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Richard Shimooka: Canada’s shameful betrayal of our Afghan partners goes beyond Sajjan’s specific actions

Commentary

Harjit Sajjan, then-Minister of National Defence, speaks during press conference in Ottawa on Friday, July 23, 2021. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

Last week it came to light through the reporting of Steven Chase and Robert Fife at the Globe and Mail that the then-minister of national defence, Harjit Sajjan, directed the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to divert resources during the evacuation of Afghanistan to assist Afghan Sikhs and Hindus leave the collapsing state. What is important to emphasize is how another group, the interpreters and other individuals who directly assisted the Canadian mission, were treated before, during, and after the mission—as well as the shambolic nature of how the evacuation effort unfolded.This article is in part based on a report Amanda Moddejonge and I have been preparing for the past year on the Afghan withdrawal and Canada’s political and military response.

Rather than this affair just being a story about a single minister allegedly influencing a poorly planned evacuation for his own partisan interests, the entire episode suggests something more banal and disgraceful about Canada’s foreign policy, both before the crisis and in response. Even in the years and months leading up to the fall of Kabul in August 2021, at nearly every turn the government sought to avoid any responsibility to assist interpreters and others until it became politically untenable to continue that policy.

At the same time, policy amendments were made to assist the Afghan Sikh and Hindu population—a group with strong domestic political backing here in Canada. Indeed, further reporting from Fife and Chase has revealed that Afghan Sikh sponsors even donated to Sajjan’s riding association during the evacuation campaign. Overall, it was these partisan considerations held across the governing Liberal Party that influenced the outcome of events in the retreat from Afghanistan, with terrible consequences for those people who needed Canada’s help the most.

It is important to start by explaining why the Afghan interpreters have become such a focus for many within Canadian society. These individuals put their lives at unimaginable risk to help Canada’s mission in the belief that they were helping to build a better Afghanistan. It explains why so many Canadian Armed Forces members and other individuals who worked in Afghanistan have been so vocally committed to bringing these individuals out of the country.

While Afghan interpreters have commanded the greatest attention in the public’s view since the fall of Kabul, it is a bit misleading to focus solely on them. Local aid workers who undertook program delivery for the government were in many ways as essential for Canada’s objectives as translators, and just as exposed to blowback. They were often the public face for socially liberal programs in a deeply conservative Afghan society and constantly faced retribution for their actions. Thus it is more accurate to use the government of Canada’s collective terminology for these individuals: former locally engaged staff

They often quite literally put their lives on the line to help Canada’s cause, yet when they needed us most, the government refused to prioritize their aid, effectively abandoning them.

Why? Perhaps the most important context readers need to understand is the deep institutional opposition within the bureaucracy to actually helping these individuals. In the decade prior to 2021, Canada effectively shut the door on welcoming former locally engaged staff into our country on a permanent basis. There was no specialized process for these individuals—they had to apply through the normal refugee process, of which approximately 85 percent were rejected. Only 832 refugees were admitted to Canada from Afghanistan between 2015 and 2020.OPQ-233 Anecdotal evidence from applicants suggests that very few former locally engaged staff were ever able to use this pathway to leave the country.

What was the institutional reason behind this? It is as simple as it is shameful: the bureaucracy did not want to set the precedent that Canada was officially responsible for any former staff members, in Afghanistan or elsewhere. It would commit Canada to potentially much broader evacuation efforts of former locally engaged staff if they came under threat due to state collapse or other circumstances. The concept is largely known as a “duty of care.” The government wanted to restrict this duty to the narrowest interpretation possible—in this case, only the locally engaged staff currently in the government’s employ.

There are a great many adjectives that could be used to describe the motivation behind this policy: heartless, shortsighted, and selfish are a few that immediately come to mind.

It is somewhat ironic how successive Canadian governments’ have stressed that the promotion of Canadian values is an important foreign policy objective, and yet for the category of individuals who did the most to advance these values, when push has came to shove, the government has decided it is in its best interest not to help them.

