Global Affairs Canada is “withholding information” on more than two dozen recent cases of Canadian diplomats reportedly being assessed for or reporting symptoms of what’s become known as “Havana syndrome,” according to a letter sent to Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau late last week.
Global News obtained a copy of a letter sent to Garneau on behalf of a group of nine Canadian diplomats and their families who say they are struggling to get answers on the symptoms they say they have experienced since serving at the Canadian embassy in Havana, Cuba.
The letter, dated April 21, 2021, references a briefing given to around 40 affected individuals and cites discussions about an apparent decision by Global Affairs Canada to increase staffing at the embassy in Havana and increase the length of postings.
“It was explained that a key rationale for this change was that no further brain injuries had been reported since 2018. In fact, this is not accurate,” the letter stated.
“At least three additional cases were identified in 2019 and 2020.
“As GAC no longer discloses new cases,” the letter continued, “it is impossible to know how many people have come out of Cuba with brain injuries.”
The letter also says that participants were informed in the briefing, held on Feb. 26, that “Dalhousie University has assessed an additional 25 Canadian diplomats for brain injuries since March 2020.”
“The department continues to withhold information from diplomats and the Canadian public on the numbers of Canadians diagnosed with brain injuries to date, with the last update provided two years ago,” the letter stated.
“The official statement on the website of the Canadian Embassy in Cuba reports ‘no new incidents since the early fall of 2017.’ This is categorically false.”
Global Affairs Canada told Global News in October 2020 that there had been “no new confirmed cases” since December 2018 — something that appears in contrast with the content in the letter.
Global News reached out to both Global Affairs Canada and Garneau’s office on Monday.
The questions to Garneau’s office asked whether the minister was aware of the letter, whether he planned to respond to it, and whether he had raised the matter with his new U.S. counterpart.
The questions to Global Affairs Canada asked whether the department was aware of the three new cases described in the letter as being identified in 2019 and 2020, whether officials were aware of an additional 25 Canadian diplomats being assessed at Dalhousie University, and whether the department has made a decision not to inform the public of any new cases, as was suggested in the letter.
Garneau’s director of communications did not respond to questions and instead forwarded them to Global Affairs Canada, which provided a response that answered neither the questions put to Garneau’s office nor the specific questions sent directly to the department.
“Since the beginning of the health incidents, the health, safety and security of our diplomatic staff and their families remains a priority,” said John Babcock, spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, in an email.
“The department cannot comment on a matter that remains before the courts.”
Global News reported in February that three more people who served at the Canadian embassy in Havana are joining that lawsuit.
Cindy Termorshuizen, the assistant deputy minister of consular, security and emergency management for Global Affairs Canada, is cited as having led the meeting earlier this year.
Participants said in the letter it was billed as an update on the RCMP’s criminal investigation on the case as well as Canada’s efforts to understand the situation.
Global News has reached out to Global Affairs Canada multiple times over the last seven months as part of ongoing coverage into the government’s secretive response to the matter and allegations that it is trying to get the $28-million lawsuit launched by diplomats thrown out of court.
The government has refused to provide clear answers to 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.
People on the ground at the embassy at the time were also being told not to say a word, one of the diplomats involved in the lawsuit told Global News in October 2020.
Diplomat Allen is a pseudonym put in place by the court, and the individual spoke at the time with Global News under the condition that the anonymity order and pseudonym authorized by the court be maintained.
“Do not tell any other Canadians. We cannot tell any other Canadians — we don’t want to start mass hysteria,” Diplomat Allen cited the Canadian ambassador as responding.
Even months later as American media reports broke of the symptoms impacting U.S. diplomats, he said Canadian diplomatic staff were still being told not to talk about the matter.
“We were told, ‘I believe it was a matter of national security.’ … We were told to keep it quiet.”