PM says CSIS will 'get to the bottom of this issue' amid shocking harassment claims
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded to shocking claims about a toxic work environment at Canada’s spy agency on Friday, but stopped short of saying he would order an investigation.
Five employees at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) allege that a culture of homophobia, racism and anti-Muslim sentiment have caused them health problems and missed promotions.
The employees include a gay man who says supervisors repeatedly referenced his sexuality and ridiculed him for having a Muslim partner, a Muslim woman who says she was questioned about her hijab, a Muslim man who says Muslims were referred to as “sand monkeys” and “terrorists,” and a woman of African descent who says colleagues told her she was only promoted because she is a black woman.
The allegations are made in a 54-page document filed in federal court as part of court case seeking $35 million dollars in damages. None of the allegations has been tested in court.
During a press conference in Providence, R.I., Trudeau said that he is confident that CSIS director David Vigneault is “working hard to ensure that we get to the bottom of this issue.”
“Harassment, discrimination, toxic work environments are things that I, this government, find absolutely unacceptable and I can also assure you that the new director of CSIS, David Vigneault, also finds that to be unacceptable,” Trudeau said.
“We are committed to working as a government to ensure that this type of harassment does not happen and will not happen,” he added.
CSIS director responds
Vigneault issued a statement that said CSIS takes “any allegation of inappropriate behavior very seriously.”
“I believe strongly in leading an organization where every employee promotes a work environment which is free from harassment and conducive to the equitable treatment of all individuals,” Vigneault said.
“I would like to reinforce that, as an organization, CSIS does not tolerate harassment, discrimination or bullying under any circumstances,” he added.
Figures show that 16.1 per cent of CSIS employees are visible minorities, but that’s true for only 5.9 per cent of senior managers.
CSIS says it does not collect data on how many employees identify as LGBT.
‘They’re frightened’: Lawyer
The five complainants are seeking a court order to remain anonymous in the proceedings. Their lawyer, John Phillips, says they are “frightened” but “strong.”
Phillips said that, based on the volume of calls he received after the allegations were made public Thursday, he can see the lawsuit becoming a class action.
In an interview with CTV’s Omar Sachedina, Phillips said his clients tried “desperately” to have their concerns addressed within the organization but were left with no option but to sue.
He said his clients decided to come forward with their allegations despite fearing possible repercussions.
“Their careers were blocked inside the organization, their personal lives were a mess because of the treatment they received and the stress that they were under,” he said.
“We have one intelligence agency in Canada and it’s CSIS,” he added. “Where are these people going to find employment?”
Phillips said the employees told him that the bulk of CSIS agents are “doing a great job,” but that there are “a few bad apples out there and those bad apples are allowed to thrive.”
Former director ‘shocked’
Richard Fadden, who served as the director of CSIS from 2009 to 2013, told CTV’s Question Period Host Evan Solomon that “organizations above a certain size all have bad apples” but he hopes they are “few and far between.”
Fadden, who was speaking on Solomon’s radio show OttawaNow on CFRA, said that, if they allegations are true, it’s shocking and unacceptable.
“It was not the kind of agency that I thought that I led and it’s not the kind of agency that Canada needs,” he said.
Fadden said he finds it “difficult to believe that management hid what they’re alleging.”
“Having said that, this needs to get investigated and needs to get investigated promptly,” he added.
“I always thought when I was there that the agency and everybody in it understood that they could not have this attitude about particular groups,” Fadden went on. “How can you deal with, as an example, terrorism, if you accuse an entire group of terrorist activities when you know that a microscopic portion of them are potentially terrorists?”
Fadden said it may be difficult to launch an investigation while the allegations are before the courts, but “somewhere, somehow, this has to be dealt with.”
Calls for immediate action
Among those calling for immediate action are the National Council of Canadian Muslims, NDP public safety critic Matthew Dube and the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group.
NCCM executive director Ihsaan Gardee said that the NCCM plans to await the outcome “before drawing any conclusions.”
“At the same time, these serious allegations necessitate the government to take immediate preventative action,” Gardee added.
“Canadians need to be reassured that they can fully trust their national intelligence agency to fulfill its mandate professionally and without bias,” Gardee said.
Tim McSorley, national coordinator for the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, called the allegations “shocking and disturbing.”
The NDP’s Dube said that CSIS should be expected to perform its duties with the utmost professionalism.
“This sort of behavior cannot be tolerated, and if upon investigation these claims are proven correct, all those responsible must be dealt with swiftly and severely,” he said.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said he would not comment on this specific case, but a spokesperson said the government is committed to making sure CSIS is free from harassment.
With files from Omar Sachedina and the Canadian Press