No probe into Winnipeg lab security breach documents after Chong’s motion thwarted

Liberal, NDP committee members prevent vote on local MP’s motion to study newly-released documents

OTTAWA – Top federal public health and intelligence officials won’t be appearing before a parliamentary committee to answer questions about recently declassified documents detailing investigations that led to the firing of two scientists from the Winnipeg National Microbiology Laboratory.

Conservative foreign affairs critic and Wellington-Halton Hills MP Michael Chong motioned on March 4 for a House of Commons access to information, privacy and ethics committee to examine how information and intelligence flows through government, and why government documents provided to parliamentarians about the firing of the scientists were “over-classified.”

But thanks to political manoeuvring from a Liberal committee member, Chong’s motion never made it to a vote.

In 2020, infectious-disease scientists Xiangguo Qiu and husband Keding Cheng, both Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) employees at the time, had their security clearances revoked, and were later fired in 2021.

The government has stayed mostly mum over the years on what exactly happened at the Winnipeg lab, which is rated to handle the most lethal pathogens.

Orders were made in committee and in the House for unredacted documents about the security breaches to be provided, but PHAC and the government refused.

In 2021, then House Speaker Anthony Rota ruled that what the House votes is what the government does, and the government responded by taking Rota to court in an unprecedented move.

The legal case was dropped after Parliament dissolved for an early election in 2021, called by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

A non-partisan committee with four MPs, overseen by three former judges, was eventually formed in 2023 to comb over what to make public in government documents.

Those documents – more than 600 pages including secret-designated security and intelligence reports, investigation narratives, numerous email threads, logistics paperwork, and scripted responses to provide to questioning journalists – were at last tabled in the House on Feb. 28.

The documents reveal that in 2018, the national security branch of PHAC began an investigation after receiving a tip about Qiu being named on a Chinese patent believed to contain scientific information belonging to Canada.

The RCMP opened a (still ongoing) investigation in 2019, and according to PHAC and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) investigations, the pair was found to have shared information with China, cultivated deep relationships within the government there, and met secretly with officials.

On Monday, Chong proposed that senior officials within public health, CSIS and federal ministers appear before the committee, of which he is not a member.

“We need to continue this examination in order to hold the government accountable,” Chong said.

“We cannot let this defiance of parliament that took place three years ago go unanswered and unexamined,” he added, referring back to 2021.

Other Conservative members, who are not members of the committee, including Michael Cooper, Stephen Ellis and Luc Berthold, spoke after Chong, reiterating his talking points. The MPs accused the government of an “unprecedented campaign of obstruction” led by the prime minister.

Liberal member Iqra Khalid, who served on the document review committee, said bluntly, “There was no cover-up.”

She accused the Conservatives of using the meeting for “political games,” and said the MPs were spreading disinformation. She motioned for the meeting to be ended without a decision on Chong’s motion.

Cooper accused Khalid of shutting down debate.

“No, I refuse to let this … become political gander,” she said, in part.

Chong called for a recorded vote.

Five Liberal committee members and NDP member Michael Green voted against the four Conservative members to end the meeting.

In a written statement provided to the Advertiser, Chong accused the Liberals and NDP of working together to cover up government failure. He declined to elaborate further and referred the newspaper back to the written statement.

In a written statement to the Advertiser, Green said the information, privacy and ethics committee was the wrong place for Chong’s motion. He suggested it go before the Canada-China committee, of which Chong is a member.

“That’s the appropriate committee to investigate this mess,” Green said.

He added the NDP will continue working for accountability and transparency on the issue.