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

Hamels Fabrics & Quilting is set to open on April 6 in Sooke. The shop is located at 2044 Otter Point Road. (Mark Martins/Pixabay)
Fabric and quilting store opens doors in Sooke

Shop is filled with all kinds of ‘bright, bold and cheery’ designs

Eli, left, Brent, Lindsay and Ava Wilson. (Photo courtesy of Lindsay Wilson)
West Shore families share experience in raising a child with autism

Two families reveal some parallels, but circumstances are different for everyone

Kit Thornton, chief aquarist at the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea, plays with Wanda, the female Giant Pacific octopus currently residing at the centre. The centre will release Wanda back into the wild next month. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
An octopus named Wanda will soon say goodbye to Sidney

Wanda’s personality is ‘complete opposite’ of previous octopus named after Dr. Bonnie Henry

New hours went into effect at Saanich Parks and Public Works Yard for spring and summer seasons on April 6. (District of Saanich/Twitter)
Spring, summer hours in effect at Saanich Public Works Yard

Residents reminded to practise social distancing, prepare to unload without staff help

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

Tyson Ginter, 7, is proud of his latest Hot Wheels he recently received by Quesnel RCMP Const. Matt Joyce. (Photo submitted)
B.C. Mountie handing out toy cars to light up children’s faces

‘A lot of times it will be the only interaction they have with the police,’ says Const. Matt Joyce

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, Friday, January 15, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s ICUs see near-record of COVID-19 patients last week as variant cases double

Last week, Canadian hospitals treated an average of 2,500 patients with COVID-19, daily, up 7% from the previous week

University of Victoria rowing coach Barney Williams at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
UVic, women’s rowing coach deny former athlete’s allegation of verbal abuse

Lily Copeland alleges coach Barney Williams would stand close to her and speak aggressively in the sauna

Librarian Katie Burns with the Fraser Valley Regional Libraries poses for a photo in Chilliwack on June 18, 2019. Monday, April 12, 2021 is Library Workers’ Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of April 11 to 17

Library Workers Day, That Sucks! Day, and Wear Your Pyjamas to Work Day are all coming up this week

Nanaimo RCMP are asking for the public’s help in identifying the man suspected of being involved in a stabbing. (Photo submitted)
Nanaimo RCMP trying to identify stabbing suspect who wielded rusty knife

Stabbing followed argument between two men at Port Place Shopping Centre April 1

The inside of the Campbell River Community Centre gymnasium has been marked off in order to facilitate the public flowing through the clinic as they receive their COVID-19 vaccination. Photo by Alistair Taylor – Campbell river Mirror
Leftover vaccines go into arms, not down the drain: Island Health

Immunization plan comes with built-in options for any unused vaccines at the end of the day

A man wears a face mask past the emergency department of the Vancouver General Hospital. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
Calls for stricter action in B.C. as COVID-19 variants projected to climb

Jens von Bergmann says the province has taken a ‘wait and see’ approach when early action is needed

Vancouver’s park board general manager issued a new order Friday restricting tents and other temporary structures from being set up in Strathcona Park after April 30, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Vancouver park board issues order to restrict tents in Strathcona Park

The order issued Friday restricted tents and other temporary structures from being set up after April 30

Most Read