Vilification of Monsef is crass political opportunism at its worst

First-generation immigrants know all too well that family lore can be incomplete
Photo: United Nations Photo

Nothing seems to illustrate the difference between Canadians whose families have been here for generations and Canadians who’ve immigrated recently better than their reaction to the news that Maryam Monsef, the MP for Peterborough–Kawartha in Ontario and Minister of Democratic Institutions, who was championed by the Trudeau government as the first member of parliament from Afghanistan, was instead found to have been born in Iran.

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In a spectacular display of political opportunism, a number of politicians and pundits, mostly Conservative, went into a collective tizzy the minute the news broke, demanding Monsef resign, questioning whether there would be a formal investigation, and asking whether her “file” would be sent to immigration.

The Toronto Sun’s Candice Malcolm even went so far as to state that Monsef should have her citizenship revoked and be deported. Ezra Levant took it a step further (doesn’t he always?) by suggesting on Twitter that Monsef threw her mother under the bus by accusing her mother of lying to her, adding it was “not only a lie, but anti-Canadian.” Can someone tell Kellie Leitch to add “lying about your mother” to that Canadian values test she wants immigrants to pass?

What was my reaction to the news? I shrugged.

Incomplete family stories are common for immigrants

My Greek mother has a date of birth on her passport we’re still not certain is accurate. My aunt once told me about her mother writing her baby brother’s birth date on the window frame of their family home, instead of in any official ledgers. I didn’t know my grandfather served in World War I until I was well into my twenties. No one bothered to tell me — not even my own grandfather. When my father died three years ago I know a huge part of my family history died with him too.

It is supreme Western privilege to assume that everyone has their entire genealogy and family immigration history neatly tucked away.

My parents, my uncles and aunts, and my friends’ families who immigrated here in the late '60s, '70s, and '80s slashed and shortened their names to make them more palatable to the country receiving them. And after “Canadianizing” their names to fit in, many were later asked by government employees to go back to their original names, which led to efforts to spell complicated names in English the best way they knew how. Throw in their often limited education and poor knowledge of English or French and you have the perfect recipe for a whole lot of shaky information floating around.

Ask any immigrant of my parents’ age and I guarantee you that you will find misspelled variations of their names and places of birth on citizenship cards, passports, driver’s licences and so on. As the daughter of first-generation immigrants, this does not shock me.

Immigrants and refugees who left (and continue to leave) their homelands to escape civil war, genocide, or poverty are not always focused on or able to communicate the details, and facts like date or place of birth don’t always mean much to them. It is supreme Western privilege to assume that everyone has their entire genealogy and family immigration history neatly tucked away in some filing cabinet or readily available in City Hall archives and government records.

Things are lost in the process, left behind in the rubble of homes that will never be rebuilt, to become part of a story descendants will later discover is incomplete or slightly altered. Oral history, like family heirlooms, gets passed down like an imperfect game of broken telephone.

In certain cases, as in Monsef's, you may not exactly end up with the truth, but it’s not because the intent was ever to deceive.

This changes exactly nothing

She is not a fraud; she is simply a refugee with an incomplete story.

As Tabatha Southey clarified in her excellent piece for the Globe and Mail, Monsef was actually born , in Mashhad, Iran, 373 kilometres away from her reported birthplace. What does that change? Precious little!

She and her family are still Afghan citizens because being born in Iran does not entitle you to Iranian citizenship. Nothing about this white lie her mother told her and her sisters benefited Monsef or allowed her special privileges. Her family came here fleeing the war and they are indeed refugees who have since proven themselves valuable members of the community. She is not a fraud; she is simply a refugee with an incomplete story.

It’s absurd that a woman who came here as an 11-year-old child should be held legally responsible for withholding a truth she did not possess. Can we stop pretending that this scandalized and concerned bloviating is anything more than crass political opportunism, tinged with a heavy dose of xenophobia and racism — there would not be such an outraged reaction if Monsef were white, had claimed to be born in Italy and was later discovered to have been born in France — along with a tiny soupcon of fear some may legitimately feel about how well authorities are vetting newly arriving immigrants and refugees.

“In the last few days, my neat and tidy refugee story has proven to be a bit more complicated than I originally thought,” Monsef said during an interview with the Globe and Mail after the news broke.

The truth is, anyone who has grown up in a migrant family will tell you there’s no such thing as a neat and tidy migration story. The fact that Monsef was found to be born a few hours away from where she originally thought she was does not make her any less Afghan, any less of a refugee, any less deserving of her current political position, or any less of a Canadian citizen.

Sure, the revelations are embarrassing for the Liberals and a political headache. But at its core this is nothing more than a witch hunt driven by the most indecent of motives.

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