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Opposition parties want documents on fired Winnipeg scientists when Parliament resumes

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Scientists Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, lost their security clearances in July, 2019, and the RCMP were called into investigate. They were dismissed in January of this year.Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

Opposition parties plan to resume their parliamentary battle for the disclosure of documents on the firing of two scientists from Canada’s highest-security laboratory, a dispute that has pitted the Trudeau government against the House of Commons.

In June, the federal government took House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota to court in an unprecedented move to prevent the release of documents to MPs that could offer insight into why Ottawa expelled and then fired Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.

The two scientists lost their security clearances in July, 2019, and the RCMP were called into investigate. They were dismissed in January of this year.

Opposition parties would need to adopt another motion in the new Parliament that begins Nov. 22 to compel the release of the documents. That’s because Parliament was dissolved in August, at the start of the 2021 election campaign. The government also dropped its legal action shortly after.

“This is a minority Parliament and the opposition parties have a significant amount of authority and power in this,” NDP deputy foreign affairs critic Don Davies said in an interview. “If the majority of parliamentarians want to see this information disclosed to Parliament, then it is a core part of our democracy that that will be complied with.”

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The government has warned disclosure of information in the documents could jeopardize national security, and in a court filing said it could also threaten Canada’s international relations.

But Mr. Davies and Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said they suspect the government is hiding behind national security to avoid politically embarrassing information from being revealed to Canadians.

They noted the government initially claimed the information could not be released for privacy reasons, but then suddenly claimed the release of the documents would jeopardize national security.

“They were trying to come up with excuses for why they wouldn’t hand over the information,” Mr. Chong said. “We don’t know all the details … but I think the reason they don’t want to hand over the documents is because those documents would reveal there were serious national security breaches.”

Bloc Québécois MP Stéphane Bergeron said while he has not consulted with the party’s House leader, he doesn’t see any reason why the Bloc would not support a motion calling on the government to release the Winnipeg lab documents.

The Globe and Mail has reported that the RCMP are investigating whether the two dismissed scientists passed on Canadian intellectual property to China, including to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The investigation centres on the possibility that materials such as plasma DNA molecules, which could be used to recreate vaccines or viruses, were transferred to Chinese authorities without the approval of the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The Globe has also reported that Dr. Qiu, who headed the vaccine development and antiviral therapies section at the Winnipeg lab, collaborated on scientific papers with China military researchers, including Major-General Chen Wei, a high-ranking officer in the People’s Liberation Army, recently lauded by President Xi Jinping for developing a Chinese COVID-19 vaccine. (The RCMP have been informed the scientists have relocated to China, The Globe has noted.)

More than 250 pages of records have been withheld in their entirety from MPs, and hundreds of others have been partly censored. They also relate to the March, 2019, transfer of deadly virus samples to the Wuhan Institute of Virology that was overseen by Dr. Qiu.

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The government previously said it would only turn over unredacted documents to an entity called the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, which is not a committee of Parliament. Mr. Trudeau has the power to prevent the committee from releasing information to the public if he is of the opinion that this would damage national security, national defence or international relations.

Assuming he is re-elected as Speaker, Mr. Rota said Tuesday: “If Parliament does request something and it is their right to have it, then the Speaker has to rule accordingly.”

Representatives from the Conservatives, NDP and Bloc said they also plan to use their combined voting power to reconstitute the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations. In the last Parliament, this committee concluded China has committed genocide against Muslim Uyghurs, criticized Beijing’s draconian crackdown on dissent and opposition in Hong Kong, and requested the release of documents on the firing of the two scientists.

Mr. Bergeron said he can’t see why the Bloc wouldn’t support bringing back the committee, saying it’s “still pertinent, still appropriate.”

The Bloc MP said his approach to China has evolved since MPs created the Canada-China committee in late 2019. He said he previously felt “we should do everything we can to try to improve relations” with China. The MP said, however, that Canada has since learned a lot about the “diplomatic and economic strategy of the Xi Jinping regime,” and he now feels a stronger line is needed – in tandem with allies.

“I think compromise is not a language this regime understands. So I think we should present a more firm position toward the People’s Republic of China because it’s the only language this regime will understand.”

With a report from Ian Bailey in Ottawa

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