Maryam Monsef’s personal revelations leave lingering questions

The Liberal MP’s revised birthplace doesn’t change her narrative, but there are still troubling questions about Monsef’s story that need answering

Prime Minister Trudeau meets with Minister Monsef in his centre block office in Ottawa. May 4, 2016. (Adam Scotti/PMO)

Prime Minister Trudeau meets with Minister Monsef in his centre block office in Ottawa. May 4, 2016. (Adam Scotti/PMO)

For 11 months, Liberal MP Maryam Monsef was best known for one thing: being the first-ever Afghan-born member of Canada’s Parliament. On Thursday, fellow citizens learned the truth: that the Trudeau cabinet minister (and her two sisters) were actually born in Iran, not Afghanistan, and that her mother kept that detail a secret—all these years—until a Globe and Mail reporter started asking some uncomfortable questions, forcing Mom to come clean.

“In recent days, my mother told me for the first time that my sisters and I were in fact born in Mashhad, Iran, approximately 200 km from the Afghan border,” said Monsef, the Minister of Democratic Institutions, in a prepared statement released by her office. “My sisters and I asked my mother why she never told us we were born in Iran. She told us she did not think it mattered.”

Does it matter? In a bizarre story—even by Ottawa’s standards—that is certainly not the only lingering question.

Does it matter that Monsef, heralded as the country’s first Afghan-born MP, was actually born in Iran?

Politically speaking, it does matter. Canadians were reminded, again and again, about Monsef’s historical first as an Afghan-born Parliamentarian. Her heritage is at the heart of her harrowing back story—the desperate refugee who fled Taliban rule for a new life in Peterborough, Ont.—and some voters are feeling understandably duped. Monsef’s mother, Soriya Basir, knew full well her daughter wasn’t born in Afghanistan, yet never felt compelled to correct the public record. Whatever her explanation, it will never satisfy everyone. Conservative MP Tony Clement, vying for his party’s leadership, has not only called for an investigation, but urged Monsef, 31, to “consider seriously stepping aside” if such an investigation is launched.

OK, but does it really matter?

Despite all the headlines, the revelation doesn’t much change the Monsef narrative as we know it. The crux of her story is still true: that Mom and her three young daughters, all Afghan citizens, escaped the Taliban’s rule and found safe haven in Canada when Monsef was 11 years old. Though born in Iran, Monsef is not an Iranian citizen (unlike in Canada, citizenship is not a birthright in Iran) and she had no legal status there. She was born an Afghan citizen, to Afghan parents. Bottom line: Monsef may not be Canada’s first Afghan-born MP, but she is still our first Afghan MP. The distinction is negligible. Had Basir revealed the truth when her daughter first sought public office, it never would have been a story.

What do we know about Monsef’s family?

Abdul Samad Monsefzadeh married Soriya Basir in 1982, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They later moved across the border to Mashhad, a city with a large Afghan population, because the security situation in Herat had become “untenable.” Monsef was born in November 1984 at the Imam Reza Hospital and lived in Iran until she was nine. She was only four when her father, a car-parts trader, was shot and killed near the border, either by bandits or Soviet troops. At the time, Monsef says, her dad was trying to return to Afghanistan to “save his cousin.” Widowed, Basir and her daughters eventually moved back to their home country in 1993, but fled yet again in 1996, after the Taliban seized power. After escaping through Iran, Pakistan and Jordan, the family boarded a flight to Montreal, where they claimed asylum.

Monsef’s mother hid the truth from her daughters. Did she hide it from the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), too?

For the most part, IRB hearings are private affairs, so unless Basir decides to disclose her personal documents, it’s impossible to know what she originally declared as her daughters’ country of birth. (Maclean’s has asked Monsef’s office to answer that question; it has yet to respond.) The minister’s current passport lists her place of birth as Herat, Afghanistan, so it’s fair to assume her mother did the same on their original asylum claim. “It’s a reasonably good guess,” says Peter Showler, a former chair of the IRB. “There is a document trail that would have continued here in Canada.” In other words, if Mom told the IRB the girls were born in Iran, how could the Passport Office subsequently issue a document listing a different birthplace? The red flags would have flapped. But here’s the potential problem: As we now know, Monsef was born in Iran, so if her mother told the IRB she was born in Afghanistan—which the paper trail seems to suggest she did—she was not being truthful. Plain and simple.

