Stuck on the threshold of reform

Canada’s spy agency continues to show up unannounced at people’s workplaces and homes. Reformers want the counterproductive practice to stop.
January 2, 2018

CSIS Illustration by Remie Geoffroi

Illustration by Remie Geoffroi

As far back as October 2005, during a Senate committee hearing on the Anti-terrorism Act, Jim Judd, then director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, admitted his agency had a problem relating to some new immigrants and visible minorities in Canada.

Judd was facing heat about CSIS showing up unannounced at people’s homes and workplaces, without proper identification, and with prying questions the (usually) plainclothes officers wanted answered, minus a lawyer present. “The practices of security agencies have resulted in a chill that has alienated a significant proportion of the Canadian population,” another witness had told the same committee earlier that year.

While denying accusations of racial profiling by CSIS, Judd promised that day to officially review the practice of workplace visits employed by his agents in their domestic anti-terrorism investigations in the post-9/11 period. We would find out later, from a leaked memo written by agency employee W.J. Hooper, that the review was over before it began.

“Subsequent to the Director’s remarks this issue was reviewed at an [CSIS] Ops Committee on November 8, 2005,” it reads. “The Committee clearly recognized that the practice of unannounced visits remains a legitimate investigative strategy.” Hooper ends his memo urging CSIS employees to “exercise good judgement in using this technique and to consider alternative interview venues.”

Ottawa lawyer Bijon Roy says intelligence agents have since 9/11 specifically targeted Canadian Muslims and caused a great deal of stress for them in the process.

“We certainly have encountered situations where it seems like CSIS agents were consciously leveraging their presence at the workplace as a way of putting pressure on individuals to co-operate with them,” he tells me. “There would be nothing discreet about it, and nothing that would not raise eyebrows from co-workers or managers.”

The issue has not gone away in 2018. Canadian Muslims continue to feel targeted and stigmatized by CSIS agents, who arrive on surprise visits to their workplaces, or to their homes late in the evening, says Faisal Bhabha, a York University law professor and a legal advisor for the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

“It means that the community is less likely to turn to these agencies when they have something to report. It makes so-called counter-radicalization efforts more difficult.”

In the process, Bhabha adds, the intelligence establishment comes to view the Canadian Muslim community as either a source of information about terrorism or else an inherent threat, and not as potential victims of terrorism themselves. This is despite the fact the most heinous recent act of terrorism in Canada—the killing of six men as they prayed at a Quebec City mosque a year ago this January—was committed against Muslims by a white supremacist, he says.

A recent lawsuit against CSIS by former officers, settled in mid-December, is making it more difficult for the agency to hide its dirty laundry. It’s also begging questions about whether an apparent internal fratboy culture might be affecting operations, and costing the government millions.

Canada has been forced to pay out a little over $50 million to settle legal cases brought against the government by Maher Arar, Omar Khadr, Abdullah Almalki, Muayyed Nureddin and Ahmad El Maati. Each of these men was imprisoned, interrogated and tortured in a foreign jail (in Syria in the case of all but Khadr, who was tortured by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay) based on unreliable evidence of alleged terrorist links supplied by CSIS or the RCMP and shared with their foreign counterparts.

Liberal security reforms on their way through Parliament may eventually add extra layers of scrutiny to CSIS’s intelligence-gathering practices. But unless the new review bodies have more teeth than they do now, and without a will to change on the part of Canada’s secretive spy agency, security watchdogs worry the institution is destined to repeat past missteps, and to miss more pressing threats to the public.


Last July, five senior CSIS intelligence officers launched a $35-million Federal Court lawsuit against their employer. The 54-page filing included disturbing allegations of racism, homophobia and Islamophobia experienced on the job over the past 15 years.

“CSIS is a workplace rife with discrimination, bullying and abuse of authority, in which the tone set by management, namely to mock, abuse, humiliate and threaten employees, has permeated the workforce,” it read. “Not only do members of management comport themselves in a manner to facilitate this culture, but they refuse to acknowledge it constitutes wrongful conduct.”

In a statement on October 25, the agency’s new director, David Vigneault, admitted that “retribution, favouritism, bullying” and other inappropriate behaviour continue to exist within the Toronto regional office of CSIS. This was despite steps by the agency to alleviate these problems, including mandatory training for all agency employees in the last two years and “enhancements to executive accountability.”

“For 15 years as I was working to advance national security investigations, I was also fighting racism and bigotry,” said “Bahira,” one of the complainants in the lawsuit against the agency, in an email to the Star responding to Vigneault. “Today, I feel somewhat vindicated. I believe CSIS needs a workforce that is strong, engaged, and diverse at all levels. Canadians deserve that.”

