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Is The Controversy Over Maryam Monsef’s Birthplace Just A Racist Witch Hunt?

Experts say a white minister born outside Canada likely wouldn't be facing the same scrutiny.

by Manisha Krishnan
Sep 24 2016, 6:35pm

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Mosef. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

This week the Globe and Mail revealed that Canada's Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef was actually born in Iran, not Afghanistan as she had previously stated.

Inquiries from the newspaper prompted Monsef to ask her mom about her roots, who informed Monsef that she was in fact born in Mashhad, Iran, about 370 kilometres northwest of where she thought she was born in Herat, Afghanistan. Monsef said the discovery was emotional and explained that even though she was born in Iran, she's an Afghan citizen and did spend part of her early life in Herat. Her father was killed at the Afghan-Iran border in 1988, and her mom fled with Monsef and her two sisters to Canada in 1996, after Herat fell to the Taliban. Monsef was 11 when she immigrated here as a refugee.

For the most part, this sounds like a harrowing piece of someone's personal history. And yet it's become a major news story—one that's put Monsef on the receiving end of incredulity and suspicion.

Ezra Levant of right-wing propaganda site The Rebel accused Monsef of lying so she could "rule over Afghans as some lady warlord" by pursuing a political career there.

Meanwhile Tory leadership candidate Tony Clement has suggested Monsef step aside pending "more of an investigation" of the mix-up and how the government failed to learn of Monsef's true birthplace when she was being vetted.

"It's a very strange story and there has to be more of an investigation," he said, while others have speculated that there were rumours about Monsef being born in Iran so it's unlikely she didn't know about it.

But for people who actually work with refugees, or know anything about immigration, the only thing that's strange is how much of a controversy Monsef's birthplace has become.

"(It's) a lot of fuss about nothing very serious," Jennifer Hyndman, director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University told VICE.

"If you look culturally, we can see all the differences in terms of how important the notion of date of birth is, place of birth being sort of equally ephemeral," she said, pointing out that a number of refugees who come to Canada list January 1 as their birth date because they don't know what the real one is.

Hyndman said that after Monsef's father died, it would make sense for Monsef's mother to return to Afghanistan where she likely had extended family.

"I don't think (Monsef) intentionally tried to deceive or mislead Canadians."

Monsef has stated that she was angry at her mother for keeping this information from her; she said her mom didn't think it was important.

Read More: Canada Has a Race Problem And We Refuse to Talk About It

Christina Clark-Kazak, assistant professor in refugee and humanitarian affairs at York, speculated Monsef's mom might have omitted telling her she was born in Iran to solidify her identity as an Aghan.

"Sometimes parents do create an attachment to home, a mythology to home for their children in order to given them a sense of history, a sense of place," she said.

As for the security issue, Clark-Kazak said it can be very difficult to do background checks on people who come from war-torn parts of the world because of a lack of records.

"It might be difficult for them to obtain documentation all the way back," she said, which can sometimes present a barrier to employment for immigrants.

Both academics told VICE they didn't think Monsef would be facing this level of scrutiny had she been from a western country instead of Iran and questioned why the Globe was investigating the issue in the first place.

"I think politically Iran has been demonized by the previous federal government," said Hyndman. "I have talked about two tiers of Canadian citizens—those born in Canada and those born outside. Sometimes aspersions are cast on those who are born outside."

Added Clark-Kazak, "It seems discriminatory to me that so much attention and time have been spent investigating the birthplace of Minister Monsef. If this had been a Caucasian minister claiming to have been born in Canada, I doubt no one would deem it worthy of inquiry."

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