If her mother provided inaccurate information to the IRB, does that mean Monsef could be stripped of her citizenship?

Again, it’s not clear what Basir told the IRB. But even if she failed to disclose where her daughters were born, experts in refugee law are divided about the potential consequences. According to the Citizenship Act, the government has the power to revoke citizenship on the grounds it was obtained “by false representation or fraud or by knowingly concealing material circumstances.” Material is the key word. Simply put, would the evidence that has come to light have altered the IRB’s original opinion that Monsef was a bona fide refugee? “If it was not disclosed that she was born in Iran, that, in my opinion, is a material misrepresentation,” says Toronto immigration lawyer Guidy Mamann. “If you find one lie, then you start questioning the whole story.”

Michelle Rempel, the Conservative Immigration critic, seems to agree, saying there could be “serious consequences” if Monsef’s refugee claim contained false information. But Showler, the former IRB chair, sees it differently. Because Monsef had no legal status in Iran (to repeat: she wasn’t a citizen, despite being born there), her birthplace had zero bearing on the case. “What you are doing with a refugee claim is you’re saying: ‘I cannot go back to my home country because I will be persecuted,’” he says. “Whether or not she was born in Iran is irrelevant. The only country for which she had citizenship was Afghanistan, and that is the country from which she feared persecution.” Showler says “there is not one chance in 1,000″ that Monsef’s immigration status is in jeopardy. “It’s very, very difficult to unwind citizenship status,” he continues. “You can do it, but almost always when it happens, it’s because somebody has committed a serious crime and there are reasons you want to get them out of the country. For something like this, there would be absolutely no reason for doing it.”

What if her mother did tell the IRB that Monsef was born in Iran?

For one thing, it would eliminate any chance, however remote, of the minister being stripped of her citizenship. It would mean Basir provided all relevant facts to the IRB, and that the board concluded all four claimants were genuine refugees. If that’s the case, however, it does raise yet another question.

If the Immigration and Refugee Board was told that Monsef was born in Iran, how could she not know?

Think back to the ensuing document trail. If the IRB was informed of her true birthplace, that same location would have been listed on her subsequent permanent residency forms, her citizenship application, etc. Under such a scenario, it seems implausible that Monsef would have remained oblivious to the truth all this time—or that the Privy Council Office, which conducts a “rigorous vetting process” for would-be cabinet ministers, would not have stumbled upon the evidence. It’s much more likely, as discussed above, that Monsef’s mother chose to hide from the IRB what she hid from her daughters: that they were born in Iran.

Why did Soriya Basir never feel compelled to tell her daughters the truth?

In her mom’s mind, Monsef says, the girls’ place of birth was inconsequential, especially because it came with no status from the Iranian government. Basir and her daughters are Afghans in every way: by lineage, citizenship and culture. As Monsef told one reporter: “Our family is Afghan, our clothes are Afghan, our rugs are Afghan—to her, it didn’t make a difference.” Only now, Monsef says, does her mom realize that such details do matter. “There has been yelling about this and there has been anger and sadness and, she’s sorry,” she told the Globe. “But she understands now how important it is to be concise.”

Is Maryam Monsef telling the whole truth?

The minister insists that she believed—“for my whole life”—that she was born in Afghanistan, and that she only learned the truth after that reporter started poking around. Speaking to numerous media outlets, she has also described the shock, anger and confusion she felt after her mother broke the news. “It’s fair to say I have experienced a range of emotions over the past few days as I have tried to understand this with my family,” her prepared statement said. “Because I know my story has resonated with many Canadians, I wanted to take the time today to clear any misconceptions this may have unintentionally caused.”

