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What is CSIS’ physical surveillance unit, where staff allege sex assault, harassment?

The unit is at the centre of allegations that its B.C. office was a toxic workplace
Two Canadian Security Intelligence Service surveillance officers pose for a photograph in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A recruitment video for the physical surveillance unit of Canada’s spy agency shows people using trains, cars and a bicycle to surreptitiously trail a target through Montreal.

A “surveillant” identified in the video as “Andrea” says the unit’s officers should be prepared for “long, idle moments” and “bursts of adrenalin” and that they be able to “blend into the background.”

The physical surveillance unit of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is tasked with collecting intelligence by covertly observing targets.

The unit is at the centre of allegations that its B.C. office was a toxic workplace, where senior staff bullied and harassed young officers, including two women who told The Canadian Press they were sexually assaulted by a senior colleague in surveillance vehicles while on missions.

One of the women said in an investigation published last week that she was raped nine times.

On Tuesday, CSIS director David Vigneault told staff at a town hall meeting that the officer accused by the women was no longer employed by the service, as of Monday.

READ MORE: CSIS boss apologizes for response to rape claim, revamps anti-harassment plans

He also said he had ordered the creation of an ombudsperson’s office to monitor workplace problems and that CSIS would release annual public reports on harassment in the service.

The women in CP’s investigation described working 10-hour shifts in surveillance vehicles that were sometimes fitted with curtains.

The recruitment video posted in 2012 shows officers fitting black material to the windows of one of their vehicles.

The agency says on its website that surveillance officers must have a minimum two-year college diploma or degree in any field.

They must also “demonstrate adaptability, communications, interpersonal and leadership skills.”

Candidates will be reviewed on the basis of work and travel experience, knowledge of foreign languages and “other extracurricular activities.”

They also must have a valid driver’s licence.

“My workday involves physically following a target or person of interest without he or she knowing that they are being observed,” Andrea says in the recruitment video, adding that surveillance “is not a 9-to-5 job.”

She says it takes “patience, flexibility and common sense to complete often long, complex operations,” calling the work “unique and exciting.”

— With files from Darryl Greer in Vancouver

The Canadian Press