As the spectre of Afghanistan’s collapse became increasingly apparent, the government did make allowances for one at-risk group. Starting in October 2020 the government was lobbied by several Canadian Sikh groups to help a number of Afghan Hindus and Sikhs leave Afghanistan. In April, Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) required a new public policy to be crafted with them in mind for an illuminating reason: the individuals were not eligible for refugee protection under Canada’s resettlement program because they were not being specifically targeted over any other group. 2A202306017_Final Release Package. Pages 2-4

Now, this is an important point. It is not to say that these individuals were not at risk—they were, and they would face even greater risk as the threat of the Taliban takeover became a reality. Yet IRCC found they were not at greater risk than any other at-risk group. Nevertheless, the political leadership agreed to provide them with special treatment that other individuals would not receive.

This is in contrast to the thousands of former locally engaged staff who clearly were being targeted in Afghanistan (because of their association with Canada), yet were forced to utilize the same process as other refugees and received no preferential treatment whatsoever.

This was a political choice. The bureaucracy’s requirement for a new public policy to create an exemption around the existing interpretation of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations is the clearest indication of that. At any time prior to July 2021, the political leadership could have done so for other groups like the former locally engaged staff. It did not. In May, the National Defence and Global Affairs Canada (GAC) started planning for the evacuation of current locally engaged staff, their dependents, embassy officials, and Canadian citizens, but no other groups.

But then the political winds in Canada changed. In the midst of an election campaign, and facing a spectrum of negative political coverage about their failure to assist the former locally engaged staff, Prime Minister Trudeau changed course. Somewhere around July 12th, mere weeks before the total collapse of the Western-aligned Afghan government, the government finally directed the bureaucracy to include the former locally engaged staff in their existing evacuation planning.A-2023-27500 Pages 1-5

It was far too little and far too late. As the government had assiduously avoided contemplating a unique pathway to assist former locally engaged staff for over a decade, there were no lists of individuals they needed to withdraw or preexisting planning to build an operation on. The capacity to identify and vet applicants was wholly insufficient for the crush of individuals trying to leave the country. It would become evident in the chaotic and ad-hoc nature of the efforts.

The planning was based on directives issued by IRCC, namely Public Policy 23 (this was for current locally engaged staff and Canadian citizens) and Public Policy 24 (for former locally engaged staff). It did not include the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus or any other refugees. Collectively this was known as Operation AEGIS, Canada’s evacuation mission in Kabul, coordinated by IRCC and Global GAC and supported by the CAF, that essentially ran from August 4 to 26, 2021.

The initial instructions as to who was eligible for resettlement under Public Policy 24 included those “who had a significant and/or enduring relationship with the government of Canada…” Eligible individuals were referred by the Department of National Defence (DND) and GAC, who would then be vetted through IRCC. As the departments had no such lists handy, they were taking calls from Canadians with direct links to these individuals (such as veterans or former public servants), or the Afghans themselves. Those two departments struggled to vet them against the scant records available, or the evidence those groups could produce, such as contemporary contracts. Then they received facilitation letters they could take to gain access to Canadian assistance.

Initially, Operation AEGIS’s evacuation effort was narrowly focused on those Afghans outlined in Public Policies 23 and 24 and did not include other refugees. However, the situation shifted on August 13, when Prime Minister Trudeau announced that his government would facilitate the resettlement of 20,000 vulnerable Afghans into Canada. While this effort was distinct from Operation AEGIS, it affected the evacuation nonetheless, both in scope and scale.

Within a week of the prime minister’s statement, the operation’s focus widened to incorporate all at-risk refugees, and it gained a new name: Operation SAFE HAVEN. A temporary public policy was signed by IRCC’s minister, Marco Mendicino, that facilitated the entry of these new categories of evacuees. They also allowed groups outside of government to identify individuals they believed should be evacuated, and they no longer required an enduring relationship with the government. Now, in addition to the refugees themselves, their advocates outside of Afghanistan also inundated the government with requests for assistance.

The consequences of the policy shift were immediate. For the various departments that were already struggling to implement the existing policy, the August 13 announcement potentially added thousands to tens of thousands of individuals to their planning efforts, effectively overwhelming them. As of July 27, they had 333 principal applicants had been identified by DND and GAC;2A-2021-57788 Page 44 a month later there were over 10,000.A-2022-32163 Page 5

Amidst this chaos, as the Globe and Mail reporting has suggested, the minister of national defence directed the military to assist in retrieving Afghan Sikhs and Hindus. By this time, the government had developed a policy foundation to authorize the expansion of the mission’s scope.