Most political opponents have been reluctant to question her version of events, saying it’s a personal matter. But in her home riding, not everyone believes her story. Dean Del Mastro, the former Conservative MP (who was convicted of overspending on his 2008 campaign) told the Peterborough Examiner that people who run political campaigns in the city all knew that Monsef wasn’t born in Afghanistan. “That’s been known for quite awhile,” he said. “This story that she’s just learned is not true.” Mike Skinner, the Conservative candidate who lost to Monsef in last fall’s federal election, told Maclean’s questions were raised in the heat of the campaign about her true place of birth. “We definitely heard rumours about it, but nothing that was substantiated, and we had no evidence to prove that that was true,” said Skinner, a former software business owner, and now chief executive of the Greater Peterborough Innovation Cluster. In Skinner’s opinion, where Monsef was born is irrelevant—with one caveat: “The only part that would matter is if, in fact, Maryam did know and she’s lying about it today.”

Anything else?

Just this, from the final few paragraphs of Monsef’s prepared statement: “Some survivors believe healing comes from telling their story; others cannot fathom revisiting the past. My mother never talked about the unspeakable pain that conflict and terror inflicted on her. This week my sisters and I asked her to relive that pain. Conflict has robbed me of a father and it has scarred my family and I for life. We thankfully found a welcoming home in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, where we began the challenging and difficult process of resettlement. Coming to Canada as a refugee—twenty years strong and now a member of cabinet in the 42nd Parliament—I feel a tremendous deal of responsibility in upholding all that this great country has allowed me to become. This includes accountability to the public and transparency. Canada has played an important role in allowing me to become who I am today. It’s the only place I’ve ever truly felt I belonged, and I couldn’t be more proud to be Canadian.”

—with John Geddes


Maryam Monsef’s personal revelations leave lingering questions

  1. //They later moved across the border to Mashhad, a city with a large Afghan population, because the security situation in Herat had become “untenable.” Monsef was born in November 1984 at the Imam Reza Hospital and lived in Iran until she was nine. //

    If Monsef lived in Iran till she was nine, how could she NOT know, that this ISN’T Afghanistan?

    • I wouldn’t mind some clarification on that myself, because it really doesn’t make much sense to me.

    • I had some in-laws who were unsure as to whether they were Ukrainian, Russian or Polish as the borders as well as political control changed many times where/when they lived in Europe. In particular, it’s somewhat difficult to identify one’s country of origin when that is an issue of an ongoing war.
      My GGF, a US citizen, came to Canada to escape Fenian violence and just stayed without any process; another GF came as an agricultural worker but actually worked for US and Canadian railways; my GM (born out of wedlock) immigrated using her step sister’s last name. Nevertheless, I still assert that I am a Canadian even though born in a province that only issued ‘statements of live birth’ not ‘birth certificates’. Never look under a rock!

      • That is a bit of bs because Lloydminister is a city on the Alberta and Saskatchewan border and people there know which province they live in. Especially if they are nine years old. To believe a person doesn’t know, means they had no friends to enlighten them at nine years of age. Unless she was locked in her home and only spoke to her mother and then didn’t question the move to Afganistan and the border crossing, she was the most naive nine year old on the planet.

        • Gage G.

          I agree with your argument. She would have had to be isolated to not know anything.

          But also, and this is for Geraldor too, Monsef was not uncertain as to her birth and heritage, like your relatives were. She claimed she was Afghan, through and through. She didn’t say, when she went into politics, as part of her narrative, that her life was complicated that she couldn’t be sure where she was born, or where she lived as a child. She had it straight in her mind. She “believed” she born in Afghanistan.

          In fact, she sounds very much as though she is a feminist, able to “create” her own life as she wished, making choices, and claiming her life however that might be, or however untrue.

  2. “Monsef may not be Canada’s first Afghan-born MP. …”

    Depending on how you take “Afghan-born”, one could argue that Monsef is indeed Afghan-born as she was born an Afghani citizen (with no other citizenship, to boot).
    This is akin to how John McCain is a “natural-born US citizen” and thus eligible to be the POTUS even though he was born in Panama.

