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Ottawa keeps diplomat union hanging in push to meet over ‘Havana syndrome’ risks

Click to play video: 'Canadian embassy staff warned to stay silent on ‘Havana Syndrome’' Canadian embassy staff warned to stay silent on ‘Havana Syndrome’
WATCH: It's been three years since dozens of staff at the Canadian embassy in Havana, Cuba were inflicted by the "Havana Syndrome" — a mysterious illness that gave them concussion-like symptoms. Now as Mike Drolet reports, new documents obtained by Global News may corroborate claims that employees were warned to stay silent on the unexplained phenomenon – Oct 25, 2020

The union representing Canadian diplomats says it still has not been able to get a meeting with Global Affairs Canada despite requests to discuss the troubling findings of a U.S. report on ‘Havana syndrome.’

At the same time, the government continues to dodge questions about why bureaucrats warned diplomats bound for Cuba in 2017 to stay silent about mysterious symptoms being reported among staff at the embassy in Havana — and what is being done to protect Canadian diplomats still abroad.

Read more: Foreign minister raised troubling U.S. report on ‘Havana syndrome’ with Cuban counterpart

Last month, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences released a report that said directed, pulsed microwave energy is the most probable cause of the strange array of serious and lasting symptoms reported by dozens of American and Canadian diplomats who served at the embassies in Havana.

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That came after Global News reported in October how federal officials with Global Affairs Canada warned diplomats bound for Cuba in 2017 not to say a word about briefings those diplomats received about symptoms reported by their colleagues on the ground.

However, those briefings appeared to leave out key details such as the fact Canadian children of diplomats stationed in Havana were among those suffering from symptoms.

Read more: ‘They need to take this seriously’: Diplomats urge action after Havana syndrome report

In response to the U.S. report issued in December 2020, the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers requested a meeting with Global Affairs Canada to discuss the potential implications of the findings for Canadian diplomats continuing to serve abroad.

A spokesperson for PAFSO confirmed that meeting request to Global News on Dec. 7, 2020.

As of Jan. 27, 2021, the spokesperson said the union has still not been able to get any answers.

“Unfortunately, we have not yet been able to have that meeting with GAC yet and have no further information on this file,” said Eric Schallenberg, spokesperson for PAFSO, in an email.

“We have contacted them late last week and they indicated they were hoping something could be set up ‘soon.'”

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Schallenberg said in December that the union wanted to ensure Global Affairs Canada is “doing everything they can, based on the latest information, to make sure no one else is at risk.”

“From our point of view, the core issues here lie in the ongoing health and safety of our members — some of whom continue to suffer the after-effects of what they experienced in Havana, and others who remain posted there,” he said at the time.

“We have asked to meet with Global Affairs to get their assessment of the analysis and conclusions in the report, along with their plans for follow up and mitigation measures based on them.”

Read more: Canadian officials warned staff bound for Cuba to stay silent on ‘Havana syndrome’

Global News reached out to Global Affairs Canada, asking why officials there have not yet met with the union representing Canadian diplomats, particularly in light of the fact the U.S. report highlighted the possibility of an ongoing threat to diplomats posted abroad.

A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said the department is still reviewing the report.

“Global Affairs Canada holds regular meetings with bargaining agents to discuss the health and safety of staff abroad,” said John Babcock in an email.

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“The Government of Canada continues to investigate the potential causes of the unusual health symptoms … while we are exploring all avenues, no definitive cause of the health incidents has been identified to date.”

The department has repeatedly refused to provide clear answers about its handling of the situation or why it continues to prohibit diplomats posted to Cuba from bringing their families with them — a risk level shared with embassies in places like South Sudan and Iraq.

Even as it maintains that risk rating, the government is fighting diplomats in court who are suing over allegations that Global Affairs Canada failed to take the risks seriously and failed to protect staff.

Documents obtained by Global News show bureaucrats initially suggested Canadian diplomats reporting symptoms in spring 2017 were imagining their symptoms or simply suffering from stress related to American diplomats stationed in Havana who had begun reporting symptoms in the fall of 2016.

In an order paper question submitted to the government last month, Conservative MP John Nater asked, “Why did the government warn diplomats in 2017 not to say anything about the symptoms experienced by those stationed in Havana?”

It was one of several questions posed by the MP for Perth–Wellington related to the government’s handling of the matter — none of which were answered in the government response.

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“Since the beginning of the health incidents, the health, safety and security of diplomatic staff and their families has been the top priority,” said Rob Oliphant, parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs. “Canada’s diplomatic staff and their families have Global Affairs Canada’s full support.”

“This has been a very distressing experience for these diplomats and their families, and the department will continue to take the necessary steps to help them,” he continued.

“While we are exploring all avenues, no definitive cause of the health incidents has been identified to date. For privacy and security reasons, we cannot comment on the specifics of the ongoing investigations, individual cases, nor on specific security and briefing measures.”

The report said there had been an “early failure” to detect and investigate the cases, which have spurred a range of theories ranging from pesticide poisoning to the malicious use of directed energy weapons by a hostile foreign actor.

While the report’s authors noted they cannot say conclusively whether the pulsed energy came from a weapon or another source, “the mere consideration of such a scenario raises grave concerns about a world with disinhibited malevolent actors and new tools for causing harm to others.”

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U.S. pulls embassy staff from Cuba after mysterious sonic attacks – Sep 29, 2017

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