Erin O’Toole is refusing to name Conservative members to the national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians.
The Conservative leader pulled his party’s MPs from the committee last spring to protest the Liberal government’s refusal to hand over unredacted documents related to the firing of two scientists from Canada’s highest security laboratory.
In a Dec. 17 letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, O’Toole said the Conservative boycott of the all-party national security committee, known as NSICOP, will continue in the new session of Parliament until the wraps are taken off those documents.
Opposition parties banded together last spring to order the Public Health Agency of Canada to hand over the documents to the now-defunct special committee on Canada-China relations.
The Liberal government gave them to NSICOP instead, arguing that it was the more appropriate body to review sensitive material that could jeopardize national security.
That committee, created in 2017 specifically to review sensitive matters, submits classified reports to the prime minister, which are later tabled in Parliament in edited form. Its members must have top security clearance and are bound to secrecy.
At the time, House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota ruled that NSICOP is not a committee of Parliament and, therefore, not an acceptable alternative to having a Commons committee examine the documents.
In his letter, O’Toole said NSICOP “has become a committee of the Prime Minister’s Office” and has been used by Trudeau’s government “to avoid accountability and that is diminishing its credibility.”
O’Toole says Liberals ‘defying Parliament’
He says changes are required to the legislation creating the committee to establish it as a standing Commons committee that reports to Parliament, not the prime minister.
“Until the requested documents are deposited with the law clerk, as previously ordered, and until you agree to a non partisan effort to make statutory change to NSICOP’s governing legislation, Conservatives will not participate in NSICOP,” O’Toole says.
He suggests NSICOP is unsuited to delving into the firing of the two scientists because, by law, it is prohibited from having access to any information related to an ongoing police investigation. PHAC has said the matter is related to “a possible breach of security protocols” and is under police investigation.
O’Toole further accuses the government of continuing to “defy the will of Parliament which on four occasions ordered the production of documents” from PHAC.
However, Rota has ruled that those orders expired when Parliament was dissolved in August for an election, terminating all business before the House.
In June, the government applied to the Federal Court to prohibit disclosure of the documents on the grounds that release would be “injurious to international relations or national defence or national security.”
It dropped the case once the election was called since the House order for production of documents was no longer in force.
In the new post-election parliamentary session, government House leader Mark Holland has said the Liberals still believe NSICOP is the appropriate body to examine the documents.
Nevertheless, he has proposed a compromise: creating a special all-party, security-cleared committee to review the unredacted documents, aided by an independent panel of three former judges who would determine what and how material could be released publicly without jeopardizing national security.
The Conservatives have rejected that proposal, while the NDP and Bloc Quebecois have not yet definitively responded.
O’Toole’s letter suggests the Conservatives are sticking with opposition parties’ original demand for all unredacted documents to be given to the parliamentary law clerk, who was to vet them to protect national security, although MPs on the Canada-China committee reserved the right to publicly release whatever redacted material they chose.
The Canada-China committee, created at the behest of a Conservative motion in the last parliamentary session, no longer exists so it’s not clear which committee the Conservatives believe should be in charge of the documents now.
Opposition seeks answers on scientists
Opposition parties believe the documents they’ve demanded 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 last January.
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.
Former PHAC president Iain Stewart had assured MPs that the transfer had nothing to do with the subsequent firings of Qiu and her husband and that there was no connection to COVID-19, which first appeared in China’s Wuhan province.
Opposition parties continue to suspect a link despite those assurances.
Last June, Stewart became the first non-politician in more than a century to be hauled before the bar of the House to be reprimanded for his refusal to hand over the documents. He was appointed president of the National Research Council of Canada in October.