Maclean’s archives: Canada’s hottest power couple

Meet the beauty queen, musician, pilot and human rights campaigner who just made the defence minister—and Ottawa—a lot more exciting

Update, May 29, 2015: Peter MacKay is set to announce his departure from federal politics. Sources close to the federal cabinet minister say he wishes to spend more time with his wife and son. His wife, Nazanin Afshin-Jam, is expecting the couple’s second child this fall. 

The day began with a romantic walk on the beach. Nazanin Afshin-Jam and Peter MacKay ambled along white sand as waves crashed against dark rocks and pelicans dove around them. Eventually, they parted—it was, after all, their wedding day, Jan. 4, and in keeping with some level of tradition, they would get ready separately. The few dozen relatives and friends who had arrived in the last few days were now gathered inside the white chapel at the One & Only Palmilla resort in Los Cabos, Mexico. Afshin-Jam, an Iranian-Canadian human rights activist, model and singer, wrapped her arm around her father’s and they proceeded up the stone steps and down the aisle, where MacKay, Canada’s defence minister and, until that point, the country’s most eligible bachelor, awaited his bride. “I’ll never forget that moment,” Afshin-Jam, 32, recalls. “Peter looked so handsome. I saw a [glint] in his eyes.”

There were plenty of sentimental touches: on the altar, amid candles, were photos of their grandparents, all of whom have died, including Afshin-Jam’s maternal grandmother, who passed away recently; shoes she’d bought to wear to the wedding were tucked inside a pew. Their young nieces wore feathery angel wings. MacKay’s long-time pastor Glen Matheson from Nova Scotia performed the ceremony. “It was magical. There’s no other way to describe it,” says Matheson. “I’ve conducted more than 1,000 marriages in my career, but nothing compares.” The couple rode in a gold carriage, enjoyed an intimate oceanside reception under moonlight, and shared a first dance so personal they won’t reveal the song.

So secret were the details of this wedding, in fact, that the media and public only learned of it afterwards, when MacKay announced he had married “the most important person” in his life—never mind that his proposal to Afshin-Jam was not widely known. And what about that photo of the beaming newlyweds emerging from the chapel with white flower petals falling around them? It too was carefully released by MacKay days after the wedding, perhaps in an effort to quiet the frantic attempts online to piece together some information about—to make some sense of—this surprising turn of events.

Here now was Peter MacKay, long-hailed as Canada’s “sexiest male MP” who, by age 46, had been in two long-term relationships, had been engaged once, had suffered a humiliating breakup from then fellow MP Belinda Stronach, and had even been rumoured to have captured the affection of former U.S. secretary of state Condoleeza Rice. Suddenly, the Peter MacKay everyone seemed to know was no longer. And holding his hand, indeed wearing a wedding ring and taking his last name, was a woman with a story even more compelling.

With the glamour and musical bent of a Carla Bruni, and the global outlook and outspokenness of a Hillary Clinton, Afshin-Jam is a political spouse the likes of which Canada has never seen. Yes, Margaret Trudeau captured the country’s attention with youth and whimsy, and Maureen McTeer with her activist, academic, feminist bent. But Afshin-Jam, by combining the disparate qualities of the two, presents something more.

She has spoken on human rights at the UN in Geneva, arranged rallies in New York to protest Iran’s president, and rescued children from execution. She hs also competed in international beauty contests and graced the pages of Vanity Fair. Her music has landed on the Billboard charts.

“Little Miss Perfect,” Britain’s Telegraph called Afshin-Jam in 2007, adding: “Surely Afshin-Jam isn’t really as good as she seems—or is she?” For MacKay, who many have suspected holds prime ministerial aspirations, it’s no idle question: after nearly a decade of failed relationships, and years of searching for his equal in looks and ambition, he appears to have landed his ideal match.

