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President of the Public Health Agency of Canada Iain Stewart, right, approaches the bar in the House of Commons to be admonished by the Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 21, 2021.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The president of the Public Health Agency of Canada defied an order of the House of Commons on Monday and refused to provide unredacted documents about the dismissal of two scientists from Canada’s high-security infectious disease laboratory.

Iain Stewart notified the Attorney-General’s office on Sunday night that “sensitive or potentially injurious information” could be disclosed if he obeyed the order of the House of Commons, Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez said.

Opposition parties voted last Thursday to declare the Liberal government in contempt of Parliament for refusing to provide the unredacted documents to the House of Commons. The motion also censures the Public Health Agency for failing to produce the records and ordered Mr. Stewart to appear before the Commons on Monday to be admonished and to produce the documents that explain why Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, were removed and fired from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.

He did not provide the documents, including information on the transfer of two dangerous viruses from the Winnipeg lab to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology.

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Dr. Qiu, the former head of a vaccine-development and anti-viral therapy program at the Winnipeg lab, and Dr. Cheng were fired in January. Their security clearances were revoked and the RCMP was called in to investigate in July, 2019. Mr. Stewart had previously linked the departure of the scientists to a review processes the federal agency initiated in 2018 “relating to possible breaches of security protocols” at the lab.

On Monday, Mr. Rodriquez said information about the dismissals was “extremely sensitive” and could damage Canada if publicly revealed.

“This would include, inter alia, revealing covert methods of operation, tradecraft and investigative techniques, including putting at risk human sources and their families; identifying or helping to identify employees,” he told the House. “Finally, it could have a severe impact on Canada’s reputation as a responsible security partner.”

The motion adopted by the House last week called on the Commons law clerk to review the documents and redact information that could harm national security or a criminal investigation before making them public. He would then hold a confidential meeting with MPs on the Canada-China committee to reveal what was removed so they could use those sections to inform any recommendations or report on the matter.

On Monday, Mr. Rodriquez offered a compromise, saying the government was prepared to allow the Commons law clerk to examine hundreds of censored documents under oversight from national security officials.

Mr. Rodriquez also suggested MPs could also use a process followed in 2010, when the Harper government allowed a group of MPs and a panel of arbiters to determine what information could be made available to the Commons about the Canadian military’s transfer of Taliban prisoners.

The government previously said it would only turn over unredacted documents to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, which does not report to the House and is controlled by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He has the power prevent to the committee from releasing information to the public.

Leah West, a former Justice department lawyer and assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, said information from allies and revelations about the broader investigation at the lab could be among the things the government is trying to keep secret.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong criticized the government’s unwillingness to obey an order of the House of Commons to produce documents.

“The executive branch of government is accountable to the legislature and cannot ignore the will of the elected House of Commons,” he said. “Why do Canadians send 338 of their fellow citizens to this chamber if their decisions are going to be ignored? Why do we spend $400-million on this chamber and [the Senate] if our votes do not mean anything?”

Mr. Chong said parliamentary supremacy was confirmed in former Commons speaker Peter Milliken’s 2010 ruling that Parliament had an unabridged right to 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 uncensored versions of the records.

NDP foreign affairs critic Jack Harris said the Liberal government is wrong to say it is responsible for balancing national security concerns against the right of the House of Commons to be given government records it demands.

“It is not up to Mr. Stewart to decide what the balance is nor is it up to the Government House leader. It’s up to the House of Commons.”

Over past weeks, the opposition parties adopted four motions to demand the release of the documents.

The Globe and Mail reported in May that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, 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 the Wuhan institute.

Four months before the couple were expelled from the lab in 2019, documents obtained under access to information show, Dr. Qiu played a role in shipping the two deadly viruses – Ebola and Henipah – to Wuhan.

The Globe reported that Dr. Qiu was able to bring into the Winnipeg lab graduate and postgraduate students from China who were studying under her at the University of Manitoba. The Globe also reported that 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.

One of the Chinese researchers, Feihu Yan of the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Medical Sciences, worked for a period of time at the Winnipeg lab.

The government 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.

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