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.

Just Posted

A worker at Wee Geordies Liquor Store held at knifepoint on Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. A female entered the store and grabbed a bottle of liquor and produced a knife and demanded money. She was not located. (Wee Geordies video surveillance screenshot)
VIDEO: Two stores robbed on the same day in Kitimat

The first incident was at 5:45 a.m. and the second incident occurred 3:30 p.m.

McElhanney worked with the builder, LHLP, to develop a fishway in a highly constrained and fluctuating waterway. (McElhanney file photo)
McElhanney win natural resources and habitat award for the Anderson Creek Fishway

Local team used design elements to minimize the environmental impact of the LNG Canada construction

The community food share garden that was located in Mountainview Square between Pet Valu and BC Liquor store has been relocated to the Cornerstone garden between No frills and the lower mall access. (Jacob Lubberts photo)
Kitimat Food Share Garden getting set up for the season

The District of Kitimat has also contributed $30,600 in 2021 to the TSWA’s Food Share program

An aircraft gets serviced at the Northwest Regional Airport. An apron expansion project undertaken in October last year, will be able to accommodate six aircrafts once ready in May. (Binny Paul/ Terrace Standard)
VIDEO: Northwest Regional Airport apron expansion work nears completion

The $2 million project was undertaken to accommodate increased LNG Canada charter traffic

Kitimat RCMP searching for two robbery suspects. (File photo)
Two robbers, both armed with knives, sought

Incidents took place at corner store, liquor store

A worker at Wee Geordies Liquor Store held at knifepoint on Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. A female entered the store and grabbed a bottle of liquor and produced a knife and demanded money. She was not located. (Wee Geordies video surveillance screenshot)
VIDEO: Two stores robbed on the same day in Kitimat

The first incident was at 5:45 a.m. and the second incident occurred 3:30 p.m.

Bradley Priestap in an undated photo provided to the media some time in 2012 by the London Police Service.
Serial sex-offender acquitted of duct tape possession in B.C. provincial court

Ontario sex offender on long-term supervision order was found with one of many ‘rape kit’ items

Rich Coleman, who was responsible for the gaming file off and on from 2001 to 2013, was recalled after his initial testimony to the Cullen Commission last month. (Screenshot)
Coleman questioned over $460K transaction at River Rock during B.C. casinos inquiry

The longtime former Langley MLA was asked about 2011 interview on BC Almanac program

Steven Shearer, <em>Untitled. </em>(Dennis Ha/Courtesy of Steven Shearer)
Vancouver photographer’s billboards taken down after complaints about being ‘disturbing’

‘Context is everything’ when it comes to understanding these images, says visual art professor Catherine Heard

Trina Hunt's remains were found in the Hope area on March 29. Her family is asking the public to think back to the weekend prior to when she went missing. (Photo courtesy of IHIT.)
Cousin of missing woman found in Hope says she won’t have closure until death is solved

Trina Hunt’s family urges Hope residents to check dashcam, photos to help find her killer

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam listens to a question during a news conference, in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Restrictions will lift once 75% of Canadians get 1 shot and 20% are fully immunized, feds say

Federal health officials are laying out their vision of what life could look like after most Canadians are vaccinated against COVID-19

Police are at Ecole Mount Prevost Elementary but the students have been evacuated. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Gardener finds buried explosives, sparking evacuation of Cowichan school

Students removed from school in an ‘abundance of caution’

A COVID-19 patient receives oxygen outside a hospital in Jammu, India, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP/Channi Anand)
B.C. donates $500K to Red Cross COVID-19 relief efforts in India

The money will provide oxygen cylinders and ambulances for patients in communities grappling with the virus

Most Read