Before COVID-19 hit CSIS, intelligence officer fought for mandatory masking but was rejected

Gary Vos Smith thought he was proposing a sensible precaution against the spread of COVID-19 when he began advocating for mandatory masking at Canadian intelligence headquarters.

As an intelligence officer who manages three teams at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in Ottawa, he reasoned that requiring masks would keep everyone safe and ease anxieties.

He expected pushback, but in interviews with Global News, the 29-year CSIS veteran said he was taken aback by the refusal of his superiors to entertain a workplace masking policy.

Not only that, he said he was told by his supervisor he was not fulfilling his duties as a manager by continuing to challenge CSIS’s decision to make masks a choice rather than a requirement.

“I found that rather disconcerting because I believed I was doing exactly what my duty was as a manager, and that was to take care of the health and well-being of my teammates,” Vos Smith said.

Click to play video: 'Veteran intelligence officer fought for mandatory masking months before COVID-19 outbreaks at CSIS' Veteran intelligence officer fought for mandatory masking months before COVID-19 outbreaks at CSIS
Veteran intelligence officer fought for mandatory masking months before COVID-19 outbreaks at CSIS – May 6, 2021

Following a series of outbreaks, CSIS has now implemented mandatory masking. The agency would not say when it did so, but an email obtained by Global News shows it happened on April 9, 2021.

By then, CSIS had been hit by three outbreaks, defined as two or more cases where COVID-19 was acquired at the office, and Director David Vigneault had been infected with the virus.

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Vigneault told employees he began experiencing symptoms on March 18 and tested positive four days later, but that his illness was not linked to any workplace transmissions.

Emails show the outbreaks began on March 21 in a section of CSIS headquarters. Two more outbreaks followed on March 28 and March 31 in different sections of the CSIS building, according to the emails. None of the outbreaks were linked.

Before the outbreaks, CSIS had opted against requiring employees to wear masks at headquarters, arguing they were not needed because staff could distance and the building was not open to the public.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, CSIS has been following the guidance and advice of the Public Health Agency of Canada,” the intelligence service’s spokesperson John Townsend said.

“This means that at various points since March 2020, masks were less common, then later strongly encouraged, moving to required when physical distancing was not possible, and finally mandatory in nearly all instances.”

Employees who tested positive were sent home, and their work areas were cleaned, he said. Local health authorities worked with CSIS to conduct contact tracing, and those impacted had to isolate and get tested.

“CSIS is very fortunate to have in-house medical professionals who have been able to take PHAC’s broad advice and apply it to our own unique context,” Townsend said.

Read more: Around 80 workers self-isolating amid COVID-19 outbreak at Mississauga Canada Post facility

But several CSIS employees told Global News they were frustrated with the agency’s handling of COVID-19 safeguards such as masking. Because of the nature of their work, they did not want to be identified, but an expert said masking was important.

“Nothing’s perfect, but we know that masking is a significant contributor to reducing risk indoors,” said Paul Bozek, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

The two-metre distancing rule “doesn’t mean anything indoors,” Bozek said. “It depends on the airflow around you, and if it’s moving from you to a co-worker then you have a chance of infecting that co-worker.”

“If you put even a homemade mask with a couple of layers that’s reasonably well fit to your face, you can stop up to 80 per cent of the virus-laden aerosol particles that might be transmitted to somebody else in the same room as you.”

Although CSIS headquarters was not accessible to the public, employees could still bring the virus into the building when they came to work, he said.

“So unless you really have a bubble where you’re isolating everybody in a hotel, like the NBA did, then you don’t have a closed environment.”

Nor is enforcing masking difficult, he said, comparing masks at an office to hardhats and boots at a construction site. “That’s the rule, you have to and it’s enforceable.”

Speaking out ‘not in our DNA,’ intelligence officer says

CSIS headquarters in Ottawa was hit with several COVID-19 outbreaks in March.

