Goodale must investigate racism allegations against CSIS

By now many people have heard about the $35-million lawsuit against the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) filed earlier this month. The 54-page statement of claim on behalf of five intelligence officers and analysts allege a toxic workplace where some managers and supervisors discriminate against Muslim, Black and gay employees. The pleadings (yet to be tested in court) also accuse the spy agency of Islamophobia, racism and homophobia.

While conceding that there are bad apples in every bunch and that it must be dealt with if the allegations are proven, national security analyst and former CSIS agent Mubin Shaikh says, “We should not judge all of CSIS by the actions of a few.” I can’t argue with that, but here are a few critical points to note in addressing the concerns raised.

First, this is not just any bunch. As Ihsaan Gardee of the National Council on Canadian Muslims points out, the allegations should be even more concerning given that “in the context of intelligence gathering Canadian Muslims already face disproportionate scrutiny.”

Indeed, there is a history of overreach, abuse and excessive targeting when it comes to the Muslims and Arabs (contrary to popular perception, they are not synonymous). The most infamous example being the spy agency’s role in Maher Arar’s rendition and torture.

Other problematic practices include: showing up at homes and workplaces unannounced at odd hours; speaking with family, friends, colleagues and even employers (who may be ordered to keep it secret); offering incentives for “information”; intimidating newcomers; questioning people about specific institutions; inquiring about one’s religiosity; and discouraging legal counsel. Some of the lawsuit allegations are consistent with such conduct. The government and senior CSIS officials must remind themselves that trust and respect only work if they flow both ways.

Second, the insistence on accountability and transparency should not be interpreted as an indictment of the whole institution, though the “old boys club” culture and the fact that superiors and managers are alleged to have been at the forefront or complicit in the discrimination suggests that this is more than just about a few rotten outliers. Just as sunlight is a great disinfectant, exposing the culture and conduct may be a necessary part of housecleaning within one of the country’s most secretive organizations.

Third, with the limited oversight and the expanded powers granted to CSIS under anti-terrorist laws passed in 2015 by the outgoing Conservatives (yet to be amended or repealed by the Liberals), it becomes even more important that CSIS be expected to perform above reproach. Indeed, these powers are ripe for abuse including guilty by association, profiling and restrictions on religious rights.

Fourth, this lawsuit and the protests from the affected communities must be viewed through the lens of two previous employment equity audits conducted by the Canadian Human Rights Commission in 2011 and 2014.

Both reports chastised CSIS for its lack of visible minorities, people with disabilities and Indigenous Canadians, especially in upper management. The audits also highlighted the “attitudinal barriers” imposed on minorities and “inappropriate comments and behaviour” aimed at them. Some of these allegations have also been confirmed by other former employees not party to the lawsuit.

Lastly, the government ought to sit up and take notice when we start noticing its agencies and departments coming under fire for violating laws. In Tahmourpour v. Canada (AG), the RCMP was found to have discriminated against a Muslim cadet “based in part on his race, religion and/or ethnic or national background.”

The Human Rights Tribunal decision was upheld by the Federal Court of Appeal in 2010. In fact, even prior to 9-11, a number of insiders from within CSIS and the RCMP contacted me about such incidents. Most never had the courage or resources to challenge their treatment. That said such instances are not restricted to CSIS or the RCMP. Indeed, the government is also facing flak for harassment and discrimination within the military.

It is well past time for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to investigate such allegations, especially when they emanate from the military, the RCMP and CSIS because of the potential detrimental impact on our national security.

This is one instance where we don’t want to take a chance with a few bad apples spoiling it for the rest of us.

Author: Faisal Kutty

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