The Official Opposition has told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau it will boycott a review body he established to give a select group of MPs and senators access to top-secret information because, they allege, he is using this committee to duck a request for documents from the House of Commons.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole wrote Mr. Trudeau a letter Thursday saying his party will not participate in meetings of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) as long as his government refuses to provide uncensored records to the Commons regarding the firing of scientists from Canada’s top infectious disease lab.
Mr. O’Toole notes the Liberals have declined to comply with an order of the House to turn over the documents.
“As long as you continue to defy this order, Conservatives will not participate in NSICOP,” Mr. O’Toole said.
“To do so would only legitimize your unethical conduct.”
The minority Liberal government has not complied with a June 2 motion passed by opposition parties in the Commons to produce unredacted documents that provide more details on why scientists Xiangguo Qiu and Keding Cheng were expelled from the Winnipeg National Microbiology Lab and later fired. There are an estimated 250 pages of documents that are censored in their entirety that have been withheld from both the Commons and the special Commons committee on Canada-China.
The government including Health Minister Patricia Hajdu has been adamant this would jeopardize national security. She told MPs that allowing them access to this information would be “putting Canada’s national security at risk.”
The Liberals have instead said they would provide the uncensored records to NSICOP. Its membership, which is appointed by the prime minister, includes three Liberal MPs, two Conservative MPs, a New Democrat and a Bloc Quebecois and several senators.
The Conservatives have objected, noting NSICOP is not a committee of Parliament and is under the control of the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s a “committee of the Prime Minister’s Office, not of the Parliament of Canada,” Mr. O’Toole wrote to Mr. Trudeau.
Stephanie Carvin, a former national security adviser who is now an associate professor of international relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said the Conservative move may be symbolic but it’s another blow to the NSICOP by the Conservatives “who seem fairly intent on undermining it.” Prof. Carvin said she understands the Conservative’s frustration with the stonewalling at details of what happened at the National Microbiology Lab, but she said the party is “using a bulldozer when a scalpel is needed.”
On Wednesday, Commons Speaker Anthony Rota ruled the Liberal government breached parliamentary privileges by failing to provide secret documents to the House that would explain the firing of two scientists from the Winnipeg lab.
On Wednesday night, the Conservatives put forward a follow-up motion that would declare the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) in contempt of Parliament for refusing to release the documents and to order its head, Iain Stewart, to appear before the Commons to be admonished and produce the requested documents. A vote is expected on Thursday.
Dr. Qiu, former head of a vaccine-development and anti-viral therapy program at the lab, and her biologist husband, Dr. Cheng, have been the focus of parliamentary debate for weeks as opposition MPs have sought information on why they were fired. Scrutiny has also focused on shipments of two powerful viruses to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology in March, 2019, that were overseen by Dr. Qiu.
The June 2 motion supported by the Conservatives, Bloc Québécois and NDP demanded that PHAC turn over more than 250 pages of records about the couple’s dismissal and the shipments.
The motion called on the Commons law clerk to review the documents and redact information that could be injurious to national security or a continuing criminal investigation before making them public.
The motion also called for the clerk to later hold a confidential meeting with MPs on the Canada-China committee to reveal the parts that were removed so they could use them to inform any recommendations or report on the matter.
The Conservatives have repeatedly pointed to a 2010 ruling by former Commons speaker Peter Milliken that Parliament had an unabridged right to demand internal documents on Canada’s handling of Afghan prisoners, and the government lacked a unilateral power to censor them. The minority Conservative government and opposition parties struck a deal for a small committee of MPs from all parties to review unfiltered versions of the records.
Mr. Chong said he believes the government is afraid information revealed to Parliament about the activities of the two scientists would show there were serious security breaches at the laboratory.
The Globe and Mail reported in May that Canada’s spy agency urged the removal of security clearances for the two scientists and a number of Dr. Qiu’s students from China relating to the Wuhan facility and other national-security matters.
Four months before the couple were expelled from the lab in 2019, documents obtained under an access to information request show Dr. Qiu played a role in shipping the two viruses – Ebola and Henipah – to the Wuhan institute.
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