House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota says the Trudeau government has not complied with an order to produce unredacted documents related to the firing of two scientists from Canada’s highest security laboratory.
In a ruling Wednesday, Rota confirms, as opposition parties have contended, that the Commons and its committees have an unlimited power to order the production of any documents they please, even those with national security implications.
Citing national security concerns, the minority Liberal government has refused multiple times to provide the unredacted documents to the special Commons committee on Canada-China relations.
In defiance of a House order passed earlier this month, it has instead provided them to the all-party National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, whose members must have top security clearance and are bound to secrecy.
But Rota says that’s not an acceptable alternative since the national security and intelligence committee, a relatively new body created by the Trudeau government, is not a standing committee of Parliament.
Opposition MPs have been demanding the documents for months as they attempt to find out why the Public Health Agency of Canada terminated the employment of scientists Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, in January.
The pair had been escorted out of the National Microbiology Laboratory in July 2019 over what PHAC has described as “relating to possible breaches in security protocols.”
The Winnipeg lab is Canada’s only Level Four laboratory, designed to deal safely with deadly contagious germs such as Ebola.
PHAC president Iain Stewart and Health Minister Patty Hajdu have both said the pair’s firing had nothing to do with the fact that Qiu oversaw a shipment of Ebola and Henipah viruses to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology in March 2019.
They’ve also said there’s no connection to COVID-19, a coronavirus that first appeared in China’s Wuhan province and which some believe may have been released accidentally by the virology institute.
Nevertheless, opposition parties want to see unredacted documents about the transfer of viruses to the institute and the subsequent firing of the two scientists.
The House order demanded that the documents be turned over to the parliamentary law clerk, who was to confidentially review them and redact anything he felt would compromise national security or the ongoing police investigation into Qiu and Cheng.
It specified that the Canada-China relations committee, after consulting with the law clerk, could choose to make public any redacted material.
Rota ruled that there is no limit on the power of the House or its committees to order the production of sensitive documents and to determine how they’re to be handled.
“It is for the House, not the government, to decide how such documents are to be reviewed and what safeguards to put in place, if any,” Rota ruled.
He concluded that there is a prima facie case that the government has breached the privileges of MPs. But he held off giving a formal ruling on that to give Conservative House leader Gerard Deltell time to propose an appropriate motion on the next step.
Typically, such a ruling is followed by either a motion of censure or a motion to refer the matter to a committee for further study.
Deltell later proposed a motion calling on the House to find PHAC president Stewart in contempt and to summon him to appear before the bar of the House to be admonished by the Speaker and to finally turn over the unredacted documents.
Summoning an individual to appear before the bar of the House to be reprimanded is extremely rare. According to Parliament’s website, it has occurred only twice since 1913.