While many workplaces have proven vulnerable to outbreaks during the pandemic, the “dome of silence” that surrounds CSIS means intelligence workers find it difficult to publicly voice their concerns.

After almost three decades in counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence, Vos Smith said that breaking rank to speak publicly about CSIS’s handling of the pandemic went against his instincts.

“Doing this is a big jump for me. Talking to the media is a big jump. It’s not something that I ever thought I would ever be doing. And I am concerned about reprisals because of this,” he said.

But while he said it was “simply not in our DNA” to speak out, he felt someone had to. And he figured there was a difference between standing up for workplace safety and disclosing state secrets.

“This is not a national security issue. This is a health and safety issue,” he said.

“I believe that my responsibility is first to the health and safety of my employees. I have three teams in my area, all of whom have expressed concern about certain protocols within the national headquarters building.”

Mandatory masking ‘too strong,’ CSIS pandemic team wrote

When the pandemic first descended on Canada in March 2020, CSIS reduced staffing at its headquarters building, but by last August it began preparing to return employees, with the aim of hitting 70 per cent occupancy.

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Because of the work they do, many CSIS staff cannot perform their full range of duties from home. They need to be at the headquarters building, or at regional offices, partly to access secure communications networks.

As it was ramping up staffing, CSIS discussed mandatory masking. But the minutes of a meeting of the agency’s Pandemic Coordination Team said a mask requirement was deemed “too strong,” and it did “not want to judge people who cannot wear a mask,” read an email provided by Vos Smith.

“We are in a building where we control the environment, we can control staying away from others,” the minutes read. Employees were instead encouraged to keep two metres apart and wear masks in common areas. As for meeting rooms, “employees can choose to wear a mask or not,” the email read.

With an estimated 2,000 employees back at headquarters after Labor Day, Vos Smith began hearing from co-workers unsettled by the lack of a masking requirement. He wasn’t overly worried himself, but Vos Smith, who takes anti-anxiety medication, said he was anxious for them.

“I have one colleague who has experienced a tragedy in her life because of a virus. I don’t know the specifics, but she was extremely concerned about the mask issue, and very concerned that she understood more than anybody that a virus can and does kill,” he said.

The co-worker was upset to learn that CSIS was not implementing mandatory masking, and that “really bothered me,” he said.

Click to play video: '‘This is lethal’: CSIS staffer pushed for mandatory masking before workplace COVID-19 outbreaks' ‘This is lethal’: CSIS staffer pushed for mandatory masking before workplace COVID-19 outbreaks
‘This is lethal’: CSIS staffer pushed for mandatory masking before workplace COVID-19 outbreaks – May 6, 2021

CSIS said in a statement that public health authorities had consistently advised that hand-washing and physical distancing were the most important ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“These measures, among many others, have been in place in all CSIS offices since the very first days of the pandemic and have been consistently reinforced with regular communication to all employees,” Townsend said.

“As public health advice started to encourage the use of masks, CSIS tailored this advice to our own unique context. Accordingly, masks have been provided to employees and used in the workplace since they were first encouraged by public health officials and a requirement when physical distancing cannot be maintained.”

But RCMP Cpl. Robin Duval said masks were made mandatory at its headquarters, and all other facilities in the national capital region, on July 24, 2020. Meanwhile at the Communications Security Establishment, masking was also mandatory at all times, although employees could unmask if they were “at a physically distanced workstation.”

Ottawa Public Health said it did not comment on specific workplace outbreaks.

Masks must be worn at workplaces in Ottawa—but there is an exemption for enclosed public spaces, not accessible to the public, where physical distancing can be maintained.

According to CSIS employees, however, congestion proved unavoidable at the turnstiles that all employees passed through to enter and leave the headquarters building, as well as at the elevators, and the hallways weren’t wide enough to allow employees to stay two metres apart.

“These things simply were not possible, but they could have been remedied by a mandatory mask policy within national headquarters,” Vos Smith said.

