Five CSIS employees have taken medical leave from the agency since at least January of this year due to debilitating stress, anxiety and depression. Last week, "Alex," "Bahira," "Cemal," "Emran" and "Dina," who have a total of 80 years of service (ranging individually from 12 to 22 years), jointly filed a $35-million lawsuit against their employer. Pseudonyms are used since the plaintiffs cannot be identified by law. They are alleging harassment, discrimination and threat of reprisal by management.
The allegations made in the statement of claim (none of which have been proven in court) point to a toxic workplace culture that suffocated the aspirations of five Canadians who dedicated their careers to protecting the security of fellow Canadians. They claim that "CSIS is a workplace rife with discrimination, harassment, bullying and abuse of authority," and that "Not only do members of management comport themselves in a manner to facilitate this culture, but they refuse to acknowledge it consists wrongful conduct. To many of them, the rules simply do not apply. … Attempts to raise concerns or seek corrective action have been met with derision, threats of reprisal and further harm."
Alex is gay, Bahira, Cemal and Emran are Muslim, and Dina is black. The written and verbal comments directed to them, if true, are beyond disgusting.
For example, management wrote to Alex in an e-mail: "Homo, [DDG] says you're getting fat. … You can make up to him by feeling his hard ass," and "careful your Muslim in-laws don't behead you in your sleep for being homo," referring to Alex's gay Muslim partner.
Dina, an accomplished agent, rose quickly through the ranks, but was allegedly constantly reminded that she was only promoted because she was black.
The three Muslims allege that they endured years of mistrust and reminders from some supervisors that "all Muslims are terrorists."
According to the statement of claim, Bahira immediately came under suspicion after wearing the hijab. She was required to divulge, in advance, her places of worship and community engagement. In essence, she had to choose between being a member of the Muslim community or a CSIS employee. She chose the latter.
At CSIS, a colleague allegedly displayed a cartoon depicting a dog wearing Arab clothing, which read (in Arabic) that "Prophet Mohammed of Islam is a dog and Jerusalem is ours." A CSIS manager confirmed that he helped write the message. Bahira further alleges that supervisors spread unsubstantiated rumours that she was friends with the Khadr family.
The weekly Friday afternoon "drinking sessions" at the Toronto office made Cemal, a practising Muslim, uncomfortable. He alleges that a supervisor rejected candidates with Muslim names, a poster was displayed in the office with the ninety-nine names of Allah (deemed sacred to Muslims) bearing a picture of burning towers from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and a manager openly disparaged Muslim women wearing the hijab.
Emran alleges that his supervisors constantly referred to him and Arab Muslims as "sand monkeys," among other epithets.
The five allege they were constantly denied opportunities for managerial roles, confirming the findings of employment equity audits completed by the Canadian Human Rights Commission in 2011 and 2014. CSIS was admonished for its lack of diversity in upper management, "attitudinal barriers" faced by minorities and "inappropriate comments and behaviour" in the workplace.
Two former CSIS employees, François Lavigne and Michel Juneau-Katsuya, are not surprised at the lawsuit allegations. Mr. Lavigne, who left CSIS in 1988, recalls rampant homophobia and discrimination, adding much hasn't changed from the old boys' club of the past. Mr. Juneau-Katsuya experienced insults due to his francophone heritage; he points to the organization's "veil of secrecy" that prevents employees from seeking support against workplace harassment.
Richard Fadden, former director of CSIS (2009-2013) expressed shock at the allegations. Nonetheless, he advocates a thorough investigation to root out such alleged behaviour, adding that stereotyping all Muslims as potential terrorists is "the last thing you need" in a spy agency.
Other venerated agencies are facing systemic workplace dysfunction. In 2016, the RCMP arrived at a $100-million settlement over harassment, discrimination and sexual abuse claims, and issued a formal apology. The Canadian Armed Forces is under pressure to address systematic sexual assault within its ranks.
Given the serious nature of the CSIS allegations, and their potential impact on national security, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale must call for an immediate investigation.