WASHINGTON – Canada's former ambassador to Israel has filed a lawsuit against the Canadian government, seeking damages worth more than $7.5 million for alleged mistreatment by senior government officials.
The ex-ambassador, Vivian Bercovici, was appointed by Canada's former conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, in 2014 and served until 2016. She alleges in her lawsuit that senior officials in Canada's foreign service and the administration of Harper's liberal successor, Justin Trudeau, "waged a campaign of abuse" against her – in part due to her positions on Israel.
Among those who are named in the lawsuit, which was filed earlier this week in Toronto, are Trudeau's chief of staff, Katie Telford, and National Security Adviser Daniel Jean as well as senior officials in Canada's foreign service, some of whom are currently serving as ambassadors of Canada in other countries. Bercovici alleges that she was subjected to "deplorable" behavior from the beginning of her diplomatic posting in Tel Aviv, adding that that the alleged hostility against her became even worse after Trudeau replaced Harper in 2015.
While the lawsuit is, at its core, a dispute between Bercovici, the Canadian government and the senior officials she claimed had mistreated her, its contents could have political and diplomatic ramifications regarding Canada’s relationship with Israel.
Bercovici, a lawyer, was active and well-known in the Canadian Jewish community prior to her appointment as ambassador. Harper, the prime minister who appointed her, was considered a strong supporter of Israel during his time in office, which is why Bercovici, who shared many of Harper’s policy views on the subject, was chosen by him to serve as ambassador to Israel. By contrast, the Trudeau government has expressed a more critical stance toward Israel ever since 2016.
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In her lawsuit, Bercovici alleges that "from the outset of her appointment, it became abundantly clear that key individuals... were actively working to undermine her, question her competency, loyalty, [and] professionalism." She alleges that, at times, she had to involve the Prime Minister's Office to fight back against this behaviour, such as when senior officials in the Canadian foreign service tried to stop her from fulfilling her duties as ambassador during Harper's visit to Israel in 2014.
One particularly strong allegation in the lawsuit has to do with "constant questioning of [Bercovici's] loyalty to Canada." The lawsuit alleges that because she is a supporter of Israel, Bercovici "was repeatedly accused by various senior individuals in the Department of Foreign Affairs of putting 'Israel's interests before those of Canada.' Her loyalty to Canada was consistently questioned, and Department officials spread a malicious rumor that she had gone 'rogue' and set up a parallel embassy structure in Israel in order to implement a personal agenda."
The lawsuit includes a number of examples of such quotes by anonymous officials appearing in the Canadian press. It alleges that "senior Department officials also worked hard to undermine and frustrate [Bercovici's] mandate of developing more robust commercial ties with Israel" and that senior officials prevented Bercovici from interacting with the Canadian Jewish community, something which was "directly at odds with the common practice of other ambassadors," including Canada's current ambassador to Israel.
According to the lawsuit, Bercovici's situation became worse ahead of Canada's 2015 parliamentary election. "As the fall of 2015 approached, it became evident to members of the Department that a change in government was likely, at which point [Bercovici] became a political pawn." During this period, the lawsuit alleges, Bercovici was instructed by senior officials in the foreign service to "contradict" the official policies of the Harper administration in her statements. She refused to do so, noting that despite the expected election results, there was still an active government in power "with a Middle East policy in place."
Following Trudeau's election victory, Canada's Middle East policy began to change, with officials from the previous government being promoted to more prominent roles in the Trudeau administration. One such example is Daniel Jean, who was Canada's deputy minister of foreign affairs from 2013 to 2015 and became Trudeau's national security adviser in 2016.
After Trudeau's victory, the suit alleges, it became clear to her that "her tenure as ambassador was going to come to an end."
In April 2016, according to the lawsuit, Bercovici was made aware through a telephone call that her appointment as ambassador would be terminated, and was given a two-week period to leave her post.
She was allegedly "threatened" not to inform anyone of her departure, a situation that increased the pressure on her. While she was being forced to hurriedly prepare to leave her post and re-organize her life, the lawsuit states, she "continued to do Israeli media interviews in Hebrew, to ensure that the Israeli press knew that the new [Canadian] government would continue to be supportive of Israel."
For example, she says she was working to implement a visit to Israel by the premier of Canada's largest province, Ontario.
Bercovici's attorney, Natalie MacDonald, told the Canadian newspaper "National Post" that Bercovici's right to be employed in a "respectful and harassment-free workplace" was violated, and that the motivation for the lawsuit was not political. "This is a very real cause of action," she added. The newspaper also reported that the Canadian government has previously rejected Bercovici's claims that government officials acted in bad faith towards her. Haaretz contacted Canada’s Foreign Ministry to request comment, but as of Thursday evening, no reply was received.
Bercovici currently resides in Tel Aviv, where she chose to stay following the termination of her role as ambassador. She frequently writes articles on the Middle East in the Canadian and American press.