Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

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

The federal government and the three main opposition parties have agreed to set up a special committee of MPs that will have unfettered access to all national security documents related to the firing of two infectious disease scientists at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.

Government House Leader Mark Holland said Tuesday that his Conservative, Bloc Québécois and NDP counterparts have signed a memorandum of understanding that will allow MPs on an ad hoc committee to learn why Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, were dismissed 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 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 last year for trying to obtain the classified documents. The Liberals abandoned the effort when the 2021 election was called.

Whereabouts of fired Winnipeg scientists at centre of national-security investigation still unclear

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.

“What they will have access to is all documents unredacted in their totality. They will be able to see behind the curtain on every aspect,” Mr. Holland told The Globe and Mail.

MPs on the committee must sign an oath of secrecy and will be required to view the classified documents at a secure facility, he added.

Any dispute about what information or documents can be made public will be adjudicated by a panel of three retired judges, who have not yet been appointed.

“This an incredibly important moment for Parliament,” Mr. Holland said. “It is absolutely essential that parliamentarians are able to look into every corner and every aspect of government and its operations.”

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.

In April, Mr. Holland cut a deal with the NDP to set up the ad hoc committee after the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois insisted the documents should be submitted to a formal parliamentary committee and proposed that the House of Commons law clerk vet documents to be provided to MPs.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said his party would have preferred a committee of Parliament – which would have more powers and the unfettered right to call for access to additional documents. He said the Conservatives wanted to resurrect the effort of the 43rd Parliament – before the 2021 election, in which a Commons committee requested the documents – but the government refused.

“The Liberals left us no other option but to pursue this route,” he said.

Mr. Chong said it is nevertheless important for MPs to get to the bottom of the matter. “Clearly there were national security breaches and military researchers from the People’s Republic of China were given admittance to the lab by the government, and we need to understand why that happened and ensure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.

“It was a major security breach.”

Mr. Chong said the Conservatives do not have confidence that the Winnipeg lab is adequately secure from foreign interference.

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 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.

Dr. Qiu’s name appears as a co-author on more than 120 scientific research papers published between 2000 and 2021. A significant number were collaborations with Chinese scientists, and much of the research was funded by Chinese government bodies.

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 China’s Wuhan facility.

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

Other national-security issues involve the fact students from China were granted access to the high-security lab. Dr. Qiu was able to bring graduate and postgraduate students from China who were studying at the University of Manitoba into the facility. It remains unclear how those students got the security clearance to enter the lab, which is equipped to handle the world’s most dangerous viruses.

NDP House Leader Peter Julian said the memorandum of understanding between the parties strikes a careful balance.

“There are unresolved questions about the events that led up to the firing of those scientists. New Democrats believe this MOU is a good path forward which balances the need for more transparency with the need to treat these documents with the care required,” Mr. Julian said.

Bloc Québécois House Leader Alain Therrien said his party is ready to start examining the secret documents.

“After 18 months, it is time for the committee to begin its investigation,” he said.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe