Canada’s spy agency has launched a workplace assessment of its British Columbia office over what it calls “serious allegations” raised by whistleblowers, who say they were sexually assaulted and harassed by a senior officer.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service said the officer who was “implicated” in the allegations — made public in an investigation by The Canadian Press this week — was removed from the workplace.
One officer said she was raped nine times in 2019 and 2020 by a senior colleague while in surveillance vehicles, and a second officer said she was later sexually assaulted by the same man despite bosses being warned not to pair him with young women.
A statement from CSIS Director David Vigneault on Friday said accusations of a “toxic workplace” cannot be taken lightly, and a Workplace Climate 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.
The statement said that when the agency first heard about the allegations, it launched a third-party investigation “without delay.”
“The recommendations are currently being actioned,” Vigneault’s statement said.
He said that for too long, a culture existed at the agency that allowed “inappropriate behaviours” to “fester.”
Four CSIS officers told The Canadian Press that the B.C. office was a toxic workplace, where senior officers acted abusively towards younger staff including sexual assault, bullying and harassment.
The two officers who said they were sexually assaulted said they were failed by an internal complaints mechanism.
Another one of the whistleblowers said Friday they had been informed on Nov. 24 of the workplace assessment and told it would take place next week.
The Canadian Press first contacted CSIS, describing the officers’ allegations and seeking a response, more than six weeks ago.
Justin Trudeau said this week that the women’s allegations of rape and harassment are “unacceptable,” but the officers who say they were victimized hope the prime minister’s words don’t ring hollow.
The officer who says she was raped said Friday it was “great” that the group had Trudeau’s attention.
But she pointed to a 2017 lawsuit by officers in Toronto who alleged discriminatory treatment and received a settlement by the government.
“‘Deeds not words.’ I think that this is especially appropriate for this situation,” said the woman, who is identified as Jane Doe in her own legal action against the government.
Jane Doe’s lawsuit in B.C. was dismissed by a judge who said she hadn’t exhausted the internal grievance mechanism. She said she plans to appeal.
“While I think it is great that this story has caught the attention of the prime minister, part of me wonders why it took so long.”
Jane Doe and the other whistleblowers worked in the physical surveillance unit of CSIS’ B.C. office.
“I’d love to believe that things could change and even though my experience is warning me not to get my hopes up, I’d love to be proven wrong this time,” she said.
“Someone needs to make a lasting change there, that is supported from the inside. If the 2017 lawsuit wasn’t a wake-up call, hopefully this can be.”
Trudeau called the officers’ allegations “devastating,” and said everyone should feel protected at work no matter how secretive their duties.
He said Thursday the “entire government” was following up “very directly” on the issues raised by the whistleblowers, who can’t be named because of a law against identifying covert officers.
Another officer who is a colleague and friend of Jane Doe said she hopes going public about their experiences can “force change” at CSIS.
She said she hoped others who were victimized now “feel like they can come forward with their stories and be heard.”
“We had zero support from the internal powers,” she said. “I speak for all of us when I say I’m very glad we have lit a match and been the whistleblowers on such a dark and disturbing place.”
The woman says she and her colleagues hope Trudeau’s words aren’t “lip service.”
The officers who say they were assaulted said they felt they couldn’t go to police, in part because they were constrained by the CSIS Act, which makes it illegal to identify covert employees, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
But Vigneault’s statement said: “Employees who may have been victims of a crime are encouraged to report it to the police. Further, employment with CSIS does not, and will never prevent employees from reporting a crime to the police.”
The statement said of The Canadian Press’ investigation that there were “a number of factual inaccuracies that do not align with recorded events, including about CSIS’s promptness, its response and its exhaustive investigations.”
It said the validity of the internal grievance mechanism was “validated” by the court ruling against Jane Doe, as well as another unrelated case.
The Toronto-based lawyer in that unrelated case, Otto Phillips, said CSIS officers aren’t unionized and are covered by federal labour legislation that makes it hard to deal with workplace issues effectively.
He said the agency is in a “weird” position because of legislation that sets out internal grievance processes for staff, while disallowing court actions until the internal process is exhausted.
“It strikes me that if (CSIS) were to unionize, many of these issues might go away because you’d actually have a proper counterbalance to management and in CSIS, that’s particularly important given how secretive the organization is,” Phillips said. “They basically control all the cards.”
The employee represented by Phillips has taken their case to the Federal Court of Appeal.
Phillips said reform at CSIS won’t come easy.
“It’s going to take a lot of internal soul searching by management at CSIS to try to make the internal process work again and to ensure that the employees trust it,” he said.
“(There needs to be) some internal movement within CSIS to recognize that their own process isn’t trusted and it’s flawed and it needs to be fixed.”