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CSIS sexual assault allegations highlight the need for external oversight

December 7, 2023
By Jason Walker, Adler University

A sign outside the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) headquarters in Ottawa. Photo: Adobe Stock

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has launched a third-party workplace assessment of its British Columbia office after serious allegations of sexual assault, bullying and intimidation were recently made public. Whistleblowers raised allegations involving a senior officer who has been removed from the workplace.

In response, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the allegations are “devastating” and “absolutely unacceptable” and that the government was following up “very directly” on these issues.

Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. A pervasive toxic culture of abuse has been documented within CSIS. In 2017, five CSIS staff in the Toronto region sued the Canadian government for $35 million, claiming they had experienced racism, sexism and harassment. One of the plaintiffs in that case later said the agency’s internal complains process was “completely ineffective.”

CSIS Director David Vigneault said the assessment is aimed at resolving barriers to a safe workplace and that the culture at CSIS allowed inappropriate behaviour to “fester.” Yet, CSIS leadership remains unaccountable.


Vigneault is correct, action is overdue. However, the question is: why did it take this long, and why is this a workplace assessment and not a criminal investigation?

CSIS Act prevents external oversight

The recent complainants allege CSIS’s internal complaint procedure is deficient, leaving those who complain without access to outside assistance and open to reprisals.

This is due in part to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act which imposes stiff penalties for disclosing the identity of personnel involved in covert operations. That makes it extremely difficult for victims to seek external help if their work has national security implications.

The officers also believe the organization would conceal misconduct, making it challenging to pursue external redress. Reluctance to file complaints is exacerbated by this lack of trust in the system.

Federal employees face other legislative barriers when seeking support and remediation for being targets of workplace violence. The Federal Public Sector Labour Relations Act (FPSLRA) governs labour relations within the federal public service, including CSIS.

The FPSLRA relies on internal policies and procedures to investigate and remedy complaints. This essentially means government agencies have significant authority to investigate matters internally.

These legislative roadblocks place victims of abuse in a precarious situation where speaking out could have legal consequences. Earlier this year, the British Columbia Supreme Court dismissed a former CSIS employee’s sexual assault and harassment complaint owing to lack of jurisdiction. The court noted that a “legislative scheme in place” — FPSLRA — meant the matter remained the jurisdiction of the employer, CSIS.

Ottawa’s failure to tackle abuse

CSIS is not alone in having flawed internal oversight of workplace bullying, harassment and sexual abuse. Time and time again, when left to police themselves, law enforcement agencies have mishandled sexual misconduct, bullying and harassment among employees.

The RCMP have routinely bungled internal misconduct files when entrusted to police themselves. More than one-quarter of women in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) say they have experienced sexual assault at least once while serving in the military.

To resolve class-action lawsuits brought by current and former military personnel alleging sexual assault, Canada put aside over $800 million in 2019. However, a thought-out national plan to stop, confront and change the CAF’s culture of sexualized violence is still missing.

Urgent need for reform

The current legislative framework to address workplace bullying, harassment and sexual violence is inadequate. Time and time again, organizations are left with the legal authority to investigate themselves when it comes to misconduct. Complaints are consistently mishandled, ignored or covered up.

A bold step would be to address workplace violence as a public health issue. Amending the Public Health Act to address sexual abuse in the workplace would lead to progressive and positive change.

The federal government should create an independent national commission on workplace violence empowered to fully investigate allegations. And governments must make changes to federal and provincial labour codes to provide a legal basis for external oversight.

The CSIS allegations are the latest abuse scandal to rock Canada’s policing and security establishment. Those working in our government agencies work in service of Canada. They deserve protection and accountability.The Conversation

Jason Walker, Program Director & Associate Professor, Industrial-Organizational and Applied Psychology, Adler University

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