House of Commons issues first formal rebuke to non-MP in nearly 110 years over Winnipeg lab docs

Click to play video: 'Senior public servant receives first formal House of Commons reprimand for non-MP since 1913'
Senior public servant receives first formal House of Commons reprimand for non-MP since 1913
Iain Stewart, president of the Public Health Agency of Canada, became the first non-MP in more than 100 years to be summoned to the bar of the House of Commons for a rare formal reprimand amid a fight for opposition access to Winnipeg lab documents, which the government has refused to provide to a prominent committee – Jun 21, 2021

The president of the Public Health Agency of Canada is now the first non-MP in more than a 100 years to receive a formal reprimand from the House of Commons.

The move is the latest escalation in a heated political row over the government’s refusal to hand over documents related to the firing of two scientists from the National Microbiology Lab in 2019.

It followed a vote last week by MPs to invoke a rare set of powers to discipline or potentially even imprison people, and summoned him as part of an opposition push to pressure the government to release documents on the firing.

Clad in a dark suit, Stewart was brought in by the Sergeant-at-Arms to stand at the bar of the House of Commons — literally a long brass bar across the green carpet — where he was reprimanded.

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Speaker Anthony Rota read out the rebuke, and said he had been informed by legal counsel for Stewart that Stewart had not brought the documents in question as he had been ordered to do.

News that Stewart had not brought the documents quickly prompted heated exchanges between the Conservatives and Liberals, with Conservatives arguing the government was yet again defying the order to produce the documents and asking Rota to rule whether the refusal had breached House rules.

Such a finding could theoretically escalate into an opposition bid to incarcerate Stewart through the House of Common’s rarely used powers to discipline — though it hasn’t used that power in more than a century.

Liberal House Leader Pablo Rodriguez suggested the government was willing to hand the documents over to an ad hoc parliamentary committee in the same vein as the one created to study thousands of documents related to the Afghan detainee scandal in 2010.

At multiple points, Rota had to loudly tell MPs to settle down.

Stewart did not speak during the appearance, which has lasted roughly 35 minutes before he was allowed to leave, though discussion continued with multiple MPs raising points of privilege with Rota and asking him to rule on whether the rules of the House had been broken.

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“This is an unprecedented situation and one that concerns the Chair,” said Rota.

“I will take this under consideration and come back to the House with a decision.”

Xiangguo Qiu and her biologist husband, Kending Cheng, were escorted out of the lab in 2019 and officially fired in January. Qiu had previously been responsible for a shipment of Ebola and Henipah viruses to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu has said that shipment was unrelated to the firing of the two scientists.

Click to play video: 'What’s really behind the Winnipeg lab incident?'
What’s really behind the Winnipeg lab incident?

She has said the government cannot provide the documents to the Canada-China committee that ordered them because of “national security.”

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Instead, Hajdu has said the documents should be shared with the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, where members from all parties with top secret clearances can review the materials.

Conservatives have argued that is not good enough because the committee operates under the authority of the Prime Minister’s Office rather than being a parliamentary committee.

They say the fact Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can order redactions to any report the committee might produce means parliamentarians and Canadians will not get the complete picture of what happened.

Rodriguez on Monday argued disclosing the documents could jeopardize human intelligence sources and damage Canada’s credibility as a country with which sensitive intelligence can be shared.

The circumstances of the firing of the two scientists remain unclear.

More to come…

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