They were talking about their member of Parliament in Peterborough – about the unusual news that Maryam Monsef, whose origin story as a refugee from Afghanistan has been central to her political identity, was actually born and spent most of her earliest years in Iran – but they weren't judging.
To Jean Grant, the owner of a toy shop in the centre of town, the story – that the rookie Democratic Renewal Minister only just now learned the truth from her mother, after inquiries from The Globe and Mail – just made her more interesting and sympathetic. To 34-year-old Shane Foster, who paused to talk as he took his six-year-old son into a video-game shop, it mattered much more that Ms. Monsef's office was responsive when he needed help with the boy's government documents than it did where she came from.
Others pointed out that we all have family secrets; coming from a different part of the same dangerous region is not one that terribly troubles them. Many said they consider Ms. Monsef to be from Peterborough – where she came when she was 11 – and the rest just backstory. Even those who don't particularly like her, didn't vote for her, offered only very moderate criticism about the biographical confusion.
Walking through the downtown of this central-Ontario city, chatting with business owners and customers the day the story ran, it was hard not to be heartened. Peterborough might look, to big-city eyes, like the sort of mid-sized, economically challenged old industrial town where intolerance can flourish. But even as the likes of Conservative leadership candidate Tony Clement tried to rustle up votes by suggesting Ms. Monsef should step aside pending an investigation of whether her citizenship was fraudulently obtained, and towns south of the border that look not unlike Peterborough are awash in election-year xenophobia, there was little dark murmuring about what else Ms. Monsef might be hiding.
But to appreciate that voters weren't overreacting to the revelations is not to say they merit no reaction at all. Because whatever else may come of it, this episode raises some useful questions about how closely we should scrutinize politicians' personal narratives as roots elsewhere become more and more of a selling point.
If you've spent much time around those seeking office, you'll know that taking liberties with their CVs is a time-honoured tradition. Once tried unsuccessfully to launch a start-up out of your apartment? You're a local small-business owner. Volunteered for a charity after you decided to run for office? Sounds like a history of community service.
Such myth-making has usually been about showing roots within a community. Unless candidates are seeking votes from large immigrant communities to which they have personal ties, there hasn't been much incentive to spin yarns about the countries from which they or their families came.
But in an era when the Prime Minister valued immigrant success stories as he recruited candidates and composed his cabinet, aiming to reflect a country with diversity as a calling card, the more compelling the overseas history the better.
The 31-year-old Ms. Monsef would not have gotten her ministerial post if her boss didn't think she was up to it, but being the country's first Afghan-born MP – being a refugee from the country where Canadian troops had their largest deployment in many decades – certainly didn't hurt. And if not for that backstory, Barack Obama would not have gone out of his way to recognize her when he spoke to the House of Commons this past June.
As with the stories from closer to home, nobody really begrudges politicians when they massage a few facts from afar to suit their image-building. As he fashioned himself a citizen-of-the-world President the likes of which his country had never seen, even Mr. Obama took a few liberties – describing his father as someone who went from being a goat herder to getting international scholarships, when his family in Kenya was apparently more middle-class than that.
It's a bit of a leap from there to Ms. Monsef's situation. And it's a confusing one at that, pointing to the perils for Canadians in trying to cast judgment on refugee (and in many cases immigrant) stories immeasurably outside their own frames of reference.
There may be more such challenges. Politicians' local business ties, you can suss out pretty easily. Complicated family histories, rooted in faraway lands, not so much.
In Peterborough, at least, it appeared Ms. Monsef was getting the benefit of the doubt. That says some encouraging things about where we're at, as a country. It doesn't mean we should be unquestioning about how members of a new generation of public figures sell themselves.