Committee of MPs, former judges to examine firing of 2 National Microbiology Lab scientists

Members from all official parties in the House of Commons and three former judges will sit on a new ad hoc committee to look into the controversial firing of two scientists from Canada’s top virology lab in Winnipeg.

Government House Leader Mark Holland announced the makeup of the committee Wednesday. Four MPs will have access to briefings and other documents on the matter: Iqra Khalid from the Liberals, John Williamson from the Conservatives, René Villemure from the Bloc Québecois and Heather McPherson from the NDP. All four have substitutes from their respective parties.

Three former senior judges will join them to act as arbitrators, and will have final say on what information can be made public. The judges are Ian Binnie, Eleanor Dawson and Marshall Rothstein. Binnie and Rothstein are former Supreme Court of Canada judges.

“Where there is redacted information that the committee believes ought to be made public, the panel of arbiters … will determine how that information could be disclosed more widely without compromising national security, national defence or international relations, or any other public or private interest,” a government news release said.

A man and woman sit side by side on a couch, smiling at the camera.
Dr. Xiangguo Qiu, left, and her husband Keding Cheng, right, were escorted out of the lab in July 2019. Their dismissals were announced in January 2021. The RCMP was investigating the pair at the time, but have provided no reason for their dismissals or the investigation. (Governor General’s Innovation Awards)

The committee will examine the case of Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng. Qiu and Cheng were both scientists working at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, which is run by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). Qiu and Cheng were escorted out of the lab in July 2019 before PHAC announced their dismissal in January 2021. The RCMP was investigating the pair at the time, but neither they nor PHAC have provided a reason for their dismissal or the investigation.

National security experts told CBC News the case raises concerns about Chinese espionage. The dismissals also caused political controversy, with opposition parties demanding the government release more information about why Qiu and Cheng were let go. 

The lab is the only Level 4 facility in Canada, meaning it’s equipped to work with the most serious and deadly human and animal diseases. 

The Conservatives earlier boycotted the all-party national security committee over the government’s refusal to hand over documents related to the scientists’ dismissals. 

Holland said Wednesday that establishing the new committee was difficult. 

“It’s been a long process to get all the parties together, to get the members populated, to get the panel of arbiters,” he said in a media scrum.

“But we now have three esteemed former justices who have agreed to take on the role of arbiter.”

A man stands in front of flags and gestures.
Leader of the Government in the House of Commons Mark Holland speaks during a news conference on Sept. 20, 2022 in Ottawa. Holland said Wednesday that setting up the committee had been a long and difficult process. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The announcement of participants in the process comes more than a year after the Liberals said they would move ahead with such a committee to review the documents.

The Conservatives initially rejected the proposal, preferring that the records be turned over to a regular committee of MPs.

Under a House of Commons order passed by opposition parties in 2021 — over the objections of the government — the documents would have been vetted by the parliamentary law clerk for potential national security issues, but committee members would have retained the right to release whatever material they chose.