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Nazanin Afshin-Jam and her husband Peter MacKay, Minister of National Defence, at the 2012 Garrison Ball in Toronto. (JJ Thompson For The Globe and Mail)
Nazanin Afshin-Jam and her husband Peter MacKay, Minister of National Defence, at the 2012 Garrison Ball in Toronto. (JJ Thompson For The Globe and Mail)

Is MacKay’s wife grappling with role of political spouse? Add to ...

Nazanin Afshin-Jam MacKay is finding out just how difficult it is to lead life in the public eye when one is married to a prominent politician.

A human-rights activist and former beauty queen, Ms. Afshin-Jam MacKay says a journalist baited her to criticize the Conservative government of her husband, Defence Minister Peter MacKay, and then distorted her views in a news story in which she said former Afghan combatant Omar Khadr should be returned to Canada.

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The Guardian, a Prince Edward Island newspaper, quoted Ms. Afshin-Jam MacKay in its Wednesday edition as saying Ottawa should immediately repatriate Mr. Khadr, a 25-year-old Canadian who has been a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay since his arrest in Afghanistan in 2002.

“Omar Khadr was a child when he was involved in combat under the UN [United Nations] definition and so we should abide by the international laws and rules that we expect of other countries as well,” Ms. Afshin-Jam MacKay told the Guardian. “So I’m not saying that he shouldn’t be kept in prison, but definitely I think it’s time to bring him back to Canada.”

The federal Conservative government has long resisted efforts to have Mr. Khadr returned to Canada and, within hours of the story being posted on the Guardian website, Ms. Afshin-Jam MacKay was accusing the reporter who wrote it of using duplicitous methods to elicit those comments.

“I was asked to come to the Guardian offices to sit down and do an interview about my new book The Tale of Two Nazanins; but instead the journalist Jim Day did not ask me a single question about the book and made an obvious effort to draw me into a discussion criticizing the government,” she said in a post on her Facebook page.

“When responding, I specifically qualified that what I said was my personal view,” she wrote. “I am very disappointed that once again my personal view has been distorted.”

Ms. Afshin-Jam MacKay, who was travelling and unavailable for comment Thursday, went on to criticize the Guardian for referring to her as “the Defence Minister’s wife,” saying she told Mr. Day numerous times that she is tired of seeing her own name left out of interviews. As to what should happen to Mr. Khadr, she wrote: “Leave it to the Canadian and U.S. governments who have all the facts and details about the case to take the proper actions in due course.”

The Prime Minister’s Office said Thursday that private citizens are entitled to their views.

The Afshin-Jam MacKay story goes to the heart of what it means to be a political wife in Canada. While such spouses as Aline Chrétien and Sheila Martin generally shunned the spotlight during their husbands’ years as prime minister, lawyer Maureen McTeer, wife of Joe Clark, advocated for women’s and children’s rights and stirred controversy when she kept her last name after marrying.

Meanwhile, Mr. Day said he did nothing to pressure Ms. Afshin-Jam MacKay into discussing Mr. Khadr. And, although he did not clarify that she was expressing her own personal opinion, he said, “I really don’t know who else’s opinion it would be when I am quoting her.”

Mr. Day said he identified Ms. Afshin-Jam MacKay as the Defence Minister’s wife because, in Canada, that is the status that gives her the highest recognition, not the fact that she is a former Miss World Canada or a human-rights activist.

He pointed out that, in an article accompanying the one in which she discusses Mr. Khadr, she is quoted as saying: “Anybody that is going to give a platform to me to speak on behalf of those most vulnerable in the world, particularly those that are suffering in Iran right now... if it means that my husband’s title can help garner some attention, well all the (more) power.”

Nancy Peckford, the director of Equal Voice, an organization that aims to get more women involved with politics, said she hopes women do not still have to fight to have opinions that are different from those of their partners.

But “what are the expectations of a political spouse in Canada?” Ms. Peckford asked. “Quite frankly, I don’t think we know. I think we are all still grappling with that. As more and more women enter professional life, and given the contemporary nature of partnerships today, it’s all evolving so quickly I don’t think there is any well-established notion of how women should behave in these roles.”

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