The Current

War veteran, Liberal MP urge government to rescue Afghan interpreters who helped Canadian military

Canada is contributing to a “massive humanitarian disaster” by failing to protect Afghan interpreters who risked their lives serving the Canadian Armed Forces, and are now being targeted by the Taliban, says an Afghanistan war veteran.

'There's no hope in the future if they don't do anything for us,' says Afghan interpreter

Canadian soldiers patrol southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan, on June 7, 2010. Afghan interpreters were key in helping the Canadian military during their mission in Afghanistan, connecting them with local leaders and helping build trust on the ground, says veteran. (Anja Niedringhaus/Canadian Press)

Canada is contributing to a "massive humanitarian disaster" by failing to protect Afghan interpreters who risked their lives serving the Canadian Armed Forces, and are now being targeted by the Taliban, says an Afghanistan war veteran.

"If we do nothing, then Canada is going to have a huge, huge red mark on [its] international reputation, because there's going to be no end for the Taliban when it comes to hunting down and killing … and threatening and punishing all those that worked with coalition forces during the war," Dave Morrow, a retired Canadian infantry officer, told The Current's Matt Galloway.

After Canada joined the war in 2001, Afghan interpreters worked with Canadian troops to connect them with local leaders, translate conversations and help build trust on the ground. Considered traitors in their country, translators say they live in fear of being attacked or killed.

In 2009, Canada offered refuge to approximately 800 interpreters facing life-threatening risks in Afghanistan, but others have been left behind because they didn't meet strict requirements set out by the federal government. Canadian military involvement in Afghanistan formally ended in 2014, and with the last remaining U.S. and NATO troops expected to withdraw from the country by Sept. 11, interpreters are feeling more vulnerable than ever.

Morrow and other advocates are now calling on the Canadian government to bring remaining Afghan interpreters and their families to safety in Canada.

U.S. military helicopters land at a U.S. military base in Bagram, some 50 kilometres north of Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 29. The last remaining U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan are expected to withdraw by Sept. 11 (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

On Thursday, the U.S. announced plans to evacuate tens of thousands of Afghan interpreters and others who worked with U.S. forces during the war, while their applications for U.S. entry are processed. Interpreters who supported the British military were flown to the U.K. earlier this week, Sky News reported.

In a statement to The Current, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino's office said the federal government "recognizes the significant contributions of the brave Afghans who worked for us," and is "closely monitoring" the security situation there. Afghans who were ineligible to resettle in Canada through the program set up in 2009 can apply to immigrate through "existing provisions," or "request humanitarian and compassionate consideration," the minister's office added.

Interpreter's work was 'mission critical,' says vet

The idea that Afghan interpreters should follow a bureaucratic process to secure their safety is "infuriating," said Morrow.

While serving in Afghanistan, he said he worked with a local translator named Abdul, whose work he described as "mission critical." The Current is not using Abdul's full name out of concerns for his safety.

"In my opinion, Abdul … was a member of [the] Canadian Armed Forces. He wore a uniform, he was paid by us, he conducted operations like us, and it would be the equivalent of leaving myself or one of my platoon mates in Afghanistan and saying, 'Sorry, you need to find your own way out,'" Morrow said.

He noted besides "a few key words, I couldn't hold a conversation with village elders about certain contracts that needed to be negotiated, certain attacks that needed to stop."

"Abdul was critical in ensuring that the negotiations took place, and that everybody got a fair deal so that no blood was spilled."

Initially, their relationship was professional. But after spending day in and day out together, it turned into a friendship, said Morrow.

Dave Morrow, a retired Canadian infantry officer and veteran of the war in Afghanistan, is seen in his military uniform in Dand district, in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, in February of 2011. (Submitted by Dave Morrow)

Abdul, who spoke to The Current from Afghanistan, described Morrow as family. They ate meals and passed time together, and shared the same mission: "to help Afghani people to have … security [and] peace and have a good life," he told Galloway. 

But that work put his life and family at risk.

Nearly a month ago, he said his parents had to flee in the middle of the night, after a villager learned the Taliban was coming to take them hostage or kill them. Abdul said he's also received threats against his own life, and has to regularly change his phone number and move locations to try to stay safe. He said he has previously sought help at the Canadian Embassy in Kabul to no avail.

Other interpreters are facing the same dangers, he added, explaining that the Taliban wants to punish them for working with military forces. The Taliban issued a statement earlier this month saying those who worked for U.S. and western interests would not be targeted.

There's no hope in the future if they don't do anything for us.- Abdul, Afghan interpreter

Abdul said he feels Canada is responsible for him and his family and wants the government to help them find safety outside Afghanistan — whether that's in Canada or elsewhere. 

"We put ourselves in danger … to help them," Abdul said. "They leave us behind, so we get killed, not [just] ourselves, our families as well." 

"There's no hope in the future if they don't do anything for us."

'Time is of the essence,' says MP

Marcus Powlowski, a Liberal MP for Thunder Bay—Rainy River in Ontario, has been trying unsuccessfully for two years to help dozens of Afghan interpreters come to Canada. He got involved after one of his constituents who served in Afghanistan tried to bring his interpreter over, he said.

While Powlowski said he does not speak for cabinet, he believes the federal government is "working on the problem." He said he has raised the issue with the ministers of defence and immigration, and that the government has become more receptive to it over the last year.

"I certainly feel now that they are trying," Powlowski said. "But, obviously, time is of the essence." 

Thunder Bay—Rainy River MP Marcus Powlowski, seen here in this file photo, has been trying unsuccessfully for two years to help dozens of Afghan interpreters come to Canada. (Marcus Powlowski / Facebook)

With Canada's operation in Afghanistan having already ended, Morrow admitted he'd be surprised if Canada has military assets on the ground that could move out interpreters. The Department of National Defence told The Current it does not speculate on such matters, particularly about the military's capabilities. 

Global Affairs said Canada's embassy in Afghanistan remains open, but it also could not comment on missions abroad, for security reasons.

If Canada does not help its Afghan interpreters, Morrow said he fears the move will damage the country's international credibility, and make it harder to recruit potential interpreters in future conflicts.

"We're going to have blood on our hands because, inevitably, interpreters that worked for Canada are going to be assassinated by the Taliban."

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Alison Masemann and Ryan Chatterjee.

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