Two days later, however, CSIS asked the Court to throw out the lawsuit, claiming the allegations it contains had been dealt with. Federal lawyers also came out swinging, arguing that the damages sought by the plaintiffs for the discriminatory practices were “excessive and remote.” And though Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale promised the House of Commons there would be “appropriate consequences,” the government turned down a call from the NDP and others for a public inquiry into what they fear are deeply rooted systemic issues within CSIS.

CSIS settled the lawsuit in December on terms that were not made public. Vigneault claimed in a statement that the agency: “does not tolerate harassment, discrimination, or bullying under any circumstances. The complexity of the ever-evolving threat environment requires that all CSIS employees are equipped to give their best. As such, I strongly believe in leading an organization where each employee promotes a workplace which is free from harassment and conducive to the equitable treatment of all individuals.”


There are no statistics to give us a high-level picture of how Canadian Muslims view their relationship with national security agencies. But there is quite a bit of anecdotal evidence from the stories they tell to family and friends. University of Ottawa criminology professor Baljit Nagra (pictured) recounts some of them in her new book, Securitized Citizens: Canadian Muslims' Experiences of Race Relations and Identity Formation Post-9/11 (University of Toronto Press).

In 2014 and 2015, Nagra and her colleagues conducted a survey of about 95 Canadian Muslims living in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver on various national security issues including home visits. The endeavour was supported by Public Safety Canada’s Kanishka Project (named after the Air India plane that was bombed in June 1985, killing 329 people, most of them Canadians), established by the Harper government to provide research on “preventing and countering violent extremism.”

Baljit Nagra

“We found that the interviewees felt that their communities had been watched by CSIS and were afraid,” Nagra tells me. “They felt their mosques might be monitored by people watching from the outside and there was a concern that CSIS might hire people as informants for them in the community. There is a sense of not knowing whom to trust.”

In contrast to the more “professional” RCMP officers on criminal investigations, “CSIS agents are very rude and not pleasant to deal with,” the professor was told. Furthermore, Canadian Muslim men in particular say they are “pressured” to turn informant on their communities, and agents will not take “no” for an answer. According to Nagra, the men are told “if you don't do this we are going to keep on bothering you, we are going to keep on watching you.”

Imams represent an important target group for CSIS agents who are looking to recruit informants to report on suspicious individuals within a mosque. One imam told Nagra that the agents insisted he keep tabs on a particular person whom he did not know. Experiences like this have so rattled families that some men have felt pressured to withdraw from high-profile religious posts.

“What people found disturbing was that the CSIS agents would come to your home late at night at nine or 10 o’clock. It was really embarrassing, the men said, for them to have [the encounter] in front of their families, in front of their children. It was an experience that was traumatic,” she recounts.

Once these men contact their lawyers about CSIS pressures, the intelligence agency tends to back off, adds Nagra. Typically, non-citizens are most vulnerable to the agents, who can have an impact on their status in Canada. What comes out loud and clear, she says, is the disrespectful manner in which these agents approach Canadian Muslims.

“What the government should do is try to make [them] feel more welcome, tell them that they are Canadian, that Muslims are respected…. The focus should be on anti-racism, policies of inclusion and an end to marginalization.”

Nagra notes that many of the agents’ questions are based “on a lot of ignorance” about Islam, and permeated with a sensationalized notion that Muslim youth are ripe for terrorism. In interviews for her book, the criminologist heard two accounts, one directly and the other secondhand, of CSIS agents paying a visit to the homes of people who had expressed views on Palestine or the Canadian government’s war-on-terror policies during radio shows they host.

The good news here is that younger people in the Muslim community are less intimidated to state their opinions, she concludes. The bad news is that these stories suggest an overbearing Canadian state is attempting to silence them.

“As a Muslim in a role with some profile, the only opinions I’ve ever paid a personal price for have been concerning Israel,” says Bhabha. “I’ve been described as both an anti-Semite and a terrorist sympathizer in hate blogs. If I were a law professor who was not Muslim I doubt it would be the same.”

Karine Martel, a media spokesperson for Public Safety Canada, says the CSIS activities exposed in research by Nagra and other academics on the Kaniska-supported team do not reflect any official policy.

“As part of its mandate, CSIS investigates threats to the security of Canada and collects information through a variety of sources and methods. One way that CSIS may collect information is by talking to members of the public regarding potential threats. Interviews with CSIS agents are always voluntary.”


The only known example of someone taking the issue of CSIS visits before the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) involves Ken Stone, a white Jewish Canadian man with a rich history of left-wing and anti-war activism.

