Federal opposition parties moved quickly on the first day of the new Parliament to force the Liberal government to release secret documents on the firing of two scientists from Canada’s highest-security laboratory.
Conservative House Leader Gérard Deltell mounted an effort Tuesday to resurrect an order of the House of Commons that required the government to disclose records that could shed light on why Ottawa expelled and then fired Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.
He raised a point of privilege asking Speaker Anthony Rota to find the government in contempt of Parliament for challenging the House’s authority when it took the Speaker to court in June in an unprecedented move to prevent the release of documents. During the ensuing election campaign, the government withdrew the court challenge.
If the Speaker finds a prima facie case of privilege, then the Conservatives, backed by the NDP, Bloc Québécois and Green parties, would support a motion to have a warrant issued for the documents. The House of Commons’ sergeant-at-arms would execute the warrant.
“After all, it is well-established that the sergeant-at-arms can seize a human being for failing to appear when ordered, it surely follows that he can seize inanimate documents which were not turned over as ordered,” Mr. Deltell told the House.
Liberal Government House Leader Mark Holland argued against the point of privilege, saying the opposition parties would need to start over by adopting another motion in the new Parliament to compel the release of the documents. That’s because the last Parliament was dissolved in August, at the start of the 2021 election campaign.
The government has warned that disclosure of information in the documents could jeopardize national security, and in a June, 2021, court filing said it could be “injurious to international relations or national defence or national security.”
But the NDP, Bloc and Green parties say the government must reveal the information that was one of the last acts of Parliament before it adjourned in June, ahead of an election called in August that returned virtually the same minority House.
NDP deputy foreign affairs critic Don Davies said the foundational principles of the House include democracy, the rule of law and the supremacy of Parliament.
“No government of any stripe is entitled to ignore these fundamental principles. … To do so is an act of autocracy and a repudiation of the basic tenets of our nation for which so many fought and died.”
If a majority of MPs vote for the government to produce documents they deem necessary to carry out their duty to the people they represent, Mr. Davies said, “This must be complied with regardless of how embarrassing or inconvenient a government of the day may find such a request.”
He added: “Indeed that is often when it’s most important to comply.”
The two scientists lost their security clearances in July, 2019, and the RCMP were called into investigate. They were dismissed in January, 2021.
Mr. Davies and Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said they suspect the government is hiding behind national security to avoid politically embarrassing information from being revealed to Canadians.
They noted the government initially claimed the information could not be released for privacy reasons, but then suddenly claimed the release of the documents would jeopardize national security.
The Globe and Mail has reported that the RCMP are investigating whether the two dismissed scientists passed on Canadian intellectual property to China, including to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The 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 of Canada.
The Globe has also reported that Ms. Qiu, who headed the vaccine development and anti-viral therapies section at the Winnipeg lab, collaborated on scientific papers with China military researchers. (The RCMP have been informed the scientists have relocated to China.)
More than 250 pages of records have been withheld in their entirety from MPs, and hundreds of others have been partly censored.
They also relate to the March, 2019, transfer of deadly virus samples to the Wuhan Institute of Virology that was overseen by Ms. Qiu.
The government previously said it would only turn over unredacted documents to an entity called the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, which is not a committee of Parliament. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has the power to prevent the committee from releasing information to the public if he is of the opinion that this would damage national security, national defence or international relations.
Earlier this month, The Globe asked Mr. Rota how he would rule if asked to revisit the matter. “If Parliament does request something and it is their right to have it, then the Speaker has to rule accordingly,” he said at the time.
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