    Having said that, it would be useful to know if there is any basis to the rumours Monsef knew. Since the article only quotes people who may have an axe to grind it would be easy to dismiss them, however, the whole story, including Monsef’s mother apparently lying to the IRB, just seems murky.

    • Actually it is not in anyway like McCain. There is a specific clause in the constitution limiting who can be POTUS. McCain was born out of the country because his father was serving in the US military. And there are special provisions for those circumstances.

      In this case, there was much fanfare that she was not born in Canada but in Afghanistan as a refugee. That storyline somehow made her a better candidate for a cabinet position (and that she was a woman) than any other Liberal MP.

      Somehow the wondrous vetting process of our security personnel couldn’t even pick up that she was not born where she was told (I don’t blame her – kids are told things by their family all the time that turn out not to be true). And that is a concern – can they vet anyone coming into the country if they can’t do it for an individual who will be filling a senior post in government (and as it turns out a cabinet position that will play a lead role in changing the whole way that Canada votes for our future governments). That is the story and so far there have been no investigations by the media into why our security agents pretty much blew this.

      • You are incorrect. Parent(s) serving in the military has nothing to do with it. Ted Cruz was born in Canada to at mother who was a US citizen. Neither parent was serving in the US military. Yet Ted Cruz is considered to be a ‘natural born citizen’ and thus eligible to be the POTUS.


        First above article also states that McCain’s eligibility stems solely from “Article II, Section 1, of the Constitution of the United States.”

        If you believe special provisions allow McCain (and Cruz) to be eligible to be POTUS, please provide a relevant citation.

  3. I wonder if the SAME people are doing the background checks on the Syrians that Zoolander wants to bring in??

  4. I cannot believe Macleans would stoop so low as this. It is absolutely irrelevant that Ms. Monsef was actually born in Iran: Iran does not grant citizenship to such persons and it was common to take the citizenship of the parents. She was considered a citizen of Afghanistan and that’s all we need to know. The pettiness that the media have displayed this week is appalling: I am ashamed of you right now – you’re no better than your US counterparts, and that disgusts me!

    • The fact that she lied, and continues to lie, and that you’re perfectly OK with that, disgusts me. She has the audacity to say that she called Mom and her mom just told her? Meanwhile, her former opponent for Peterborough mayor and her Conservative opponent in the last election both knew she wasn’t born in Afgahnistan. How is that even remotely possible that she was the last person to know where she was born? It isn’t. Something stinks.

      • If we are looking for ‘Canadian Values’, do not look here.

    • It is very relevant what was put on official Canadian immigration documents and if that disgusts you then too flipping bad. Great story Macleans.

  5. Her place of birth should be irrelevant, except for the fact that she herself made her alleged birthplace part of her campaign appeal. Now we find out she lied about it. People are coming forward saying they knew a long time ago she wasn’t being truthful about her place of birth. That in fact it was a poorly kept secret among her political opponents, and has been since at least 2014 when she was running for the Peterborough mayoralty.

    Nobody cares where she was born. But we sure do care why she lied about it, and why she continues to lie about it. She phoned her mom and her mom just told her??? Right. Mom just totally forgot to mention it for 30 years. Happens all the time.

    I’m sure her defenders will be quick to play the racism card, and refer to her critics as “birthers” or some similar derogatory term. They’ll need to be reminded that she chose to make her birthplace an issue. She can’t just pretend it is no longer of any importance in order to dodge a blatant lie. It isn’t going to be that easy.

    • You should be reminded that, at this time, there is no factual evidence that she lied. To write such things, at this time, may place you in perjury.

      • Perjury can only be committed under oath. Point taken though. Maybe I am out of line. Maybe it is possible that her mother just forgot to mention it. For three decades. Maybe it is totally true that everyone knew where she was born except her.

