OTTAWA—A group of Canadian diplomats and their family members left ill after serving in Cuba are suing the federal government for $28 million, charging that Ottawa “badly mishandled” a crisis that has left them suffering debilitating brain injuries.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Federal Court, paints a picture of a federal government that was more concerned with keeping a lid on a worsening health crisis that first surfaced for the Canadians in early 2017 in Havana.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
“Throughout the crisis, Canada downplayed the seriousness of the situation, hoarded and concealed critical health and safety information and gave false, misleading and incomplete information to diplomatic staff,” the lawsuit claims.
It says the department failed to provide “reasonable or appropriate” medical support to diplomats and their families suffering an array of symptoms that has left them struggling to return to work and normal life.
The lawsuit alleges that Global Affairs had medical evidence in the spring of 2017 that diplomats and family members were suffering health problems yet failed to act.
Indeed, it claims that Global Affairs interfered with the health treatment of Canadians, at one point calling a Miami physician to press him to alter his assessment that one family was determined to have traumatic brain injuries.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland declined to comment on the case Wednesday but said that she has met with some of the affected diplomats.
“They told me about their situation. I’m really concerned about them. They have Canada’s utmost sympathy and support,” Freeland said in Washington, where she was attending a meeting of nations involved in the fight against Daesh.
“They were in Cuba. They were representing us. They were representing their country and their health and safety absolutely needs to be a priority,” Freeland said.
The lawsuit covers 14 people in all — five diplomats along with their spouses and children — and alleges that they were “targeted and injured, suffering severe traumatic harm.
“These mysterious but extremely serious and debilitating attacks have resulted in brain injuries,” the lawsuit states.
It’s believed the “attacks” began in late 2016, originally focused on American diplomats and intelligence officers, it said. Individuals were “targeted” in their homes. For some, symptoms followed unusual sounds or sensations of pressure, it said, such as a “loud screeching metallic noise . . . that seemed to bombard and suffocate” one Canadian.
For others, there was no warning, “leaving an individual gripped in pain, blinded by a headache, or doubled over in dizziness or nausea, confused and disoriented.”
Global Affairs has stated publicly — as recently as last month — that it has no idea what has caused the health symptoms, despite an RCMP-led investigation. But the lawsuit says that the department was immediately concerned that it was some form of sonic or microwave attack, “potentially by a hostile foreign power.”
“The plaintiffs are clearly the victims of some kind of new weaponry, or method of attack,” it states.
The incidents left personnel with symptoms consistent with traumatic brain injuries, including headaches, loss of memory, dizziness and balance problems, the lawsuit states. “Neurological assessments of victims’ brains actually show damage consistent with that seen in cases of concussion,” it states.
The lawsuit accuses the federal government of putting diplomats and family members in harm’s way despite knowing the “high and growing risk that they would sustain the brain injuries.”
It also alleges that the Ottawa kept diplomats in the dark about the risk and gave them false assurances of safety.
And later, federal officials suggested the problem was psychosomatic, leaving ill personnel to “contend with rumours that they were faking it.”
The lawsuit charges that the federal government has frustrated efforts by the ill diplomats and their family members to get proper medical treatment, restricting what medical professionals they see and what information they can share.
It even alleges that brain experts at the University of Pennsylvania — who were treating American diplomats — were instructed to “stop testing the Canadians,” cutting short the assessments of individuals who had travelled to Philadelphia at their own expense.
The lawsuit notes that in April, 2018, Global Affairs deemed Havana an unaccompanied post, meaning that family members would no longer be allowed to join diplomats. In November, it gave Havana the same rating as missions based in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in January, Global Affairs announced it would be looking at reducing its embassy staff by half, to eight, after yet another diplomat had been confirmed with health symptoms.
As was first revealed in the Star, the lawsuit notes that an American diplomat had warned his Canadian neighbour about the potential dangers. That information was passed to the Canadian ambassador, along with the symptoms suffered by the Canadians, yet the embassy “took no apparent action.”
Within weeks, the U.S. embassy officially informed the Canadian embassy that its personnel were getting ill, “possibly because of sonic attacks.” Yet that information was not shared with the Canadian diplomatic staff nor were steps taken to ensure their safety, the lawsuit states.
Even as the Americans were evacuating staff and family members, Canada took a “business as usual” approach insisting that there was no reason to believe the Canadians were being targeted,” the lawsuit says.
With files from Daniel Dale
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier