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Minister of International Development Harjit Sajjan prepares to appear at the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, studying the government's response to the final report on the Special Committee on Afghanistan, in Ottawa, on April 26.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Minister Harjit Sajjan says he wasn’t checking his e-mail during the 2021 fall of Afghanistan and it’s possible his inbox includes correspondence that a senator’s office was distributing Canadian government travel documents but he didn’t authorize the practice.

Mr. Sajjan told the House of Commons immigration committee Wednesday evening that he also wasn’t aware that his then chief of staff, George Young, had sent templates of the federal documents to Senator Marilou McPhedran’s office, or that the senator then helped distribute them to hundreds of Afghans trying to escape the brutal Taliban regime.

“I wasn’t reading my e-mail,” the former defence minister and now International Development Minister told MPs. “I was not aware of Senator McPhedran disseminating facilitation letters.”

The government says the letters issued through her office are inauthentic.

Senator says she lost track of how many Canadian government travel documents her office sent

Mr. Sajjan also said he hasn’t gone back to check his e-mails from August and September of 2021 to verify what was sent to him, despite his office being in the news for months over its role in sharing the documents.

The forms, called visa facilitation letters, appeared to authorize the Afghans named on them entry to Canada. Hundreds of Afghans who received the letters from the senator’s office mistakenly believed they had been approved to come to Canada, but have not been allowed to resettle here. Some have been left in limbo in third countries, while others remain in Afghanistan.

The government says legitimate documents were sent from the immigration and foreign affairs departments and that the constitutional separation of powers prevents Ms. McPhedran from having the authority to issue such documents. The senator has said she acted in good faith and believed authority was delegated to her when her office received the templates.

Opposition MPs on Wednesday met Mr. Sajjan’s testimony with incredulity. Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner told reporters his comments were “preposterous” and amounted to a ”dog ate my homework” excuse to avoid ministerial accountability.

NDP MP Jenny Kwan said she was dismayed by the comments and “a little bit in shock at the level of – frankly – incompetence.”

“How did you do your job if you don’t check your e-mails?” Conservative MP Brad Redekopp asked the minister.

“When you’re running an operation like that you don’t have time to check your e-mails,” Mr. Sajjan replied, saying he was focused on the military role in the evacuations of Afghans from the Kabul airport. Mr. Sajjan also defended his former chief of staff, saying he worked diligently during an overwhelming time.

At the committee last week, Ms. McPhedran said Mr. Sajjan knew she was sending the letters to Afghans and that he received e-mails to that effect. Her e-mails showing that have not yet been released. Mr. Sajjan told the committee “there very well could be” e-mails he was CC’d on from the senator.

In February, Mr. Sajjan was unable to clarify to The Globe and Mail whether he knew Mr. Young had sent the letters to Ms. McPhedran’s office.

In September, The Globe first reported that an Afghan family was stranded after receiving facilitation letters from Ms. McPhedran’s office. They have since been able to immigrate to the United States. Separately last week, The Globe reported that 163 Afghans sponsored by FIFA, the international governing body for soccer, are stranded in an Albanian hotel after receiving the same type of documents from Ms. McPhedran’s office.

Ms. Rempel Garner said the case raises serious questions of fairness when Afghans who were promised resettlement in Canada are still stranded in Afghanistan while the senator was able to send the documents that got other Afghans out of the country.

Among those who escaped with the letters and are now stranded in Albania are 15 Afghans who are being supported by FIFA and an American non-governmental organization called the Equality League. Its founder, Mara Gubuan, told The Globe Wednesday that the letters saved lives and that while the Western world appeared to turn its back on vulnerable Afghans, Ms. McPhedran did not.

“Almost no one helped,” Ms. Gubuan said. ”So just the fact that she tried, to me, is admirable. So many people could have helped and didn’t, and still aren’t.”

Ms. Rempel Garner said that only points to more questions about the inadequate process the government established to help Afghans.

The Conservatives said Wednesday they will present a motion calling for Mr. Young to testify at the committee. Ms. Kwan said she also wants former Liberal minister and MP Maryam Monsef to testify as she was also included on e-mails between Mr. Young and Ms. McPhedran.

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