A Commons Committee grilled the president of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) over his failure to produce unredacted documents related to the transfer of deadly viruses to China’s Wuhan laboratory and the agency’s removal of two Chinese scientists.
The Standing Committee on Canada-China Relations summoned Iain Stewart to testify on Monday after he failed to produce unredacted documents before a 20-day deadline stated by a motion adopted by the committee on March 31.
The motion requested that the PHAC submit all information and documents related to its shipment of live Ebola and Henipah viruses from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology in March 2019. The committee had also requested the agency produce documents and information regarding its removal of scientist Xiangguo Qiu, who was responsible for the virus shipment, her husband Keding Cheng, and her students from China. Qiu and Cheng both had their security clearances revoked months later in July 2019.
But the PHAC failed to produce the unredacted documents. By April 26, the committee had only received redacted copies.
During the Monday hearing, Stewart said he didn’t produce the unredacted documents because doing so would breach the Privacy Act and jeopardize national security and the ongoing investigation by the RCMP.
His answers were similar to the ones he gave during his testimony before the committee on March 22.
“It’s not that we’re wishing to be uncooperative or unresponsive,” Stewart said. “The reason we’ve done so is that as public servants, we’re bound by law to keep confidential information confidential.”
Conservative MP Michael Chong argued that there’s provision within the Privacy Act that may allow the disclosure of personal information in some cases.
“In Section 8(2)(c), [it] says, ‘for the purpose of complying with a subpoena or warrant issued or order made by a court, person or body with jurisdiction to compel the production of information or for the purpose of complying with rules of court relating to the production of information,’” Chong said.
“We, as this committee, are a body with jurisdiction to compel the production of information,” the foreign affairs critic added.
Also, committee members, backed up by parliamentary law clerk Philippe Dufresne, insist they have the constitutional authority to order the production of any documents they please and that their authority takes precedence over any other laws.
Stewart’s legal adviser, Christian Roy, disagreed, saying that the Justice Department does not recognize the power of committees to compel documents in violation of the Privacy Act or other laws.
Conservative MP Garnett Genuis then brought up a 2010 ruling by former Commons Speaker Peter Milliken that found members of Parliament have the right to seek uncensored documents related to the treatment of Afghan detainees from the Harper government.
“Is your position the same as Speaker Milliken?” Genuis asked Roy, executive director and senior general counsel of health legal services at the Justice Department.
“I don’t think we can square the two in the sense that my recollection of the Milliken ruling is that ultimately he asked that the parties discuss the matter and that they come up with a solution,” Roy answered.
“You’re telling this committee that your position is different from Speaker Milliken’s position. Do you believe that Speaker Milliken had the authority to make that ruling? And do you believe that his ruling has force of law?” the Conservative MP followed up.
“I do believe Speaker Milliken had the authority to make the ruling and that it applied to the legislative, the legislature in essence,” replied Roy.
“The Speaker ruled though that parliamentary committees have a right to send for documents that you said that’s not your position … What I don’t understand is how you are taking a position that is different from the position that the lawful authority has made in this case, and yet you presume to say that your position is still the legally correct position? Genuis pressed.
“My recollection is that the facts were different, and that the order that was issued was different,” Roy replied.
“Mr. Roy, I think you’ve just defeated your own argument, like you’ve acknowledged your position is inconsistent with the speaker’s ruling, the speaker had the right to make the ruling, but you still wish to persist in disagreeing with it,” Genuis said.
Liberal MP Robert Oliphant questioned Roy’s legal opinion and suggested Stewart “get a second opinion.”
“I think you need a second opinion, because I think that the Justice Department is not giving you the best advice,” Oliphant said. “Lawyers are not always right and Justice lawyers are particularly in my mind, not always right.”
Bloc MP Stephane Bergeron told Stewart that he was not respecting the request and goodwill of parliamentarians.
“I imagine that you would have never dared to transmit redacted documents or refuse to answer before the court. Here, the parliament is acting like a court,” Bergeron said.
“Parliamentarians understand that there is personal information that should not be publicly disclosed … if they are related to national security questions or questions related to criminal investigation underway. That is why we offered you the option of communicating this information to us under the protection of an in-camera session, so that we would not share this information with the public.
“But in spite of having made that offer, as parliamentarians towards you, you have chosen to not respond to any of the requests from the parliamentarians,” he added.
Due to Stewart’s non-disclosure approach, the committee, in a unanimous vote, demanded the PHAC provide all the unredacted documents within 10 days, which the law clerk would then review and advise the committee as to what could be released publicly.
Should the agency fail to deliver the unredacted documents again, the committee would seek an order to do so from the House of Commons.
With files from The Canadian Press