Former senior judges to have last word on disclosure of sensitive laboratory records
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OTTAWA – Three former senior judges will have the final say on the public disclosure of documents related to the firing of two scientists from Canada’s highest-security laboratory.
The Liberal government says former Supreme Court justices Ian Binnie and Marshall Rothstein, along with Eleanor Dawson, who sat on the Federal Court of Appeal, will assist an ad hoc committee of MPs reviewing the records.
Opposition parties believe the documents will shed light on why scientists Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, were escorted out of Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Laboratory in July 2019 and subsequently fired in January 2021.
They also want to see documents related to the transfer, overseen by Qiu, of deadly Ebola and Henipah viruses to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology in March 2019.
The MPs on the committee are Liberal Iqra Khalid, Conservative John Williamson, René Villemure of the Bloc Québécois and the NDP’s Heather McPherson.
Each of the four parties has named an alternate MP to act as a replacement when needed.
In a secure setting, the committee is expected to review redacted and unredacted documents, and receive briefings from officials on the reasons for protecting certain information from disclosure, the government said Wednesday.
If members believe blacked-out information should be made public, the three former judges will determine how it could be disclosed more widely without compromising national security or any other public or private interests.
The announcement of participants in the process comes more than a year after the Liberals said they would move ahead with such a committee to review the documents.
The Conservatives initially rejected the proposal, preferring that the records be turned over to a regular committee of MPs.
Under a House of Commons order passed by opposition parties in 2021 — over the objections of the government — the documents would have been vetted by the parliamentary law clerk for potential national security issues, but committee members would have retained the right to release whatever material they chose.
Government House leader Mark Holland had urged the Conservatives to reconsider the federal approach, citing articles by several experts who backed the government’s view that national security would be endangered by complying with opposition demands.
Holland acknowledged Wednesday that setting up the committee and enlisting the judges did take some time.
“The first problem was that we only had one partner at the beginning in the NDP, and we were ready to move with it. Then the Bloc indicated that they wanted to participate, and then the Conservatives,” he said.
“So adding them on, getting those members identified, took time.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2023.
— With a file from Mia Rabson.