Five Canadian Security Intelligence Service employees who launched a $35-million lawsuit against Canada's spy agency alleging an anti-Muslim, racist and homophobic workplace have serious concerns for their well-being, but had no choice but to sue after a lack of response from CSIS management, their lawyer says.

"Just so you're aware, my clients are very concerned for their own well-being, but had to take the step they did, since they've tried for a long, long time to get some informal resolution internal to the organization, and it just never happened," Toronto-based lawyer John Phillips said Friday.

"The treatment by their managers was terrible. And the response from their managers when complaints were made was just as bad," Phillips told CBC's Power & Politics host Rosemary Barton, saying his clients "were forced to court."

The comments come one day after a 54-page statement of claim filed on behalf of the CSIS employees detailing years of harassment and discrimination by management and staff against the employees, three of whom are Muslim, another black and one identifying as gay.

Potential concerns for national security

None of the allegations have been proven in court, but in a statement Friday NDP public safety critic Matthew Dubé called them "shocking," saying they suggest the presence of deeply rooted bigotry within the agency.

In the statement, Dubé called on Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to launch an immediate investigation into claims of "rampant and persistent discrimination" within Canada's spy agency along with its effect on the quality of the work produced there.

John Phillips

Toronto-based lawyer John Phillips told CBC's Power & Politics host Rosemary Barton that the treatment of his clients by managers was 'terrible.' (CBC)

"Such treatment would be totally unacceptable in any workplace in Canada, but here constitutes potential concerns for Canada's national security as those accused serve as supervisors within our most powerful and secretive agency," Dubé wrote.

On Friday, Goodale's office said the minister is committed to achieving his mandate to ensure all agencies in his portfolio, including CSIS, are "free from harassment," and that any kind of discrimination or bullying is "completely unacceptable and wrong."

Neither the minister nor CSIS Director David Vigneault would comment on the allegations directly, saying they are before the court. But in a statement Thursday, Vigneault said the agency takes any allegation of inappropriate behaviour very seriously.

'If you're part of the group then you shut your mouth'

But for former CSIS officer Francois Lavigne, they come as no surprise.

Instead, the shock for him was how little appears to have changed since he left the service nearly three decades ago, he told CBC/Radio-Canada Friday.

"I thought after 30 years, this was gone. But it's still alive and well," he said. 

Francois Lavigne

Former intelligence officer Francois Lavigne, who worked in counterterrorism until 1988, said that in his four years with the agency, homophobia and discrimination against minorities were rampant, (CBC)

Lavigne, who worked in counterterrorism until 1988, said that in his four years with the agency, homophobia and discrimination against minorities were rampant, recalling how Sikhs were oftentimes referred to as "turbanheads." 

"If you're part of the group, then you shut your mouth and you don't say anything.… That's part of the culture. It's the Old Boys network," said Lavigne, who eventually quit the agency, saying he felt singled out. 

'A veil of secrecy'

Former senior intelligence officer Michel Juneau-Katsuya echoed those sentiments Friday, saying it's not an exaggeration to call the allegations of prejudice "a systemic problem."

"I remember having a conversation with a French colleague of mine and having an anglophone colleague passing by and telling us to 'Speak white,'" recalled Juneau-Katsuya, who worked with the agency for 16 years, retiring in 2000.

Michel Juneau-Katsuya

Former senior intelligence officer Michel Juneau-Katsuya says it's not an exaggeration to call the alleged discrimination 'a systemic problem.' (CBC)

"This organization needs to work behind the veil of secrecy, which prevents employees from seeking support outside the organization … preventing them to go to meet legal representation," Juneau-Katsuya said. "Since they don't have any union or association that is worth mentioning, they are not defended."

In his statement, CSIS director Vigneault said the agency does not tolerate harassment, discrimination or bullying under any circumstances and that employees are always encouraged to report "any real, potential or perceived incidents of harassment, without fear of reprisal, to their supervisor or senior management."

'It's really Goliath versus David'

Phillips said his clients tried that route, to no avail.

"The results were scandalous in terms of not addressing the issues," he said.

For now, he said, he isn't ruling out the possibility that others may join the claim, saying whether that happens will likely depend on how CSIS responds to the current suit.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims reacted to news of the lawsuit Friday, with executive director Ihsaan Gardee saying in a statement that the allegations raise serious questions about whether Canadians can trust CSIS to fulfil its mandate without discrimination or bias.

"These allegations are of particular concern in light of the recent debate on the intrusive security powers given to CSIS under new national security legislation. 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," Gardee said.

Meanwhile, said Lavigne, the nature of the organization, being a secretive one, means accountability isn't easily achieved.

"They hide behind secrecy, and then of course ministers and governments don't want this to become public, so they're pressured to resolve this. We pay millions of dollars out with confidentiality and Canadians don't hear anything about it," he said.

Juneau-Katsuya agrees.

"It's really Goliath versus David," he said. "And in this particular situation, David will lose."

With files from Trevor Dunn, Power & Politics and Natasha MacDonald-Dupuis