“As a life-long activist, Ken is someone who might well have caught the attention of various agencies at some point or another,” says Bijon Roy, Stone’s lawyer. “But never before in his life of activism has he been personally approached and questioned about his views or his activities.”

It all started one evening in January 2013, when two female CSIS agents dressed in black, a bit like police officers, showed up unannounced at Stone’s suburban home in Hamilton, Ontario. They asked him about an opinion piece he had written for the local daily newspaper about Iran, where he had visited to attend a conference on Palestine. Stone, who was on record opposing the international sabre rattling on Iran and its purported nuclear ambitions, refused to talk to them.

Stone would later file several complaints to SIRC about the incident. In one of them, he claimed the CSIS agents were attempting to intimidate him and his family and to discourage the exercise of their Charter rights of free expression and association. Gene McLean, a Harper-appointed SIRC board member, rejected Stone’s argument in the decision on that case, but agreed with the Hamiltonian on two other points.

Firstly, SIRC wrote, the CSIS agents had apparently failed to properly inform Stone that he did not have to speak to them. Other people who experience home visits may not fully appreciate or understand that they can shut the door on a visiting CSIS agent and refuse to answer their questions. McLean urged CSIS to “review its policy to clarify the responsibilities of CSIS employees with respect to voluntariness of interviews.”

The SIRC report also criticized the agency for allegedly losing notes taken by one of the agents who visited Stone’s house, and the failure of her colleague to write anything down during the short encounter. “CSIS bears the responsibility to provide all relevant information to the Committee in order for it to carry out its investigation,” it stated. CSIS can legally ignore SIRC recommendations, which are not binding on the agency.

As Tim McSorley of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group explained in the last issue of the Monitor (Nov/Dec 2017), the Liberal government plans to replace SIRC with a National Security and Intelligence Review Agency. The new body will oversee the work of four security agencies—CSIS, the RCMP, the Communications Security Establishment and the Canada Border Services Agency—but can only hear complaints against the first three (i.e., excluding CBSA).

Like SIRC, however, the NSIRA will only have powers to advise and not to force any of these agencies to pursue a specific action—like, say, ending the practice of surprising people on their doorstop, or redirecting resources to growing threats such as right-wing extremism. Jeffrey Monaghan, a Carleton University criminology professor and expert on the surveillance of activist groups, says the decision to frighten and intimidate Canadian Muslims in this way is “strategic,” not accidental.

“Most people and politicians don't know what security is doing. They only put their nose in when there is a dramatic event, like a shooting on Parliament Hill or something like that. Otherwise the [national security] agencies are very powerful. They have strong bureaucracies that have their own strategic agenda.”

Barbara Perry of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, an expert on hate groups and co-author of a 2015 report on right-wing extremists in Canada (also funded by the Kanishka Project), argues that CSIS has been reluctant in its previous threat assessments to seriously acknowledge the greater potential threats posed by violent anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and other racist groups, especially in Quebec and Alberta, who have been inspired by the election of a xenophobic U.S. president and legitimation of the “alt” agenda.

Perry can cite two known instances of deaths directly connected to the actions of Islamic-inspired extremism: Martin Couture-Rouleau’s 2014 car-ramming attack that killed a Canadian Forces warrant officer, Patrice Vincent; and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s rifle assault on Parliament Hill that same year, during which he killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. Contrast this to the more than 120 instances of aggression by right-wing extremists between 1980 and 2015, including Justin Bourque’s killing of three RCMP officers in June 2014, and last January’s savage slaying of six Muslims as they prayed in Quebec City.

As we head into 2018, Perry says there is a new and belated change of attitude at CSIS, which has until now been caught up in the post-9/11 mindset. “The next [CSIS] threat assessment should be out shortly, so we'll know then if they've changed their tune.”

In the bigger picture, the question is whether CSIS or any other federal security or law enforcement agency can undo the damage of more than a decade of singling out law-abiding Muslims with home and workplace visits. As “scary” right-wing groups emerge in this country, Canadian Muslims are unfortunately reluctant to report a hate crime committed against their community, says Perry who has done extensive research on Islamophobia in Canada.

“One of the things that Canadian Muslims tell me more than anything is the distrust of law enforcement and security because so many members of [their] community are under undue surveillance and always considered security risks.”

“I am allergic to the police,” is one of the comments Perry heard during her interviews of Muslims. She discovered a reticence to “draw attention” to oneself and one’s family in the current climate.

Paul Weinberg is a Hamilton, Ontario-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in NOW Toronto,, the Globe and Mail, Straight Goods and the Monitor.