Her story reads like a movie script.
Twenty years ago, Maryam Monsef fled the brutal rule of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and now, two decades later, she has become the first Muslim to be appointed a cabinet minister in the federal government.
In 1996, Monsef’s mother and her three daughters settled in Peterborough, Ont. after Iran refused to grant them refuge.
It is the kindness and the support that my family and I received from the people of Peterborough-Kawartha that is at the heart of the service that I intend to give to the people of this riding,” says the Minister of Democratic Institutions.
Campaigning in a small town
Monsef says the fact that she grew up in a smaller community allowed her to build networks. It was easier for her to create connections in Peterborough, a city of less than 80,000 people.
“It is possible to plant seeds in this community because of its size, and to see those seeds grow, and to see that you can have an impact when you come together and collaborate.”
Monsef is also the first female Member of Parliament (MP) ever elected in the riding Peterborough-Kawartha.
Monsef is also the first female Member of Parliament (MP) ever elected in the riding Peterborough-Kawartha. It’s an achievement she attributes to a lot of hard work.
During the 60-day election campaign she and her team knocked on 70,000 doors and held 10 different roundtable discussions with the community.
At these meetings she outlined her priorities for the riding. She campaigned for the Liberals on good sustainable jobs, preservation of the environment, health care and access to services for seniors.
According to Monsef attracting and retaining newcomers to her riding is critical for the prosperity of the district.
“Over a 160 different groups and individuals have been meeting for over five years and [have] developed strategies and action items devoted specifically to that mandate of creating a more welcoming community for newcomers to our area.”
She adds that her riding continues its efforts to be a welcoming community to newcomers and Canadian immigrants.
Strengthening democratic institutions
While she was born in a country with a lack of human rights, it will be Monsef’s responsibility to strengthen Canada’s democracy as Minister of Democratic Institutions.
“[M]y job I believe is to restore and to strengthen Canadians’ respect and appreciation for these democratic institutions that we are so privileged to have.”
Monsef describes the scope of her job as “broad”, encompassing Senate reform, electoral reform and elections spending.
“The way I see my job I believe is to restore and to strengthen Canadians’ respect and appreciation for these democratic institutions that we are so privileged to have.”
She would also like to see more women’s participation in Canadian politics.
Monsef says she is grateful for the women who paved the way before her and hopes to do the same for others who follow.
Inspiring Afghan Canadians
For Afghans in Canada the news of Monsef’s appointment as a cabinet minister broke at the same time with the news of the horrific stoning of a young girl in Ghor, a northwestern province in Afghanistan.
Amid the horror in Ghor, Afghans welcomed the news of Monsef’s appointment with delight and surprise.
“Monsef’s election is helping to build the image of refugees and trust of Canadian society in them.”
Adeena Niazi, the Executive Director of Afghan Women’s Organization in Toronto is of the view that refugees are too often perceived to be a burden and treated as unequal members of society, but that Monsef’s election has the power to change that.
“Monsef’s election is helping to build the image of refugees and trust of Canadian society in them. It decreases the discrimination against refugees in society.”
Monsef forces the public to re-think their perception of Afghan women, Niazi adds.
“The international media has portrayed Afghan women as victims, listeners and oppressed, but since Monsef’s election everyone has come to realize that Afghan women are not just silent victims; they have strength and ability.”
“[S]ince Monsef’s election everyone has come to realize that Afghan women are not just silent victims.”
Khalid Mirzamir, an Afghan Canadian immigration counsellor in Ottawa, says Monsef’s story is one of hope and inspiration.
“Maryam’s election reminds all of us as immigrants that Canada is a country where it gives everyone the opportunity to grow.”
Hope is what Frozan Rahmani felt after Monsef was elected. The Toronto-based student followed the campaign closely and shed tears of joy when Monsef’s victory was announced.
Rahmani is awed by the fact that it was Monsef’s mother who was the key to the minister’s success.
After fleeing the Taliban, Monsef’s mother started life from scratch with her three daughters in Canada. The difficult task is a shared experience for many immigrants in this country.
“I am not happy because we share the same heritage as Afghans, but because I know that she has risen from a society that has pains, from a culture that in the 21st century does not value women,” says Rahmani. “We have witnessed the stoning of women. But Maryam did rise in Canada and made us proud.”
Journalist Judy Trinh mentored the writer of this article through the NCM Mentoring Program.