Friday, December 3, 2021

Liberals offer deal to allow select MPs to see documents on fired Chinese lab scientists in Winnipeg

Liberals offer deal to allow select MPs to see documents on fired Chinese lab scientists in Winnipeg

Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, were escorted out of Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Laboratory in July 2019 and later fired

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OTTAWA — Parliamentarians could finally get a look at documents related to the firing of two scientists from Canada’s highest security laboratory — which the Liberals went to court to keep secret — under a new deal offered by the government.

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Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, were escorted out of Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Laboratory in July 2019 and later fired.

The National Post has previously reported that Qiu collaborated with Chinese government scientists on inventions patented in Beijing, but closely related to her job in the lab, even though federal civil servants are not allowed to file such patents.

The national microbiology lab is a secure facility that conducts research on some of the world’s most dangerous viruses, including ebola and tuberculosis.

The documents were first demanded by the House of Commons committee on Canada-China relations, but the government essentially ignored the request. A motion was then passed in the House calling for them to be presented but Iain Stewart, then president of the Public Health Health Agency of Canada, repeatedly argued that he was prevented by law from releasing material that could violate privacy or national security laws.

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  1. Xiangguo Qiu's ouster from the National Microbiology Laboratory remains cloaked in mystery and has been the subject of ongoing debate in Parliament.

    Fired Winnipeg lab scientist listed as co-inventor on two Chinese government patents

  2. The National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg where scientists Xiangguo Qiu and Keding Cheng worked until they were escorted out in July 2019, and finally fired in January 2021.

    High-security lab’s ties to Chinese military researchers should compel Liberals to provide documents: opposition

MPs specifically sought material related to the transfer, overseen by Qiu, of deadly Ebola and Henipah viruses to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology in March 2019. That’s the lab some suspect released the coronavirus that triggered the pandemic.

Stewart assured MPs that the transfer had nothing to do with the firings of Qiu and her husband and that there was no connection to COVID-19.

The battle culminated in June with Stewart being hauled before the bar of the Commons to be reprimanded by the Speaker. A few days later, the government asked the Federal Court of Canada to intervene to stop the release of the documents, arguing they must be kept secret to protect national security.

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The government dropped the case when the election was called in August since the order to produce the documents, along with all other business before the House, was terminated with the dissolution of Parliament. However, in one of the first moves when the Commons resumed sitting last week, the Conservatives asked Speaker Anthony Rota to rule that the government was in contempt of Parliament when it launched the court proceeding. Rota has not yet ruled on the matter but should he agree, the Conservatives intend to move a motion, supported by other opposition parties, to issue a warrant to seize the documents.

Liberal House [Leader?] Mark Holland offered up a new proposal on Thursday, which could avoid the court case if opposition parties are prepared to play along, which he said is a balance and a compromise.

“The proposed model balances two key principles; first, accountability to Parliament by maximizing disclosure and transparency to the greatest extent that is possible, secondly the protection of sensitive and confidential information from disclosure where it would be injurious to our nation,” he said.

Holland’s proposal is modelled on a compromise reached during the Harper government in 2010 over the transfer of Afghan detainees to the Afghan authorities and questions about whether those detainees were subsequently tortured.

The National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.
The National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. 

Under the deal, one MP from each party and one alternate would sit on a panel to review the documents and decide what information should be made public. The MPs would be selected by their parties, but they would have to pass a security clearance and read the documents in a secure room.

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Any disputes among the MPs on what should be made public would go to a panel of three senior judges. The judges would be selected by the committee and would have the final say on whether information could be released.

“We believe this proposal constitutes a good faith effort by the government to resolve this matter responsibly,” Holland said in the House. “It recognizes the role of the House of Commons to do its work. It also respects the government’s obligation to protect Canadians from the harm that could occur with the release of sensitive national security information.”

Holland said there have always been some government documents that remained out of the public eye.

“Information subject to solicitor-client privilege or cabinet confidences are classes of information that Parliament has long recognized are sensitive and may require protection from disclosure.”

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NDP MP Heather McPherson said her party would have to review the government’s proposal, but the Liberals had far too often treated Parliament as an afterthought.

“Too often, this Liberal government treats the House of Commons as an inconvenience. They continue to ignore a unanimous consent call from the House to drop their legal battle against Indigenous kids. They wasted months after their unnecessary election to even recall the House. Today, they announced a major fiscal update will take place in the final days of the sitting,” she said. “With regards to these documents on the Winnipeg Lab, the fact that the Liberal government ignored the House order and took the Speaker to court shows extreme disdain for democracy, the role of Parliament and our roles as MPs.”

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The Conservatives did not have a response to Holland’s proposal before press time on Thursday.

Last year, the Liberals provided the documents, without any redactions, to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), a separate body that was set up for the sole purpose of reviewing classified files.

That committee meets secretly and the ultimate decision on its membership and censoring of reports lies with the prime minister.

In a letter to the other parties, Holland said the government still believes NSICOP could deal with these issues, but it is offering this new arrangement as a compromise.

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