This is reflected by General Wayne Eyre, the then-chief of defence staff, who commented several days ago that the request to assist Afghan Sikhs and Hindus was part of a legal order. Yet reflecting the hurried government tempo, the policy foundation was poorly conceived and written. A number of subsequent revisions and new documents were required to address these shortcomings.

Critically, the broadening of the evacuation efforts drew staff and operational resources away from the group that required the most assistance: the former locally engaged staff. Many tried desperately to contact the government through various official channels, which were overwhelmed by inquiries. Less than one-fifth of all calls to a dedicated call centre were answered, and email response times were calculated at 10 days.A2021-25301 Page 1 When they received a response, most of the time it was unhelpful and did not meaningfully change their situation. Despite these challenges, the government started conflating numbers of refugees with former locally engaged staff in order to show progress—a particularly dishonest framing of the situation on the ground regarding the former locally engaged staff.

In the end, our best estimate is that the military evacuation from Kabul netted somewhere between 500-1000 former and 293 current locally engaged staff and their dependents.Arrivals for DND and GAC P24 referred minus Operation safe haven number below: CR-23-0818 Of the former group, the actual number is likely closer to 500. The total number of people who were withdrawn was 3700; however, the number includes Canadian citizens and refugees not affiliated with Canadian operations in any way. At a minimum, the documentation indicates at least several hundred individuals were of the latter category, but the evidence is fragmentary due to government redactions.Operation Safe Haven numbers for prince’s trust: Page 13 A-2022-7061/KAP Discussions with individuals involved with the evacuation suggest that the shift in focus away from the original intent of the operation toward all refugees affected their ability to assist the former locally engaged staff.

How many hundreds, if not thousands of individuals were left stranded we will likely never know—even the government itself is unsure. In June 2022, NDP Member of Parliament Jenny Kwan alleged that the government had lost 2,900 applications from individuals who had an “enduring relationship” with Canada. It’s one of the few indicators of the potential size of the problem.

Certainly, the deliberate effort not to assist these individuals prior to July 2021 condemned many to their deaths, as did the hurried, shifting evacuation efforts for the month of August. Again, how many will likely never be known, which is perhaps convenient for the government.

Perhaps most galling is that even now, after the end of the evacuation (and Public Policy 24), no unique pathway yet exists for former locally engaged staff. They are once again lumped in with other refugees, complicating their ability to gain assistance to resettle in Canada. It may once again allow the government to argue the fiction that they are not responsible for these people’s security.

Drawing back, the entire episode is one of disgrace, and it is more than a story of one minister behaving badly. The consequences were the culmination of an entire government’s myopic focus on domestic political calculations set in motion before the cresting crisis in the summer of 2021. This policy background set the stage for Sajjan’s actions, which ultimately were made amidst a pattern of bureaucratic prioritization of one group of politically useful individuals at the expense of the former locally engaged staff who, to put it bluntly, had already served their purpose and offered no immediate electoral advantage to the government.

As much as governments might like to cling to the legal view that Canada owed and owes these individuals no unique preferences, how they’ve been treated has been an utterly shameful stain on our country’s honour.

Peter Menzies: Canada’s major news media have made their bed. Now they can lie in it

Commentary

Toronto Star signage is pictured at the head office in Toronto, June 28, 2023. Andrew Lahodynskyj/The Canadian Press.

A generation ago, I was one of a number of newspaper editors and publishers having a drink at Pearson Airport, waiting for our flights home while pondering a fresh set of corporate orders.

“Maybe it won’t be so bad,” said one, trying to look on the bright side. “Remember when we all thought putting ads on the front page was going to be the end of the world?”

Most of us nodded and then another said, “Yes but what if it was and we didn’t notice.”

Some memories, we can agree, are best left suppressed, but ever since February 4, 2021, that one keeps creeping back.

Because that was the day the National Post, 16 other Postmedia dailies, the Toronto Star, and 70 of its satellite publications posted front pages that were entirely blank but for a banner asking readers to “Imagine if the news wasn’t there.”

The campaign for what became the Online News Act (Bill C-18) was bold, brash, and breathtaking. It also triggered a reminder that the world as most of us had known it—the one in which for all their faults news organizations would never use sacred editorial space to propagandize their self-interest—was dead.