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CSIS: B.C. pair allege rape, harassment and a toxic workplace culture

Two women have launched separate anonymized B.C. lawsuits against the federal government
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Two Canadian Security Intelligence Service surveillance officers pose for a photograph in Vancouver on Wednesday, October 18, 2023. The officer on the right, identified as “Jane Doe” in an anonymized lawsuit, says she was repeatedly raped by a senior CSIS colleague, while the officer on the left is a friend who supports Doe’s claims about what they call a toxic workplace culture in the British Columbia CSIS office. The women, now on leave from the service, are forbidden by law from identifying themselves or other covert officers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A rookie surveillance officer with Canada’s spy agency and another officer decades her senior were tracking a person in British Columbia in the summer of 2019 when they lost sight of their target.

She said the senior officer later blamed a communications failure due to a radio dead zone.

But the woman said the real reason was her colleague was raping her, having broken off surveillance to drive to a parkade where the alleged attack took place in their Canadian Security Intelligence Service vehicle.

The man, who was supposed to be her mentor and coach, treated his “own needs as more important than doing the job,” she said in an interview.

She said she was raped by her colleague nine times while at work in CSIS surveillance vehicles between July 2019 and February 2020.

A second officer said she too was sexually assaulted as a rookie by the same officer in surveillance vehicles during covert missions, despite warnings from the first to their bosses that he should not be partnered with young women.

They say supervisors told them other women had complained about not feeling safe around the man in the past.

“Nothing was done, and I started hearing these stories that there was this history of all these women (who) used to be working at our region. They used to be there, and they all had the same thing to say, and they all just ended up leaving,” the second officer said.

The women are among four officers with the B.C. CSIS physical surveillance unit who say it was a toxic workplace where bullying, harassment and worse went unchecked, and where young female officers were victimized.

Their accounts, provided in documents and interviews with The Canadian Press over several months, offer a rare unauthorized glimpse inside Canada’s spy agency and its operations.

The pair from B.C. who said they were assaulted by the same senior officer also describe their treatment in separate anonymized lawsuits against the federal government filed in B.C.

They said they felt unable to go to police, in part because of an obligation to secrecy, including a law against identifying themselves or others as CSIS officers, and a belief the organization would cover things up.

A flawed internal complaint process left victims vulnerable to retaliation and without access to external recourse, they said.

Both are still employed by CSIS but are on leave.

The young women also said they fell victim to a system that keeps CSIS rookies on probation for two years, making them susceptible to mistreatment by senior officers who could easily ruin their careers if they objected.

They’re not the first CSIS employees to criticize the service’s workplace culture.

In 2017, five anonymous CSIS workers in the Toronto region sued the Canadian government for $35 million, claiming racism, sexism and harassment.

One of the plaintiffs in that case, which was settled before going to trial, later identified herself as Huda Mukbil. She wrote a book about her time with the service.

Mukbil said in an interview that the service’s internal complaint and grievance processes are “completely ineffective,” and the workplace culture allowed problems to fester.

“The conformist kind of culture within the organization, it’s really difficult to address any issues, and I think that’s part of the reason why these things keep happening to women and racialized people within the military, within the RCMP, within CSIS,” she said.

“But I think it’s a really brave thing to do, to break rank and to come forward and complain because that’s going to help protect other people.”

In December 2020, CSIS Director David Vigneault said at a national security advisory committee meeting “there is a level of harassment and fear of reprisal within the organization,” as he addressed questions about systemic racism.

The Canadian Press is not identifying the women who say they were assaulted, or two other CSIS employees who support them and were interviewed for this story. The officers say they fear legal and professional repercussions or retaliation from CSIS if they reveal their identities.

It is an offence under the CSIS Act to identify a service employee involved in covert acts, punishable by up to five years in prison.

The Canadian Press also does not name alleged victims of sexual assault unless they publicly identify themselves.

CSIS spokesman Eric Balsam said in an emailed statement that the service “takes any allegation of inappropriate behaviour, including harassment, very seriously.”

“We care about ensuring that all our employees work in a safe, healthy and respectful environment,” Balsam said. “It would be inappropriate for CSIS to comment further on specific legal matters.”

A lawsuit by the woman who said she was raped was dismissed when the B.C. Supreme Court ruled she hadn’t properly exhausted the federal government’s internal grievance process before going to court, where she claimed constructive dismissal and sought damages. The lawsuit, originally filed in February 2022, refers to the woman as Jane Doe.

Jane Doe said a report for CSIS by an external investigator deemed her rape complaints unfounded on a balance of probabilities, after the alleged attacker claimed the encounters were consensual.

Balsam did not directly respond to a request to provide the document, which Jane Doe said carried a protected security classification. Balsam said “CSIS has confidence in the integrity of its internal grievance process.”

