Madam Speaker, today's debate is a very important one. Some might argue that this is simply a partisan attempt to embarrass the government. However, aside from the very important national security issues, what is at issue today is the pre-eminence of Parliament, the fact that it takes precedence over any laws a government might invoke to avoid being held accountable to parliamentarians. I will come back to this point later.
My colleague from Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot already said that the Bloc Québécois would vote in favour of this motion, moved by my colleague from Wellington—Halton Hills. We will vote for this motion because it is nearly identical to a motion that was unanimously passed by the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations. I said "unanimously", because the Liberal members supported it. This motion was adopted in response to the Public Health Agency of Canada's intransigent, stubborn and bullheaded refusal to provide the documents parliamentarians were requesting. Even our Liberal colleagues were frustrated by the tightlipped, stubborn attitude of PHAC representatives, so much so that they voted in favour of this motion, which was the subject of a recent report from the special committee.
I will touch briefly on this point, but I wonder why the Conservatives are using an opposition day to present a motion that is virtually identical to a motion that the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations reported on to the House and that could have been called for debate before being adopted.
Why are the Conservatives moving this motion this morning? The Liberal Party’s claim that the Conservatives are simply trying to embarrass the government may have some truth to it. However, beyond this strictly partisan aspect, which, I think, deserves to be mentioned, there is the fundamental issue I raised earlier: Parliament’s pre-eminence, the fact that it takes precedence over any laws the government might invoke to avoid complying with a request from a parliamentary committee.
Let us start at the beginning. We created the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations to look into the deterioration of relations between Canada and the People’s Republic of China and to consider ways of re-establishing contact between the two countries. In the past, our relations have always been positive, cordial and characterized by a spirit of collaboration.
Canada was one of the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China when it was created and to establish trade and diplomatic relations with the country. Consider the writings of Quebec physician Norman Bethune, who took part in the legendary Long March of the Communist Party of China. Consider as well the aid provided by Canada, in the form of wheat and other grain, when the Chinese were literally starving to death. I think that this is a solid foundation for key, cordial relations between the two countries, but it is obvious that these relations have deteriorated dramatically in recent months.
We therefore set up this committee to look into the deterioration of relations, the possible causes and potential solutions.
Given that this is a minority government and that an election can be called at any time, we chose to partition our study into sections to safeguard our work.
Accordingly, we produce periodic progress reports on what we have done so far. For example, we issued a report on the situation in Hong Kong, which I believe deserves our careful attention. At that point in our work we were looking into the security issue.
In this part of the study pertaining to security, we were looking at everything from the Chinese government’s foreign influence operations in Canada to interference or, at the very least, possible espionage activities by Chinese companies that report to the Government of the People's Republic of China. Obviously, the Canada-China relationship concerning microbiology research was also discussed.
I must say that, for our part, this portion of our investigation on security started out rather candidly. Of course, we wanted to look into the CanSino case, for example, the collaboration between Canadian and Chinese institutions to develop a vaccine. Curiously, the plug was pulled on this collaboration, and now China is using vaccine diplomacy to increase its influence in the world by generously offering its vaccine to developing countries that desperately need it, but also making sure to create a state-client relationship between the People's Republic of China and these countries.
When the Public Health Agency of Canada appeared on March 22, we met with its president, Iain Stewart, as well as with Guillaume Poliquin, who heads the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. We were surprised when Mr. Stewart refused to answer entirely legitimate questions. The fact remains that, on March 31, 2019, two researchers at the Winnipeg laboratory, Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and Dr. Keding Cheng, took a commercial Air Canada flight carrying two living viruses, Ebola and Henipah, in their luggage to deliver them to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, now infamous due to the rumours and allegations that continue to circulate to the effect that the coronavirus may have escaped from the facility.
Obviously, we were concerned by the fact that they were able to carry two extremely dangerous viruses to a Chinese laboratory on a commercial flight. In the same March 22 committee meeting, Mr. Stewart explained that everything was done according to standards. I do not know what standards apply when carrying deadly viruses on a regular commercial flight. In any event, we were assured that this was the case, and we have no reason to believe that this approach was based on a scientific, evidence-based assessment.
I would like to point out that Dr. Qiu received the Governor General's award in 2018 for having helped develop a treatment for Ebola at the Winnipeg laboratory. This award is normally given to Canadian citizens or permanent residents of Canada. This shows how highly Dr. Qiu's work was regarded.
On July 5, 2019, however, Dr. Qiu, Dr. Cheng and their students were removed from the Winnipeg laboratory. That is more than a little curious.