On Dec. 6, 2003, Nazanin Afshin-Jam wore a pale, flowing dress not unlike her future wedding gown, both of which were designed by Canada’s Bobby Ackbarali. It was the night of the Miss World pageant in Sanya, China. The 24-year-old, who performed a Middle Eastern dance and won the fitness category, beat 101 contestants to reach the top five. Although she lost the crown to Miss Ireland, Afshin-Jam won first runner-up, and a spot on the international stage to speak out on human rights violations—a mission she’d set for herself as a young girl.

Afshin-Jam was just a baby when her family escaped Tehran after 1979’s Iranian revolution; her father Afshin had been tortured and sentenced to death for allowing music, alcohol and dancing at the hotel he managed. Afshin fled to Spain; two months later, Afshin-Jam, her mother Jaleh and older sister Naz followed, and in 1981 the family emigrated to Vancouver. Her passion for justice was ignited, years later, after seeing the scars her father sustained at the hands of Iranian authorities. Afshin-Jam, a Christian, like her mother, was a serious child: she excelled in school, started a global issues club, never partied, and achieved the highest rank in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets, becoming a pilot.

After graduating with a B.A. in political science from the University of British Columbia in 2000, Afshin-Jam began working as a Red Cross youth educator. But talks on land mines and poverty were limited to schoolchildren. She wanted a wider audience. “At that stage I realized people were listening more to Angelina Jolie and Bono than their own politicians,” she told the Telegraph in 2007. “I decided, ‘I’m going to get a title for myself.’ ”

In 2003, Afshin-Jam, who had modelled during university, won the Miss World Canada competition, then represented Canada in China. “It’s about owning one’s sexuality. I can wear what I want, I can sing what I want, I can show my skin, and why shouldn’t I?” she said. Afshin-Jam went along with the pageant fluff, knowing it would pay off: “My beauty meant I was able to bring attention to a cause. It’s calculated so that people get the message about human rights.”

Over the next few years, Afshin-Jam travelled widely, raising funds and awareness for causes ranging from the victims of the tsunami in India and Sri Lanka to the earthquake in Iran. In 2006, wanting to broaden her appeal, Afshin-Jam began recording a music album (complete with sexy videos) with her brother-in-law Peter Karroll, a Vancouver manager. That’s when she heard about Nazanin Fatehi, an 18-year-old Iranian woman on death row, who’d stabbed her rapist to death. Afshin-Jam launched the “Save Nazanin” campaign, lobbying the Canadian government, European Parliament and Iran, and collected 350,000 signatures for a petition she presented to the UN. Months later, Fatehi was released.

From there, Afshin-Jam established the non-profit Stop Child Executions, which focuses on youth facing execution in Iran. She also took part in international efforts to liberate persecuted Iranians, including the University of Toronto’s Ramin Jahanbegloo, who spent four months in a Tehran prison in 2006. He credits Afshin-Jam with helping mobilize the international pressure that resulted in his release: “Of course having a pretty face is an asset. But Nazanin is a true civic actor, not just some benefactor as we sometimes see with Hollywood stars.”

In March 2007, Nazanin was invited to speak to the House of Commons subcommittee on international human rights, where she urged the Canadian government to pursue more targeted sanctions, and called on Canada to take “the middle ground” in opposing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one, she says, that resists the “extreme” U.S. proposal for military intervention.

Her comments so impressed Prime Minister Stephen Harper that, a year later, he appointed her to the Canadian Race Relations Foundation’s board of directors. By then, she had met MacKay in his capacity as foreign affairs minister, occasionally reaching out to him for help when she heard a child was about to be executed in Iran. MacKay would respond with condemnation of Iran’s actions. “I was impressed. He wasn’t a talker, he was a doer.” In 2010, she moved to Ottawa. “Over time,” she told Maclean’s, “I [came] to know the true Peter, away from the spotlight of politics and media.” They began dating that year.