But Jane Doe said CSIS “shouldn’t be able to hide behind their secrecy and their policies and their lack of documentation.”

“They need to be policed just like everybody else does,” she said.

There has been no response in the courts to the June 2023 lawsuit by the second woman, referred to as A.B. She is claiming damages from CSIS for breach of contract and Canadian Charter violations.

Nazanin Panah, a lawyer for Inlet Employment Law, the firm representing both women, said the government “should never force survivors of workplace sexual violence to seek remedies from the same institutions that failed to protect them.”

“Such an approach not only re-traumatizes survivors, but completely dismisses cornerstones of the justice system such as procedural fairness and transparency,” Panah said in a statement.

Two other people who worked for CSIS in B.C. at the same time gave interviews and agreed it was a “toxic” office.

One is a woman who has since been deemed medically unfit for duty after developing depression and anxiety, a diagnosis she blamed on the stress of dealing with senior colleagues, who harassed her and created false rumours about her, including that she and Jane Doe were in a lesbian relationship.

“We’re doing this for national security and the safety of Canadians, but my colleagues are being victimized,” said the woman, who is a friend of Jane Doe. “It was absolutely disgusting.”

A fourth person, who still works for CSIS elsewhere, said the problems in B.C. involved an old guard of employees who had “a culture around them that they are untouchable.”

“They started getting promoted, miraculously,” they said. “That’s when I decided I was going to get out of the unit and not try to fight it anymore.”

Panah said there had been “a shift in attitudes and laws” in institutions such as the RCMP and armed forces, “but not yet with CSIS.”

“This ignores ever-mounting evidence of rampant inequality and discriminatory conduct among the senior ranks of CSIS … It is time for a change whereby the courts afford meaningful protection to brave individuals who work in difficult jobs keeping this country safe.”

She said, “institutional inequities saturate the networks of CSIS, trauma goes unacknowledged, not to mention unresolved, and accused predators face no real consequences.”

Jane Doe said she did not know the current employment status of the man she also calls a “predator” who allegedly assaulted her and A.B., and CSIS did not explain when asked.

The court ruling against Jane Doe said the investigation into her complaints “is ongoing.”

The officer said that making her story public felt like “the only option.”

“If they don’t want to be accountable to us, you know, maybe they’ll be accountable to the public, if nobody else,” Jane Doe said.

CSIS is currently in a recruitment drive, with its social media posts urging applicants to “enter a world of intrigue.” But A.B. offered a warning.

“I just don’t think it’s a safe place to work in general, especially for females,” she said.

___

‘HE JUST GOT BOLDER AND BOLDER’

Jane Doe said she felt like she found her purpose working for Canada’s spy agency after joining the service in September 2018.

The job was “awesome” and made her feel like she was finally doing important work after having held more than a dozen different jobs by the time she was 30.

She and other new recruits completed a roughly 3 1/2-month training course in Ottawa. It was at a work party involving a dozen or more people to celebrate the rookies’ completion of the course that Jane Doe said she suffered her first harassment, when a superior officer drunkenly groped her breast.

A report into the incident by a human resources firm mandated by CSIS to investigate says Jane Doe’s evidence — supported by a witness who said they saw the senior officer touching her — was “coherent and plausible.”

But it says on the balance of probabilities the alleged groping “did not occur in the workplace,” because the party took place in a hotel.

“The workplace climate is very hierarchical and patriarchal,” concludes the report seen by The Canadian Press. “Intimidation and bullying tactics are still being used by some individuals.”

The incident came less than a year after CSIS director Vigneault had pledged to lead an organization where every employee “promotes a workplace which is free from harassment,” as he announced the settlement of the 2017 lawsuit by Toronto region employees.

Vigneault issued a statement that December saying the service “does not tolerate harassment, discrimination, or bullying under any circumstances.”

But Jane Doe said the incident with the “creepy” colleague in Ottawa was a signal that there was worse to come when she was posted to B.C.

She said that on her first day in the B.C. office in December 2018, a female superior described having to experience mistreatment to rise in the historically white, male-dominated world of intelligence gathering. She came to understand that female rookies would be expected to endure misogynistic hazing.

Jane Doe and other interviewees said rookie officers in the physical surveillance unit were paired with more-senior officers who served as their “coach.” They would spend 10-hour shifts together in CSIS surveillance vehicles, watching persons of interest.

Some of the vehicles were fitted with curtains for privacy.

Jane Doe was paired with a mentor but in spring he was switched for another senior officer, who she said started referring to her by various nicknames, calling her “donkey,” “monkey” and “horse legs.”

She said she tried to laugh it off, but it ate away at her. She said her new coach, who had worked at CSIS for decades, would eventually leave her questioning her own sanity, as his treatment eroded her will “like a rotten piece of fruit.”

