By Emily Stonehouse
Sitting down to write about the most recent Speaker’s Series on Maryam Monsef was no easy feat.
The Haliburton County Community Co-operative offers the series on a monthly basis; featuring people from all over the country to share their stories with a captive crowd. I’ve heard presentations on canoe trips, guitar concerts, scotch tastings. The Co-op has a knack for bringing in folks that appeal to everyone.
But in all the presentations I’ve watched so far, no one has been like Maryam Monsef.
The former politician and current human rights advocate stood in front of the crowd without a slideshow or a presentation deck, and just a small notebook prepared with her stories.
And she pulled these stories from her own journey. Her life before, during, and after politics. She dove into the realities of immigration, of women in the workforce, of running for mayor before turning 30, of being on an international political stage.
She had the audience enraptured in her journey. Captivated by each next step.
By the time the presentation was over, I had a notebook of scribbles, of stories, of inspiration.
But no clear direction on the story.
How do you write a story on someone who has waded so many waters?
I looked back at how she started her presentation; by transporting the crowd to Afghanistan in the 1960s. “The year is 1964,” she started. “There are four boys in a family, and suddenly, a little girl is born. Her father takes one look at her, and says, ‘you’re going to be the first female doctor in the family.’”
She goes on to share that the little girl grew up thriving academically, and received a full scholarship to attend school anywhere in the world.
But as the girl is weighing her education options, war breaks out across the country, and the girl’s brother is taken from his room, never to be seen again. “When we lose things,” Monsef said, “we mourn. People, dreams, it doesn’t matter, we mourn.”
The girl, now a woman, changed her life direction. She went on to meet a suitor, who she fell madly in love with, and they started a family. Yet within a few years, the man is killed at the Afghanistan/Iran border, and the woman was left with young children, as a widow at the age of 24. With that, her dreams continued to change.
It was then that the woman was faced with a choice; continue life as they knew it in Afghanistan, with the reality that her daughters would likely be sold off for marriage, or move and start over again. This time, in Canada.
“And that decision my mother made was the biggest gift anyone could have ever given us,” said Monsef.
Having some loose connections in Peterborough, her family settled into life in a new country, knowing only the most basic of English, and navigating the highs and lows together. “We came to Canada with broken hearts for what we left behind,” she said, “but big hopes and dreams for the opportunities that lay ahead.”
Monsef shared that when her family arrived in Canada, they greatly benefited from the kindness of the people around them, regularly utilizing the services of the Salvation Army and the YWCA, as well as the support of friends and new neighbours.
It was this continued kindness that inspired her to find ways to give back to her community.
“When I decided to put my name forward for political candidacy, that was the fire in my belly. That was my ‘why’,” she said. “The biggest advice I have for people is to find your ‘why’. Find your North Star. Then, you’ll always be able to say ‘yes’ with conviction.”
She decided to run for mayor just before turning 30, at which point she was met with queries about her age, her gender, her race, her background. As a result of the mounting doubt, she questioned her decisions many times, before finally deciding to follow through with it in 2014.
While Monsef came in a close second during that election, she fell on the radar at a national scale, and was elected as the Liberal party candidate in 2015. Shortly after her arrival on the political stage, she was offered a seat at the federal cabinet table, and became a part of the first ever gender-balanced cabinet in Canadian history.
“Once I found my footing, we got some really great things done,” Monsef said. “I learned how to get things done in an institution that was designed to keep people like me out.”
During her time in this position, she was recognized alongside Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Malala Yousafzai, and Michelle Obama as one of the top 20 global influencers in gender equality. She had also established Canada’s first full department for Women and Gender Equality, and put the country on the map for gender equity.
Monsef left politics in 2021, which coincided with the time the Taliban took over leadership of Afghanistan. “A part of me broke then,” she said. “We had lost Afghanistan, and it was back in the hands of the bad guys, the ones who had oppressed my family.” Since there were no other Afghan people in cabinet positions in G7 countries, Monsef became the point person for so many fleeing the country, and navigated ways she could help in the trying time.
By the end of that year, Monsef hung up her political hat, and turned to independent consulting, focusing on offering support to women in leadership positions around the world, and advocating for the rights of women and girls in marginalized communities.
After speaking for an hour straight, Monsef concluded her talk by noting that through it all, she always came back to her ‘why’. Her North Star. It was always for the people, the community, for the girls who have voices, and especially for those who do not.
Finding one topic to explore during a presentation on someone who has done so much isn’t easy. It was difficult. But the energy that was felt in that room full of people who suddenly felt seen, heard, and inspired; that’s the North Star of the story.