The Liberal government is proposing a compromise over a long-running dispute with opposition parties over the disclosure of documents related to the firing of two scientists at Canada’s highest-security laboratory.
Government House leader Mark Holland proposed Thursday that a special ad hoc committee of MPs from all parties be allowed to view both the redacted and unredacted documents. Non-partisan government officials would advise if some sensitive information should be redacted.
In the event of a disagreement over what should be made public, a panel of independent arbiters, made up of three former senior judges agreed upon by all parties, would decide how the information could be made public without compromising national security, national defence or international relations.
The panel’s decisions would be binding and could include the full or partial release of documents or writing summaries of sensitive material.
Holland noted that this is the same process adopted in 2010 by Stephen Harper’s former Conservative government to allow opposition MPs to view unredacted documents related to the alleged abusive treatment of detainees turned over to Afghan authorities by the Canadian military.
“We believe this proposal constitutes a good-faith effort by the government to resolve this matter,” Holland said in a letter to his opposition counterparts.
“It recognizes the role of the House of Commons to hold the government to account. And it also respects the government’s obligation to keep certain information confidential to protect Canadians. We are proposing a transparent, responsive and reasonable approach that is in accordance with laws that protect sensitive information.”
There was no immediate response from any of the opposition parties.
Scientists fired in January 2021
In the last parliamentary session, opposition parties banded together to pass repeated motions demanding that the Public Health Agency of Canada turn over all unredacted documents related to the firing of scientists Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng.
The pair were escorted out of Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Laboratory in July 2019 and subsequently fired last January.
Opposition MPs repeatedly asserted the right of the Commons and its committees to order the production of any documents they please, while former PHAC head Iain Stewart repeatedly argued that he was prevented by law from releasing material that could violate privacy or national security laws.
The battle culminated in June with Stewart being hauled before the bar of the Commons to be reprimanded by House Speaker Anthony Rota over his repeated refusal to comply with the order to produce the unredacted documents. He was the first non-MP to be subjected to such a procedure in more than a century.
The government applied to the Federal Court of Canada a few days later to prevent the release of the documents, which it maintained would be injurious to international relations, national defence or national security.
It 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.
Investigating link to COVID-19 pandemic
However, in one of the first moves when the Commons resumed sitting last week, the Conservatives asked 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.
The demand for documents includes material related to the transfer, overseen by Qiu, of deadly Ebola and Henipah viruses to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology in March 2019.
Stewart, who is no longer the head of PHAC, had assured MPs that the transfer had nothing to do with the subsequent firings of Qiu and Cheng, and that there was no connection to COVID-19.
The coronavirus was first identified in China’s Wuhan province and some believe it may have been released accidentally by the virology institute, triggering the global pandemic. In October, the World Health Organization (WHO) appointed a team of scientists to oversee an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, which remains unknown nearly two years after it began.
Despite Stewart’s assurances, opposition parties continue to suspect a link.