Photography by Peter Nguyen Image by: Photography by Peter Nguyen
Born in Iran, Monsef has made a name for herself as one of the youngest Canadian ministers ever appointed to cabinet. Here, she talks about her back story and her political journey.
The marriage proposals began when Maryam Monsef was 10 years old and living in Herat, Afghanistan. That was enough to worry her widowed mother, Suri Basir. When she considered the country's political instability, too, Suri came to believe that fleeing the brutal Taliban regime was her only option. And so she began a new life in Canada with Maryam and her two other young daughters.
Now 31, Maryam, still technically single, jokes that, as the youngest and first female member of Parliament for the Ontario riding of Peterborough–Kawartha, as well as our nation's first Afghan-Canadian MP, she's "married to Peterborough." In another first, she was named minister of democratic institutions in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet in November 2015.
These remarkable achievements speak to Maryam's positive outlook, determination and sense of social responsibility—qualities that have guided her along a sometimes rocky path to success.
Born in 1984, Maryam lost her father three years later, when he was killed by crossfire at the Iran–Afghanistan border while on business for his import-export company. Though her mother was trained as a teacher, the Taliban forbade women to work. Instead, she quietly did odd jobs, such as cleaning and sewing, to feed Maryam and her younger sisters, Mehrangiz and Mina. Suri saw the family through a tricky escape from Afghanistan in 1996, moving discreetly through Iran, Pakistan, Kuwait and Jordan—on donkeys, camels and airplanes—until finally joining Maryam's uncle in Peterborough.
As a new Canadian, Maryam faced many hurdles, beginning with language. "I didn't speak English, so I didn't have a voice, which basically meant I did not matter," Maryam wrote in a personal profile for the Peterborough Partnership Council on Immigrant Integration in 2012. "I didn't smoke, drink or have a social life outside of school. Coming from a segregated school system, I was overwhelmed by the concept of boys and girls in the same classroom."
But that wasn't the only challenge. "I was teased, taunted and bullied," she continued. "I had gone from being the active, confident girl who loved life to being a miserable, isolated outcast who spent lunch hours hidden in the bathroom." Maryam cried herself to sleep every night during her first year in Canada.
Maryam finally found comfort among community support groups. "In my darkest hour, I witnessed the attentive care of staff and volunteers at the New Canadians Centre," she wrote. "When I had nowhere to go, I found a safe haven and turning point at the YWCA's Crossroads Shelter.… People I did not know, who spoke a different language, who believed in a different God, were hanging our curtains, finding us furniture, taking us shopping, encouraging us to explore Peterborough and feel at home."
At 14, Maryam was accepted into the arts program at Peterborough Collegiate Vocational School, where uniqueness—both in visible differences and personality traits—was celebrated. There, she made friends who shared her interests. Those interests soon included giving back to the community.
"The culture here very much includes engagement," explains Maryam, "so it's second nature to get involved and give back."
Since graduating from Trent University, Maryam has contributed to more than 30 committees and boards, even cofounding the Red Pashmina Campaign, which has raised more than $150,000 for the education of women and girls in Afghanistan.
Running for office
As she became known for her volunteer work, Maryam was encouraged to enter local politics. "For the past six years, people have been encouraging me to run. When others believe in you that much, you start to believe in yourself," she says. After consulting with more than 150 community members, she ran for mayor of Peterborough in 2014.
One supporter, Jonathan Bennett, a novelist, poet and the CEO of Laridae Communications, became her campaign manager. "She represented and shaped change in the community—there was a real appetite for that in Peterborough," says Jonathan. "We came up a little short on election day, but we demonstrated what a skilled candidate Maryam was and could be again."
Indeed, Maryam lost the mayoral race to incumbent Daryl Bennett by a margin of 1,331 votes, but she refused to see it as a setback. Instead, she felt responsible to the 9,879 voters who shared her vision. "I carried them with me," she says. "I felt almost haunted by the responsibility. They had believed in me and entrusted me with their hopes and aspirations and dreams, and I had to find a way to honour that."
She soon got the opportunity. "The dust hadn't settled from the mayoral campaign, and, already, there was a lot of interest from a number of the federal parties to see if she would consider running since she was such a strong, progressive local candidate," says Jonathan. In February 2015, she entered the race for the riding's Liberal party, winning the nomination in May.
Ready for change
When Justin Trudeau's Liberal party won a majority government in October, Maryam became the new MP for Peterborough–Kawartha. At her victory celebration, she first thanked her mother, who supported her at every debate and event.
Maryam praises Suri for having the courage to leave everything to start a new life, and for holding onto her dream of her daughters being treated as full members of society.
With her sisters, Mina and Mehrangiz, living in Peterborough and Ottawa, Maryam says her family is still a great source of support. "They keep me in check, which I think is good for every politician," says Maryam, "to be surrounded by people who will tell you like it is."
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Correction: This story original said that Maryam Monsef was born in Afghanistan. Monsef herself believed she was born in Afghanistan, but inquiries by The Globe and Mail into how to she came to Canada revealed she was born in Iran.
Last updated: September 22, 2016
This story was originally part of "Positively Powerful" in the April 2016 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!