Health Minister Patty Hajdu defended her decision to send unredacted documents regarding the firing of two Chinese scientists from the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg to a non-parliamentary committee for review, instead of to the House of Commons Committee on Canada-China Relations. Opposition MPs criticized the move, saying she appears to be dodging accountability for a possible breach of national security.
“[The] Government of Canada recognizes that the oversight provided by Parliament is essential to a well-functioning government, [and respects] the need for transparency and the importance of accountability before Canadians,” Hajdu told the House of Commons Committee on Canada-China Relations on Monday.
“But in this particular case, the information requested has both privacy and national security implications,” she said.
The House of Commons on June 2 issued an order demanding the release of unredacted documents pertaining to the transfer of viruses. Rather than complying with the House order, Hadju told the committee earlier this month that she had sent the requested documents to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), a committee independent of either House of the Canadian Parliament, for review.
The documents in question pertain to the January firing of scientists Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Kending Cheng, from their positions at the NML. The couple were escorted out of the lab building by the RCMP and stripped of their security clearances in July 2019. In March 2019, Qiu had been in charge of shipping samples of hazardous Ebola and Henipah viruses to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
Conservative MP Michael Chong said Monday that several provisions in the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliaments Act that serve as the guideline for the NSICOP raises questions about the committee’s ability to produce an unbiased scrutiny of the federal government’s role in the virus transfer.
Subsection 5 (1) of the NSICOP Act states that members of the committee are hired and fired “on the recommendation” of the prime minister, and that they hold office at his pleasure. The prime minister also has the power to determine the committee chair, according to subsection 6 (1) of the Act.
Meanwhile, a federal minister has the power to refuse information requested by the committee under subsection 16 (1). Under subsection 8 (1) (b), federal ministers can also block the committee’s review of any matter that they consider “injurious to national security.”
“It’s clearly the wrong committee to hold the government accountable for national security breaches. It’s like the fox guarding the henhouse,” Chong said.
He added that by sending these documents to the NSICOP, Hajdu violated two Canada-China committee orders, and one House order.
Several federal ministers who’ve testified before the Canada-China committee have denied connections between the shipment of viruses and the firing of the two Chinese scientists, but have not provided clear explanations as to how their removal has become an issue of national security.
Qiu had travelled several times to the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, which is part of the WIV, between 2017 and 2018, including one trip to train Chinese scientists and technicians to operate in a level 4 lab, which is the highest bio-safety standard.