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CSIS faces $35-million harassment, discrimination lawsuit

A vehicle passes a behind sign outside the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) headquarters in Ottawa.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Canada's spy agency is facing questions about its workplace culture amid allegations that senior officials foster a prejudice and distrust for Muslims employees, who are seen as "essential to CSIS' mission, but working without CSIS' trust and respect."

The allegations are contained in a statement of claim filed Thursday in Federal Court by five employees who are seeking upwards of $35 million in damages for what they say was years of harassment condoned by supervisors.

The statement of claim describes an "old boy's club" culture at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service where complaints about inappropriate behaviour are dismissed, minorities feel distrusted, and advancement is based on personality and not merit, including suggestions of romantic relationships playing a part in promotions.

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In one complaint detailed in the court document, a witness told investigators that "the public would be shocked about this (workplace conduct) if they only knew; we keep our own secrets."

None of the allegations in the 54-page document have been tested in court.

The case could become a political problem for the Liberals, who have vowed to take action against harassment and discrimination in the military and the RCMP, and faced calls Friday to take immediate action at the spy agency.

Speaking in at a news conference in Providence, R.I., Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the allegations of "harassment, discrimination, (and a) toxic work environment" unacceptable. He said he was confident the agency's new director was "working very hard to ensure that we get to the bottom of this issue."

The five employees, who cannot be legally identified in the court document, allege that their complaints were ignored or dismissed by senior managers, some of whom suggested they should keep quiet out of fear of reprisal. All are no longer able to work resulting from depression, anxiety and other medical ailments linked to the harassment they faced.

One woman, identified as Bahira in court documents, says a colleague didn't speak with her for three years because of unfounded rumours that she was friends with the Khadr family; one member of that family, Omar, just received a multi-million-dollar settlement and apology from the Canadian government for the violation of his Charter rights during his imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay.

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She also alleges that managers had to approve her participation in personal and religious activities after she began wearing a hijab, despite having passed security screening.

A gay man known as Alex alleges that a colleague wrote in an October 2015 email, "careful your Muslim in-laws don't behead you in your sleep for being homo," a reference to his Muslim partner, part of a larger set of allegations that Alex makes about being targeted for his sexual orientation.

In another case, a supervisor argued at length that then U.S. president Barack Obama was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. And at a social gathering in Toronto, Alex alleged that a senior member of management yelled, "all Muslims are terrorists."

In a statement, CSIS director David Vigneault said the agency does not tolerate harassment, discrimination or bullying under any circumstance, which is reflected in the employee code of conduct. He added that any allegations of inappropriate behaviour are taken seriously.

"I believe strongly in leading an organization where every employee promotes a work environment which is free from harassment and conducive to the equitable treatment of all individuals. CSIS employees are proud to be entrusted to carry out the very important work that we do," the statement said.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims said in a statement that the allegations raise questions about the ability of the spy agency to carry out its mandate and protect Canadians.

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"It is unacceptable for discriminatory attitudes to be left unchecked in any context, but especially in the context of intelligence gathering when Canadian Muslims already face disproportionate scrutiny," executive director Ihsaan Gardee said.

NDP public safety critic Matthew Dube called on Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to launch a investigation into the claims because of the effect such behaviour could have on national security.

"With its expanded powers and limited accountability, CSIS must perform its duties with the utmost professionalism. This sort of behaviour cannot be tolerated, and if upon investigation these claims are proven correct, all those responsible must be dealt with swiftly and severely," Dube said.

A spokesman for Goodale wouldn't comment on the allegations before the courts, but said the minister is committed to ensuring that all the security agencies in his portfolio, including CSIS, are workplaces free from harassment.

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