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The National Microbiology Laboratory is shown in Winnipeg on May 19, 2009.JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

The federal government has named three former judges to help oversee a special committee of MPs who will investigate the firing of two scientists from the country’s high-security infectious disease laboratory in Winnipeg.

Government House Leader Mark Holland announced Wednesday that Ian Binnie and Marshall Rothstein, both former Supreme Court judges, and Eleanor Dawson, who sat on the Federal Court of Appeal, will act as arbiters, adjudicating any dispute about what information or documents can be made public.

MPs from four of the main parties – Liberal Iqra Khalid, Conservative John Williamson, New Democrat Heather McPherson and René Villemure from the Bloc Québécois – will serve on the special committee.

“Canadians deserve to see MPs working in collaboration on important issues that require a responsible approach to transparency and accountability,” Mr. Holland said in a statement.

The MPs have been promised unfettered access to all national security documents related to the firing of Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg in January, 2021.

The committee will also see all secret documents involving the transfer of Ebola and Henipah viruses, overseen by Dr. Qiu, to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology in March, 2019.

Exactly why the two infectious-disease scientists were fired has been a contentious political issue. At first, the government would not disclose any information about the reason for the dismissals and even took House Speaker Anthony Rota to court in 2021 for trying to obtain classified documents on the firings. The Liberals abandoned the effort when the 2021 election was called.

More than 250 pages of records have been withheld in their entirety from MPs, and hundreds of others have been partly censored. The government had warned that their release could jeopardize national security.

The special committee will now see those secret documents, but the MPs must sign an oath of secrecy and will be required to view the classified documents at a secure facility, Mr. Holland said.

Just before Christmas, the government proposed the ad hoc committee with a panel of judges as arbiters. The panel is not a committee of Parliament, which means it will not have the delegated authority and investigative powers of the House of Commons.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong has said his party would have preferred a committee of Parliament, which would have more powers and the unfettered right to demand access to additional documents.

Mr. Holland said the ad hoc committee will mirror what the former, Conservative government set up in 2010 to screen the release of documents on Canada’s participation in the war in Afghanistan.

The Globe and Mail has reported that Dr. Qiu, her husband and other scientists at the lab collaborated 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 of the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences, worked for a period of time at the Winnipeg lab. Dr. Qiu also collaborated on Ebola research with Major-General Chen Wei, the Chinese military’s top epidemiologist and virologist.

She and her husband lost their security clearances in July, 2019, and the RCMP were called in to investigate. Dr. Qiu, who headed the vaccine development and antiviral therapies section at the lab, and Mr. Cheng were finally dismissed in January, 2021.

The RCMP are investigating whether the dismissed scientists passed on Canadian intellectual property to China. The investigation is focused 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 of Canada.

Four months before the scientists were expelled from the lab, access-to-information documents show Dr. Qiu played a role in shipping two exceptionally virulent viruses – Ebola and Henipah – to the Wuhan facility.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has said all protocols were followed, but documents show the shipments lacked a standard material-transfer agreement that spelled out intellectual-property rights.

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