Canada’s leader is defending his country’s handling of mysterious incidents that have damaged the health of both American and Canadian diplomats in Cuba, as a group of the affected Canadians sue their government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there was “no question that the health impacts on diplomats in Cuba have been visible and real,” pushing back on suggestions that the diplomats merely suffered from mass hysteria or psychosomatic symptoms.
Medical testing on diplomats evacuated from both Canada and Cuba have led doctors to conclude that the diplomats developed symptoms and medical issues that can’t be faked, NBC News has reported .
“We’ve been taking it very, very seriously from the beginning, and we will continue to take very seriously the health and safety of all Canadians who serve anywhere overseas,” Trudeau said in Ontario. He said Canada has continued to work with local authorities in Cuba to investigate.
Trudeau’s defense came as a group of 14 Canadian diplomats, including some children of diplomats represented by their parents, are suing Ottawa for $28 million in Canadian dollars (about $21 million U.S. dollars).
They accuse the Canadian government of withholding information and interfering in their ability to seek appropriate medical care.
Last month, Canada’s government confirmed a 14th case of a diplomat working in Cuba falling ill and announced it would pull up to half of its diplomats off the island.
“Canada badly mishandled the growing crisis,” says the lawsuit filed in Canadian court and obtained by NBC News.
“Despite knowing of the risks of Havana Syndrome early on, Canada continued to put its diplomats and their families in harms’ way by sending them to Havana and requiring them to stay there despite becoming aware of the high and growing risk that they would sustain the brain injuries associated with Havana Syndrome,” the suit alleges.
The Canadians join 26 American diplomats who the U.S. State Department says are “medically confirmed” to have been affected by what the U.S. government calls “health attacks.” The Trump administration says it does not know who or what is behind the incidents, which in some cases were accompanied by unexplained sounds and symptoms.
Staff stand within the United States embassy facility in Havana, Cuba on Sept. 29, 2017. Desmond Boylan / AP file Cuba has adamantly denied any knowledge of or involvement in attacks in diplomats. The diplomats developed an array of symptoms including traumatic brain injury, hearing loss and problems with memory and balance.
Canada’s government, until now, has been reluctant to discuss the issue publicly, despite sending the Royal Mounted Canadian Police to Havana to investigate. Unlike the United States, which has been at odds with the Communist-run island for half a century, Canada has long enjoyed a close relationship with Cuba’s government.
NBC News has interviewed three of the Canadian diplomats who say they were affected while serving in Cuba and maintain that its government's response was marked by “incompetence” and “reluctance to address the concern” about the situation.
They said that unlike the American diplomats, the Canadians had to seek out their own medical providers, who told some of them they had medical conditions similar to concussions, also known as mild traumatic brain injury.
“It took a very long time before we got recognition,” from the Canadian government, one of the diplomats said.
The Canadians interviewed by NBC News said they were suffering from headaches, dizziness, visual issues, problems concentrating, and extreme fatigue, among other symptoms.
“For us to be discredited or for us to have to fight for credibility has had a huge impact on us as people and professionals,” said another diplomat, referring to public suggestions that the diplomats weren’t really injured or that the sound heard in Havana was merely crickets .
The U.S. diplomats have been sent to the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair for advanced testing, treatment and rehabilitation.
NBC News has learned that the Canadian government in late 2018 selected Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to screen potentially affected diplomats, treat their symptoms and study the medical conditions they have developed.
The Canadians, in their lawsuit, are seeking $14 million in “general and aggravated damages” from Canada’s government for allegedly failing to adhere to its own laws, and another $7 million for allegedly breaching the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The plaintiffs also want punitive damages of another $7 million.
Many of the U.S. diplomats affected have also hired lawyers as they contemplate legal action and work to navigate the complex U.S. government’s medical bureaucracy in seeking medical care and lost wages.
Meanwhile, an American government-accountability group this week sued the U.S. to try to force the public release of a report, known as an Accountability Review Board, that the State Department conducted to evaluate its response to the initial incidents. Only a brief summary of the results of that report, which found no wrongdoing but several shortcomings in the U.S. response, has been released publicly.
A lawsuit from The James Madison Project and New Yorker journalist Adam Entous seeks to force the State Department to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request by Entous for a copy of the report. The lawsuit alleges the State Department hasn’t handed over the report and has missed the statutory deadline for responding to the request.
Josh Lederman Josh Lederman is a national political reporter for NBC News.