The Trudeau government is in the midst of another potential scandal as it fights tooth and nail to protect classified documents on the firing of two scientists in Canada's highest-security laboratory.
Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, had their security clearance revoked in July 2019 from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. The pair was escorted from the lab alongside a group of students from China.
In January 2021, it was made public that the pair had been fired after CSIS intervention on the grounds of shipping samples of the Ebola and Henipah viruses and sharing other information with the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.
Having asked the Federal Court to intervene in an unprecedented move, Speaker Anthony Rota, a Liberal MP, openly challenged the federal government's court application and the usurping of the House of Commons' ability to demand the procurement of any documents they request.
Rota said to the House on Wednesday that regardless of the sensitivity of its contents, he would fight "tooth and nail" to protect the long-standing rule within Parliament, stating that they are their own court and that the legal system has no jurisdiction over the operations of the House.
On Monday, Rota hauled Iain Stewart, head of the Public Health Agency of Canada, to Parliament after a motion was passed by opposition parties. He was to be reprimanded over his repeated refusal to disclose documents to the Canada-China relations committee on the firing of two high-clearance scientists.
However, Stewart refused to turn over the unredacted documents, which his lawyer writes in a letter to Rota was out of compliance with the law and not the defiance of Parliament. Under the Canada Evidence Act, Stewart's lawyer claimed his client was barred from divulging "sensitive information or potentially injurious information" and, as required by law, had given notice to the attorney general of his appearance before the committee.
The attorney general then filed an application in Federal Court, naming Rota as a respondent. He requested that the documents remain under wraps.
"Those officials are following the law. PHAC is following the law," said Attorney General and Justice Minister David Lametti.
He committed never to play politics with national security and relayed his confidence with the application drafted by justice officials.
"I will approach this, as attorney general, in a non-partisan manner," he said.
The application disputed the unredacted material as "information which if disclosed would be injurious to international relations or national defence or national security." Stewart claimed the firings had no connection to COVID-19, nor did the virus transfer with China's Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The committee is considering enacting the procedure by having the sergeant-at-arms search and seize the documents should they fail to procure the documents or make an alternative recommendation in a month.
Rota said he would exercise a well-thought-out ruling but required more time. With Parliament recessed for the summer, the ruling will be made when they return in September. Should there be an election in the Fall, Rota said the next Speaker would decide how best to proceed on the matter, if at all. Stewart is the first civil servant since 1913 to be summoned to the House of Commons.
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