Critics voiced skepticism after this week’s testimony from former defence minister Harjit Sajjan, in which he said he wasn’t checking his e-mails during the fall of Afghanistan in 2021, and may have missed an alert that a Canadian senator’s office was sending fake travel documents to Afghans fleeing the Taliban.
Mr. Sajjan, who is now the International Development Minister, told the House of Commons immigration committee on Wednesday that he was too busy to monitor his inbox as the Taliban swept through the country. He said it was possible he missed correspondence telling him that Senator Marilou McPhedran was issuing the documents outside the government’s standard process.
Mr. Sajjan also said he hasn’t since reviewed his e-mails from August and September of 2021 to verify what was sent to him at the time, despite his office being in the news for months as a result of its role in sharing the documents.
Ms. McPhedran has said she received a template for the documents, which are called visa facilitation letters, from Mr. Sajjan’s former chief of staff, George Young. The documents appeared to authorize the Afghans named on them for entry to Canada.
The senator has consistently defended her work since The Globe and Mail first reported on the matter in September. She has said she was authorized to issue the documents, and that she was acting in good faith. But the government has said the documents sent by her office are inauthentic and invalid. The Afghans who received them have not been allowed to come to Canada. Many of them are now involved in court actions aimed at forcing the government to honour the letters.
Ms. McPhedran told the House committee last week that Mr. Sajjan was aware of what she was doing. He denied that on Wednesday.
Asked by The Globe on Parliament Hill Thursday to clarify what he said, Mr. Sajjan declined to answer questions, saying he was late for a meeting.
During Question Period on Thursday, NDP MP Jenny Kwan called the revelations shocking. “Does the Prime Minister really think this is acceptable?” she asked.
Neither the Prime Minister nor Mr. Sajjan were at Question Period, leaving Immigration Minister Sean Fraser to respond. He defended the government’s response to the crisis in Afghanistan, saying Canada helped to save thousands of lives through its evacuation efforts.
Asked by The Globe if it was standard practice for federal cabinet ministers not to read their e-mails during a crisis, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly declined to comment. But she said she is “reading texts and e-mails” during the current crisis in Sudan, where Canada is also evacuating people.
Peter MacKay, who was former prime minister Stephen Harper’s defence minister during the war in Afghanistan, told The Globe Thursday that Mr. Sajjan’s explanation “doesn’t really add up.” E-mails relevant to an unfolding crisis would ordinarily go to the “top of the pile” for review, he said.
“You’re being asked to make decisions based on the most accurate and most up-to-date information, and in order to do that you’re pulling in all sources of information, including your e-mails,” he said.
Conservative MP Michael Chong, who served in cabinet with Mr. MacKay, said that during his time as a minister there was never a time when he and his colleagues weren’t monitoring e-mail.
In Question Period, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner said issuing hundreds of federal government documents through a senator’s office, rather than through the official application process to which most Afghans were subjected, “vaporized any illusion of equity” in Canada’s response to the crisis.
She asked the government if it was comfortable with sending a message that the system “is so broken that the only way to help people during crisis is for Canadian politicians to issue fake travel documents.”
Mr. Fraser responded again. He noted that the government was facing “extraordinary challenges” in 2021, but “despite those challenges, thousands of people were able to escape and their lives were saved.”