      • Hogwash

  6. Unlike what it seems may be the experience of some others, I don’t have any recollection of my birth and couldn’t tell you where it happened. As a result, I am dependent on what my parents and my birth certificate tell me about the occasion. I don’t know what documentation there is of Ms Monsef’s birth or if the Iranian government acknowledges the birth on their territory of children that they consider foreigners. It may be that her birth certificate or similar document doesn’t say where she was born but lists the citizenship of her and/or her parents.
    The narrative that’s important in Ms Monsef’s life is that she lived through and escaped a dangerous situation in Afghanistan and was able to start anew in Canada. Those experiences, which she clearly carries with her, give her a unique perspective which she brings to her work as an MP and at the cabinet table.

    • An expression of good Canadian values.

    • I have no recollection of my birth. My mom, on the other hand, remembers the country, the city, the hospital, and the time of night when I took my first lungful of air, and told me about it many times. And it’s on my birth certificate, as it would be on Monsef’s mother’s refugee application, and on Monsef’s own citizenship application. Considering the importance of such paperwork, would her mother not have told her where she was born? You know, just for the sake of accuracy? If not in time for the citizenship application, then maybe in time for her campaign? “Hello sweetheart, it’s Mom. By the way dear, I saw you on TV last night. Minor detail I’m sure, but you were actually born in Iran, not on Afghanistan. I respect you as an adult, but you know mothers, we never tire of correcting our kids! Love you!” Maybe mom was tired that night and went to bed early.

  7. The whole explanation by Ms. Monsef just not unbelievable.

    It’s one of those things, like Watergate, that starts out fairly inconsequential but then gets worse and worse as denials and obfuscations fuel more digging and more charges in a downward credibility spiral.

  8. “Why did Soriya Basir never feel compelled to tell her daughters the truth?
    In her mom’s mind, Monsef says, the girls’ place of birth was inconsequential, especially because it came with no status from the Iranian government” (Michael Friscolanti).

    That’s the wrong question! It should be, Why did Soriya Basir not feel compelled to tell her daughters the truth? And also, how did they manage to live in Iran so long without knowing they were living there? Are there no photos, no city buildings of significance, no signs that would indicate it was Iran?

    My mother was born in Hong Kong. Her mother brought her daughters to England when they were about 11, or 13 or so. They had no status as Hong Kongers. They were British. But they always knew they were raised in HK. And they remember this city where they were born.

    “Because Monsef had no legal status in Iran (to repeat: she wasn’t a citizen, despite being born there), her birthplace had zero bearing on the case” (Michelle Rempel, the Conservative Immigration critic ).

    It doesn’t matter if, in this situation, her place of birth had no bearing on the case. Applicants for refugee status, or Canadian citizenship, don’t get to pick and choose which questions they will answer truthfully. Or does this now mean that any applicants can decide for themselves whether a question is relevant or not, on any gov’t form?

    “Anything else?”

    Just this. She needs to stop playing the refugee card – “This week my sisters and I asked her to relive that pain. Conflict has robbed me of a father and it has scarred my family and I for life.”

    It sounds to me as though this girl needs to take some time to come to terms with her demons so that future declarations she makes won’t be coming from that source. We need representatives who are more mature than that.

  9. Since this story broke I’ve been trying to figure out why and how it might be important. Thanks to Macleans for clearing up that it isn’t important at all. It is of the “minor distraction” type of story that opposition parties so love to pursue like a dog with a bone trying to throw the government off message when there is little else to criticize. I will go back to not wasting my time reading stories about her birth place.

    • The focus of the people who are upset by this story is NOT where she was born but the fact that we believe that she lied to all of us.My father died when I was eight and I know where I was living, the house ,the town ,the Province, and the Country.I am trying to decide if she is cannot tell us the truth because of her religion,mental illness or stupidity. Resigning would be the correct action for her to take ,in my opinion.

    • She was the one who made her birthplace an issue. Campaigned on it in fact. And anointed herself “Canada’s first Afghan-born MP”. So if it suddenly doesn’t matter where she was born, why did it matter when she herself chose to emphasize her birthplace?

    • “Little else to criticize”? That’s a joke, right?

  10. This puts a lie to the government’s line that they are vetting refugees. I don’t think she did anything wrong and kids are told stories about their family background all the time and most of us don’t think to ever question it.

