TORONTO (CN) — Five employees have sued the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, claiming they suffered racist and homophobic harassment and discrimination from Canada’s spy agency.
In their federal statement of claim, four John and one Jane Doe sued Her Majesty the Queen for $35 million.
They sued as Does “because they have been warned by their employer, CSIS, that they are forbidden from publicly identifying themselves, or any colleagues, as employees of CSIS,” the 54-page complaint states. “Management personnel and other employees have also been identified using pseudonyms.”
The pseudonymous plaintiffs include “Alex,” a Toronto-based intelligence officer; “Bahira,” an Ottawa-based intelligence officer, both with the service for 15 years, “Cemal,” an analyst based in Oakville, Ontario with 22 years on the job, “Emran,” a Toronto-based analyst for 12 years; and “Dina,” Toronto-based intelligence officer for 16 years.
All five describe themselves as “dedicated, hard-working, high-performing, long-term employees of CSIS. 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.”
They claim culture of discrimination in the spy agency is toxic, from the top down, and that employees can prosper and advance their careers by participating in the “accepted culture and norm” of discriminatory behavior.
“There is simply no meaningful check on the harassment, intimidation and abuse within CSIS,” the claim states. The Does say they 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.”
Alex says he has received several awards and decorations for his service. He’s gay and his partner is Muslim. After being transferred to Toronto a decade ago, he says, he’s been subjected to “ongoing harassment and ridicule” by managers who refer to him as “gay boy,” “fag,” “homo,” and other epithets. One day, he says, a manager stood at a podium addressing the entire staff and said that Alex “[took] it from behind.”
When he complained, Alex says, he was told to “get over it.” When he filed a formal complaint, investigation found that the workplace culture was an “old boy’s club,” fueled by alcohol and off-color jokes. Retaliation from colleagues then hindered his career.
Bahira is a senior intelligence officer and a “well-educated, multilingual Muslim woman of Arab and African descent.” Though her background made her an asset for the spy agency, she says, it also made her a “target of harassment, discrimination and reprisals.”
She joined the agency shortly after 9/11 and noticed that “anti-Islamic comments and views were commonplace” among her colleagues. Her decision to start wearing a hijab in 2004 “caused an uproar” and stirred “suspicion so intense that it exists today,” she says. For instance, a manager began requiring her to report all religious activities she participated in, essentially requiring her to “seek permission for outside religious activities.”
Despite going through the same security procedures as non-Muslim employees, Bahira says, her religion caused managers to view her as untrustworthy and refuse to assign her work while other employees were overburdened.
“In fact, that perspective became standard throughout the office: all Muslims are suspect, and while they appear to blend in, they could strike at any time,” the complaint states.
She says the harassment resulted in her diagnosis of major depression and anxiety and she went off work in January this year.
Cemal, a Muslim of Turkish descent, says his experience paralleled Bahira’s.
“The culture of CSIS is hostile to Muslims, and this is more than just an unfriendly work environment,” he says, “it is a deeply engrained prejudice of distrust for Muslims which has mean that Muslims are used and managed as needed, but are not part of the team.”
He says he was routinely passed over for promotions for employees with less experience and competence, leading him to conclude he’d been “blackballed.” He too left work in January due to stress, anxiety and depression.
Emran is a Muslim analyst born in Morocco who started working for CSIS in 2005. He speaks five languages and has participated in international and complex investigations, according to the complaint. Due to his Arab Muslim background, he says, “powerful individuals” in the agency singled him out for harassment and ridicule, to the point that he has lost all pride in his work. Managers spread rumors that he was a “mole” and “not to be trusted,” and referred to him and other Arab Muslims as “sand monkeys.”
“The threats and rumour-mongering were part of the craft of manipulation and deceit that was the stock and trade of CSIS agents, and Emran recognized these techniques being used against him, to undermine his mental well-being and career, all of which was extremely stressful,” the complaint states. He left work in September 2016 due to stress, anxiety and depression.
Finally, Dina says she was the first black woman the agency hired, 16 years ago. She says her ascent to a high-level position irked her mostly white colleagues, who believed she “went too far.”
“The token black woman was promoted without merit, and she would be made to suffer,” the complaint states. “From the very beginning, when she received training for her new position, she was greeted with hostility and resentment. She was shunned by her new colleagues and given no support. This set the stage for the years to come.”
She says that subordinate and higher-level employees treated her dismissively and actively undermined her leadership. The “sustained harassment” forced her to go on leave due to post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and insomnia in January.
Their attorney, John Phillips did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
In a statement, CSIS director David Vigneault said the agency does not tolerate discrimination and takes allegations of inappropriate behavior seriously, but declined to comment further on pending litigation.
The plaintiffs seek $35 million in damages for breach of contract, breach of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, negligence and harassment.
Similar complaints have been filed against federal intelligence agencies in the United States, including the FBI, CIA and Transportation Security Agency.