We also learned that, on January 20, 2021, the couple was officially fired, and an explanation has never been given for their removal or their dismissal. Candidly, I asked Mr. Stewart why, if everything was done according to standards in the transfer of the viruses on a commercial Air Canada flight to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the couple had been removed from the Winnipeg laboratory and fired without explanation. Mr. Stewart told us that he could not answer that question.
We asked him why he could not answer and told him that he was required to. It became apparent that Mr. Stewart had certain privacy concerns. Of course, these concerns may be legitimate. They may have to do with national security or an ongoing criminal investigation. All of these concerns may be entirely legitimate.
We gave Mr. Stewart the opportunity to send the committee information confidentially, so that it could better understand what was going on without any potentially harmful information in terms of the protection of personal information, national security or a criminal investigation reaching the public.
To our surprise, we received a letter from Mr. Stewart stating simply that he could not submit any documents because of the Privacy Act. Despite the fact that we offered him the opportunity to provide the information confidentially, he told us that he could not comply or did not want to comply with this request from the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations.
We insisted and, a few days later, on April 20, we received a first batch of heavily redacted documents. Obviously, we were unhappy that the agency continues to refuse to provide the documents. We met with the House's Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel, who told us that the committee was within its rights. We therefore recalled Mr. Stewart, who appeared with Mr. Poliquin on May 10.
We were once again told that it was impossible to provide the committee with the information requested, because of the provisions of the Privacy Act, as if the parliamentary committee were just another litigant requesting information from the agency. This parliamentary committee is not just another litigant requesting information in the House.
I want to share an opinion that was shared with us by the Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel of the House of Commons. It states, and I quote:
...the committee's powers to send for papers and records comes from section 18 of the Constitution. It comes from parliamentary privilege and gives the power to send for persons and papers. It is at a higher level than ordinary statutes, and Speaker Milliken in his ruling and the Supreme Court of Canada have recognized the primacy of Constitutional provisions, and in particular parliamentary privilege....
It's the same authority that is pointed to, and that authority from Speaker Milliken makes it very clear, as does the authority in other Parliaments, that the constitutional authority of committees and of the House supersedes and is not limited by ordinary statutes like the Privacy Act or the Access to Information Act....Speaker Millliken was explicit on the point that the statutes do not allow the government to unilaterally determine that something would be confidential.
At the May 10 meeting, our colleague from Wellington—Halton Hills also referred to provisions of the Privacy Act that clearly state that the act does not apply to parliamentary committees, it applies only to individuals subject to the law who request information. After repeated refusals by authorities at the Public Health Agency of Canada, the committee adopted a motion that is very similar to the one moved today by the member for Wellington—Halton Hills.
At first, our questions for PHAC were straightforward, but PHAC's stubborn, systematic refusal to provide the information requested by the special committee raised suspicions. Moreover, we have since learned of some disturbing information.
Last May, The Globe and Mail reported that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had recommended that two researchers, Dr. Qiu and her husband, Dr. Cheng, have their access to the Winnipeg laboratory revoked for national security reasons. Why? CSIS also had concerns, particularly about the transfer of intellectual property, with regard to information that the couple and their students had sent to China.
That same month, The Globe and Mail reported that at least seven scientists at the Winnipeg laboratory were collaborating with the Chinese army, publishing several articles jointly. One researcher, Professor Feihu Yan, had been able to work at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg despite working directly for the People's Liberation Army of China.
From what we have been able to glean, Canadian authorities have been rather nonchalant about national security. When Parliament tried to get to the bottom of this apparent lack of rigour, the government invoked completely specious reasons in a bid to escape its obligation to answer to Parliament.
It was disturbing enough that the Public Health Agency of Canada was refusing to answer questions from members of Parliament. It was even more disturbing to hear the Prime Minister and some of his ministers doing exactly the same thing during oral question period, when they responded to members' questions by saying that the two people had been fired and that they could unfortunately not provide any more information. By doing this, the Prime Minister and the ministers in question may also have been breaching the privileges of the House.
Getting back to what I was saying at the beginning of my speech, the issue here, beyond the partisan bickering, is Parliament's supremacy over ordinary Canadian laws by virtue of the parliamentary privilege enshrined in the Canadian Constitution, which the government is using as an excuse to refuse to provide parliamentarians with the information they are requesting. We thought only PHAC was doing this, but we now have proof that it is the entire government. Under the circumstances, we have no choice but to support our colleague's motion.