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

Danita Bilozaze and her daughter Dani in Comox. Photo by Karen McKinnon
Valley woman makes historic name change for truth and reconciliation

First in Canada to be issued new passport under the TRC Calls to Action

For Leela Harrop, the recent death of her brother Raju Tiwari pushed her to sign up for the vaccine. Photo supplied
Comox woman on fence about vaccine prompted by brother’s death

Leela Harrop says she did have issues with signing up online this past week

Most categories of crime held steady from year to year in Cumberland. File photo
Cumberland crime numbers hold steady year to year

A few categories had notable changes but many were similar to 2019

The colourful Taylor’s Checkerspot butterfly has been reintroduced on Hornby Island, BC. Photo courtesy the Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly Recovery Project.
Checkerspot Butterfly Recovery Project releases more caterpillars on Hornby Island

Chris Junck Special to Black Press The number of Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies… Continue reading

Paper Excellence took over Catalyst Paper operations in B.C. in 2018. (Paper Excellence photo)
Rainbow trouts thrashing with life as they’re about to be transferred to the largest lake of their lives, even though it’s pretty small. These rainbows have a blue tinge because they matched the blue of their hatchery pen, but soon they’ll take on the green-browns of their new home at Lookout Lake. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
VIDEO: B.C. lake stocked with hatchery trout to delight of a seniors fishing club

The Cherish Trout Scouts made plans to come back fishing soon

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

The following is a list of restaurants offering take-out and patio dining. ADOBE STOCK IMAGE
List of Comox Valley restaurants offering take-out, patio dining options

Restaurants in the Comox Valley continue to adapt to government-imposed restrictions in… Continue reading

Valen a student of Coldstream Elementary writes advice for adults amid a pandemic.
‘We can get rid of COVID together’: B.C. kids share heartwarming advice

Elementary students share their wisdom to adults in unprecedented times

The funeral of Britain’s Prince Philip in Windsor, England, on Saturday, April 17, 2021. Philip died April 9 at the age of 99. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)
PHOTOS: Prince Philip laid to rest Saturday as sombre queen sits alone

The entire royal procession and funeral took place out of public view within the grounds of Windsor Castle

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C. health minister says delay in Moderna vaccine ‘disappointing’

‘The sooner we get vaccines in people’s arms the better, and inconsistency in delivery is a consistent problem. This is simply a reality and not an issue of blame,’ Adrian Dix said Friday

(Police handout/Kamloops RCMP)
B.C. man dies in custody awaiting trial for Valentine’s Day robbery, kidnapping spree

Robert James Rennie, who was on the Kamloops RCMP’s most wanted list, passed away at the North Fraser Pretrial Centre in Coquitlam

Photos of Vancouver Canucks players are pictured outside the closed box office of Rogers Arena in downtown Vancouver Thursday, April 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canucks games against Leafs postponed as team returns from COVID-19

The team has had 11 games postponed since an outbreak late last month

Danita Bilozaze and her daughter Dani in Comox. Photo by Karen McKinnon
Island woman makes historic name change for truth and reconciliation

Becomes first person in Canada to be issued new passport under the TRC Calls to Action

Most Read