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Why did the government call an election in August, 2021, in the middle of a pandemic, just as Afghanistan was falling, and with more than two years left in its mandate? A good argument could be made that it was to shut down a Commons committee looking into the mysterious dismissal of two Chinese nationals from a top-secret Winnipeg research laboratory.

At the urging of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the two scientists – Dr. Xiangguo Qiu, head of vaccine development at the National Microbiology Laboratory, and her husband Keding Cheng – had their security clearance revoked and were escorted out of the facility by RCMP officers in July, 2019. They were fired in January, 2021.

Why precisely they were fired has never been divulged. What is known, however, is that months before they were expelled, Dr. Qiu oversaw the shipment of two of the world’s most lethal viruses, ebola and henipah, to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. It has also emerged that while at the lab she worked closely with the Chinese military’s top virologists, experimenting with ebola and other deadly pathogens.

The affair raised the most disturbing questions, especially after the couple dropped out of sight. The RCMP are investigating whether any laws were broken, but there are also obvious questions surrounding security procedures at the lab: how the two were hired, what sort of vetting they were given, why they were permitted such latitude – Dr. Qiu was even allowed to bring students from China into the allegedly top-secret lab – and, of course, what caused them to be dismissed.

Members of the special committee on Canada-China relations, accordingly, demanded the Public Health Agency of Canada produce all documents related to the matter. That was the committee’s undoubted right, as it was the undoubted obligation of the government, and all agencies of the government, to produce them: the right of the Commons to send for “persons, papers and things” is among the most hallowed of parliamentary prerogatives.

Even so, the Trudeau government refused. For months. It continued to stonewall even after Parliament had voted to back up the committee’s demands, after the head of PHAC had been “summoned to the bar” of the House to answer for his refusal to release the documents (though the refusal was in reality the Prime Minister’s), after it had been found in contempt of Parliament. It even took the Speaker of the House to court over the matter, though it was plainly a stunt: no judge was going to deny Parliament’s right to see the documents.

What could explain the government’s adamant, and illegal, refusal to release them? But of course: national security, old chap. Sources and methods. Couldn’t possibly. No amount of negotiation, no reasonable compromise – swearing committee members to secrecy, commissioning a panel of retired judges to review the documents, redaction by the Commons law clerk, and so on – could sway it. The documents contained “extremely sensitive” material, you understand. The threat to national security was too great. Only after it was safely re-elected did it relent.

What a relief, then, to be able to report that the government was blowing smoke the whole time. A special committee of MPs struck last year to examine the documents, with the help of those retired judges, has found that most of the information contained therein is safe for release, not only to MPs, but the general public.

In a letter to House leaders of the various parties, obtained by The Globe and Mail, the committee reports the “sensitivity” surrounding the documents “appears to be mostly about protecting [PHAC] from embarrassment for failures in policy and implementation, not legitimate national security concerns.”

This is not to say there were no national security concerns. The Globe reports the documents will show the two scientists “provided confidential scientific information to China,” citing a source with direct knowledge of the material. But any threat to national security, it is now clear, was not posed by disclosure of the documents, but by the activities the documents describe.

Which in fact makes disclosure all the more imperative. As the committee’s letter suggests, their release “is essential to hold the Government to account.” Something appears to have gone badly wrong at the lab, and it is critical to find out what, and even more important, why. PHAC continues to insist, as The Globe reports, that “all protocols were followed,” but it is difficult to see what protocols could apply to the transfer of two apocalyptic viruses to a hostile foreign dictatorship – one that at that time was holding two high-profile Canadian hostages.

Similarly PHAC maintains that the reason the two scientists were fired had nothing to do with the virus transfer. All right: what was the reason?

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