CSIS employees speak
Even though employees are sworn to secrecy about many aspects of their jobs, we asked certain CSIS personnel to provide a few reflections on the significance of our 30th anniversary, and on what it has meant to them personally to be part of this unique organization.
Building something that will last
By L. B.
I was a young RCMP officer when in 1984 I applied to join the newly created Canadian Security Intelligence Service. I officially joined CSIS the following year, which means that I have been with the organization pretty much since the beginning. I have been witness to many changes. I’m not saying that the process of moving from an altogether new entity to the mature intelligence service of today was without bumps, but after thirty years I’m pleased to say that CSIS is the organization I had hoped it would be.
CSIS was created with the stroke of a pen on July 16, 1984, as a civilian agency, which meant that its employees would not have the power of arrest. I wasn’t the only RCMP member who willingly turned in my Stetson and my gun to accept civilian status. Many of us didn’t know if it was a good career move. The RCMP was – still is – a historic and beloved Canadian institution. We were leaving it to join a new, somewhat controversial and, in the minds of some, maybe even experimental organization. There was so much uncertainty in those early days, but we had a “bridge back” clause which would allow us to return to the Mounties if … well, if it didn’t work out.
Almost all of us stayed with CSIS. I believe that had we chosen otherwise, then the development of CSIS would have been crippled, with serious consequences for national security. Today, we refer to that challenging period of our history as the “transition”. Aircraft pilots often say that take-off is the riskiest and most unpredictable part of any flight, and that’s how I feel about transition.
Indeed, in 1985 – barely one year in – Canadians and CSIS were confronted with a national security tragedy of a kind never experienced before in this country: The terrorist bombing of Air India flight 182.
We now found ourselves working for an organization that was struggling to pull itself together on the run with few resources, while constantly under intense scrutiny. In Ottawa, our offices were scattered across the city into nine different locations. Basic policies governing mobility, promotion and overall administration and operations were at best a work in progress.
It was the late 1980s that truly marked the beginning of a new and different kind of organization. In response to the Air India disaster and growing concerns about public safety, the government directed major changes in the operational priorities of the Service. The winding down of the Cold War, and the eventual collapse of the Soviet bloc, allowed us to move from a predominantly counter-espionage security service to one which would become a leader in counter-terrorism.
This, too, was a difficult task for many of the “Cold Warriors” who had come to CSIS from the RCMP at a time when the Soviet threat was indeed the principle security challenge facing the democratic West. We had to leave behind decades of experience and quickly develop expertise in cultures, languages and regions of the world that had never been prominent on our radar.
The attacks of September 11, 2001, and Canada’s subsequent commitments to global counter-terrorism, placed new demands on the Service, but in many ways our response to these events was a continuation of the organization’s development. It is, for example, public knowledge that the Service supported Canada’s role in the Afghanistan intervention. Terrorism today is a phenomenon without borders, and threats to Canada or North America can originate far from our shores – which is why CSIS has developed an international footprint, and why we have acquired the skills to operate in new environments, such as a conflict zone.
As one of the longest-serving CSIS employees, I think we’ve adapted fairly well – although I’m cognizant that some of my younger and more tech-savvy employees will probably say we need to adapt even faster. As a workplace, we are surely our own must unforgiving critics. I see this as a good thing. New employees of the Service are constantly looking for better tools and ways to get the job done, and that’s because they care.
One of the most important lessons we have learned over the years is the need for effective partnerships. The world today is so complex, in terms of technology and communications and geopolitics, that global and national security is more than ever a shared enterprise.
One key partnership of ours is of course with our forebears, the RCMP. In recent years I have helped play a role in identifying the right balance when dealing with federal law enforcement. CSIS and the RCMP have different legal mandates, and those need to be respected. At the same time, however, Canadians rightly expect that the intelligence and law enforcement sectors are working together to keep the country safe.
I have a colleague who as a young lawyer more than 30 years ago was personally involved in drafting the legislation that created CSIS. He’s told me that at the time, considerable thought was put into the issue of how to fully separate CSIS from the RCMP. Yet not so much thought was spent on how the two organizations would actually cooperate in a legal framework. It was largely left to the organizations to figure it out, and I am happy to say that we have.
I write with some wistfulness that there are now only a few of us remaining who transitioned from the RCMP when CSIS was formed. I have witnessed the professionalization of the intelligence business during these many years, and am enormously gratified to have played a part in it.
CSIS is still a young organization compared to some of the allied services we deal with, and we will continue to grow and learn. For me it has been a most meaningful career, and even now, as I approach the end of my tenure, I still come into the office every morning with as much enthusiasm and curiosity as I did when I was just starting out.
This place has that effect on people.
A place for inquiring minds
By M. K.
When I started university I knew that, ultimately, I wanted to have a career where I would be contributing to the greater good. What that would look like – well, I had no idea. I completed a first degree, then travelled and worked, accumulating important experiences but still not much closer to identifying what I really should be doing with my life.
Eventually I went back to school and ended up in a PhD program, investigating a topic that happened to have relevance to national security. My research brought me into contact with various government departments. I didn’t grow up in Ottawa, so I had limited knowledge of the federal bureaucracy – but the more I interacted with public servants, the more I saw that many of them do meaningful and important work.
