A view of the National Microbiology Laboratory is seen in Winnipeg, Tuesday, May 19, 2009. The president of the Public Health Agency of Canada is refusing to explain why two Canadian government scientists were let go 18 months after being escorted from Canada’s highest security laboratory. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

A view of the National Microbiology Laboratory is seen in Winnipeg, Tuesday, May 19, 2009. The president of the Public Health Agency of Canada is refusing to explain why two Canadian government scientists were let go 18 months after being escorted from Canada’s highest security laboratory. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

PHAC head says Privacy Act prevents explanation for firing of two scientists

Pair were escorted out of the National Microbiology Laboratory over what was described as a possible policy breach

In defiance of a House of Commons committee, the president of the Public Health Agency of Canada still won’t explain why two government scientists were fired 18 months after being escorted from Canada’s highest-security laboratory.

Iain Stewart had been given a deadline of Friday to provide an explanation to members of the special committee on Canada-China relations for why PHAC terminated the employment of Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, in January.

Instead, he sent the MPs a letter saying that the Privacy Act does not allow him to share “employment or labour-relations matters concerning public servants.”

Questions about an RCMP investigation into the two Canadian government scientists should be directed to the Mounties, Stewart added.

The pair were escorted out of the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in July 2019 over what was described at the time as a possible policy breach and administrative matter.

In his letter Friday, Stewart linked their departure to a “number of review processes” initiated by PHAC in 2018, “relating to possible breaches of security protocols at the NML.”

The Winnipeg lab is Canada’s highest-security laboratory, designed to deal safely with deadly contagious germs such as Ebola.

PHAC has previously said the pair’s escorted exit had nothing to do with the fact that four months earlier, Qiu had been responsible for a shipment of Ebola and Henipah viruses to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology.

In his letter, Stewart said the pair “have had no access to PHAC facilities, infrastructure or assets” since July 2019.

Their employment was officially terminated last Jan. 20, and ever since, PHAC has steadfastly refused to reveal why. Stewart cited the Privacy Act in his letter to MPs.

“The Privacy Act does not expressly contemplate the provision of personal information to parliamentarians about employment or labour relations matters concerning public servants,” he wrote.

However, Conservative MP Garnett Genuis said opposition members of the committee have no intention of letting the matter go.

Together with Bloc Quebecois MP Stephane Bergeron, they have forced an emergency committee meeting to be held next week.

At that meeting, Genuis said he will introduce a motion to compel PHAC to hand over to the committee all documents related to the two scientists, without any redactions. The motion will call for the parliamentary law clerk to vet the documents to determine what, if anything, needs to be blacked out for security or privacy reasons.

“We’re certainly not going to let this go,” Genuis said in an interview.

“Clearly, there’s something more here … We’ve clearly got a problem here and we’re going to follow it up in a pointed way.”

At a testy committee meeting earlier this week, Stewart said he would explore the option of providing an explanation to committee members in confidence. His letter Friday did not mention that option or why it has evidently been ruled out.

Genuis said witnesses can’t simply ignore orders to provide information to Commons committees, which he argued “bear certain features in common with a court … there is a requirement to respect motions.”

“Parliamentary committees aren’t just a group of people getting together to talk about a topic. They have particular powers as a function of the fact that we’re a democracy and our institutions should be subject to democratic oversight.”

The governing Liberals have been using procedural tactics to block opposition demands for more ministerial aides and civil servants to testify at committees examining the WE Charity affair and allegations of sexual misconduct in the senior ranks of the military.

On Thursday, government House leader Pablo Rodriguez accused opposition parties of an “abuse of power” and declared that aides will be instructed not to appear at committees in future, on the principle that it’s cabinet ministers, not their staffers, who should be held accountable.

However, in the case of the PHAC president, Liberal committee members went along earlier this week with a motion ordering Stewart to explain the firing of the two scientists by mid-afternoon Friday. That motion, introduced by Genuis, passed unanimously.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

About 80 demonstrators walked through Hope with signs in support of saving the Station House on March 23, 2021. (Photo/Christian Ward)
Public hearing now planned for Hope’s Station House decision

Council has now taken steps to remove heritage status from historic building

Workers were on scene to clean up the oil spill in Abbotsford at Trans Mountain Pipeline’s Sumas pump station in June 2020. (File photo by Shane MacKichan)
TSB releases final report on June 2020 oil spill in Abbotsford

Transportation Safety Board says pipeline fitting to blame for spill of up to 190K litres

Chilliwack General Hospital. (Jenna Hauck/ Progress file)
Chilliwack General Hospital gets all-clear from Fraser Health as outbreak ends

The latest outbreak was 20 days from the start, on March 25, to being declared over on April 13

GW Graham (SD33.bc.ca)
Entire class at Chilliwack’s G.W. Graham secondary school in isolation after exposure to COVID-19

Students have been told to remain home after four days of exposure last week

Cemetery staff installed the wrong headstone on the grave of Jima Kiir, even though the headstone’s photo did not match with the photo placed on the grave. (Submitted photo)
Abbotsford mother upset city placed wrong headstone on son’s grave

Cemetery staff mix up graves of 2 recently deceased men from South Sudanese community

Burnaby MLA Raj Chouhan presides as Speaker of the B.C. legislature, which opened it spring session April 12 with a speech from the throne. THE CANADIAN PRESS
B.C. NDP promises more health care spending, business support in 2021 budget

John Horgan government to ‘carefully return to balanced budgets’

In Ontario, COVID-19 vaccine clinics have been set up at local mosques. (Submitted photo: Rufaida Mohammed)
Getting the vaccine does not break your fast, says Muslim COVID-19 task force

Muslim community ‘strongly’ encouraging people to get their shot, whether or not during Ramadan

Shannon Claypool, president of the Cloverdale Rodeo & Exhibition Association, stands outside the Cloverdale Rec. Centre. The rec. centre has been set up as a mass vaccination site by Fraser Health and the Association has decided to cancel the rodeo in order to offer the fairgrounds for public parking. (Submitted)
Cloverdale Rodeo cancelled

Fairgrounds to be used as public parking for mass vaccination site at Cloverdale Rec. Centre

A plane is seen through the window on the tarmac of Vancouver International Airport as the waiting room is empty. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
100+ international travellers who landed in B.C. refused to quarantine

The Public Health Agency of Canada says it issued $3,000 violation tickets to each

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A health-care worker holds up a vial of the AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Montreal, Thursday, March 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
PHAC receives first report of blood clot linked to AstraZeneca

The federal agency says the person is now recovering at home

A real estate sign is pictured in Vancouver, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS Jonathan Hayward
1 in 3 young Canadians have given up on owning a home: poll

Data released Monday says 36% of adults younger than 40 have given up on home ownership entirely

Dr. Bonnie Henry gives her daily media briefing regarding Covid-19 for the province of British Columbia in Victoria, B.C, Monday, December 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. urges people to stay in their neighbourhoods, discourages out-of-household meet-ups

Dr. Bonnie Henry says there should be no travel, even to the next city over

Most Read