The officer began to touch her in front of other officers, rubbing her shoulders even as she recoiled in discomfort, she said.

Jane Doe’s probationary period was far from over, so she said she didn’t report him and neither did colleagues who witnessed his behaviour. She said she didn’t want to lose the job she loved.

“He just got bolder and bolder,” she said. “I know for a fact he will go to his grave believing that he did nothing wrong and that’s what keeps me up at night.”

In May 2019, she said she told him she was running a half marathon and he showed up uninvited after the race and insisted on giving her a ride home.

She said he began to send her photos he had taken of her without her knowledge while she was jogging. At other times he would show up unannounced at her home, insisting they carpool to work, she said.

The knowledge that the professional surveillance officer was watching her haunts her to this day, she said.

She said there was more unwanted touching and conversations about his sex life. Trapped with him in their vehicle during long shifts, she said he would ask about her personal life, grab her hands and try to get her to massage him. She said she felt like a hostage, and he would not take no for an answer.

In July 2019, she said, the man began raping her, while parked in secluded locations during missions.

She said she had reached the point where words like “stop,” “no” or “don’t” felt futile.

“It became so normal to me that I just went to work, and I was like, ‘I’m going to feel awful today’ and that’s what I did every single day,” she said.

Jane Doe’s friend, who joined the B.C. office in early 2020, said the effect on her was obvious.

“I had seen a marked change in her behaviour at work,” the friend said. “Everything about her mannerisms and behaviour and body language was very different than the person I knew.”

The final alleged rape occurred in February 2020, Jane Doe said. She said her coach drove to the basement of a parkade, and ordered her into the back of the vehicle.

She said he didn’t notice her weeping, and didn’t listen when she said, “I don’t want to.”

___

A ‘FAILED’ COMPLAINT MECHANISM

It was the COVID-19 pandemic and new distancing protocols that separated Jane Doe from her alleged attacker that March, and by September her probationary period was up.

Jane Doe’s alleged rapist was still attempting to maintain a hold on her, she said, trying to bait her into contacting him with vague threats to her career.

But his attentions would shift, she said.

In spring 2021, a new batch of rookies arrived in B.C.

Jane Doe said she told a superior to keep young women recruits away from her former coach.

She said she received assurances he wouldn’t be paired with them but that turned out to be untrue.

When she tearfully confronted another boss about it, she said he told her to file a formal complaint if she wanted something done about it.

A.B. would be paired with the man for six weeks. Her alleged experiences mirrored those Jane Doe said she went through leading up to her alleged rapes.

In her lawsuit, A.B. says the man groped her while on-duty in CSIS vehicles, “told her to close her eyes and massaged her,” and inundated her with messages.

She said he sent her unsolicited photos he had taken of women in bikinis, and repeatedly called to ask her where she was and which buses she took.

The lawsuit says the misconduct only ended when A.B. was reposted to Ottawa for several months where she told colleagues about her treatment and found out that the man, referred to as “Individual E,” was the subject of previous sexual assault complaints.

“Despite having knowledge of the sexual assaults perpetrated by Individual E, CSIS continued to employ Individual E, failed to undertake a proper investigation, and allowed him to remain in a position of authority over the plaintiff,” A.B.’s lawsuit says.

A.B. said in an interview she decided to go to court after “every single door had just essentially been closed in our face. I felt like I had given all the information to all the correct people.”

“It was never about going against the employer. I just wanted something to be done with him. I wanted some level of justice.” she said. “I wanted some repercussions for his actions.”

Jane Doe’s hand was forced in September 2021 when she was on a training trip to Ottawa. She told the course’s instructor that a colleague had been harassing her in B.C. for years, and nothing had been done about it.

The instructor was duty-bound to tell her supervisor about the alleged harassment. As word went up the chain, Jane Doe told CSIS superiors about inaction by her bosses back in B.C. although she initially did not describe the full extent of her alleged abuse.

Jane Doe said it took therapy, encouragement from her boyfriend, and advice from a lawyer to convince her to lodge a formal complaint in November 2021 that her coach had raped her nine times, listing the dates, times and locations.

To her horror, rumours were already spreading that she had been in a “consenting relationship” with her coach.

“What consenting adult having an affair makes notes of all of these dates and times and locations?” she said. “Who would do that if it was something they wanted to do?”

Jane Doe said she had little faith in the investigation into her complaint. The external investigator appointed by CSIS had a personal connection to the service’s leadership, she said, and co-workers with any knowledge of the events weren’t compelled to speak with him.

She said the accused man was kept on staff, while she was given the options of workers’ compensation or making a long-term disability insurance claim — without being able to reveal her true job — due to being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The interview with the investigator “terrified” her, she said. She was nervous about talking about the rapes, “but he didn’t ask anything about any of the assaults.”

Nor did they mention the lopsided power dynamic between Jane Doe and her coach.

