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EXPLAINER: Winnipeg Lab Documents – Why Did It Take so Long and What Could They Reveal?

The National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg in a file photo. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Will the public finally be provided some details behind the mysterious firing of Chinese-Canadian scientists who were working at the country’s top biosafety lab?

The Liberal government announced on May 17 that an ad-hoc committee of selected MPs will be able to review documents pertaining to the matter, and a panel of arbiters composed of three former justices will decide what can be released to the public.

Up to now, the government has resisted revealing details about the scientists Qiu Xiangguo and Cheng Keding, who were escorted out of Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Lab (NML) in 2019 amid a police probe and then fired in January 2021.

The new development comes after a long battle that saw the Liberal government file a lawsuit in the previous Parliament against the House of Commons Speaker, Liberal MP Anthony Rota, to prevent the disclosure of documents. The case was dropped when Parliament was dissolved.

After the Liberals secured another minority government in the fall of 2021, they proposed a way forward to provide access to the documents, but opposition parties were initially not in favour.

The Conservatives under then leader Erin O’Toole in the previous Parliament were staunchly opposed to the idea of only providing the documents to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), which reports to the prime minister and not the House. They also refused the new proposal of an ad-hoc committee, saying the government was trying to avoid being accountable to Parliament.

The Bloc Québécois questioned the “good faith” of the government in its offer, due to several previous attempts at stonewalling the production of documents.

“For eight months, the government refused to hand over documents about what could have been espionage on behalf of China,” said Bloc MP Christine Normandin in December 2021.

“Now it has relented and is offering to hand the documents over to the opposition parties, but only under tightly controlled conditions. The government House leader says this is a good faith effort. Does that mean it was acting in bad faith for eight months?”

The House of Commons Canada-China committee had requested the documents without success. And then-president of the Public Health Agency of Canada Iain Stewart was reprimanded by the House Speaker for not being forthcoming on the matter.

Government House Leader Mark Holland told reporters on May 17 that the ad-hoc committee can now begin its work after members and arbiters were selected after a long process.

“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.

Participating MPs had to be identified by parties and also obtain security clearances to be allowed to review the documents.

Those are Liberal Iqra Khalid, Conservative John Williamson, René Villemure from the Bloc, and Heather McPherson from the NDP.

The former magistrates who will sit as arbiters are former Supreme Court justices Ian Binnie and Marshall Rothstein, and former Federal Court of Appeal judge Eleanor Dawson.

Cooperation with China

The Liberal government has fought tooth and nail to prevent the release of information on the circumstances of the firing of Qiu Xiangguo and Cheng Keding, a married couple, citing national security and privacy concerns.

While the two scientists were escorted out of the Winnipeg lab by the RCMP in 2019, they were never charged with any wrongdoing despite being under police investigation. They relocated to China after their firing, reported the Globe and Mail in June 2021.

The Globe also said the RCMP was investigating the scientists to determine whether they had passed Canadian intellectual property to the Chinese regime and its Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

Wuhan is the epicentre of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and U.S. agencies such as the FBI have assessed that the virus likely escaped from a Wuhan lab. SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19.

Qiu Xiangguo is known to have sent samples of Ebola and Henipah viruses to the WIV in March 2019, but those transfers had been approved by the lab’s management.

The lab management had said that they received assurance that no gain-of-function research would take place at the WIV before sending the samples.

The Epoch Times reported previously that there is evidence that the WIV has engaged in synthetic biology research on the Henipah virus, contrary to international agreements. Synthetic biology involves redesigning biological entities and systems, an example of which is gain-of-function research, which makes pathogens more lethal or transmissible. 

There was also an investigation at the Winnipeg lab in 2018, though no details have been provided. 

Then-PHAC president Iain Stewart told the Canada-China committee in March 2021 that his agency had initiated review processes in 2018 for the Winnipeg lab regarding possible breaches of security.

Stewart would not provide additional context when pressed in committee by MPs.

“This is a question of the nature that we’ve discussed in the past, and I’m not at liberty to answer these questions,” he said in June 2021.

But what led to the scientists’ removal could be a recommendation by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) that they be stripped of their security clearances.

The Globe reported CSIS was concerned about the intellectual property being passed to China and Qiu’s contact there.

Qiu has done past research work with Chinese Major General Chen Wei, who is a leading bioweapons expert at China’s Academy of Military Science. She also collaborated with another Chinese military scientist, Yan Feihu, who worked at the Winnipeg lab for a time, according to the Globe.

International Equities

The cleared MPs will be able to learn more about the links the couple had with Chinese government figures, details on the information and virus transfers, and the security investigations that were launched.

A portion of the information could also likely originate from foreign partners, who either alerted Canadian authorities or were being kept apprised of security concerns at the Winnipeg lab.

Holland, when he first presented his plan in 2021, had noted the information was “subject to national security that would have been injurious to Canada’s reputation with its international security partners.”

The ad-hoc committee will begin its work amid multiple controversies gripping the federal government in relation to the Chinese regime’s interference and espionage in Canada.

The Liberal government says it has taken a firm stance against the threat, by establishing various mechanisms, but opposition parties question if the Liberals have been ignoring the warnings about Beijing’s interference activities based on national security leaks in the media.

The ad-hoc committee could shed light on a potential lackadaisical attitude towards security in Canada’s top biosafety lab that led to cooperation with Chinese entities tied to military programs.

The Canadian Press contributed to this report.