OTTAWA - Canada's spy agency is asking the Federal Court to dismiss a lawsuit from five Toronto employees, saying it never engaged in or tolerated religious bigotry, used derogatory nicknames or subjected the staffers to reprisals.
In a statement of defence filed with the court late Friday, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service admits "inappropriate language" was used by service employees in informal communications in the Toronto region.
But it says the allegations of the five employees were addressed by the service through polices and procedures relevant to the facts of each case.
The agency is committed to a healthy and respectful workplace of inclusion, and does not tolerate harassment, discrimination or bullying under any circumstances, the statement adds.
A statement of claim filed in July by the five employees, who cannot be legally identified, alleges that senior CSIS officials foster a prejudice and distrust for Muslim staff members, who are seen as essential to the service's mission but working without its trust and respect.
The employees seek millions of dollars in damages for what they say was years of harassment condoned by supervisors. All say they can no longer work due to depression, anxiety and other ailments linked to the harassment they endured.
One woman claims that managers had to approve her participation in personal and religious activities after she began wearing a hijab, despite having passed security screening.
A gay man with a Muslim partner alleges that a colleague wrote in an October 2015 email, "careful your Muslim in-laws don't behead you in your sleep for being homo."
In the House of Commons on Friday, the minister responsible for CSIS cautioned that the Federal Court proceedings are at an early stage, and must be allowed to take their course. "But they will be followed very, very carefully by me and my officials to determine an appropriate outcome."
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said there must be "appropriate consequences" for harassment and discrimination.
Matthew Dube, the NDP public safety critic, renewed his call for an investigation of CSIS.
He pointed to the lawsuit and the agency's release this week of an independent consultant's assessment citing widespread concerns in the Toronto region about favouritism, discrimination and low morale.
It is important to ensure this sort of behaviour is not affecting the work that CSIS does, and that any managers responsible will be held to account or even fired, Dube told the House.
"The issue here is that there's clearly a cultural problem, and one third-party report is not enough," Dube said. "What we're asking the minister is to launch a full investigation into this type of discrimination, these allegations of homophobia and Islamophobia."
Goodale said the matter is extremely serious, adding CSIS director David Vigneault has taken charge and the government will "take the necessary steps" to stop abuses.
The minister said CSIS and the other agencies in his portfolio "know very clearly" his attitude with respect to these matters. "This behaviour is unacceptable. When it happens, there must be appropriate consequences that follow."
The independent assessment commissioned by CSIS, carried out last spring, found low morale was "pervasive" in the service's Toronto office, and negativity was draining the energy of employees and managers.
"Unfortunately, quite a few are considering leaving the organization disillusioned and disheartened," said the report's executive summary, made public Wednesday.
The assessment also cited weekly drinking by "the in-group" in the office or at the pub where staffing decisions were often made, jokes and discriminatory comments about ethnicity and the communities being monitored, and bias against women.
In a statement, Vigneault said the behaviour described in the report is "categorically unacceptable."
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