VANCOUVER — Canadian Security Intelligence Service employees who say the agency’s British Columbia office is a toxic workplace have faced a series of hurdles in speaking out — including a law against identifying themselves or colleagues.
The Canadian Press has published an investigation into claims by the covert officers, including two who say they were sexually assaulted by the same senior colleague while on duty.
The officers say they went public after being hindered from seeking justice by institutional secrecy and a prohibition under the CSIS Act against identifying themselves or others as covert officers, which is punishable by up to five years in prison.
But the same hurdles also represented a challenge to telling their story.
The officers who say they were assaulted filed lawsuits against the federal government, using the assumed names Jane Doe and A.B.
Jane Doe, whose lawsuit was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, says she knows the service may fire her for going public.
“I've tried the internal complaint route. I've tried the legal route and nothing has happened. Nothing has changed. So, it almost feels like, you know, we're backed into a corner and (going public is) the only option,” Jane Doe said.
Huda Mukbil is a former CSIS employee who was part of a 2017 lawsuit against the agency over alleged racism and sexism, that resulted in a settlement.
She said CSIS employees are trained to conform and those who complain “become the complaint.”
The service, she said, has struggled with employee retention due to workplace culture issues for some time.
"I loved my job. The mandate is something that, you know, I believed in strongly and I'm sure others who are coming forward and have to leave feel the same way, that they were completely committed to their work and in protecting Canadians and public safety," she said. "But people are leaving because of the culture in these places, and that in itself is a threat."
She said the Canadian government spends lots of money training CSIS employees who end up leaving the service, but not because they don't believe in the work they do.
Mukbil said people end up leaving CSIS because they need "an environment where they can work without harassment and discrimination."
The Canadian Press does not identify any of the four CSIS officers who gave interviews over several months for the investigation. Three are on leave, but all are technically still employed by CSIS.
Andrea Baillie, editor-in-chief of The Canadian Press, said the news agency “has a very high bar when it comes to using anonymous sources.”
“They can weaken our stories and readers can rightly become suspicious when interview subjects are not named. But we had no choice when telling the important story of two CSIS agents who say they were sexually assaulted on the job by a male officer as rookie agents,” she said.
“These women — as well as two colleagues who describe a culture where bullying, abuse and harassment go unchecked — are in a unique bind, because it is illegal to name a covert CSIS agent. Due to its very nature, Canada’s spy agency is enshrouded in secrecy; it is almost impossible to speak up.”
She said the story “provides a rare glimpse” into CSIS’ inner workings.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2023.
The Canadian Press