The day after the federal election I called the office of Doug Lewis, the just-defeated public security minister, and spoke to his press flack Brian McInnis, who was already busy packing and shredding.
I called to find out some details surrounding the investigation into the immigration status of Khadiga Gurhan, 35, the wife of Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed. About halfway through our conversation I asked McInnis what warranted the investigation by the public security department.
"The allegations that were made were quite serious," he said. "I guess we were looking to see if there were any irregularities surrounding her file. To be quite frank I'd be surprised if there are, but because the allegations had been levelled and because they were quite serious, we had no choice but to do that."
The media storm surrounding Khadiga Gurhan wasn't so much about whether or not she had compromised her refugee status, or bilked the welfare system, as it was about the media's weakness for a sexy immigration story that could whip readers into a slobbering, xenophobic frenzy.
Charlie Greenwell, a television reporter with Baton-owned CJOH in Ottawa, found Gurhan (not that she was ever lost) after Liberal MP Don Boudria initially told him that Aideed's wife had entered Canada as a refugee and was living on welfare in Etobicoke's "Little Somalia." His search eventually lead him to a townhouse in London, where Gurhan had relocated with her four children. To cap it off, Greenwell had video footage of Gurhan in Somalia which was dated around March, 1992.
It was a scenario that would magnify the shortcomings in Canada's refugee system and certainly enrage viewers. Even though she had entered Canada in 1989 as a refugee, the wife of the world's "most wanted man" had returned to war-torn Somalia for a five-month period and during that time allegedly still collected a welfare cheque.
The day before the story aired on the network, Greenwell called Immigration Canada for comment. They passed him over to McInnis, who proceeded to blow a hole in one of the main planks of his story.
According to immigration officials, Gurhan had been granted landed immigrant status in June, 1991, before she travelled to Somalia. Since Gurhan was considered a legal resident of Canada and her nemesis, Somalian dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, had been deposed in January, 1991, her five-month jaunt would not have compromised her original 1989 refugee claim. This was a key point that nobody would pay much attention to as the storm gathered wind.
As a result of that information Greenwell refocused his story more toward the possibility of welfare fraud. If Gurhan was collecting welfare, how could she afford a trip back to Somalia? And was it true that she still collected cheques while she was away?
Greenwell's story aired on Oct. 6. The Toronto Sun's immigration taskmaster Tom Godfrey followed up with a similar story the next day.
On Oct. 8 Godfrey reported that Doug Lewis had ordered a probe into "welfare and immigration abuse by Gurhan." However, this was not altogether true. The minister did not call for an investigation into possible welfare fraud, since that falls under the jurisdiction of the province and the municipality (The Star also messed that up in its article on the same day).
Although welfare officials are prohibited from revealing to the public whether a person is collecting welfare or being investigated, Metro's Commissioner of Community Services Don Richmond did tell eye that their fraud unit would investigate the type of allegations made against Gurhan.
"If one is not a resident of the community one is not supposed to get a welfare cheque," he said. "The person would be in clear violation if she was receiving the cheque during the time she was out of the country."
Godfrey also reported that "sources said ... the RCMP was ordered to keep an eye on her because of her husband's notoriety." However, "the RCMP refused to confirm or deny any involvement yesterday."
When eye contacted the RCMP they flatly denied that they were ordered to monitor Gurhan. "There's no basis to that whatsoever," said Stewart Gilmour, a spokesperson for the Ontario Division of the RCMP. "I've been asked this question a number of times over the past four weeks by various people and the story is, we're not involved ..."
The other disturbing fact about the allegations swirling around Gurhan was that they had all been dredged up by Godfrey and other media outlets almost a year earlier and went nowhere.
In a Canadian Press interview that appeared in The Sun on Dec. 12, 1992, shortly after Canadian peacekeeping forces were sent to Somalia, Gurhan, who lived in Etobicoke at the time, admitted she was collecting welfare and that she had returned to visit Somalia "in late 1991." A week later, on Dec. 19, Godfrey reported that the Ministry of Immigration and Metro welfare officials had set up a "Somali Task Force" to investigate welfare fraud and questionable refugee claims. On the list was Khadiga Gurhan.
"We're checking to see if she obtained her landing papers properly or not," immigration spokesperson Milt Best told The Sun.
When eye spoke to Best recently, he said initially that, "We are satisfied that her status was acquired through normal legal processes." However, later, when eye inquired about why Lewis had launched another investigation into the legality of Gurhan's refugee claim, he changed his tune.
"For those [media] reports to exist and we simply arbitrarily were to say, `We don't care,' I think we could equally be faulted," he said. "But if we say, `We will look at it, we will see if there's anything wrong,' I don't see any harm in that. We want to be sure."
Who would have guessed Immigration Canada had the money or the time to re-investigate redundant allegations whipped up by the media on a yearly basis?
By ordering a second immigration probe this October, Lewis wasn't simply saying, "We're just going to take a quick peek at her file again to be sure." He was covering his political ass. The media reports had upset a lot of people, as Godfrey was sure to make clear in his Oct. 8 piece. Lewis was fighting for his political life against a tough Reform Party candidate in Simcoe North who advocated slashing the number of immigrants allowed into Canada annually and threatened to (and did) split the Conservative vote.
There was also the turmoil in Somalia, which, to say the least, frustrated a lot of people. Aideed's supporters had blown a U.S. helicopter out of the sky and killed U.S. troops only days before Gurhan resurfaced. As the media saw it, Aideed was the new Third World despot on the block and his wife had wandered into the wrong neighborhood.
McInnis, of course, denied that Gurhan's relationship with Aideed had anything to do with the decision to investigate her refugee claim. "The fact that it was Aideed's wife is, in my view, coincidental more than anything else," he said during the telephone interview.
However, the first sentence in Lewis' Oct. 8 statement announcing the new investigation read, "There have been media reports that the wife of a Somali warlord is a resident of Canada."
Keep on shredding, Brian.