It was heralded as a win. In October, 2021, FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, was celebrating having helped more than 150 people escape Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
The organization expected that the entire group, which included athletes and human rights advocates, would soon be resettled in Canada, because they had received what appeared to be Canadian travel documents. The documents had come from the office of a senator, Marilou McPhedran.
But while Ms. McPhedran’s assistance did enable the group to leave Afghanistan, they are now unable to make the cross-Atlantic journey to Canada, because the federal government says the documents are inauthentic and invalid.
One source close to the matter said 163 FIFA-connected Afghans, barred from entering Canada, have spent the past year and a half stranded in an Albanian hotel.
That source and four others said Ms. McPhedran’s office sent the documents, called facilitation letters, to FIFA, which then distributed them to the Afghans. The Globe is not naming the sources because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The letters, which included the names of the Afghans, appeared to authorize their entry into Canada.
One of the sources, a senior federal official, told The Globe that a total of 228 Afghans connected to FIFA received the letters from Ms. McPhedran’s office. Those Afghans are now part of two continuing Federal Court cases, in which they are trying to force the government to honour the documents and grant them entry to Canada.
The senior official said none of those Afghans made formal applications to come to Canada under the government’s special immigration programs for Afghan refugees.
During the evacuation of Afghanistan, the Canadian government did use authentic facilitation letters to help people escape, but the documents were not issued by senators’ offices. The real letters, the government has previously told The Globe, were issued directly by either the federal Immigration Department or Global Affairs Canada.
In September, The Globe first reported on a different group of Afghans who had received facilitation letters from Ms. McPhedran’s office. At the time, the government said those documents were inauthentic, and that the matter had been referred to police.
On Tuesday, the RCMP for the first time confirmed it is not pursuing a case.
After a “comprehensive analysis,” the Mounties determined they “could not productively pursue a viable criminal investigation,” RCMP spokesperson Robin Percival said.
Since The Globe first reported on the letters from Ms. McPhedran’s office, the government has repeatedly said that even authentic facilitation letters could never on their own have been used to enter Canada. Their purpose was to get people who had been approved for resettlement in Canada past checkpoints in Kabul.
Ms. McPhedran has maintained that she and her office sent the letters in good faith, intending to help Afghans whose lives were in danger. She has said her office received a template for the documents from George Young, who was chief of staff to the defence minister at the time, Harjit Sajjan. In a court filing, Ms. McPhedran said that her office helped issue 640 such letters. Mr. Young did not reply to a request for comment.
Ms. McPhedran’s office sent the documents at a time of acute crisis in Afghanistan. Canada and other NATO allies had largely failed in their efforts to rescue Afghans who had been promised asylum, as the Taliban’s brutal fundamentalist regime took over the country in August, 2021.
At the time, FIFA was under immense public pressure to help save female athletes, because they were at risk of Taliban persecution.
One source said the situation for the Afghans in Albania has been difficult, as the group contends with an uncertain future. A spokesperson for FIFA told The Globe that the hotel has been “transformed into a centre for Afghan refugees.” The global soccer association has been covering the costs of hosting the athletes, affiliated people and human rights defenders since the first of the group arrived in November, 2021.
FIFA is paying for accommodation, meals, health care services and security. The group is also receiving counselling support, English lessons, and a US$50 monthly stipend for each person.
The spokesperson said schooling, daycare and other care for children in the group is handled through UNICEF and Save the Children, and that the group is being offered legal support to secure permanent settlement.
FIFA declined to provide specifics about the documents, or what assurances it had been given that the office of a Canadian senator could issue them.
One source said the organization expected Canada would honour the commitments outlined in the letters. When it became clear in 2021 that Canada wouldn’t do that, they said, FIFA began working to find a third country for the Afghans to settle in. The source said the organization expects to reach a solution.
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser’s office declined to comment on the matter on Tuesday.
The two court cases in which the Afghans are involved are being led by lawyers Maureen Silcoff and Sujit Choudhry, who declined to comment for this story. In their court filings they argue that the government delegated authority to Ms. McPhedran when she received the facilitation letter template.
One source told The Globe that Mr. Young did not notify the Immigration Minister’s office that he had provided the template to Ms. McPhedran’s office. In February, Mr. Sajjan was unable to clarify to The Globe whether he knew Mr. Young had sent the template.
In a court filing for one of the cases, Ms. Silcoff and Mr. Choudhry say that Laura Robinson, a consultant who was working for Ms. McPhedran at the time, described the documents as temporary resident permits.
The lawyers say Ms. Robinson confirmed in a September, 2021 written exchange with someone whose name is redacted that the documents would allow the Afghans entry to Canada. “They will definitely be allowed to enter Canada with this letter,” Ms. Robinson wrote, according to the court filing.
Ms. Robinson did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
In a response filed in the same case, the government argues that Ms. McPhedran “lacked authority” to grant “any status in Canada” and had “no authority” to issue visas or temporary resident permits.
“In addition, constitutional principles concerning the separation of powers between the branches of government limit the Hon. Senator McPhedran from having this authority,” the document says.
One of the sources said FIFA is not a party to the court cases and is not paying any of the associated legal fees.
The publicly available court documents are heavily redacted. The missing information includes the names of many of the people and organizations connected to the matter. The Globe has challenged the extent of those redactions in court.
Ms. McPhedran did not respond to requests for comment from The Globe on Tuesday. She will testify about the case at the House of Commons immigration committee on Wednesday as part of the committee’s study of the issue.
With reports from Stephanie Chambers, Rick Cash, and Eva Braungart
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