Canada’s spy chief has apologized to staff for his response to rape and harassment allegations in the agency’s British Columbia office.
In a town hall this week, David Vigneault told Canadian Security Intelligence Service staff about new anti-harassment measures in what he called an “extraordinary moment.”
He said the officer accused in the complaints, details of which were made public in an investigation by The Canadian Press last week, is no longer employed by the agency, as of Monday.
Vigneault said he had ordered the “urgent” creation of an ombudsperson’s office to handle workplace problems “without fear or reprisal.”
He also said the agency would release annual public reports on harassment and wrongdoing in the agency.
The moves come after The Canadian Press reported on what officers called a “toxic workplace” in the agency’s B.C. surveillance unit.
One officer said she was raped nine times by a senior colleague while in surveillance vehicles on missions in 2019 and 2020.
A second officer said she was later sexually assaulted by the same man despite bosses being told he should not be partnered with young women.
“Many people I have talked to personally, and also through the exchanges I received, said that they were gutted by the information in the media last week. And I want to tell you that also I was deeply troubled,” Vigneault said in a transcript provided by CSIS on Friday.
He said he was “distraught” that anyone in CSIS had experienced sexual violence, and “distressed” if anyone believed allegations would not be acted upon.
“I apologize for the lack of empathy in this past Friday’s message,” he said, referring to a public statement issued last week. “It was unintentional but clearly insufficient in expressing my personal and deep empathy for what people are experiencing. And I am sorry for that.”
In last week’s statement, Vigneault said any allegation of inappropriate behaviour is taken “very seriously.” He defended the service’s previous handling of the complaints, including CSIS’ “promptness, its response and its exhaustive investigations.”
He said in the statement the accused man “was removed from the workplace,” but told Tuesday’s town hall that “as of yesterday, the respondent is no longer with the service.”
“This was the culmination of an internal investigation that was concluded in the summer, resulting in decisions being rendered in November,” he said.
The Canadian Press report had no bearing on the decisions, he added.
He said the new position of ombudsperson would “provide a trusted, confidential and impartial space for employees to openly discuss workplace-related issues or concerns without fear or reprisal.”
He said he had asked for the urgent development of the plans to create and staff the new office.
An annual public report on harassment in CSIS would be instituted “to ensure we hold ourselves accountable,” he said.
A CSIS employee with knowledge of the town hall meeting said it took place at 1 p.m. Eastern time in CSIS headquarters in Ottawa and was broadcast to regional offices.
CSIS’ assistant director of human resources also spoke at the meeting, the employee said, and the floor was opened to questions.
A second employee said the meeting was told CSIS staff who were victims of crime were allowed to contact police and name offending officers.
Vigneault’s statement last week said, “employment with CSIS does not, and will never prevent employees from reporting a crime to the police.”
The CSIS Act says identifying a covert officer is punishable by up to five years in prison, and the two women who said they were assaulted told The Canadian Press they felt constrained against going to police by the act.
In The Canadian Press report published on Nov. 30, an officer named as “Jane Doe” in a lawsuit against the federal government said she was subjected to a campaign of harassment, stalked and raped in 2019 and 2020 by a colleague decades older than her.
Another officer said she was later sexually assaulted by the same man in surveillance vehicles, despite Jane Doe having warned her bosses he should be kept away from young women.
Jane Doe said in an interview that she had mixed feelings about the service’s response described in the town hall, but “promises are being made.”
“I think the report they’re going to put out will be a smokescreen,” she said.
“The ombudsperson also could be, especially if there is an awkward reporting structure and they mingle in the office with workers and form relationships.”
If that’s the case, she said it’s likely they “won’t be impartial at all.”
She said the changes announced by CSIS seem positive, but she doesn’t “know where it leaves me.”
The employee accused of sexually assaulting her was no longer employed, but she wondered why it took two years since she lodged a formal complaint in 2021 for it to happen.
“Why do things only happen when the public watches?” she said. “There’s still a lot that seems unfinished to me but I want my part to be over.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that the allegations in the report were “devastating,” and his entire government was following up “very directly.”
CSIS announced last week it had launched a workplace climate assessment in its B.C. office over the claims made public in the report. Officers in B.C. said they had been invited to take part in interviews for the assessment this week.
Jane Doe’s lawsuit was dismissed by the B.C. Supreme Court in September by a judge who said she had not exhausted the CSIS internal complaint mechanism. She said she plans to appeal.
Jane Doe said a CSIS report concluded in January 2023 that her claims of rape were unfounded on a balance of probabilities, after the alleged attacker claimed the activity was consensual.
The second officer who said she was assaulted has also lodged a lawsuit but it has not yet received a response.
Both woman are on medical leave from the service, but still technically employed by CSIS. A third officer who also worked in the B.C. physical surveillance unit is also on medical leave.
Darryl Greer, The Canadian Press