As I was nearing the completion of my PhD, I realized that my academic credentials and my particular area of expertise provided me with a number of options. As a matter of fact, I had already applied for some academic jobs when I decided to apply for a position at CSIS, which was one of the government entities with which I had had some contact during my research.
As you might imagine, the process at CSIS was not straightforward: you don’t just apply to an intelligence service and get an answer. It is a long process, and a comprehensive one. I was getting closer and closer to finishing my PhD, and I was simultaneously moving further along in CSIS’s screening and hiring process.
A university career certainly would have seemed the natural choice, rather than a government job. I had been living academia for some years – teaching, writing, researching – and had become comfortable with that world. I understood what the life of a scholar entailed. Plus, it was probably expected by those around me that I would become a professor.
As a professor, I would be publishing my findings and openly sharing my knowledge with colleagues, students and presumably the world at large. A career at CSIS, on the other hand, would necessarily require – and I write this with considerable understatement – a lower profile.
Yet when CSIS finally decided they wanted me, I didn’t hesitate. As I said earlier, I wanted to make a difference, and here I had the opportunity to do so in a unique way.
Most people who start working at CSIS are initially intimidated by the deep and varied expertise they find here. I certainly was. The business of national security is so sensitive and complex that the range of capabilities that employees bring is amazing, from advanced science & tech know-how (think Q from James Bond) to mesmerizing linguistic and analytic talents that help make sense of events in south Asia or eastern Europe.
At first I wondered whether the skills I had acquired during those long years of graduate school would be put to good use. I soon discovered that I am far from the only CSIS employee with a PhD. Before long, I was leveraging the scientific findings of my field of study to inform operations and analysis. It has been very professionally rewarding.
I have been at the Service for two years and know I made the right decision.
Trailblazing – and loving it!
By M. T.
I really didn’t know what I was getting into. What job would insist on a lie-detector test as part of its vetting program? How strange! Plus, they won’t really tell you anything and expect you to say nothing. All very mysterious…
This was the late 1980s, and I had been working as a journalist at the time. A government job held little interest for me, but when the opportunity at CSIS came up my curiosity got the better of me. It was still a relatively new and unknown organization, and to be honest the pay and benefits compared well with the job of a freelance newspaper reporter. So I signed on.
To add to the mystery, on my first day I had to make my way, escorted of course, through a myriad of locked doors and restricted areas into the bowels of the building where my work area would be – very “spy-like”!
I began as a “Media Analyst,” clipping newspaper articles (in the age before the Internet) and acting as a Duty Officer in a 24/7 Operational Centre. It wasn’t long before individuals called “IOs” – Intelligence Officers – began appearing. The more I asked about the role of Intelligence Officers, the more intrigued I became. Soon I began the process of transferring into the IO category. What a journey it has been.
At the time, the Service was still living its transition from the RCMP Security Service. Headquarters was located in a variety of buildings throughout Ottawa. The Service was trying to build a unique identity and to establish credibility in the public’s eye.
The greatest challenge, in many ways, emerged when I began work as a regional investigator. I’m a woman, and female Intelligence Officers, especially investigators, were still a relatively new phenomenon. The Service was generally unknown to the Canadian public. When we would approach people in the course of an investigation, they sometimes would have no clue who we were or what our mandate was.
With time, however, CSIS has become, if not a familiar organization, at least one with a certain visibility – which is good, because the more open we are about our mandate, the more public legitimacy we have. As the public came to know and appreciate the Service’s role in keeping Canada safe, the Service itself matured. I have watched over the years as we forged strong relationships not just internally but with domestic and international partners as well.
I was the first woman in my Region to work in one of the Service’s most covert units. We built a strong team and quickly saw the advantage of having a group composed of both men and women. Throughout my career, I worked mostly counter-terrorism and saw, first-hand, the evolution of this threat into what it is today. The beautiful, cloudless sky of September 11, 2001 will forever be etched into my memory. Even though I am an intelligence officer, I learned about 9-11 the same way everyone else did: from those first news reports and video footage.
I have worked in our Ottawa headquarters and in three different regional offices, as an investigator, a Desk Head, an Operational Manager and as a Director General. I have been to a variety of foreign countries, not all prime tourism destinations. I have dealt with a variety of foreign intelligence partners. Some of these relationships are well established, and some are relatively new. I have interviewed people in Canada and abroad. Every environment is different. Every contact and operation is unique.
The classified nature of our work prevents me from detailing its full nature, but my friends and family would likely be in a state of disbelief if they really knew some of the adventures I have had in the course of my career.
I am now an executive leader with CSIS. Young women in the organization have told me they have studied my career progression and that they are encouraged by it. I suppose that in some sense my own professional story reflects a larger corporate evolution at the Service, whereby women today are able to succeed in all roles. We see the opportunities that young women at CSIS have today, and it makes my generational colleagues very happy.
We love what we do, and all of us – men and women, new hires and old hands – partake in a special camaraderie. There is a reason so many of us spend our entire working lives in the Service.
