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Workplace expert says conditions at Canada's spy agency ripe for harassment

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VANCOUVER -

Toxic workplace claims against Canada's spy agency point to a "perfect storm" of conditions that allow harassment to occur and rooting them out could require more than removing one "bad apple," says an expert on employment discrimination.

Beth Hirsh, a University of British Columbia sociology professor who studies workplace discrimination and the effect of legal claims on organizations, said lawsuits against the Canadian Security Intelligence Service contain "egregious" allegations.

CSIS announced last week it had launched a workplace climate assessment in its British Columbia office over claims made public in an investigation by The Canadian Press.

Two covert officers who are suing the federal government said they were sexually assaulted at work by the same senior colleague, that bullying and harassment went unchecked and they were failed by the internal investigation mechanism at CSIS.

Hirsh said organizations like CSIS, where people work in physical and social isolation, "exemplify many of the things that we talk about in terms of textbook examples of conditions that lead to harassment and discrimination.

The agency's secretive nature makes transparency and accountability challenging, allowing cultures of harassment to "flourish."

"These organizations have structures and cultures that create sort of a perfect storm for these sorts of behaviours to take place and also make it really hard to change in the wake of claims or lawsuits," she said.

A statement from CSIS Director David Vigneault on Friday said accusations of a "toxic workplace" cannot be taken lightly, as he announced the workplace assessment had been launched in the B.C. office.

"This will be instrumental in identifying and resolving potential barriers to a safe, healthy and respectful workplace as well as restoring the workplace climate," he said.

Hirsh said organizations like CSIS are susceptible to toxic workplace cultures, and reforming them requires structural and cultural change rather than "rooting out a single so-called bad apple or single offender."

"The nature of the work is clandestine and it's confidential and because of that it makes it really difficult to set up accountability mechanisms or to make the work and individuals' behaviour within their work process transparent," she said. "So for that reason I think these sorts of organizations are really susceptible to cultures where sexual harassment and bias flourish and make it really difficult to respond effectively in the wake of litigation."

Hirsh said traditionally male-dominated industries such as policing, firefighting and mining see many complaints, since "power relations often line up on gender lines."

"So men, at least in this case and perhaps throughout the organization, are represented in the higher-level positions and women are represented in the lower-level rookie positions and that creates a power imbalance and harassment (and) discrimination is often reasserting of that power," she said.

Hirsh said an organization like CSIS don't have a lot of external oversight or scrutiny, requiring "a really robust internal system for rooting out these problems."

She said ineffective internal grievance processes can often "dampen mobilization" and deter people from making formal complaints.

"They're worn down by having to tell the story over again and again internally and just get frustrated. It's really hard to then push, push, push and get through the internal process," she said. "The internal process can really wear people down."

Officers in the B.C. office of CSIS said they had been invited to take part in interviews for the workplace climate assessment this week.

A similar assessment of CSIS' Toronto regional office launched in 2017, finding "serious concerns surrounding retribution, favouritism, bullying and other inappropriate behaviour that is categorically unacceptable in a high-functioning, professional organization," Vigneault said that October.

"CSIS will continue to develop further courses of action to address issues raised in this review," he said. "Only by putting these kinds of issues on the table, and dealing with them directly, will the service be able to continue to evolve as a strong, mission-focused and unified organization. While the assessment focused on one region, I believe the information gathered from this process will be of benefit across the service."

Neither Vigneault nor Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc were made available for an interview.

A spokesman for LeBlanc pointed to a Nov. 30 post he made on social media in response to the allegations.

"The reports of sexual harassment and assault at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service are deeply troubling. I spoke to Director Vigneault, who assured me that there is a robust and ongoing investigation into these allegations," LeBlanc posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

"Everyone has the right to work in an environment free of violence or harassment, and that's a right we will always uphold."

The Canadian Press is not naming the officers because of a law prohibiting the identification of covert officers that carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

The Canadian Press also does not name alleged victims of sexual assault unless they publicly identify themselves.

A B.C. lawsuit by one of the officers, who said she was raped nine times in CSIS surveillance vehicles, was dismissed on the grounds she hadn't exhausted the agency's internal complaint process. She plans to appeal.

The second officer's lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court has not received a response from the service.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 5, 2023.

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