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International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan rises during Question Period on Feb. 9 in Ottawa. Mr. Sajjan's office provided conflicting statements about whether the minister knew his chief of staff, George Young, sent the documents to Senator Marilou McPhedran’s office in August, 2021.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan won’t say whether he knew his top adviser sent Canadian travel documents to a senator’s office, which then distributed copies to hundreds of Afghans saying they had been granted a visa to come to Canada.

The federal government has said it never authorized this type of document distribution and it referred the matter to police after an internal review concluded that the documents were inauthentic. However, the Conservatives and NDP say a parliamentary committee should study the matter because of inconsistent information about whether the letters’ use was sanctioned by the government.

Over the past week Mr. Sajjan’s office provided The Globe and Mail with conflicting statements about whether the minister knew his chief of staff, George Young, sent the documents to Senator Marilou McPhedran’s office during the refugee crisis in August, 2021.

Mr. Sajjan further confused the matter on Thursday. In a brief interview with The Globe, he dodged 10 different questions about whether he knew Mr. Young provided what are called visa facilitation letters to Ms. McPhedran.

Earlier this week, his spokesperson first told The Globe that Mr. Sajjan did not recall whether Mr. Young had disclosed his actions to Mr. Sajjan, who at the time was defence minister. Spokesperson Haley Hodgson then sent a statement to The Globe saying Mr. Young did not tell Mr. Sajjan he was sharing the documents.

“He did not authorize any letters or templates,” Ms. Hodgson said.

The government says authentic versions of the documents that Ms. McPhedran’s office sent were used by the Immigration and Global Affairs departments. However, they were not visas. Instead, they were official government forms that helped ensure Afghans who were part of Canada’s refugee resettlement programs got through checkpoints on the way to the airport.

The letters were sent by Ms. McPhedran and her staff in the summer of 2021 to 640 Afghans who were vulnerable to Taliban oppression and were trying to flee the country. The documents left Afghans with the mistaken belief that they had been approved to come to Canada and the issue is now part of a Federal Court case in which some of the Afghans who received the letters are calling on the government to honour the documents.

In an affidavit filed on behalf of the legal challenge last week, Ms. McPhedran said her office added the names of each individual to the documents before distributing them.

Ms. McPhedran has staunchly defended the work done by her and her staff. When The Globe first reported in September that the federal Immigration department had investigated facilitation letters that were sent by Ms. McPhedran and her office, she said she had received them from a senior government official and believed their use was legitimate.

Two weeks ago, Ms. McPhedran identified Mr. Young as her source. He has declined to answer The Globe’s questions, including whether he had been authorized to share the documents, because he could be called as a witness in a possible parliamentary committee study.

On Thursday Mr. Sajjan alternately tried to deflect The Globe’s questions to instead explain what the process was to rescue Afghans; deferred questions to the potential committee probe; or said he couldn’t recall specifics because he was focused on saving Afghans.

Asked whether he knew Mr. Young was going to send the documents to Ms. McPhedran, Mr. Sajjan didn’t answer. Instead he said in part that the government knew “facilitation letters were needed” and it was a “whole of government effort” to distribute them.

Asked whether Mr. Young told him after the fact that he had sent the letters, Mr. Sajjan also did not answer. “I don’t know what the communications were,” he said, noting that it was a chaotic situation and he lost count of how many people tried to get in touch with him.

“I can’t tell you something I don’t know,” he added.

He walked away when asked to answer – yes or no – whether Mr. Young had disclosed that he sent the letters to Ms. McPhedran’s office.

The minister’s inconsistent response to the questions “does not inspire confidence” and raises more questions that should be addressed by an investigation, said Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner. Relatives in Afghanistan of one of her constituents were among the large group that received the letters from Ms. McPhedran’s office and Ms. Rempel Garner was the first MP to call for a parliamentary probe.

She said the letters from the senator’s team left the family in limbo for more than a year. They thought the documents meant they had been approved to come to Canada but the federal government then told them they were not approved and there was no space for them in the refugee resettlement programs. Ms. Rempel Garner said the family was recently approved for resettlement by the American government.

“No other parliamentarian had the ability to do these things and frankly, nor should they, that’s not our role,” Ms. Rempel Garner said. “It was the government’s responsibility to save these lives and undertake due process and ensure fairness and equity. And this whole situation raises a lot of questions about that, that the government has a responsibility to be accountable for.”

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