission. “I would never think about doing that, and I’m a brown man,” Mr. Persaud recalls. “Ahmed understands that the police have a difficult job to do, but he also understands racism as a reality.” When reminded of the anecdote, Mr. Hussen adds that, having lived in Regent Park, “you know how to behave around police.” After a friendly exchange, the trooper sent them on their way.

The anecdote seems of a piece with his trademark pragmatism: Why pick a fight when a handshake will do? “He has a very strong sense of humility,” says Justice Donald McLeod, one of a handful of black judges on the Ontario Court, who came to know Mr. Hussen recently when the two began meeting to discuss ways to help the African-Canadian community in areas such as mental health and corrections. “It is not put on. It is not, ‘I am going to be pious.’ There is a strength that comes with that.”



Amanda Lindhout, shown in her Canmore, Alta., home in 2015, got acquainted with Mr. Hussen when he was president of the Canadian Somali Congress. She had been abducted in Somalia in 2008 while working as a journalist there, and spent more than a year in captivity. TODD KOROL FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Wrestling with a question

Amanda Lindhout was living in a one-bedroom apartment with her mother in Canmore, Alta., trying to shake the demons, when the phone call came. It was the winter of 2010, and she’d been home for four months, released by captors in Somalia after she had been kidnapped while working as a journalist. Wrestling with PTSD, she wasn’t ready yet to tell her story. Mr. Hussen, then president of the Canadian Somali Congress, reached out to her through Facebook, and asked her permission to give her a call.

On the phone, as Ms. Lindhout recalls it now, he was a stranger’s voice, but “so genuine in his concern for me, and his deep regret that his country and countrymen had hurt me in the ways that they did.” He asked if he could come and visit, to shake her hand in person. “That meant everything to me at the time,” Ms. Lindhout recalls, “to have this prominent Somali male going out of his way to convey his apologies to me.”

Soon after, the two met at a coffee shop. They spoke for several hours. Mr. Hussen talked about Somalia, she recalls, its beautiful history, and the place it had once been. She told him she was thinking about starting a foundation to provide scholarships for Somali women, and he volunteered to join the board.

At the time, Mr. Hussen was making trips back and forth to Alberta, while attending law school at the University of Ottawa and serving as president of the Congress, a grassroots organization he had helped create. There had been a spate of violent deaths involving young men of Somali descent in Edmonton and Calgary. Almost all of them had travelled to Alberta from Toronto in search of work. Finding doors to better jobs closed, some of them had become mules in the drug trade, and unwitting targets for warring gangs.

In media panels and interviews, Mr. Hussen became the national voice for the Somali community, and their bridge to the police and to politicians such as Jason Kenney, who was then the minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism, and who developed a friendship with Mr. Hussen. In community meetings, Mr. Hussen explained how the Canadian legal system worked – and that Crime Stoppers really was anonymous – and where families could go for help. “We have these really great resources, but a lot of newer Canadians really don’t know about them,” he says. “What’s the point of having them if we don’t educate pockets of our community?”

He was also known to point out the problems within the Somali community itself, in particular the tension between first-generation Canadians trying to integrate into Western society, and more traditional elders still fomenting clan divisions carried over from the homeland. “His style of leadership,” Mahamad Accord, a Somali community leader in Alberta, “was very advanced for them.”

Says Mr. Kenney: “Often in meetings with the Somali community, people would get understandably quite emotional, and Ahmed was always a kind of rock of stability and an anchor in a positive sense.”

For Mr. Hussen himself, one of the key problems within the community was a lack of a sense of belonging in mainstream Canada. He has wrestled most of his adult life with this fundamental question, one certain to inform his interactions in cabinet and his view of policy in his portfolio: When does someone truly become a Canadian?

The deaths of the young men in Alberta, he often pointed out, were not an immigrant problem: These were people who had grown up in Canada – some even born here. In 2013, when a task force of the Toronto District School Board recommended separate programs for Somali students, Mr. Hussen joined a group of parents protesting, because they felt their children would be stigmatized. He still believes that Canada settles newcomers well, but integrates them less successfully. “Multiculturalism is not about song and dance,” he says. “It is about integration, and integration presumes true equality.”

In our interview, the word racism often seems to hang in the air, unspoken. As his friend Mr. Raman puts it, “He makes a conscious decision not to use that word. He says it is such as easy label to use. And it just gets people riled.”



Taking aim at toxicity

In 2011, the same year he graduated from law school, Ahmed Hussen testified before the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security on the subject of radicalization within the Canadian-Somali community. In his opinion, he told the congressmen, a lack of opportunities makes people “vulnerable to a narrative that makes them hate the very countries that sustain them – the very countries that provided welcome and refuge to their parents.” (At the time, a handful of young Toronto men had travelled back to Somalia to join the jihadist terrorist group Al-Shabaab; parents, he says, confessed to him that they were hiding their children’s passports.)

Too often, he argued, countries, including Canada, treated radicalization as a law-enforcement issue, without making “a parallel attempt to counter the toxic anti-Western narrative that creates a culture of victimhood in the minds of members of my community.” It’s not enough, he told the committee, to hope that “our values will percolate into their brains by osmosis.”

In fact, Mr. Hussen himself had already found one important way to encourage integration: mentorship. He often tells the story of a Canadian-Somali youth he knew who had earned a degree in accounting at a Toronto university; when Mr. Hussen ran into him one day, he was working at Tim Hortons – he hadn’t been able to find a Somali accountant, he explained, who would take him on as an intern. “But why,” Mr. Hussen asked, “does he or she have to be Somali?” It was not a rhetorical question: Mr. Hussen himself knew well the value of reaching out beyond his community for career help. After he graduated from law school, a contact introduced him to Harminder Dhillon, a Punjabi Sikh lawyer, who took him on as an articling student.

