Liberals propose new committee with arbiters to study firing of scientists at Winnipeg lab
OTTAWA -- The government is proposing the creation of a new House of Commons committee, advised by a panel of three former senior judges, to comb through sensitive material relating to the firing of two scientists at Canada’s highest-security laboratory.
A letter signed by Government House Leader Mark Holland on Thursday, and penned to his counterparts across the aisle, states that while the government maintains this information is best held with National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), they are open to find a solution.
The proposal would allow this new group of MPs to gain access to unredacted documents pertaining to the questions surrounding the laboratory in Winnipeg.
Opposition parties have long fought for answers as to why Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and Dr. Keding Cheng were escorted out of Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Laboratory in July 2019 and terminated 18 months later by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).
There are also concerns and questions about whether their terminations are connected to the fact that four months before their removal, Qiu sent a shipment of Ebola and Henipah viruses to China's Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Former PHAC president Iain Stewart has offered no insight into the matter and was publicly admonished in the House of Commons in late June for failing to turn over the documents in question.
Former minister of health Patty Hajdu had referred the matter and provided the documents to NSICOP, which includes members from the House and the Senate, and has a mandate to analyze any activity carried out by a department that relates to national security or intelligence.
“The NSICOP has a proven track record as a body that works in a collaborative and non-partisan fashion. It has shown it can work well for Canadians,” a letter reads.
“Unfortunately, opposition parties in the House disagreed with the referral of this matter to NSICOP.”
The Liberals suggest they’ve found a “responsible and democratic” solution, one that was employed by former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2010 to resolve calls by MPs who wanted access to documents related to the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan.
The government and opposition parties would, if agreed upon, sign a memorandum of understanding to create the ad-hoc committee, “with appropriate safeguards,” to review the documents.
The panel of arbiters would then determine “relevant and necessary information” could be made public while also weighing national security risk.
“Members of the ad-hoc committee would conduct their business within a secure government facility and be subject to appropriate security measures to safeguard the sensitive and confidential information. The committee and panel would be supported by security-cleared, non-partisan public servants,” the letter reads.
Where there is disagreement over what should be released, the judges would step in.
“The panel of arbiters would make a binding determination regarding how that information could be made available to members of Parliament and the public without comprising national security, national defence, or international relations,” the letter reads.
Holland said the proposition recognizes the role of the House in holding the government to account, while also respecting its job in keeping Canadians safe.