PHAC president reprimanded for not producing documents on scientists fired from Winnipeg lab

The president of the Public Health Agency of Canada appeared before the bar at the House of Commons today, where he was publicly admonished by Speaker Anthony Rota for failing to turn over to a Commons committee documents related to the the firing of two scientists from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.

Rota called Iain Stewart into the House and began his reprimand by telling Stewart that the House of Commons and its parliamentary committees have defined powers outlined in law that must be followed.

“The powers in question, like all those enjoyed by the House collectively and by members individually, are essential to the performance of their duties,” Rota said. “The House has the power, and indeed the duty to reaffirm them when obstruction or interference impedes with its deliberations.

“As guardian of these rights and privileges, that is precisely what the House has asked me to do today, by ordering the Speaker to reprimand you for the Public Health Agency of Canada’s contempt, refusing to submit the required documents.” 

Stewart also was ordered to bring with him the unredacted documents demanded by opposition MPs. The Speaker said Stewart’s lawyer had reached out to Rota’s office earlier in the day saying he would be unable to produce the documents.

Calling someone to the bar of the House is a rarely used procedure meant to publicly shame a person who has committed “an offence against the dignity or authority of Parliament,” according to House of Commons Procedure and Practice, third edition.

Since 1913, it has not been used against a private citizen. It has been used twice, in 1991 and 2002, to discipline MPs who had grabbed the ceremonial mace during heated Commons proceedings.

Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng were escorted from the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg in 2019 and were officially fired in January of this year. (Governor General’s Innovation Awards)

Opposition parties joined forces earlier this month to pass a motion in the Commons ordering PHAC to turn over all unredacted documents related to the firing of scientists Xiangguo Qiu and her biologist husband, Kending Cheng, who were escorted off the premises in 2019 and were officially fired in January of this year.

The motion called for the documents to be handed to the parliamentary law clerk, who would confidentially review them and redact anything he felt would compromise national security or the ongoing police investigation.

The motion specified that the Canada-China relations committee, after consulting with the law clerk, could choose to make public any redacted material.

In defiance of the House order, the minority Liberal government instead provided the unredacted documents to the all-party National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, NSICOP, whose members have top security clearance and are bound to secrecy.

NSICOP was established by the Liberal government in 2018 to review Canada’s national security and intelligence activities.

The Liberal government argued that NSICOP was the appropriate body to examine the documents without putting at risk national security or compromising any ongoing investigations.

Last week, Rota ruled that sending the documents to NSICOP is not an acceptable alternative since it’s a relatively new body and not a standing committee of Parliament.

Liberal government must obey House order: Chong

Today, Liberal House Leader Pablo Rodríguez said the government remains concerned about the possible impacts of releasing sensitive intelligence.

“While the government accepts that the Parliament and parliamentary council have the appropriate security clearance to review the information, we do not believe he has the necessary training or expertise in national security related information to make the necessary assessment” of what can be released, Rodríguez said.

Rodríguez said disclosing sensitive information could compromise covert investigative methods used in intelligence gathering or put at risk human sources of information and their families.  “It can have a severe impact on Canada’s reputation as a responsible security partner,” he said.

Rodríguez proposed two possible methods that would allow MPs to review the documents. 

The first involves striking an ad-hoc committee of MPs, as was done during the Afghan detainee debate under former prime minister Stephen Harper. MPs who took part in that committee were sworn to an oath of confidence in return for access to documents. 

The second proposal was to have the law clerk and parliamentary council, assisted by national security experts, look at the documents together to decide what can be released.

Conservative MP Michael Chong argued that the House could not stand by and let a government refuse to deliver documents lawfully ordered by the House of Commons.

Rota said he would take the arguments into consideration and come back to the House with a ruling on what to do next.