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ANALYSIS | The big problem with the Winnipeg lab affair was obvious from the start: too much secrecy | Radio-Canada News


The release of 623 pages of documents on the firing of two National Microbiology Laboratory scientists in 2019 understandably sparked a stir around Parliament Hill on Wednesday, sparking a race to uncover and frame exactly the type of scandal they revealed .

What the documents tell us is certainly interesting and relevant, and will help us paint a picture that has unfortunately been incomplete for more than three years.

But the biggest problem here might still be the one that was obvious from the start: the degree of secrecy that surrounded this affair. And the publication of these 623 pages – even partially redacted – only renews the question of to what extent this secrecy was really necessary.

Political stubbornness is at least partly responsible for the long delay in releasing the documents. From the start, the federal government was reluctant to explain what had happened. In response, opposition MPs – making up the majority in the House of Commons – demanded that the government hand over the documents on the scientists to a House committee.

The liberal government cited privacy and security concerns and instead sought to send the documents to the parliamentary select committee on national security and intelligence – a committee which exists outside Parliament but whose members have national security clearance. The Conservatives opposed this arrangement and responded by removing their members from this committee.

WATCH: Fired scientists shared information with China, documents show

Fired scientists from Winnipeg lab shared information with China, documents show

Intelligence documents detail why Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng were fired from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg in 2021.

The impasse ultimately led to the House voting in June 2021 to hold the president of the Public Health Agency of Canada in contempt for refusing to comply with its orders.

The government then suggested that an ad hoc committee of MPs, assisted by a group of arbitrators who can make decisions on the disclosure of information, has access to the documents. The proposal builds on what was done in 2010 when Parliament demanded that the Conservative government of Stephen Harper hand over documents related to the treatment of Afghan detainees.

The opposition remained unmoved. A few days later, the Liberal government asked Federal Court to block Parliament’s order. One might have expected the courts to endorse Parliament’s authority and prerogative. But the dissolution of Parliament for the fall 2021 elections brought parliamentary and legal processes to a halt.

How MPs were finally able to see the documents

Partisans will see one side or the other as the villain in this sequence of events: the government for its lack of transparency and disregard for the will of Parliament, or the opposition for its unreasonable or irresponsible demands.

It is also possible that both sides were motivated by at least some legitimate concern – that the government had legitimate reasons to demand as much protection as possible for information that could implicate national security, and that the opposition was all fully within its rights and responsibilities to demand as much transparency as possible to hold the government to account.

Ideally, both parties would have quickly reached an agreement addressing these concerns and priorities. But it is only when May 2023 that all parties finally accepted the special committee proposed by the government two years earlier.

WATCH: Prime Minister Accuses Conservatives of Weaponizing National Security

Asked about Winnipeg high-security laboratory, Trudeau accuses Conservatives of weaponizing national security

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he has asked his national security adviser to examine what happened at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg and make recommendations. He then criticizes Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, accusing him of spewing conspiracy theories.

This committee of four MPs, made up of three former judges, reviewing the documents to determine what could be made public, ultimately produced some disclosure.

What these documents show gives rise to concerns about the behavior of the two scientists and the way the laboratory applied its protocols. Opposition MPs have every reason to wonder whether more could have been done at the time and what has been done since to improve security policies.

But while these MPs clamor for a political scandal, the big problem is the simple fact that this affair is only coming to light now – not three years ago.

Was all this secrecy necessary?

In a letter attached to the documents, the four MPs — Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, Conservative MP John Williamson, Bloc Québécois MP René Villemure and NDP MP Heather McPherson — acknowledge that a certain degree of secrecy was justified, particularly for Canadian security intelligence documents. Service. But they also said the “majority” of Public Health Agency documents should be made public.

“The information appears primarily intended to protect the organization from embarrassment due to policy and implementation failures, not legitimate national security concerns,” the lawmakers wrote.

Agency officials could probably cite a stack of legal opinions and internal policies that supported their decisions about what could be made public. (Health Minister Mark Holland says civil servants are responsible for deciding redactions and argues that’s the way it should be.) And perhaps agency and security officials were concerned by the way in which opposition MPs had initially proposed to deal with these documents.

WATCH: Conservative leader says National Microbiology Laboratory scientists should not work with China

National Microbiology Laboratory researchers should not collaborate with China, says Poilievre

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre says researchers at the Winnipeg-based lab should not be allowed to collaborate with China.

But the mere fact that so much information has now been released shows that it absolutely did not happen. need to keep secret in the first place. Which suggests, once again, that this government is too quick to side with withholding information.

The last battle over the documents, more than a decade ago, reached a similar conclusion. When secret documents related to the treatment of Afghans detained by the Canadian Forces were handed over to a special committee of MPs and a panel of legal experts, the end result was at least one a little more disclosure than would have happened otherwise.

Proponents will cry cover-up, but it is possible that the problem is actually more systemic and cultural – a tendency toward excessive secrecy that has built up over generations, even as successive governments have done so. promised new levels of transparency. Canadians tend to be reluctant. And we have created governments in our image, which by default keep their information confidential.

Governments have legitimate reasons for keeping certain things secret. Real questions need to be asked about how Parliament can responsibly manage secret information.

But the bigger question is why it took more than three years for this week’s reveal to happen.


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