Afraid they might run into maskless co-workers, some intelligence staff stopped leaving their desks, except for bathroom breaks, he said. He said he saw masking as a courtesy to others, and he understood that it was difficult for staff to ask their superiors to put on masks during meetings.

Read more: COVID-19: Peel Public Health orders partial closure of 2 Amazon fulfillment centres

Being late in his career, Vos Smith said he volunteered to speak up.

“I can retire in October, so ostensibly I had the least to lose if there were reprisals,” he said. “And that’s why I went forward.”

He said the responses he heard at management meetings, and from the pandemic team, included that people didn’t wear masks properly, weren’t aware masks had limited lifespans and that most staff were wearing them anyway, so why make them mandatory?

There were concerns about how to enforce masking, and that some staff couldn’t wear masks for medical reasons, and that under a mandatory mask policy, everyone would know who they were and they would be stigmatized, he said.

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Vos Smith broached the topic with the director general in an Oct. 20 email.

She responded that she would forward his concerns to the COVID team, which she said had as its primary concern the health and safety of all employees.

“It is a very difficult task because you are never going to please everyone all of the time,” the response read.

“Masks are one method to support as is handwashing and physical distancing. I see the majority wearing masks these days and I believe those that don’t are those that can’t for their personal reasons, which we all must respect.”

Two days later, Vos Smith forwarded to the director general an email from a colleague. “It isn’t about pleasing people; it’s about keeping people alive, safe, and able to function in society,” it read.

“Neither the PCT nor the Service have given any indication that they are aware of, empathize with, or have plans to accommodate those of us who are at greater risk for COVID-19 complications,” it read.

“There are a lot of us. When you add in the people who live with someone at higher risk, that number balloons.”

The chair of the Pandemic Coordination Team responded that he would pass the remarks on, and asked for solutions, an email shows.

“I believe we’re open to ideas.”

During a subsequent meeting with his superior, Vos Smith said he was told that by not dropping the masking issue, he was shirking his managerial duties, but he disagreed, saying CSIS policy was wrong and they were the ones not fulfilling their responsibilities.

“Make masks mandatory,” he wrote in an Oct. 22 email.

In response, the deputy director general wrote that masks weren’t required, as long as staff stayed two metres apart. CSIS health professionals were “experts in their field and the Service is basing its policies on sound information,” she wrote. “Let’s respect that.”

The director general weighed in on Nov. 24. “We have not had an outbreak in the Service which is due in large part to the planning and careful implementation of back to work procedures.”

“It is completely your prerogative to disagree however expressing frustration and questioning the reasoning of our medical staff who are professionals is a sign of disrespect,” she added.

She added that Vos Smith’s masking advocacy during a meeting with CSIS health officials was “perceived as disrespectful.”

When Vos Smith asked how employees were to discuss health protocols if challenging decisions was “considered offensive,” the director general responded that, “It’s not what you say it is how you say it.”

She said she wanted to meet with him about it.

‘No outbreaks in any of our offices to date,’ Vigneault wrote after asked to make masks mandatory

CSIS director David Vigneault, July 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

On Nov. 26, Vos Smith went straight to the top, emailing the CSIS director a two-page letter he said was written in consultation with co-workers. He provided a copy to Global News.

“Many of my colleagues are vulnerable and many more live with vulnerable people,” it read. “We are all in agreement that a mandatory mask policy is essential for the physical, emotional, and psychological well-being of all employees.”

He said he had tried repeatedly to raise the issue but was told he wasn’t doing his job because he wouldn’t “‘move on’ from the mask issue,” the email said.

“Most federal buildings have imposed work-from-home or mandatory mask policies for those who must come to the workplace. We at the Service are unique in that the majority of us cannot work from home,” he wrote.

“Because of this, there are scores, likely hundreds, of colleagues who are experiencing unhealthy levels of anxiety every day. As it stands, no one is speaking for them.”