A Canadian story
By A. W.
I joined CSIS more than 20 years ago, having come to Canada as a teenager. In many ways, my personal and professional journey is a reflection of multicultural Canada and the globalized world we live in.
To be successful in an interconnected world, certain skills confer certain advantages, be it in the realm of business, education … or security intelligence. I came to CSIS with the ability to speak multiple languages, some with unique characteristics. I have intimate and personal knowledge of various cultures, and with that an appreciation for different belief systems, social norms and nuances – an appreciation that is devoid of any prejudice or assumptions.
I am but one of many individuals at CSIS who over the years have helped to make this organization a highly diverse one, representing all the dimensions and experiences of the Canadian mosaic. The Service is a great example of how diversity – linguistic, cultural and other kinds – doesn’t just make for a more interesting workplace but for a more effective one, too.
I didn’t set out to become an intelligence professional. My academic training is architecture, with a specialization in environmental engineering technology. The decision to change careers seemed gut-wrenching at the time, but it would lead me through an exhilarating and dramatic journey which I could hardly have imagined.
To outsiders, and in the popular imagination, intelligence agencies are often viewed as mysterious and even frightening organizations – and perhaps that is an accurate impression in certain parts of the world. CSIS, though, operates in what I like to call the Canadian way, something I can attest to first-hand. Underpinning everything we do is the CSIS Act, the legislation that defines the limits of our authorities. We are bound not just by the law but by a slew of rules and regulations that govern just about every aspect of our daily routines.
The strong administrative and legal framework is part of the Canadian way. So is the ethical awareness that we bring to the job. Everyone who works at CSIS recognizes the importance of individual rights and personal privacy in a democratic society, which is why we accept the need for policies, regulations and review bodies that are designed to ensure CSIS operates within its legal mandate.
When I reflect on some of my assignments and roles over the years, I realize that time and time again the Canadian approach has made me better at my job. When dealing with people who represent the many cultures and regions of the world, it helps to be a standard bearer for Canadian values.
On many occasions, during various interactions, I have been overwhelmed with a sense of pride to see others recognize that the Canadian modus operandi, even on delicate matters of security and intelligence, is fair, transparent and respectful. I think it is for this reason that CSIS will continue to attract many talented, resourceful and committed employees in the future, who, like me, represent the best of the Canadian experience.
I mentioned earlier that my early training was in architecture, a discipline that has been defined as the concretization of existential ideas. In many ways, my work at CSIS has been a concretization of my personal ideas, goals and objectives. Canada is a wonderful country, and it has been a privilege for me to have played a part in keeping it safe and secure.
A life-changing decision to sign the dotted line
By J. L.
In 1986 I was 20 and in my second year of university, studying toward an undergraduate degree in political science and history. CSIS was barely two years old and I had an opportunity to join the new organization, even if it meant continuing my university education part-time. So I did. I signed on the dotted line and accepted an entry level position as a typist, not knowing that I was embarking on a career of a lifetime.
On the eve of the Service’s 30th anniversary, it is my privilege to share a little insider information about my experience working for this unique organization.
Over the course of my career, most of the positions I have held have been in Human Resources. Some of my best years were spent in Recruiting and Staffing, where I must have interviewed at least 1,000 candidates for positions ranging from intelligence officer to software engineer. I have witnessed many talented individuals achieve great things at CSIS. In fact, I was recently asked to work with a team of colleagues, who are on the fast track to becoming executive leaders within the organization, to develop a more modern approach to “onboarding” and orientation for new employees. One of my team members is a former co-op student whom I had the pleasure of interviewing in the late 90s. He is now a manager working in a regional office. It brings me great satisfaction to witness personally the success of recruits whom I helped bring into the Service.
I myself have had wonderful supervisors who always encouraged me to develop and to grow. Some have become true friends and mentors. One former supervisor of mine retired in 1995 but we continue to meet twice a year, to catch up and talk about the “old days.” Another supervisor was a great support to me while I completed my schooling. Yet another still works down the hall and I pop in every so often to bounce off an idea or to get additional insight and perspective on an issue.
There have been so many friends along the way – the kind of friends who are always there for you, personally and professionally. The kind of friends I will continue to see when I sunset into retirement down the road.
Today I manage a small yet outstanding team who work in the areas of HR planning and HR systems administration. The impending retirement of the baby boom generation and other demographic pressures represent a real challenge not just for CSIS but other organizations, both in the public and private sectors. In my current role I try to ensure that senior leaders at CSIS are equipped with the important workforce data they need in order to plan strategically for the future.
As a Human Resources professional at CSIS, I get to see first-hand all the initiatives that year after year have helped earn us the designation of a Top 100 employer. I also have a central role in administering our Employee Survey, which is one of the mechanisms by which employees get to have a voice in the evolution of the organization they work for. CSIS is a wonderfully diverse workplace, but one thing we all share is enormous pride in protecting our country’s national security interests.
I have watched the Service develop into a world-class intelligence service, and I am thankful to have played a part in this great Canadian success story. CSIS has given me experiences and opportunities that I would not have had anywhere else, and for that I am most grateful.
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