A House of Commons committee has passed a motion rejecting the reason the president of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) gave for refusing to disclose critical documents that would help explain why two scientists were fired from Canada’s highest-security Level 4 laboratory.
On Wednesday, the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations passed a motion giving PHAC 20 days to submit all information and documents related to its shipment of live Ebola and Henipah viruses from the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology in March 2019.
In July 2019, Xiangguo Qiu, who was responsible for the virus shipment, was escorted by police from the laboratory, along with her husband, Keding Cheng and her students from China, and were stripped of security clearance due to “policy breach and administrative reasons.”
A PHAC spokesperson later confirmed that the two had been fired from the NML as of Jan. 20.
The connection between their removal from the lab and the shipment of viruses to Wuhan prompted the Canada-China Relations Committee to summon PHAC president Iain Stewart to testify.
During questioning by committee members on March 22, Stewart said he “was not at liberty” to disclose why Qiu and her husband were fired. He was given a deadline of March 26 to provide an explanation.
Instead, Stewart sent a letter to the committee saying Canada’s Privacy Act prevents him from releasing “personal information under the control of a government institution.”
“The Privacy Act does not expressly contemplate the provision of personal information to parliamentarians about employment or labour relations matters concerning public servants,” he wrote.
Conservative MP Michael Chong said Wednesday that Stewart’s reason doesn’t hold water. Citing article 8.2.c of the Privacy Act, Chong said the legislation stipulates that personal information held by PHAC can be disclosed when ordered by a “body with jurisdiction to compel the production of information,” such as a House of Commons committee.
He said PHAC must comply with the Canada-China committee order, citing the House of Commons Procedure and Practice that standing committees have “the power to order the production of papers and records, another privilege that is rooted in the Constitution and which is delegated by the House.”
In a vote, the motion to refuse Stewart’s reason was supported by the Conservatives, NDP, and Bloc Québécois, while the Liberals opposed it.
Liberal MP Robert Oliphant said that while Parliament has the power to demand information, he suggested the committee “step back” from such powers in this case, because the two scientists are currently under RCMP investigation.
“Is there a limitation to our access to information as parliamentarians from a police force while a current investigation is underway?” Oliphant asked the parliamentary law clerk, to whom the PHAC documents would be submitted.
Oliphant also questioned whether the law clerk has the competency and knowledge to determine the potential national security impacts in disclosing certain information.
“I, as an individual MP, do not feel that I have the full base of knowledge to fully understand national security impact of actions,” he said.
“I like the idea that we have this right, but I would be voting against this motion if I feel that there is public interest not being guarded, because sometimes there are interests more important than our right to get information.”
Bloc Quebecois MP Stéphane Bergeron said he was concerned by Oliphant’s position.
“He seems to be saying that, deep down, if we bring forth this motion, it’s not because we are against some civil servant’s decision, but against the government in power, as if the government in power right now is supporting the decisions made by this public servant (Iain Stewart),” Bergeron said.
“I never thought that the government in power was sanctioning the position of this public servant not to answer parliamentarians’ questions.”
Bergeron also stressed that the motion includes safeguards that would prevent MPs from violating public interest by disclosing sensitive details.
In June 2020, CBC News obtained documents through an Access to Information request revealing that on March 31, 2019, four months before Qiu and her husband were escorted from the NML, she had shipped live samples of the deadly Ebola virus and other viruses to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Qiu made at least five visits to China between 2017 and 2018, including one trip to train Chinese scientists and technicians at a newly certified Level 4 lab.