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“We’ve realized we could no longer trust the department to protect us.”

Those were some of the first words I heard, almost a year ago, after I responded to a series of discreet encrypted messages by flying to Ottawa and driving to a carefully selected third-party house in an inconspicuous neighbourhood to spend a day with a group of very distressed career diplomats and officials.

They had reached out to me because they and their children were the little-known Canadian victims of a weird and disturbing phenomenon, called “Havana syndrome” by the media, that had left dozens of diplomatic staff and families from the U.S. and Canadian embassies stricken with concussion-like brain injuries. They felt their situation, and their suffering, had been badly misunderstood, and they wanted to talk.

The case had made headlines because the Americans believed it might be a deliberate attack, perhaps from some sort of unknown energy weapon. The case had a Cold War vibe, but seemed a bit flaky: To a lot of informed observers, this sounded not so much like an energy beam as the familiar effects of stress and anxiety.

But as soon as I’d spent a day with the Canadians – and more so after months in dialogue with them – I knew that their cases confounded much of this narrative.

These victims are not high-strung spooks but rather seasoned foreign-service professionals in fields such as foreign aid, intergovernmental relations and facility operations. Most had served multiple postings in far more dangerous and stressful countries without incident. Canada has friendly relations with Cuba – some would say too friendly – and there is no plausible reason that Havana or its allies would have decided to target its diplomats in 2017.

I realized that there are really two mysteries here: One, involving the nature of the brain injuries, but another – arguably bigger one – about what Ottawa’s response, chronicled in hundreds of pages of correspondence, reveals about the government’s ability to respond to crises abroad.

On the first, we finally got some clarity this week. A painstaking year-long government-commissioned study by brain scientists, toxicologists and other specialists at Dalhousie University looked at the brains of all 25 known affected Canadians plus control groups using a range of advanced scanning techniques – even dissecting the brain of an exposed dog. It was the first time that all the Canadian victims had been studied comprehensively.

The 26-member team found that the brain injuries were real and physical, confirming the findings of U.S studies. While their evidence does not rule out other potential causes (including psychosomatic effects), the researchers concluded that the injuries were most likely caused by exposure to powerful chemicals.

These could include weaponized toxins. But it is far more likely, they concluded, that this was the result of an unprecedented campaign of pesticide fumigation conducted by the Cuban regime starting in late 2016 and aimed at preventing an outbreak of the Zika virus. The campaign focused on the areas where diplomats are prone to live and work.

(The diplomats told me this week that they feel it’s important for the government to continue investigating the possibility of a targeted attack. They are in the midst of a lawsuit against the government, and feel they are still not receiving proper care.)

The larger problem involves the way Ottawa’s foreign-affairs department, known as Global Affairs Canada, handles unexpected crises in its 175 foreign embassies, consulates and high commissions, and the 7,800 Canadians who work at them. Exhibit A is the very fact that it took until late 2018 for Ottawa to organize a proper study of all the victims, and only after having deployed a hodgepodge of organizations in a confusing range of incomplete responses.

At best, Global Affairs comes across as an understaffed but well-meaning department doing its best to respond humanely to an unexpected crisis far outside the experience of any government. At worst, it can be seen as an inflexible and compartmentalized bureaucracy that is organizationally unfit to respond effectively to the multiple unexpected crises that frequently occur in international relations.

That was the conclusion, reached late last year, by the late federal auditor-general Michael Ferguson in a scathing audit of physical security at Canada’s foreign missions. It found that measures and programs to protect the staff and their families were rarely fully implemented and often missing entirely.

Despite having received funds from the Harper and Trudeau governments, efforts by Global Affairs to protect staff were “severely delayed, largely because of poor project planning and oversight,” and that many key positions had been vacant for years.

It came across as an organization that had kept receiving new tasks and responsibilities under an expansionist-minded Liberal government, but that still lacked the right staff or organizational structure to fully accomplish even basic security tasks.

If we’re lucky, the Havana crisis will turn out to have been a one-time, unexpected event that tested Ottawa’s capacity – something like a fire drill. Unfortunately, and with disturbing medical consequences for its victims, the drill was a failure.

Doug Saunders, the Globe’s international-affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

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