Opposition parties voted Thursday to declare the Liberal government in contempt of Parliament for refusing to provide unredacted documents to the House of Commons that could explain the firing of two scientists from Canada’s top infectious disease lab in Winnipeg, amid concerns over their ties with Chinese military research.
The motion adopted by the Conservatives, Bloc Québécois and NDP censures the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) for failing to produce the requested records. It also orders PHAC President Iain Stewart to appear before the Commons on Monday to be admonished and to produce the confidential documents.
The vote passed 176-150. There are more than 250 pages of records on the matter that have been withheld from MPs.
Rob Walsh, who served as the House of Commons law clerk between 1999 and 2012, said Thursday’s vote was significant because it asserted the supreme role of Parliament. But he added that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could still stonewall MPs.
Mr. Trudeau could say he won’t provide the unredacted documents, leaving the opposition parties with only one option: force an election through a no-confidence motion.
Still, Mr. Walsh said the attempt by MPs to formally demand the confidential information is significant because it is the first time the House has ever passed a motion that censures a public servant – Mr. Stewart – for refusing to co-operate with MPs.
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Whatever the Liberal government does, Mr. Walsh said the Commons has stood firm on its long-standing rights to supremacy over the executive, as it did in 2010 when former commons speaker Peter Milliken ordered the Harper government to release secret documents pertaining to the Canadian Forces’ treatment of captured Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan.
Ottawa’s explanation for what happened at Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Lab – where the world’s deadliest pathogens are studied – has evolved over time. Scientist Xiangguo Qiu and her biologist husband Keding Cheng were removed from the lab in July, 2019, and fired in January, 2021.
PHAC has described the reasons for their departure as having to do with a “policy breach,” an “administrative matter” and “possible breaches of security protocols.” It declined to say more, citing privacy and security considerations.
The Globe and Mail reported in May that CSIS, Canada’s spy agency, urged the removal of security clearances for the two scientists on national security grounds. The agency had also been concerned about the nature of information Dr. Qiu might have passed on to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology. Seven scientists in the special pathogens unit at the Winnipeg lab, including Dr. Qiu and Dr. Cheng, conducted experiments and co-authored six studies on infectious diseases such as Ebola, Lassa fever and Rift Valley fever with Chinese military researchers.
Dr. Qiu, the former head of a vaccine-development and anti-viral therapy program at the Winnipeg lab, and Dr. Cheng, have been the focus of parliamentary debate for weeks as opposition MPs have sought information on why they were fired.
But as the special Canada-China Commons committee sought more details, Health Minister Patty Hajdu told MPs earlier this week that granting them access to this information would be “putting Canada’s national security at risk.”
Thursday’s vote to summon Mr. Stewart “before the bar” invokes rare powers of the House. He will be required to stand at the “bar,” a brass rod extending across the floor of the House of Commons, to be admonished. The last time an MP was summoned before the bar was 2002, and the last time a private citizen was called before it was 1913, according to the House of Commons’ website.
Ms. Hajdu’s office declined to comment on the Commons vote, but the minister told Question Period she feels the best course is to send the documents to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), a review body set up by the Liberals that reports directly to the Prime Minister.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole wrote Mr. Trudeau a letter Thursday, saying his party will not participate in meetings of the NSICOP as long as the government refuses to provide the uncensored records to the Commons.
The Conservatives – and House of Commons Speaker Antony Rota – say NSICOP is not a committee of Parliament and is under the control of Mr. Trudeau.
“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.”
Thursday’s contempt vote was made possible by a ruling from Speaker Rota on Wednesday that the Liberal government breached parliamentary privileges by failing to provide documents to the House that would explain the firing of the two scientists.
Conservative foreign-affairs critic Michael Chong said there have now been four motions calling on the government to release the records, including today’s motion, two motions by the Canada-China committee and a June 2 Commons motion supported by all opposition parties.
The opposition had made provisions to protect the security of the information it wanted. The June 2 motion called for the parliamentary law clerk to review the documents and, before making them public, redact information that could be injurious to national security or a continuing criminal investigation. 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 the MPs could use them to inform any recommendations or report on the matter.
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