Vigneault responded that he did not believe mandatory masking was required. He said most were masking anyway, the building had good ventilation and “there have been no outbreaks in any of our offices to date,” according to the copy of the email shared by Vos Smith

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“We have also avoided creating stigma for those few employees with demonstrated conditions that limit their capacity to wear masks, or even those that simply forget or lose their mask and may simply be on the way to find one,” the email said.

The morning after Vos Smith sent the email, he said he received a performance evaluation. He was then told to meet with the director general to discuss “your recent behaviours in the workplace and its impact on you and your team, as well as our concerns about your health,” according to the email.

He was warned that if he failed to show up he could face disciplinary measures.

Before attending, Vos Smith spoke to a lawyer, who advised him that CSIS appeared to be trying to fire him. He arranged for a representative of the CSIS employees association to be present.

At the meeting, he said he was “presented with a list of shortcomings.” His superiors wanted him to undergo a health assessment.

“I asked what would happen if I didn’t agree to a health assessment, and I was told by my director general that they would move directly to conduct and discipline,” he said.

His lawyer had advised him to choose the health assessment, so he did.

But the meeting bothered him.

“There was a sidebar discussion between my director general and the president of our employees association, and she asked him, and I’ll quote this, ‘If we make it mandatory, they’ll just find something else to complain about,’” he said.

“I’ve heard other people say that they’ve heard the same thing coming out of the mouths of other managers, that we’re whiners and complainers,” he said.

“That hit hard, that hurt,” he said. “The employees association justifiably said to me that I had to drop the mask issue and I had to start looking at salvaging my career.”

The health assessment dredged up his past. He was a recovering alcoholic, on anti-anxiety medication. He was asked if he had relapsed. He responded he had not, that this was about COVID-19 safety.

After his own doctor found he had been experiencing heightened anxiety as a result of his masking advocacy, Vos Smith returned to work with no restrictions.

CSIS said in a statement that “no employee at any point during the pandemic has faced formal disciplinary action in any way for respectfully expressing views related to health and safety measures.”

“At all times during the pandemic, employees have been free and encouraged to provide their input on workplace safety measures including directly to their supervisors, through dedicated employee surveys and other means so that CSIS can continue its critical mission,” Townsend said.

Read more: COVID-19: Toronto, Peel expected to announce new workplace closures following weekend probe

CSIS stuck to its policy of recommending but not requiring masks until early April, after the outbreaks at its buildings. Masks are now required at all times, except for those alone in an enclosed office.

Headquarters is also back at reduced capacity, and some national security workers are being prioritized for vaccinations.

“As public health advice has evolved yet again as a result of the third wave, CSIS has aligned internal measures to reflect that advice, including on the use of masks,” Townsend said, adding masks were now mandatory.

Prof. Bozek said masking reduces the risk of transmission by at least four or five times, and up to ten times.

“You would have had a significant risk reduction if they would have had masking all along,” he said. “It’s a simple solution that’s not perfect, has some challenges but it makes sense to have masking wherever there’s essential work being performed.”

Vos Smith said his experience advocating for masking had left a bad taste. “I’ve never experienced anything like that in my 29 years in the service.”

“This is a pandemic and this is lethal. And it’s closing down societies, including Ontario. And it’s more important than just the dome of silence. It’s quite important to the life and death of the people with whom I work, and myself and my family.”

He wasn’t surprised CSIS had outbreaks.

“We’re just regular citizens. We go shopping, we walk down the street, and then we come to the building and go to work,” he said. “The idea that somehow, because it’s a secure building doesn’t make it a special building.

“We’re not the dome of immunity. We are just like everyone else. And we go in to an office just like everyone else. So the same exposure, and the same risks are all there.”

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He said he speaks for hundreds of CSIS employees frustrated with the handling of COVID-19 at intelligence headquarters.

“I just happen to have been the most vocal about it,” he said.

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca