Spy agency employees reveal shocking allegations of toxic workplace culture
Five employees of Canada’s spy agency allege in a blockbuster $35-million lawsuit that they have been blocked from promotions, abused and sickened by a workplace poisoned by racism, homophobia and anti-Muslim discrimination.
The allegations against the Canadian Security Intelligence Agency are made by veterans of the organization in a court document obtained by CTV News. None of the allegations has been proven in court.
“The employees in this case are all dedicated, hard-working, high-performing, long-term employees of CSIS,” reads the statement of claim filed July 13 in a Toronto court. “Despite this, they have each been harassed and discriminated against by CSIS management and colleagues, on the basis of religion, race, ethnic and/or national origin, gender and/or sexual orientation.”
The lawsuit claims the plaintiffs’ Charter rights have been violated and that CSIS knew of the widespread abuse and discrimination in its organization and was negligent in failing to protect its employees from harm.
“CSIS is a unique organization, entrusted with extraordinary and intrusive investigative powers for the purposes of investigating threats to the security of Canada. It operates under a veil of secrecy which has been used by senior managers to harass and intimidate the employees with apparent impunity. Those managers have harmed the employees, and CSIS has utterly failed them.”
The lawsuit alleges complaints of abuse and harassment were ignored and that the plaintiffs “have been judged, mocked, humiliated, held back and ignored time and again, resulting in stress and embarrassment, depression and anxiety and ultimately loss of income and opportunities.”
CSIS’s director David Vigneault issued a statement in response to the allegations Friday.
“The Canadian Security Intelligence Service takes any allegation of inappropriate behaviour 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. CSIS employees are proud to be entrusted to carry out the very important work that we do. The Service prides itself on being a top employer and creating a healthy and respectful workplace of inclusion, where diversity is representative of our strength,” he wrote.
“I would like to reinforce that, as an organization, CSIS does not tolerate harassment, discrimination or bullying under any circumstances. The Service’s values and ethics must be reflected in all of our behaviours and decision-making, and reflect the CSIS Employee Code of Conduct principles of respect for democracy, respect for people, integrity, stewardship, and professional excellence. Employees are always encouraged to report any real, potential or perceived incidents of harassment, without fear of reprisal, to their supervisor or senior management.”
The agency said it would offer no further comment on the matter because it’s before the courts. CSIS has 30 days to file a statement of defence if it intends to fight the lawsuit.
CSIS is governed by an “enclave of privileged individuals who considered themselves above the law,” charges the statement of claim.
“CSIS management has not only allowed this culture to thrive, it has actively inculcated this culture, openly rejecting and mocking respectful workplace norms. This tone and approach has been dictated from the top, and adopted throughout the organization, resulting in an environment in which employees recognize that upward mobility and career success can be achieved through rejecting respectful workplace conduct and visibly aligning with the misconduct of management. This racist, sexist, homophobic and discriminatory behavior has become the accepted culture and norm.”
The statement alleges that for many managers “the rules simply do not apply” and that those who don’t openly engage in the alleged behavior “tend to look the other way.”
“Attempts to raise concerns or seek corrective action have been met with derision, threats of reprisals, and further harm. There is simply no meaningful check on the harassment, intimidation and abuse within CSIS.”
All the plaintiffs and their managers and colleagues referenced in the statement of claim are identified only by pseudonyms.
The first set of allegations have been put forward by a gay man with a Muslim partner and 15 years of service, who says he was forced to take an extended sick leave. He is referred to as Alex and is an intelligence officer who works in the Toronto CSIS office. His is described as a “highly decorated” officer with numerous awards for his service.
Alex alleges that:
- An email was sent to him that stated, “hey tapette, you’re just a fag hiding in your little corner sobbing.” (Tapette is described as the French equivalent to ‘fag.’)
- An email was sent that stated “careful your Muslim in-laws don’t behead you in your sleep for being a homo.”
- An email was sent that stated “OT for the homo is approved.”
- A member of management joked in front of colleagues that the plaintiff “took it from behind.”
- A member of management yelled that “all Muslims are terrorists.”
- As he participated in management social events to further his career, “Alex learned that anti-Muslim sentiment was pervasive within the group. There existed a deep-seated distrust and contempt for all Muslims…”
- His attempts to seek help directly or those by employee representatives on his behalf were ignored by senior management. Alex says he was warned by supervisors and colleagues that pursuing a formal complaint would only make it harder on himself.
- But he did complain in 2016 and a third-party investigator concluded harassment had occurred in breach of CSIS’s code of conduct. Alex says he was then told to stop coming to management meetings, removed from a promotional board to which he had been appointed and docked professionalism marks on his performance review because of his harassment complaint.
- There were no actions were taken against those who participated in the harassment, no apologies offered and no attempt to fix ongoing issues.
- When Alex took sick leave in June 2016, management undertook a “whisper campaign” alleging he had “lost his marbles.”
- • Alex’s experience has led to “severe panic attacks, low mood and depression, weight loss, insomnia and symptoms of PTSD.”
Another of the complainants, referred to as Bahira, is an intelligence officer in Ottawa who is a Muslim woman of African descent with 15 years’ service. She alleges:
- A colleague displayed a cartoon that called the Muslim Prophet Mohammed a dog.
- She faced questions about how she could carry out her duties after she started wearing a hijab.
- She was told to disclose her planned activities in the Muslim community, such as when she attended mosque or community events. She was also told to cease all associations with two prominent Muslim charitable organizations in Canada.
- She was subjected to a polygraph test and 10-hour interrogation about her Muslim activities and contacts two years before her security clearance was up for renewal.
- A supervisor refused to take down a picture of women wearing burkas that was annotated with mocking comments. He also told her “Muslim women are inferior and that then-U.S. President Barack Obama was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
- A manager suggested Bahira “might one day leave CSIS and divulge CSIS methodology to members of the Muslim community.”
- "She was embarrassingly underworked relative to her colleagues, who were over-burdened. When this circumstance became a matter of contention in her group, Bahira went to her supervisor who admitted to Bahira that he had been instructed not to give her access to any source files due to her involvement with a Muslim organization.”
- A standard perception in her office was that “all Muslims are suspect, and while they will appear to blend in, they could strike at any time.”
- Though her work abroad was praised by other agencies, she was routinely left out of customary appreciation events at CSIS and was ostracized.
- She was overlooked for promotions that were given to colleagues with less experience and fewer qualifications.
- Bahira has been on sick leave since January after a diagnosis of major depressive disorder and severe major anxiety disorder.
A third complainant, referred to as Cemal, is an analyst in the Toronto office who is described as Muslim of Turkish descent with 22 years at CSIS. He claims:
- A manager told him to “complain to Allah.”
- A poster was displayed in the office that referenced Allah and showed the twin towers burning on 9/11.
- He was pushed to drink alcohol, even though he does not drink for religious reasons.
- He heard a supervisor say she was rejecting job candidates with Muslim-sounding names.
- He was regularly shut out of internal recognitions and promotions that were awarded to more junior and less qualified candidates.
- An internal audit of internet usage was performed on only two employees in the Toronto office. Both of them are Muslim.
- “The culture of CSIS is hostile to Muslims, and this is more than just an unfriendly work environment – it is a deeply ingrained prejudice of distrust for Muslims, which has meant that Muslims are used and managed as needed, but are not part of the team.”
- Cemal has been on stress leave since January.
Emran, a Moroccan-born analyst in Toronto with 12 years of experience, alleges:
- He was accused of being a Moroccan spy.
- A colleague called Muslims “bloodthirsty murderers” and “terrorists.”
- A colleague referred to Arab Muslims as “sand monkeys.”
- The evident distrust displayed by supervisors alienated Emran from his colleagues and he was excluded from work functions.
- The stress of his workplace environment led to the breakdown of his marriage.
- He was exposed to threats and rumour-mongering designed to “undermine his mental well-being and career.” He was warned not to file a complaint.
- He has been on sick leave since September 2016, due to stress, anxiety and depression.
The fifth complainant, an intelligence officer in Toronto referred to as Dina and the first black woman at CSIS, has been with the agency 16 years. She alleges that she regularly endured “snide remarks that she was only promoted because she is a black woman” and also faced verbal abuse from managers, colleagues and subordinates.
“She has been isolated and ostracized, ridiculed and shamed, all without foundation, and as part of a pattern of harassment that a resentful few set in motion,” reads the statement of claim.
She alleges her harassment complaint was not investigated because managers feared that it, together with Alex’s complaint, would show systemic problems in the Toronto office.
She has been on sick leave since January, with symptoms of PTSD, anxiety and depression.
At one point, an internal harassment investigation into a harassment complaint by Alex sought comments from anonymous employees. One employee stated, according to the document, that “the public would be shocked about this if they only knew; we keep our own secrets.”
Another said, according to the statement of claim: “Big fear here is reprisals; people’s lives are at risk because of drunken decisions.”
The Canadian Human Rights Commission found in 2014 that visible minorities were under-represented at CSIS, faced barriers to advancement and did not receive requisite training for management positions. The report also found there were no visible minorities in senior management positions.
With files from CTV's Omar Sachedina