They made a curious couple. While Afshin-Jam stands for the country’s cosmopolitan future, MacKay is a walking tie to its Scots-Anglo past—the privileged son of a Nova Scotia power broker whose political ascension occurred as if preordained. His father Elmer served in the federal cabinets of Brian Mulroney, and MacKay arrived in Ottawa at the ripe age of 32. Within six years, he was leader of a Progressive Conservative Party that had fallen on hard times.

His central role in uniting the PCs with the Canadian Alliance has lent MacKay the aura of a dauphin. But his personal life soon eclipsed his professional one. In 2004, he sent the Ottawa gossip mill into overdrive by ending his long-time relationship with Lisa Merrithew, the daughter of another Mulroney-era cabinet member, and taking up with auto parts heiress Belinda Stronach. A few months later, Stronach, who had been sitting as a Tory MP, crossed the floor to join the governing Liberals. Canada’s sexiest male MP was reduced to posing for cameras with a neighbour’s dog, musing unsubtly on the loyalty of canines.

The trauma of that humiliation affected MacKay for years, say friends who spoke to Maclean’s last week. The rumours of a fling with Rice came to nothing, and his 2009 engagement to Jana Juginovic, then a programming executive with CTV News Channel, was called off seven months after it was announced. By then, MacKay had crossed paths several times with Afshin-Jam in an official capacity (in a small irony, Stronach made the Nazanin Fatehi campaign the subject of her first question to MacKay in Parliament after the Tories won power). Friends could see he was smitten. “After a series of many girlfriends, he finally found the woman of his life,” said one confidant, who asked not to be named.

The signs of true love were hard to miss, especially for the politically savvy. In early August, MacKay brought Afshin-Jam to his riding for the New Glasgow Dragon Boat Festival—an event sure to attract local potentates, along with the minister’s gossipy school chums. Two weeks later, during a vacation in southwest Ireland, MacKay sat Afshin-Jam on a flowery cliff on Valentia Island and produced an engagement ring—“a princess-cut solitary diamond,” Afshin-Jam says admiringly. “Very simple and elegant. I’d never told him what kind of ring I’d like. I guess he knew my style.”

So ended the single lives of two rare creatures—Canadian political sex symbols—leaving questions about their respective futures. Will Afshin-Jam continue her advocacy work? Is marriage a sign of renewed leadership ambition for MacKay, who some Tories still regard as a future prime minister?

Afshin-Jam says she’ll remain strictly non-partisan and—more surprisingly—that she won’t shy from criticizing Canada or its allies. “If I have views that differ from what the government is doing, I will vocalize them,” she assures Macleans. “I am my own person.” The couple plans to have children, and to make MacKay’s farm in Lorne, N.S., their primary residence. Afshin-Jam admits that she’ll be removed from the hurly-burly, and time will be scarce. But she plans to be a “hands-on mom” who uses her work to teach her children “the importance of giving back.”

As for MacKay, any prime ministerial ambitions he might nurse are moot so long as Harper leads a majority. Still, the impression of stability in his personal life can’t hurt. His romantic travails have at times left the impression of a man suspended in perpetual bachelorhood. And while Canadian voters are not overly preoccupied with their leaders’ personal lives, Conservatives who place high value on marriage and family will no doubt approve.

None of which is to say the relationship is founded on a political calculation. Indeed, friends of MacKay and Afshin-Jam were brimming with praise about the couple this week. “They’re incredible together,” says Rev. Matheson. Lee Richardson, the Conservative MP for Calgary Centre, and close friend of MacKay, sensed the same while dining with the pair in Vancouver on New Year’s Eve—the night before they left for the wedding.

The scene was Le Crocodile, a posh downtown restaurant. “At the stroke of midnight Peter and Nazanin got up and started dancing,” the MP says. “They were the first. Soon everybody in the restaurant had gotten up.”

A cynic might have looked closely to see who was leading—the cabinet minister or the rights activist. Richardson, however, has seen his friend take enough lumps in love and politics. So this time he opted to simply soak up the moment. “They really are a lovely couple,” he says, “very much in love.”

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