ABOVE: Canadian Parliament building 

The Canadian House of Commons publicly reprimanded Iain Stewart, the president of the Public Health Agency of Canada, on Monday (June 21) for failing to produce unredacted documents related to the firing of two government scientists. It was the first time since 1913 that someone other than a member of Parliament received this type of formal rebuke, reports the CBC.

“We need these documents,” said MP Michael Chong in a parliamentary committee hearing in May, according to an earlier CBC report“We need to know what the Government of Canada was doing through the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg with respect to cooperating with the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China.” 

Xiangguo Qiu, the head of the Vaccine Development and Antiviral Therapies section in the Special Pathogens Program of the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg, and her husband and fellow scientist Keding Cheng were fired in January of this year. In July 2019, they and several of their international graduate students were escorted out of the NML because of an “administrative matter” that’s still undergoing police investigation, a spokesperson from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) told the CBC at the time. The following month, news emerged that in spring 2019 Qiu had supervised the shipment of Ebola and Henipah viruses to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, leading to speculation that the materials could aid China’s bioweapon development efforts. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, suggestions have swirled online of some connection between Qiu and the origin of SARS-CoV-2, and according to the CBC, some Conservative Canadian lawmakers have also suggested that PHAC’s refusal to hand over the documents is part of a COVID-19–related coverup.  

Ebola and Henipah are both highly contagious and classified as potential bioterrorism agents by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They can only be handled in labs with the highest level of biosafety clearance, known as BSL-4 labs. NML is the only BSL-4 lab in Canada. 

According to the Canadian Press, Canadian Health Minister Patty Hajdu said last week at the committee hearing that there is no connection between the viral shipments and Qiu and Cheng’s dismissal, nor with the COVID-19 pandemic that originated in Wuhan late in 2019. 

Earlier this month, the House of Commons ordered PHAC to turn over unredacted documents related to Qiu and Cheng’s dismissal and the viral shipments, reports CTV News. The House of Commons parliamentary committee on Canada-China relations had already received documents, but because of what PHAC says are concerns that the information they contained could compromise national security or the integrity of the police investigation, they were heavily redacted.

According to a motion passed at the beginning of June, once Parliament received the unredacted documents, a parliamentary law clerk and a parliamentary counsel would review the materials and redact any sensitive information before sharing them with the parliamentary committee on Canada-China relations. The committee could then decide whether to release any redacted documents to the public.

“In this particular case, the information requested has both privacy and national security implications,” Hajdu had told the committee, the Canadian Press reports. “Compliance with the order without proper safeguards in place would put sensitive information at the risk of public release.”

“We’ve redacted documents where the information pertains to personal information, investigations or security matters. The reason we’ve done so is that, as public servants, we’re bound by law to keep confidential information confidential,” Stewart said during the committee hearing, according to the CBC

To mitigate the risk of this sensitive information falling into the wrong hands, the CBC reports, members of the Liberal government party provided unredacted documents to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP)—an all-party committee with the government’s highest security clearance. The CBC states that House Speaker Anthony Rota, a member of the Liberal party, ruled this decision unacceptable on the grounds that the organization is not a standing committee of Parliament.  

Stewart had been ordered to appear before Parliament this week with the unredacted documents. According to the CBC, Stewart’s lawyer told Rota’s office that Stewart would be unable to bring the documents—prompting Stewart’s public shaming in the form of a formal reprimand. 

On Monday, Liberal House Leader Pablo Rodríguez suggested some potential compromises, such as forming an ad hoc committee of MPs sworn to secrecy to review the documents, or allowing national security experts to help decide which information should be publicly released, in concert with the law clerk and parliamentary counsel. 

CBC reports that Rota will consider the options and return to the House with a ruling.