Canadian officials not disclosing ‘at least 3’ new Havana syndrome cases: letter

Click to play video: 'Canadian embassy staff warned to stay silent on ‘Havana Syndrome’'
Canadian embassy staff warned to stay silent on ‘Havana Syndrome’
It's been three years since dozens of staff at the Canadian embassy in Havana, Cuba were afflicted by '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

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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, as the individual is described in the ongoing court case, said he first told the Canadian ambassador in Cuba on April 11, 2017, that an American diplomat had warned him the previous day of mysterious symptoms impacting staff at the U.S. embassy in Havana.
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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.”

Michael Chong, Conservative foreign affairs critic, called the new allegations “troubling.”

“It is unacceptable that the Trudeau Liberals are not being straightforward with diplomats and their families, who have been affected by Havana syndrome. It is even more troubling that the Liberal government is withholding information about new cases of Havana syndrome,” he said in a statement.

Chong added that Canadian diplomats must be provided accurate information in order to make “informed decisions about their safety and security.”

“We expect the Liberal government to work with our allies and intelligence partners to determine the source of the Havana syndrome so that our diplomats are made aware of the potential risks to their safety. Conservatives will ensure the safety and security of Canada’s diplomats is a priority.”

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U.S. State Department deemed ‘targeted actions’ involved

The mystery began in late 2016 and early 2017 when American diplomatic staff at the embassy in Havana began reporting unusual symptoms similar to those from a concussion: hearing loss, memory loss, tinnitus, nosebleeds, vision problems and vertigo, among others.

Canadian diplomatic staff and their families began reporting symptoms in early 2017 and into the following year, with more than 40 Canadian and American diplomats and their families impacted.

But nearly four years after the onset of the mystery, there are no official answers and the Canadian government is fighting 15 of those Canadians impacted in court, arguing the plaintiffs have made “exaggerated” claims.

Global News asked the RCMP whether investigators had spoken with any of the individuals being assessed or identified as having symptoms from the end of 2018 until now.

The force said it does not comment on criminal investigations unless charges are laid.

Global News also contacted both the lead author of a Dalhousie University 2019 report assessing early symptoms of individuals who had served at the embassy in Havana and the Brain Repair Centre.

No responses have yet been received.

The U.S. State Department’s internal accountability review board released a declassified 2018 report earlier this year that stated “targeted actions” appear to be the cause of the symptoms reported by dozens of Canadian and American diplomats who served in Havana.

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The report also noted that although “the mechanism of injury, the perpetrator and the motive remain unknown,” the risks to diplomats were not over.

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