    Except when become a cabinet minister – then the level of inquiry must go up. There are two possibilities here – either Mr. Potato Head was so keen on having 50% women in his cabinet, normal vetting processes went out the window, or vetting is, as a routine activity, done in a half assed way? Take your pick – neither one convinces me that the government is in the least bit concerned about security.

    To believe the line of this government that all the Syrian refugees were vetted is a big lie. Trudeau and company is more concerned about being the good international citizen rather than ensuring Canadians are safe. I doubt that more than one or two Syrian refugees have the potential to be terrorists, but as we have seen over and over and over again – one is all it takes to mow down 89 people in France, 49 people in a gay club in Florida, 29 people with a bomb in NYC.

  11. If and a big “IF” Ms Monsef deliberately lied and misled voters it is a big deal and that needs to be followed up. If found that she was well aware of her birthplace and lied then she needs to resign.

    I guess the question to some of you who condone this would be..

    “When is is it Ok for a Politician to lie to Canadians.”

    • For Liberal supporters, the answer to that question is, when the politician that lied is a Liberal. Sad but true.

      • Replace “Liberal” with “Conservative” and it will be every bit as true. a bit of pot and kettle there, ARK2.

        • Perhaps for some, but not me. A liar is a liar and they need to be exposed as such, regardless of political affiliation.

    • Monsef isn’t the only immigrant to use their Canadian status and citizenship to gain favour, whether it’s because they are a doctor or journalist in a jail in the land of their birth, or having attempted to gain a foothold in politics here, the land of opportunity. It’s one thing to alter the facts of one’s birth and early origins, to get here, and survive here, but quite another to enter the higher realms of Canadian politics and continue to use that story – false though it appears to be – to still try to gain sympathy and support.

      Monsef’s story doesn’t resonate with me. When it comes to having foreigners in politics, or even as doctors or other professionals with power in our communities, I would rather know the origins of their birth and early life rather than hear a concocted story which they think sounds better than the truth. If she was fearful that admitting living in Iran for a number of years would turn people against her, because being known as Afghan was the better identity, so as not to be seen as having anything to do with a country with a reputation for lacking in human rights, that is understandable – but not for someone in public life in Canada.

  12. The reports on the government website are she has changed also her birthday and year and now place of Birth.She has zero work experience and list community activist as her career. This what you get when you have equality and not qualification for a position.

  13. Shouldn’t Emily be posting here calling us all “birthers”? Not like her to miss a thread like this.

  14. “Conservative MP Tony Clement, vying for his party’s leadership, has not only called for an investigation,” … return with us now to the days of yesteryear when the Globe noted “he operated a $50-million government program that was sold to Parliament as an infrastructure fund to reduce border congestion but instead was used as a treasure chest to pretty up his riding with parks, walkways, gazebos, etc. … Then-auditor-general Sheila Fraser took major exception to what transpired, noting that, strangely enough, Mr. Clement left no paper trail. Normally federal bureaucrats administer grant programs to ensure fairness. Some bureaucrats, along with Mr. Clement, were apparently involved in running the operation, but for reasons unknown, this information was not shared with the auditor-general. Deputy ministers owe the public an explanation, but none has been offered thus far.” – is it not far past time for Mr Clement to stand down?!

  15. The problem is deceptive Muslim’s are bringing in and vetting deceptive Muslims. The truth is not important to Muslim’s who are schooled to be deceptive when dealing with non-Muslims. The Koran allows for Muslims to Lie and be deceptive to non-Muslims. The scenarios that are being created in the Middle East have been created to dominate and further Islam’s growth in the West. Where they are coming from is irrelevant because there is only one Islam in spite of the leader or sect they identify with. They’re all schooled with the good cop bad cop game.. The purpose for Muhammad’s migration Jihad is spelled out in the Koran and is for the conquest of the countries they are migrating to. That’s why they migrate, to spread Islam and it’s ideology. They are not to migrate to non-Islamic countries except for that reason. The source of Islam’s ideology is the Koran and Sharia Law. (Islam means Submit) or in English (Convert or Die).