The Liberal government breached parliamentary privileges by failing to provide secret documents to the House that would explain the firing of two scientists from Canada’s top infectious disease lab in Winnipeg, House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota ruled on Wednesday.
On June 2, opposition MPs outvoted the Liberal minority government to pass a motion that would force the government to give the House’s Special Committee on Canada-China Relations unredacted documents that contain details on why two federal scientists were fired from the National Microbiology Laboratory.
The Trudeau government refused to comply, saying it would give uncensored records only to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians.
Although this committee includes parliamentarians from all parties, they serve at the pleasure of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He has the right to review and demand revisions of any documents if they are made public.
Mr. Rota ruled that the House of Commons is supreme and that the government cannot ignore an order of parliamentarians, even on grounds of national security.
“It is for the House of Commons, and not for the government, to decide how such documents are reviewed and what safeguards are to be put in place, if any,” he said, adding, “there is thus no reason to allow an additional delay” in providing the documents.
He accepted the opposition parties’ argument that the National Security and Intelligence Committee is not a committee of Parliament.
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.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said the Speaker’s ruling demonstrates the Trudeau government was wrong to withhold documents from the MPs.
“It’s clear there were breaches of national security at the government’s top virus lab in Winnipeg, where the world’s most dangerous pathogens are handled,” he said. “We have a responsibility to get to the bottom of this, not only to hold the government accountable, but ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
The two scientists were dismissed in January from the Winnipeg lab after their security clearances were revoked in July, 2019, and the RCMP were called in to investigate.
Xiangguo Qiu, former head of a vaccine-development and anti-viral therapy program at the lab, and her biologist husband, Keding 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.
Mr. Stewart linked the departure of the scientists to a “number of review processes” the federal agency initiated in 2018 “relating to possible breaches of security protocols” at the lab. The government, however, said last week that the dismissals involve national security issues.
Dr. Qiu was able to bring into the lab graduate and postgraduate students from China who were studying under her at the University of Manitoba. The Globe also reported scientists at the lab, including the couple, were collaborating with Chinese military researchers to study and conduct experiments on deadly pathogens such as Ebola, Lassa fever and Rift Valley fever.
One of the Chinese researchers, Feihu Yan, from the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Medical Sciences, worked for a period of time at the Winnipeg lab.
PHAC said no new collaborations on research projects have been initiated with China, and all co-operation with the Wuhan institute ended in the summer of 2019, when the couple’s security clearances were revoked.
Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.