Skip to main content

The National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Manitoba on June 17, 2021.Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

The Liberal government and the NDP have struck a deal to set up an ad hoc committee – without the approval of the Official Opposition – that will gain access to secret documents on the firings of two infectious-disease scientists at Canada’s high-security microbiology laboratory.

The panel will not be a committee of Parliament, which means it will not have the delegated authority and investigative powers of the House of Commons.

It will go ahead even if the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois refuse to join, Government House Leader Mark Holland told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday. The Conservatives are adamant that they will not participate, while the Bloc did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“We don’t have a lot of faith or trust in the Liberals’ approach to this,” Interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen said.

Mr. Holland promised the ad hoc committee will have full access to all national security documents that explain why Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, were fired from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg in January, 2021.

The two scientists lost their security clearances in July, 2019, and the RCMP was called in to investigate. Dr. Qiu, who headed the vaccine development and anti-viral therapies section at the Winnipeg lab, and Mr. Cheng were dismissed in January, 2021.

The Globe and Mail has reported that a high-ranking officer in China’s People’s Liberation Army collaborated on Ebola research with Dr. Qiu, and that the RCMP are investigating whether the dismissed scientists passed on Canadian intellectual property to China.

Opposition parties have been demanding for nine months that the Liberal government make public unredacted versions of the documents. The government has declined to do so, and warned their release could jeopardize national security.

Mr. Holland said he hopes the committee can get up and running as soon as possible.

The NDP cut a deal in March to prop up the Liberal minority government on budget and confidence matters, and the agreement on the Winnipeg lab documents committee broadens the scope of co-operation between the two parties.

“With the NDP participating, we will be proceeding with this ad hoc committee,” Mr. Holland said. “We think it is essential that parliamentarians be given an opportunity to look at these documents and challenge the redactions.”

The Decibel podcast: Why were two scientists fired from a Winnipeg virus lab?

Asked if Canadians will find out exactly why the two scientists were fired, Mr. Holland said, “Everything should be shared that can be shared.” He said information that could damage national security will be kept from the public, but not from MPs on the ad hoc committee.

“What Canadians should expect is that parliamentarians from all parties ... have an opportunity to look at every last letter of the documents and know the full and entire story,” he said. “They will have the opportunity to appeal to an independent body of jurists if they disagree with any redactions.”

Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said the Liberal plan does an end-run around Parliament because the panel will not be a formal parliamentary committee.

He said he thinks the Liberals struck the arrangement with the NDP because the Conservatives have been pushing for a vote on his proposal for the Commons standing committee on foreign affairs to see the documents.

“This is clearly the government trying to divert attention from what we are trying to do,” Mr. Chong said. “It’s an attempt to deny information to Parliament.”

He said a committee of Parliament, not one created by the Liberals, should get the documents. The Liberal government’s rules for handling the documents will prevent MPs from learning what happened, he said. “They’re putting a whole bunch of restrictions on this committee that will allow the government to deny the committee information.”

NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson defended the NDP-Liberal deal, saying the matter could disrupt proceedings at the foreign affairs committee at a time when pressing issues such as Russia’s war on Ukraine require its attention. “My priority is getting those documents to parliamentarians. There was a log jam,” she said.

The matter led to a parliamentary showdown last June when opposition parties banded together and cited parliamentary privilege to order the government to release the records.

When the Liberals wouldn’t do so, 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.

Just before Christmas, the Liberals reversed course and proposed the ad hoc committee with a panel of judges as arbiters.

The Conservatives rejected the idea, saying they wanted the Liberals to stick with a plan they first floated last June to have the House of Commons law clerk vet documents to be provided to MPs.

“The process that they have suggested would put no protection around national security documents or national security matters,” Mr. Holland said.

More than 250 pages of records have been withheld in their entirety from MPs, and hundreds of others have been partly censored. MPs have been seeking documents relating to the March, 2019, transfer of deadly virus samples to the Wuhan Institute of Virology that was overseen by Dr. Qiu.

The RCMP investigation centres on the possibility that materials such as plasma DNA molecules, which could be used to recreate vaccines or viruses, were transferred to Chinese authorities without the approval of the Public Health Agency.

The Globe has also reported that Dr. Qiu collaborated on scientific papers with Chinese military researchers.