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

Melissa Milligan is working to build a disc golf course in Port Hardy. (Submitted photo)
Port Hardy’s disc golf survey results are in

138 people in total took the survey, with 94 per cent voting yes.

RCMP display some of the fish seized from three suspects who pleaded guilty to violating the Fisheries Act in 2019, in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - RCMP
3 banned from fishing, holding licences after overfishing violations in Gold River area

Mounties seized the group’s 30-foot fishing vessel and all equipment on board at the time

A 3.0-magnitude earthquake occurred off Ucluelet just after 12:30 a.m. on April 10 and was reportedly felt as far south as Oregon. (Map via United States Geological Survey)
Quake off Ucluelet reportedly felt as far south as Oregon

Magnitude 1.5 earthquake also reported off Vancouver Island’s west coast hours earlier

Mya Servatius and Marilyn May handing out gift baskets to seniors. (Michelle Tremblay photo)
NISS students practice kindness by giving gifts to seniors

This project wasn’t part of a class at NISS, or for any extra credit.

Port Hardy Fire Rescue map of controlled burning.
Controlled burn happening this weekend on Highland Drive

No unauthorized persons, including media, will be permitted within the “Hot Zone”.

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’

A lady wears a sticker given out after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count slows after last week’s peak

3,219 new cases since Friday, 18 additional deaths

North Cowichan councillor Tek Manhas did not violate the municipality’s code of conduct by posting a sexist meme on Facebook, council concludes. (File photo)
B.C. municipality to take no action against councillor who posted sexist meme

Tek Manhas’s meme doesn’t violate North Cowichan council’s code of conduct, municipality concludes

A 41-person air task force, including 12 members from 407 Long Range Patrol Squadron at 19 Wing Comox, seized more than $3 million CND worth of cocaine as part of Op Caribbe. Photo by Canadian Armed Forces Operations/Facebook
Vancouver Island team helps make $368 million three-tonne cocaine seizure

12 members from 19 Wing Comox involved in Op Caribbe

Killer whales surface near Sebastion Beach in Lantzville on Sunday, April 11. (Photos courtesy Ella Smiley)
Chainsaw and friends near the beach thrill orca watchers in Lantzville

Jagged-finned orca named Chainsaw and 17 others spent hours off Sebastion Beach this weekend

Nootka Sound RCMP and DFO Conservation and Protection Officers seized this 30 foot vessel, fishing gear and equipment as well as Chinook salmon, salmon roe, rock fish and ling cod after an investigation on Sept. 11. A judge in Campbell River on February hit the owner and his accomplices with significant fines, a ban on holding fishing licences and loss of equpment, including the boat’s motor and trolling motor. RCMP photo
Washington State trio’s fisheries violations the worst veteran officer has seen in 20 years

Judge bans three men from fishing or holding a fishing licence anywhere in Canada

—Image: contributed
Indoor wine tastings still allowed in B.C., not considered a ‘social gathering’

“Tasting is really just part of the retail experience. The analogy I use is you wouldn’t buy a pair of pants without trying them on.”

A sign on a shop window indicates the store is closed in Ottawa, Monday March 23, 2020. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business is raising its estimate for the number of businesses that are considering the possibility of closing permanently. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Small business struggling amid COVID-19 pandemic looks for aid in Liberals’ budget

President Dan Kelly said it is crucial to maintain programs to help businesses to the other side of the pandemic

The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians says that includes attempts to steal Canadian research on COVID-19 and vaccines, and sow misinformation. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
Intelligence committee warns China, Russia targeting Canadian COVID-19 research

Committee also found that the terrorist threat to Canada has shifted since its last such assessment

Most Read