Canadian spies have a tendency to stay out of the headlines.
But a recent $35-million lawsuit filed by five Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) employees, alleging homophobic, racist and Islamophobic harassment, has the agency under a level of scrutiny it rarely has to deal with.
“CSIS is a workplace rife with discrimination, harassment, bullying and abuse of authority, in which the tone set by management, namely to mock, abuse, humiliate and threaten employees has permeated the workplace,” the suit alleges. “This racist, sexist, homophobic and discriminatory behaviour has become the accepted culture and norm.”
None of the claims have been proven in court and CSIS director David Vigneault says that the agency is taking the allegations 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,” Vigneault said in a public statement on July 14, 2017. “I would like to reinforce that, as an organization, CSIS does not tolerate harassment, discrimination or bullying under any circumstances.”
But the lawsuit raises questions about how a secretive agency, one that the Trudeau government plans to imbue with even greater powers, treats sexual and racial minorities, both as employees and as targets of surveillance.
Gary Kinsman, a professor at Laurentian University and the co-author of The Canadian War on Queers, which details the homophobic national security campaigns from the 1950s to the 1990s, says he isn’t surprised to hear these kinds of claims.
“These are all top-down militaristic-type, patriarchal organizations that have similar types of histories; histories that are mired in racism, homophobia, sexism,” he tells Xtra. “You follow orders from your superiors, which is just a recipe for prejudice and bigotry.”
And Kinsman thinks all Canadians should be worried.
“This is an institution that has powers to be able to violate people’s rights in ways that other organizations can’t,” he says. “So internally, if it’s heterosexist, homophobic, sexist and racist, that is something that I think we should all be alarmed about.”
Allegations of Islamophobia, homophobia and racial slurs
One of the employees, (referred to as Alex in the claim but as spies the claimants are all anonymous), a gay man married to a Muslim, is alleging a campaign of systematic harassment because of his sexual orientation and the religion of his husband.
A veteran intelligence officer who has been with the agency for 15 years, Alex alleges in the lawsuit that managers would often direct homophobic slurs at him and publicly humiliate him.
At a town hall meeting, he alleges that one of his managers stood up at a podium in front of the entire Toronto office and joked that he “[took] it from behind.”
And he says that managers, in emails and to his face, would call him “fag boy,” “tapette,” “homo,” “gay boy” and “token gay.” At a social gathering where Alex’s husband was present, he claims that a manager declared that “All Muslims are terrorists.”
In an email from his manager, the statement of claim alleges, Alex was told to be “Careful your Muslim in-laws don’t behead you in your sleep for being homo.” Another email from a different manager allegedly said, “You’re just a fag hiding in your little corner sobbing.”
When he took his concerns of harassment to higher-level managers, he says that he was ignored.
Alex eventually filed a harassment complaint that led to a third-party investigation which found that Alex had been harassed. Despite this, Alex claims that nothing changed and that he faced reprisals for speaking out.
Three of the other complainants allege similar Islamophobic harassment, while a fifth CSIS employee, the agency’s first Black female analyst, alleges she was discriminated because of her race.
A history of homophobia
Kinsman says these allegations shouldn’t be thought of as demonstrating possible prejudices of rank-and-file members or managers, but rather a systemic issue within the national security apparatus.
“The work of people in CSIS is to identify certain individuals as being threats to national security and enemies of the country,” he says. “This is bound to create an internal culture within those work settings that actually reproduces those types of prejudices and bigotry.”
And CSIS has a history of homophobia that dates right back to its founding, he says.
“’Till the bitter end, the RCMP, CSIS and the military fought against the inclusion of homosexuals in their ranks,” Kinsman says. “It’s not a coincidence that in Canadian history if you look at it, the official institutions that have had the most overlap with far-right fascist or racist organizations have been the military, but also to some extent the RCMP and CSIS.”
Throughout the 1950s to the 1990s, the RCMP engaged in a systematic effort to purge LGBT people from the ranks of the public service and the military. They maintained files on thousands upon thousands of Canadians suspected to be gay or lesbian.
When CSIS was created in 1984 after the RCMP was found to be abusing its national security powers, especially in regards to the Quebec separatist movement, many of the agents were hired from the RCMP’s defunct national security arm.
“There’s been no major transformation in terms of those hierarchical institutional relations in any of those institutions, so they’re bound to continue to reproduce this,” Kinsman says.
Even today, if a member of the public service isn’t open about their sexual orientation, Kinsman says they can lose their security clearance, and thus their job. This creates a bind for LGBT people: if they don’t come out, they could be fired, but if they do, they could potentially be subject to homophobic harassment with little recourse.
But Kinsman says that though some people might see these allegations as simply an issue of possible workplace harassment, the implications go much further.
The Trudeau government recently introduced Bill C-59 in the House of Commons, which would provide new powers to CSIS and other intelligence agencies, while also providing some additional oversight.
The legislation would allow CSIS agents to break a litany of laws as long as they obtained a secret judicial warrant.
However, even the increased oversight won’t necessarily mean the government knows what CSIS is up to. CSIS was recently discovered to be running a secret data collection operation on Canadians without informing Ralph Goodale, the minister of public safety. The government only found out after a federal court found the program to be illegal.
Kinsman argues that instead of giving CSIS new powers, this might be the time to rethink what the role of an institution like CSIS is.
“Maybe there’s a problem that’s so deeply rooted in CSIS that we need to actually consider abolishing CSIS or investigating it or transforming it in some more profound fashion,” he says. “Because it’s a real threat to people’s rights.”