Liberal MP questions Justice Department’s legal advice on fired scientists
OTTAWA – A Liberal MP advises the Public Health Agency of Canada not to rely on legal advice from the federal Department of Justice because it is not always fair.
Toronto MP Rob Oliphant, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, gave the advice Monday evening to a House of Commons committee trying to find out why two scientists from Canada’s top security laboratory were fired.
PHAC President Iain Stewart told the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations that disclosing details would violate the Privacy Act and jeopardize national security and an ongoing RCMP investigation .
He says the advice was given by the Department of Justice.
The members of the committee, supported by the parliamentary law clerk Phiippe Dufresne, insist on the fact that they have the constitutional power to order the production of all the documents that they want and that their authority takes precedence over any other law.
But Christian Roy, director and senior general counsel for health legal services at the Department of Justice, says the department has never recognized the power of committees to compel documents in violation of the Privacy Act or to d ‘other laws.
Oliphant questioned Roy’s legal opinion.
“Lawyers are not always right and lawyers for the Department of Justice are not always right, in my opinion,” he told the committee.
He pointed out that Justice Department lawyers were wrong to claim that a law banning genetic discrimination was unconstitutional, after fighting it all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Additionally, Oliphant said he was “horrified” to discover that Justice Department lawyers advised the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to illegally keep potentially revealing electronic data on people over a 10-year period.
“I have learned to question Department of Justice lawyers now,” said Oliphant, suggesting that Stewart get “a second opinion because the Department of Justice is not giving you the best advice.”
The committee voted unanimously later Monday to give PHAC 10 days to turn over unredacted documents on fired scientists, which the parliamentary law clerk is to review and advise committee members on what should be banned to protect privacy, national security and police investigation.
If the agency continues to refuse to release the unredacted documents, the committee will seek an order to that effect in the House of Commons.
PHAC officially terminated the employment of Canadian scientists Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, in January.
The couple were escorted out of the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in July 2019 for what Stewart described as “related to possible breaches of safety protocols.”
The Winnipeg laboratory is the only level four laboratory in Canada, designed to safely treat deadly contagious germs such as Ebola.
PHAC previously said the couple’s escorted outing had nothing to do with the fact that four months earlier, Qiu was responsible for sending Ebola and Henipah viruses to the Chinese Institute of Virology in Wuhan.
Stewart released redacted documents to the committee about this virus transfer, which he says show all laws and protocols were followed.
He also assured the committee on Monday that there was no link between these viruses and the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19, which first surfaced in the Chinese province of Wuhan.
That didn’t stop Conservative MP Michael Chong, who called the two laid-off scientists Chinese when in fact they were Canadians.
“There is no doubt that (Who) trained technicians from this institute of virology to establish a level four laboratory, the only level four laboratory in the People’s Republic of China, and there is no doubt that the coronavirus is apparently appeared in Wuhan a number of months later, ”Chong said.
He rejected suggestions that he was peddling a conspiracy theory, citing various experts who postulated that the coronavirus may have been inadvertently released from the Wuhan lab.
Oliphant accused Chong of “drawing two sons who are absolutely unrelated”, calling him “absolutely irresponsible” and “cheap politics”.
Bloc Québécois MP Stéphane Bergeron agreed that Chong’s language was inflammatory.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on May 10, 2021.