Believing the process to be ineffective and “corrupted,” she filed her lawsuit in February 2022, claiming that the service “held little to no regard for the safety and dignity of its vulnerable female employees and that there was no safe avenue for recourse.”

Six months later and fed up with waiting on the investigation to complete while she fought for disability benefits, she sent an email to CSIS leaders including Vigneault with the subject: “Questioning the core values.”

“Since submitting this complaint, I believe the organization has completely failed me in every possible way,” she wrote. “For an organization whose mandate is to protect Canadian citizens, you have left one of your own to rot without a second thought … I am surely not the only one to whom this has happened, but it is now clear to me why so many people don’t speak up.”

Panah, the lawyer from the firm representing Jane Doe, said the CSIS internal complaint mechanism had failed her client and others like her.

“In practice, survivors must effectively wait for the same institutional networks that harmed them to decide if their story is real or not. All the while, they face little to no transparency and no access to internal documents and communications,” Panah said in a statement.

Panah added that “traumatized survivors” were expected to wait for years while they exhausted internal grievance procedures.

The final report into Jane Doe’s complaint was delivered in January 2023.

It left her devastated.

___

‘I JUST WANTED SOME JUSTICE’

Jane Doe said she could not share a copy of the report because it carried a protected security classification. It concluded her claims of rape were unfounded on a balance of probabilities, after the alleged attacker claimed the activity was consensual, she said.

She said the investigator did, however, find that weak leadership and unprofessional conduct had caused problems and conflicts in the workplace.

For A.B., who was interviewed as part of the investigation, the findings made no sense.

“I had told him everything that had taken place, which was very incriminating for (the coach),” she said. “Months and months went by and it turned out that the information I had given was not being used.”

Another CSIS employee, who no longer works in B.C., said they do not doubt A.B. and Jane Doe’s stories, having felt “something’s not right” in their time with the unit.

New recruits, both men and women, were put under a “microscope” by older employees who targeted them with non-stop criticism and unfounded complaints of poor performance.

“It didn’t take us very long to figure out that it didn’t actually matter what we did, we would just always be wrong,” they said. “At the point when I left, I didn’t really realize how bad it was for my mental health.”

Since transferring, the employee said the other units they’ve worked with are “incredible.”

Another employee, Jane Doe’s friend, started her career in Ottawa before transferring to B.C. The contrast between the two units was stark, she said.

Pervasive tales of rookies being dismissed for the slightest infraction would “instil fear” among new hires in B.C., she said.

The B.C. office was also rife with gossip, she and others said. When the rumour spread that she and Jane Doe were lovers, she said they traced the source to Jane Doe’s original mentor and he broke down in tears and confessed when he was confronted.

Jane Doe’s friend is also now on medical leave from CSIS and unable to return to work, according to an assessment by Public Safety Canada. She too is considering whether to file a lawsuit for constructive dismissal.

Jane Doe’s lawsuit was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds on Sept. 29, having failed to show the internal grievance process “is compromised or otherwise corrupted,” wrote Justice Michael Tammen.

Her harassment complaint to CSIS “is not yet complete,” he ruled.

“There is no evidence that the process is flawed in any material respect. The complaint process, including the initial investigation, may not be proceeding as swiftly as Ms. Doe would like, and she may have sound reasons for her subjective belief that the process is unsatisfactory.”

At the completion of the complaint, Jane Doe would be entitled to further grieve the process or the implementation of recommendations, or challenge a final decision via judicial review in the Federal Court.

But lawyer Panah said such a judicial review would have to be undertaken without access to internal documents and communications “which are vital to procedural fairness.”

“While the internal process is intended to provide recourse for workplace misconduct, the courts retain a residual discretion to intervene in instances of egregious misconduct,” Panah said.

“We respectfully posit that if this case did not meet that threshold then no case ever could.”

Former CSIS officer Mukbil said Jane Doe and A.B.’s lawsuits aren’t the only public complaints against the service, with others pending in the Federal Court system and before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

“I would have thought that the service had put in place measures to protect employees and the fact that there are still people coming out, I find it disturbing,” she said.

“I want people to understand what it’s like for women, for racialized people, to be working in these environments and what they go through.”

Jane Doe said she would appeal the B.C. ruling against her.

The lawsuit, she said, isn’t about money but accountability. She is hoping to have her day in court to “stop people from working there” unless major cultural change occurs at CSIS.

A.B. said she wanted the man she claims assaulted them both to be held accountable.

“We had all this information that he was sexually assaulting and sexually harassing women for years,” A.B. said.

“All the way up to headquarters knew about all of this and it was just hushed. Everything was hushed up. So, I felt like my hands were completely tied and I wasn’t going in there to be like, ‘OK, I want my job to end and I want this over.’ I just wanted some justice for this situation.”

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