AJAX, Ont. — Allegations of a toxic workplace culture involving harassment and sexual assault at Canada's spy agency are "devastating" and "absolutely unacceptable," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Thursday.
His comments come after a Canadian Press investigation revealed four officers with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service raised concerns about the toxic culture within the British Columbia office.
One CSIS officer said she was raped nine times by a senior colleague while in surveillance vehicles in 2019 and 2020, while another said she was sexually assaulted in 2021 by the same man.
The women said they unsuccessfully warned their bosses that the man needed to be kept away from young women, and were subsequently failed by an internal complaints process.
Trudeau, who was in Ajax, Ont., for a separate announcement, said the allegations are of "deep, deep concern."
"These allegations are absolutely unacceptable. We need to make sure that everyone in every workplace, no matter how delicate or sensitive or secret the work is that they are doing, is protected, particularly for people who serve their country."
The Canadian Press is not identifying the women who came forward because they fear legal and professional repercussions or retaliation from CSIS if they reveal their identities.
The women say supervisors told them other women had complained about not feeling safe around the man at the centre of the allegations.
“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,” an officer said.
Trudeau said his government has taken such allegations "incredibly seriously" since the start.
"And I can assure you that the minister and our entire government is following up very directly on these issues."
The women who say they were assaulted say they did not go to police in part because they felt constrained by the CSIS Act, which prohibits the identification of covert officers, with penalties of up to five years in prison.
Most CSIS employees, including covert officers, are not unionized.
CSIS spokesman Eric Balsam said in an emailed statement that the service "takes any allegation of inappropriate behaviour, including harassment, very seriously."
However, he said it would be "inappropriate" to comment on specific legal matters.
The officers who say they were sexually assaulted have lodged separate lawsuits against the federal government in B.C.
The case by the woman who says she was raped was dismissed by a judge who ruled she had not exhausted CSIS's internal complaints mechanism. The officer, who is identified in her lawsuit as "Jane Doe" said she plans to appeal.
The lawsuit by the other woman has not received a response.
The officers said they were failed by the internal complaints mechanism.
Huda Mukbil is a former CSIS officer who was part of a group of Toronto officers who won a settlement from the Canadian government in 2017 after suing for $35 million over alleged racism, sexism and harassment.
She told The Canadian Press the internal grievance process was "completely ineffective."
Speaking before Trudeau made his remarks, Jane Doe said she went public because she wants CSIS to be held accountable.
But she said she and her colleagues held out little hope the agency could be reformed.
The settlement of the Toronto employees' lawsuit prompted a pledge from CSIS director David Vigneault that he would lead an organization where every employee "promotes a workplace which is free from harassment."
A colleague and friend of Jane Doe, who supports her claims that the B.C. office was a toxic workplace, said that seemed to have made little difference to their treatment.
“We're not going to change the way this organization treats people,” said the colleague.
"They've given out how many millions of dollars to the people in the Toronto case? … And nothing has changed.”
Jane Doe echoed her friend’s comments.
“There’s such a systemic problem that they would have to get rid of everyone and start fresh,” Jane Doe said.
The other officer who says she was sexually assaulted, who is identified as "A.B." in her lawsuit, said speaking out about what happened to her was extremely difficult because she felt like she was “betraying” her colleagues and country.
But she said her treatment at the service brought her to her wit's end.
“(It) would have been one thing to jeopardize my safety for an actual mission that would have helped the country, but the fact that my mental health and my safety was consistently jeopardized due to the negligence of management in there over something as ridiculous as someone sexually assaulting and harassing people … all these people were wasted," A.B. said.
"All these lives were damaged and all these amazing officers in there were destroyed just because someone couldn't control their own sexual urges. That's what kills me about this.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2023.
The Canadian Press