Tensions flare as top federal health official scolded in the House for failing to turn over documents
OTTAWA -- The president of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) was publicly admonished in the House of Commons on Monday for failing to turn over unredacted documents demanded by MPs related to the firing of two scientists at Canada’s highest security lab.
In an extraordinarily rare procedural move, PHAC president Iain Stewart was escorted to the bar in the House of Commons chamber where he was reprimanded by House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota, which sparked off a series of tense exchanges between the government and opposition.
His admonishment was brought on after PHAC refused to provide further paperwork containing more details related to why scientists Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, were removed from Winnipeg's National Microbiology Laboratory in July 2019 and then later fired by the agency.
“The House of Commons possesses privileges that are an integral part of the 1867 constitution, such as the power to require the production of documents,” said Rota. “As guardian of these rights and privileges, that is precisely what the House is asking me to do today, by ordering the speaker to reprimand you for the Public Health Agency’s contempt refusing to submit the required documents.”
Opposition parties joined forces last week to pass a Conservative-led motion finding the federal government and PHAC in contempt of Parliament. As part of the motion, Stewart was ordered to bring the documents with him to his admonishment, but he showed up empty-handed Monday.
His decision to appear, but not abide by the other request of Parliament sparked a furious series of exchanges between Liberal and opposition MPs who were in the Chamber to watch the public reprimand unfold. Rota had to interject and demand order.
Throughout the proceedings, Stewart stood silent, hands clasped and holding his blue surgical mask, which he removed when he entered the West Block House of Commons chamber. At times he would check his phone, and after approximately 30 minutes, MPs unanimously agreed to dismiss him.
After he left, the procedural wrangling continued. The Conservatives argued that Stewart showing up without the documents was yet another breach of parliamentary privilege.
“This government, Mr. Speaker is rolling back 18 decades of parliamentary evolution, with its defiance of now four orders of this House and its committee,” said Conservative MP Michael Chong.
Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux balked at what his party viewed as a shame-worthy display of disrespect of a public servant.
"Having Mr. Stewart at the bar was very difficult for many of us to witness. The amount of time he stayed at the bar was deeply offensive to many members," he said.
He went on to say: "It seemed somewhat, in my opinion, shameful," touting Stewart's work leading the agency through the COVID-19 pandemic.
The requested material was also supposed to contain details on whether the firing of the scientists is linked to the fact that four months prior to having their security clearances revoked, Qiu sent a shipment of Ebola and Henipah viruses to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in March 2019, the same lab that’s at the centre of a new probe launched by the U.S. to determine the origins of the COVID-19 virus.
While Stewart did not speak on Monday, his office presented a letter outlining the reason why he was unable to share the information requested. As he told the House Health Committee on Friday, he’s obligated to abide by legal and privacy restrictions given that the situation is under RCMP investigation.
“I am a career public servant and, as a career public servant, I am required to follow the law,” Stewart told the committee.
Stopped by reporters on his way out of the building on Monday, Stewart had no comment about the admonishment.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu, who oversees PHAC, wasn’t physically present in the chamber for the admonishment but in earlier statements during question period she said it’s “disappointing” to see the Conservatives “play games” on issues of national security.
She also noted that unredacted documents have been provided to the top-secret National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), which the Conservatives yanked their members from in protest last week.
“Unredacted documents were provided to the appropriate committee of parliamentarians who have the expertise and clearance to review documents that are sensitive in this nature. We will never put Canadians national security at risk,” said Hajdu.
In an interview on CTV News Channel’s Power Play later in the day, Chong said NSICOP isn’t the appropriate home for the documents.
“It’s akin to putting the fox in charge of the hen house. This is a committee of the prime minister’s office, its members are appointed and serve at the pleasure of the prime minister. The prime minister can deny the committee information,” he said. “It’s not a committee of Parliament.”
The Conservatives are now calling for Parliament’s sergeant-at-arms to conduct a search of the PHAC offices for the documents.
NDP MP Jack Harris seemed to agree with the proposal.
“We have a situation where the president of the Public Health Agency of Canada has complied with part of the order, but not the full order, and therefore, he is in breach of the order of this House. A proper remedy has been suggested,” he said.
The Liberals, meanwhile, have proposed two alternatives that they say would balance the right of parliamentarians and the duty of the government to protect information related to national security.
Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez said an ad hoc committee may be formed with safeguards in place and a panel of arbiters to determine the relevancy of information. Or, that the law clerk and parliamentary counsel be assisted by national security experts in their analysis of the documents before presenting material to MPs.
Calling a private citizen to be publicly shamed by the Commons hasn't happened since 1913, though two MPs were disciplined this way approximately 20 years ago for grabbing the ceremonial mace inside the Chamber during proceedings.