With that in mind, and working with Mark Persaud, who had helped found the Canadian Somali Congress and was CEO of the Canadian International Peace Project, Mr. Hussen approached the Canadian Jewish Congress in 2008 to ask if it would consider running a mentorship program for Muslim university graduates. Bernie Farber, chief executive officer of the CJC at the time, recalls his introduction to Mr. Hussen. “He was this tall, gawky kind of guy, and the first thing he did when we met was – he didn’t shake my hand – he hugged me. And I’ve never forgotten that.”

Within the Somali community, “there was some discomfort,” concedes Hussein Warsame, a business professor at the University of Calgary, who met Mr. Hussen when he was travelling back and forth to Alberta. “Growing up, we were told that Israel is the enemy, that we have to be careful, that we can’t trust them. And Ahmed said, ‘Here is a very successful community, who are known to help people who went through difficult times, because this is their own history.’ He was different from other Somali activists. This is why I always thought Ahmed Hussen would be someone important.”

After articling with Mr. Dhillon, Mr. Hussen ran his own practice, focusing mainly on immigration cases. He and Ebyan – a Somali refugee herself, with a degree in sustainable business management – met when she sat on the board of the Somali Congress; one day, he invited her for coffee, and declared his intention to marry her. (“The feeling,” Ebyan says, “was mutual.”)

Still, becoming a political family has required some adjustment: Ebyan and the children have continued to live in their home north of Toronto; Ebyan’s mother lives with them. “Everyone’s No. 1 question is: ‘How do you do it?’” she says, clearly weary of being asked. “But it’s the quality of time we spend together” during Ahmed’s time in the riding. Besides, she has her own plans – she is taking over as president of the Canadian Somali Congress, and plans to expand its mentorship program.



Mr. Hussen shakes hands with John Jung Ko, president of the Korean Canadian Business Association, at the Arirang Gala in Toronto’s Richmond Hill neighbourhood on Feb. 25.

Stiff backbone required

“Minister, I want to get your mind to the next event,” says senior adviser Tia Tariq, as they approach the Arirang Gala, a fundraiser for the Korean community in Richmond Hill, Ont. “We’re almost there.”

His speech tonight will be a boilerplate political greeting – a few words about the event, praise for the work being done. “But you need to say the Korean greeting,” says Zubair Patel, Mr. Hussen’s director of operations and outreach, who is behind the wheel.

“Anyoung haseyo,” Mr. Patel says.

“Anyoung haseyo,” Mr. Hussen practises. “Anyoung haseyo.”

“And then you have to bow a little bit.”

“Yes, okay.”

At the event, Mr. Hussen sits at a table with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, waiting to be called up. He says the greeting with confidence, and takes his bow, to applause from the crowd. Less than 20 minutes later, his staffers have him back in the car, heading toward the next pop-and-run, a Portuguese dinner and concert at a union hall across town.

Mr. Hussen talks with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne at the Arirang Gala.

Mr. Hussen walks to the podium to speak at the gala.

This is how the day has gone. A quick brunch with Ebyan and their sons at a favourite fish-and-chips restaurant in the riding, during which a conversation with a constituent tied up most of the meal, followed by shaking hands and passing out flyers on the sidewalk, and a brief stop for coffee. Mr. Hussen is warm and comfortable with his staff – throughout the day, he seeks their input regularly – and while he can sometimes appear too formal in speeches, he is outgoing in a crowd, and clearly energized, one-on-one, by the chance to delve more deeply into whatever is on their minds.

His appointment, Jason Kenney points out, was counterintuitive – in the past, prime ministers have shied away giving the post to immigrant MPs or even those with predominantly immigrant ridings. Even without the complications of the Trump presidency, Mr. Kenney, who had the job under Stephen Harper from 2008 to 2013, says it’s one of the toughest spots in cabinet – requiring, among other attributes, a stiff backbone to deal with constant requests for political intervention in failed asylum cases. (Mr. Hussen’s Facebook page is already full of heartbreaking pleas from people saying they are posting from Syrian refugee camps.)

Mr. Kenney says, however, that he’s confident Mr. Hussen will be sympathetic to the plight of would-be refugees without being a “pushover” when it comes to enforcing the law and protecting national security. “I know him to be a conscientious, serious guy with a very balanced approach,” he says. “It’s not an issue at all.”

Still, Mr. Hussen will have much to contend with – his meeting with Mr. Kelly is only the beginning of what promises to be a tricky diplomatic dance with Canada’s neighbour to the south. As he juggles his demanding file, he may find sustenance in the very values that are likely to clash with those of Mr. Trump and his colleagues.

Rounding out the day that began at the Al Baraka Variety, he arrives at the African Canadian Achievement Awards in downtown Toronto, where at intermission, Kayla Benjamin, a 26-year-old award presenter in a shimmering dress, leans over and asks. “Is that the immigration minister? I want to get a picture with him.” As a selfie is being arranged, Ms. Benjamin explains her excitement at capturing her moment with Mr. Hussen. “In the current climate,” she says, “he is a beacon of hope.”



Erin Anderssen is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail.

Michelle Zilio is a reporter in the Globe’s Ottawa bureau.


TRUDEAU’S INNER CIRCLE: MORE FROM THE GLOBE AND MAIL


Report Typo/Error

Next story

loading