PHAC chief maintains he is required by law not to disclose documents on licensed scientists

OTTAWA – The head of the Public Health Agency of Canada shows no signs that he is ready to release unredacted documents on the firing of two scientists at the country’s highest security laboratory – despite the prospect of ” to be publicly humiliated in

OTTAWA – The head of the Public Health Agency of Canada shows no signs that he is ready to release unredacted documents on the firing of two scientists from the country’s highest security laboratory – despite the prospect of being publicly humiliated in the House of Commons for refusing to produce the news.

PHAC President Iain Stewart told the House of Commons health committee on Friday that he was required by law to protect national security and privacy rights.

And he said nothing in a House order requiring him to produce the documents relieves him of that obligation.

“I am a career public servant and, as a career public servant, I am bound by the law,” Stewart told the committee.

He said he was following the advice he had received from “legal and security experts” at the Justice Ministry.

“As the responsible official of the Public Health Agency, I am the person … who provides the documents and, therefore, I find myself in this extraordinary situation in this 27th year of my career. But it is not the exercise of my choice that puts me here, it is the obligations of my work. “

Opposition parties joined forces earlier this week to pass a motion declaring PHAC in contempt of Parliament and calling on Stewart to appear before the Commons Bar on Monday to be reprimanded by the President and to produce the documents.

Stewart said he looked forward to Monday “as it comes”. He declined to say specifically whether he would hand over the documents at that time, but his testimony during persistent opposition questioning on Friday suggested he would not.

According to House of Commons procedure and practice, calling someone to the bar of the House is a procedure rarely used to publicly shame a person deemed to have committed “an affront to the dignity or authority of Parliament.” .

Since 1913, it has not been used against an ordinary citizen, although it has been used twice, in 1991 and 2002, to discipline MPs who had taken over the ceremonial mace during heated debates in the House of Commons.

Stewart has twice refused an order from the Canada-China Relations Committee to produce unredacted documents that would shed light on why scientists Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, were escorted out of the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. in July 2019 then made redundant last January.

He also refused to comply with a House of Commons motion passed by opposition parties earlier this month to turn over all unredacted documents to the parliamentary law clerk, who would review them confidentially and redact anything he said. him, could compromise national security or the ongoing police investigation.

This motion specified that the Canada-China Relations Committee, after consultation with the law clerk, could choose to make public any redacted material.

Instead, PHAC has turned over the unredacted documents to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, whose members have maximum security clearance and are bound to secrecy.

House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota ruled on Wednesday that handing over the documents to this body was not sufficient to comply with the order of the House because it was not a committee of the House of Commons. Parliament. He further ruled that the Commons and its standing committees have absolute power to order the production of unredacted documents, regardless of their sensitivity, and to determine how they are to be treated.

Opposition members of the health committee repeatedly referred to the decision on Friday, demanding that Stewart recognize that Parliament is supreme and finally comply with the order to turn over the documents.

“So far, nothing in the motions has held me responsible for the choice I am asked to make,” Stewart told them.

He in turn asked if Members believed the order of the House and the Speaker’s ruling gave him “immunity” for violating the Privacy Act and the Security of Information Act.

“Is that what it is, Mr. Stewart?” Your own skin? replied NDP health critic Don Davies.

“As a public servant, I am bound by the law and I must obey the law,” Stewart replied.

Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner stressed that an order from the House of Commons is also legal. Indeed, the parliamentary law clerk informed the committee that an order of the House takes precedence over other laws passed by Parliament.

However, Liberal MP Jennifer O’Connell argued that leaking the documents to parliamentarians without the proper security clearance could allow Russia, China and other “bad actors” to gain access to sensitive information.

Stewart agreed that “documents relating to a level four laboratory are of interest to many parties.” Indeed, he said that the “cumulative effect” of the little unedited material that PHAC has released so far on the dismissal of scientists “is, in itself, starting to create safety concerns for the health care community. information ”.

The impact of the unredacted publication of the other classified documents “would be even deeper,” said Stewart.

Members of the Canada-China Relations Committee who have been ordered to release documents do not have security clearance and do not have the capacity to process classified documents or even have secure communications to their own. subject, he added.

“It’s done on the global web,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 18, 2021.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press

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