OTTAWA – The Speaker of the House of Commons says he intends to ask the federal court to strike down the Trudeau government’s attempt to have a judge block parliamentarians from receiving documents regarding the firing of two scientists at Canada’s top laboratory.
“As Speaker of the House of Commons and guardian of its parliamentary privileges, I will oppose the Attorney General’s application and take the position that the Federal Court has no jurisdiction to restrict the House’s power to request documents,” Anthony Rota wrote in a letter addressed to parliamentarians Friday.
“The Attorney General has been advised of our position, and the necessary steps will be taken before the Court,” his letter concluded.
Rota’s letter was sent on the same day his office formally notified the federal court that it intended to respond to the Liberal’s lawsuit earlier this week asking the federal court to prohibit the disclosure of documents that a majority of MPs formally demanded from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).
In a statement provided to National Post, Rota’s director of communications clarified he intends to ask the court to strike down the Liberal’s request for judicial review if the government does not withdraw it.
After the request for judicial review was filed by the Liberal government Wednesday, Rota told MPs that he would fight “tooth and nail” to protect the principle “that the legal system does not have jurisdiction over the operations of the House. We are our own (court).”t
The unusual legal battle between the federal government and the Speaker stems from a series of documents related to the firing of Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng. Both were scientists at Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Laboratory when they were suddenly escorted out of it in July 2019 and later fired.
Earlier this week, the National Post revealed that Qiu collaborated with Chinese government scientists on inventions patented in Beijing that were closely related to her job in Canada’s top security lab. Federal civil servants are not allowed to file such patents without permission.
Since the firing came to light, opposition MPs have passed multiple motions — first at the parliamentary Canada-China relations committee, and then in the House of Commons — demanding that PHAC release the unredacted documents related to the firing.
PHAC President Iain Stewart has consistently refused, and the situation escalated to the point where he was ordered to the House of Commons on Monday to be admonished by Rota and hand over the documents in person — a first for a private citizen in over 100 years. government has continued to refuse to disclose the documents, arguing that they may contain information that could be “injurious to international relations or national defence or national security” if published.
Two days later, the government filed a lawsuit in the federal court asking for a ruling to prohibit disclosure of the documents. The application specifically names Rota as one of the respondents.
In an analysis posted on his blog Thursday, former long-time House of Commons senior parliamentary counsel Steven Chaplin derided the government for its “ill-advised, political and some would suggest cynical move” to sue the speaker.
“By attempting to drag the courts into the fray, the government fails to accept the fundamental premise on which it holds constitutional authority and legitimacy in the Westminster system of democracy,” Chaplin wrote.
“Pursuing the matter through the courts is not only wrong and unnecessary, it is likely to distort the public’s already shaky understanding of Parliament, and further erode trust in Parliament, the courts, and the government.”
Friday, Conservative MP Michael Chong reiterated his party’s support for Rota in this lawsuit all the while accusing the government of going “extraordinary lengths” to prevent the documents from being released.
“The Trudeau government’s decision to use Canada’s independent judicial system to defy the House of Commons orders undermines the rule of law and our parliamentary democracy. This should concern every Canadian,” Chong said in a statement.