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$35M lawsuit alleges racist, sexist and homophobic discrimination at CSIS

Spy agency is taking the allegations from 5 employees 'very seriously,' director says

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A lawsuit against the Canadian Security Intelligence Service alleges the spy agency is a toxic workplace in which employees have experienced discrimination based on race, religion and sexuality. (CBC)

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Five employees of Canada's spy agency are seeking $35-million in damages in a lawsuit claiming they suffered racist, sexist and homophobic discrimination by management and colleagues at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

The five plaintiffs are all "high-performing, long-term" employees, according to a 54-page statement of claim filed in Federal Court on Thursday. One of the employees is gay, three are Muslim and the other is black, according to the claim.

The lawsuit alleges that over several years, each employee "has been harassed and discriminated against by CSIS management and colleagues, on the basis of religion, race, ethnic and/or national origin, and/or sexual orientation."

Among the allegations are that one employee was called "fag" and "homo," another was told "all Muslims are terrorists", and another was told to "complain to Allah."

None of these allegations has been proven in court.

"The Canadian Security Intelligence Service takes any allegation of inappropriate behaviour very seriously," CSIS director David Vigneault said in a statement. "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 adds that CSIS "does not tolerate harassment, discrimination or bullying under any circumstances."

"Employees are always encouraged to report any real, potential or perceived incidents of harassment, without fear of reprisal, to their supervisor or senior management. As this matter is now before the court, CSIS will not make any further public comment regarding these allegations," the statement said.

Toronto lawyer John Phillips, who's representing the employees, did not respond to CBC's request for comment.

'Toxic' workplace

The statement of claim includes excerpts from emails sent between CSIS management and one of the employees, known as "Alex," in the lawsuit.

All five employees and their colleagues and managers are referred to by pseudonyms in the claim, which says that as spies they are forbidden from publicly identifying themselves.

Alex is gay and his partner is Muslim, the document says.

"Careful your Muslim in-laws don't behead you in your sleep for being homo," CSIS manager "Simon" allegedly wrote to Alex in an October 2015 email

In a separate, undated email referred to in the lawsuit, another CSIS employee writes to Alex: "Hey tapette, you're just a fag hiding in you little corner sobbing."

According to the lawsuit, Alex is a "decorated officer" who has worked for CSIS for approximately 15 years and most recently has held the level 9 rank of senior district supervisor.

Employee wore a Hijab

Another plaintiff is known as "Bahira" in the suit, a Muslim woman who, like Alex, has approximately 15 years of experience and held senior rank at CSIS.

The claim alleges that "anti-Islamic comments and views were commonplace" when Bahira first joined CSIS shortly after the 9/11 attacks, but problems became more severe for her when she began to wear a hijab to work in 2004.

The decision "caused an uproar," the claim says, with managers conveying suspicion and skepticism.

According to the allegations, false rumours circulated around Bahira's office that she was friends with the family of Omar Khadr.

It's alleged that Bahira was asked to report all of her activities within the Muslim community to management prior to attendance, including going to mosques and community events.

It was an "invasive and unprecedented directive," the claim alleges.

'Complain to Allah'

Another employee, known as "Cemal," also experienced anti-Muslim discrimination as a Muslim of Turkish descent, the lawsuit alleges.

During his 21-year career with CSIS, the statement of claim alleges Cemal was made to feel uncomfortable in a "hostile" workplace.

Cemal was "regularly" referred to as "Imam," "Sheikh" and "Muslim Brotherhood" by CSIS's deputy director general for the Toronto region, who is also alleged to have once told the employee he should "complain to Allah," the claim says.

It's also alleged that Cemal heard a supervisor explain that she was rejecting job candidates because of their Muslim names.

Cemal believes that, as a Muslim, he did not receive the same recognition as other employees and was denied several promotions based on this.

The employee known in the document as "Emran" also suffered discrimination based on his race and religion, the claim alleges.

The Moroccan-born Canadian citizen is a Muslim and  fluent in five languages.

A CSIS manager referred to as "William" allegedly expressed distrust and suspicion towards Emran, publicly demanding to know if he was more loyal to "our Queen or the king of Morocco?"

Another intelligence officer known as "Ken" allegedly said in Emran's presence: "All Muslims are blood thirsty murderers" and "all Muslims are terrorists."

Between 2007 and 2011, the claim says William and Ken worked to alienate Emran in the organization, fuelling rumours that he was a "mole" and not to be trusted.

'Token black woman'

All of the plaintiffs are currently on leave from CSIS, claiming they were unable to work due to the alleged discrimination and harassment.

The employee known as "Dina" was the first black woman at CSIS, the claim says. She has not worked at the agency since January 2017 due to symptoms of post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia.

The lawsuit suggests that Dina is considered by managers and colleagues as a "token black woman," who was promoted to high ranking positions "without merit."

It's alleged that, for this reason, she was disrespected by colleagues and subordinates, routinely cut off while speaking, and treated aggressively by managers.

The situation worsened, the claim says, when Dina began to come forward with complaints about the alleged racially motivated discrimination within the "old boys club" culture of CSIS.

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