The Conservative Party has rejected a Liberal proposal to resolve a standoff over secret documents the government is refusing to disclose about the firing of two scientists from Canada’s top-security virus laboratory.
In the face of opposition-party efforts to force these documents to be made public, the Liberals offered last week to turn them over to a special committee of MPs and leave it to three judges to decide what can be made public.
On Wednesday, however, Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole rejected the proposal. He said the Liberals should instead stick with a plan they first floated last June to have the House of Commons law clerk vet documents to be provided to MPs. Mr. O’Toole also proposed Canadian Security Intelligence Service director David Vigneault and Canada’s national security adviser then weigh in on what information should be redacted.
Government House Leader Mark Holland responded by accusing the Conservatives of playing “partisan politics” with national security, saying that the government made a serious offer for opposition parties to see all confidential records while safeguarding sensitive national security.
“We aren’t distributing Canadian Tire flyers here – these are national security documents,” he told The Globe and Mail. “If we are going to work with our international partners on national security, they have to know we have rigorous processes to protect national security information and, most importantly, that those who are working within national security infrastructure know that their well-being is being protected.”
The dispute is over hundreds of pages of internal records that could shed light on why Ottawa removed and then fired Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.
The Liberal government has been refusing to make public unredacted versions of the documents for eight months and warned their release could jeopardize national security. Opposition parties, citing Parliament’s right to information, voted in June for the government to turn over the documents – and when the Liberals refused, they voted to declare the Public Health Agency of Canada in contempt of Parliament. The government went to court to try to stop the release of documents but abandoned the effort when the election was called.
The documents sought also relate to the March, 2019, transfer of deadly virus samples to the Wuhan Institute of Virology that was overseen by Ms. Qiu. The two scientists lost their security clearances in July, 2019, and the RCMP was called in to investigate. Ms. Qui and Mr. Cheng were then dismissed in January, 2021. It later emerged that a high-ranking officer in China’s People’s Liberation Army collaborated on Ebola research with Ms. Qiu.
Last week, Mr. Holland offered to turn over all the documents to a special committee of MPs. The proposal came shortly after opposition parties turned up the pressure by asking Speaker Anthony Rota to rule on a point of privilege and find the government in contempt of Parliament for attempting to use the courts to challenge the House’s authority to order the documents released.
The Liberals said their proposal mirrors what the former Harper government set up in 2010 to screen the release of documents on Canada’s participation in the war in Afghanistan.
Conservative House Leader Gérard Deltell told the House Wednesday the circumstances are different. “The situation in 2009 and 2010 had to deal with the production of 40,000 pages … [when] we had soldiers in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban at the time and their health and lives were endangered” he said. “What we are proposing is 546 pages.”
He said the opposition still want Mr. Rota to resurrect an order of the House of Commons from the previous Parliament that required the government to disclose the records.
Mr. Holland said the Conservatives’ refusal to go along with his proposal is hypocritical. “It doesn’t matter whether it is 500 pages or 5,000 pages. The information that is contained has sensitive national security information and it has to be protected.”
Mr. Rota said he will study the Conservative proposal and issue a ruling.
Julien Coulombe-Bonnafous, a spokesman for the Bloc Québécois, said the party is still analyzing the Conservatives’ suggestion.
NDP health critic Don Davies said his party is also reviewing the new proposal. “There are now a couple of models on the table which we are carefully reviewing. The important thing is to ensure that proper oversight can take place and Canadians have complete answers about what happened.”
Mr. Rota has yet to rule on the point of privilege. If he finds a prima facie case of privilege, then the Conservatives would move a motion to have a warrant issued for the documents. The House of Commons’ sergeant-at-arms would execute the warrant.
The Special Committee on Canada-China Relations first ordered the Public Health Agency of Canada to turn over all documents related to the firing of the two scientists on March 31.
The Globe has reported that the RCMP are investigating whether the two dismissed scientists passed on Canadian intellectual property to China, including to the Wuhan Institute. The Globe has also reported that Ms. Qiu, who headed the vaccine development and anti-viral therapies section at the Winnipeg lab, collaborated on scientific papers with Chinese military researchers.
The government previously said it would only turn over unredacted documents to an entity called the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, which is not a committee of Parliament. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has the power to prevent the committee from releasing information if he believes it would damage national security, national defence or international relations.
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