Winnipeg lab records fight about avoiding ’embarrassment,’ not security: docs

Winnipeg lab records fight about avoiding ’embarrassment,’ not security: docs

Two scientists fired from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg in 2019 had an “extensive relationship” with China that they did not properly disclose to Canadian health officials, according to documents that were finally released over four years later.

Health Minister Mark Holland tabled the documents in Parliament on Wednesday after a special ad-hoc committee formed to review the documents determined efforts to keep the information under seal was meant to avoid the “embarrassment” of the Public Health Agency of Canada, rather than protecting national security.

Holland later told reporters that the documents show an “unacceptable” security situation in the lab.

“The threat environment with respect to foreign interference was in a very different place at that moment” in 2019, Holland said.

“While there were the proper protocols in place, there was a lax adherence to the security protocols in place.”

Story continues below advertisement

The documents detail allegations against scientists Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng, who were escorted from the National Microbiology Laboratory in July 2019 for reasons public health officials described as “relating to possible breaches in security protocols.” They were subsequently fired in January 2021.

The Winnipeg lab is Canada’s only Level 4 laboratory, designed to deal safely with deadly contagious germs such as the Ebola virus.

Click to play video: 'What’s really behind the Winnipeg lab incident?'

What’s really behind the Winnipeg lab incident?

Cheng was accused of violating safety and security policies by inviting restricted visitors into the lab unaccompanied, who then allegedly removed materials from the lab. Investigators also found Cheng received packages of biological samples from China that were mislabeled as “kitchen utensils,” which the investigation concluded was done to ease the shipping process but not with Cheng’s knowledge.

Investigators from the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service and the Public Health Agency of Canada learned Qiu’s name appeared on a Chinese patent that potentially contained scientific information produced at the Winnipeg lab, which Qiu allegedly shared with Chinese researchers without approval from PHAC.

Story continues below advertisement

The investigation found Qiu had an “extensive relationship” with Chinese researchers and entities connected to the communist Chinese government.

During an interview with CSIS investigators, Qiu said it “never crossed her mind” that her work in infectious diseases could be used for nefarious purposes, including biological weapons. She told the investigators she believed scientists worked to “advance science for good,” according to the documents.

The CSIS investigators concluded that Qiu’s “overriding faith in the good intentions of other scientists” made her “susceptible to influence by a foreign state that could result in information or materials leaving the laboratory that could harm national security or the health of individuals,” one document states.

Breaking news from Canada and around the world
sent to your email, as it happens.

A follow-up interview determined that Qiu had developed “deep, cooperative relationships with a variety of People’s Republic of China (PRC) institutions and has intentionally transferred scientific knowledge and materials to China in order to benefit the PRC government, and herself, without regard for the implications to her employer or to Canada’s interests.”

“It is clear that Ms. Qiu not only failed to inform her employer of these activities but made efforts to conceal her projects with PRC institutions,” the follow-up assessment states.

The documents reveal investigators determined Cheng shared his wife’s “overriding faith in the good intentions of foreign researchers,” but also “a clear desire to avoid rules that could hinder his productivity, and feelings of sadness and resentment regarding past negative workplace experience” that made him susceptible to foreign influence.

Story continues below advertisement

Click to play video: 'Tories demand release of Winnipeg lab documents amid questions on employees’ Chinese military connection'

Tories demand release of Winnipeg lab documents amid questions on employees’ Chinese military connection

At the time the scientists were fired, amid calls from opposition MPs to release unredacted documents related to the issue, then-PHAC president Iain Stewart argued that he was prevented by law from releasing material that could violate privacy or national security laws.

The refusal to hand over documents led the House of Commons to issue its first formal rebuke of a non-MP in nearly 110 years. That came after MPs voted to invoke a rare set of powers to discipline or potentially even imprison people.

Clad in a dark suit, Stewart was brought in by the sergeant-at-arms to stand at the bar of the House of Commons — literally a long brass bar across the green carpet — where he was reprimanded in a rare move.

After the House of Commons ordered PHAC to produce records on the matter, the Liberals applied to the Federal Court of Canada in June 2021 to quash that before dropping that request in August 2021.

Story continues below advertisement

Such a request would have required the Federal Court to rule on longstanding parliamentary precedent that the House of Commons is supreme and has unfettered power to demand the production of any documents it sees fit, no matter how sensitive and regardless of privacy or national security laws.

Click to play video: 'Senior public servant receives first formal House of Commons reprimand for non-MP since 1913'

Senior public servant receives first formal House of Commons reprimand for non-MP since 1913

A year later, Holland, who at the time was the government House leader, announced the creation of the ad-hoc committee of MPs from all parties to review the unredacted documents and determine if they could be released to the public.

The committee concluded a majority of the documents should be released unredacted, particularly material related to PHAC, the members wrote in a letter the House leaders of the Liberals, Conservatives, NDP and Bloc Quebecois that was also released Wednesday.

“The information appears to be mostly about protecting the organization from embarrassment for failures in policy and implementation, not legitimate national security concerns, and its release is essential to hold the Government to account,” the members wrote.

Story continues below advertisement

Holland on Wednesday did not directly answer why the government fought for more than four years to prevent the unredacted documents from being released. He suggested instead that Parliament undertook a “process” to review the redactions done independently by PHAC that he agreed were “too aggressive,” but were intended to protect personal and national security information related to “a human resources issue.”

“Normally, we wouldn’t do this,” he said. “We wouldn’t disclose the names of people, we wouldn’t disclose the work. We wouldn’t disclose the nature of why somebody was fired.

“The reason why this is different is because of national security and the need for transparency.”

Click to play video: 'O’Toole says Conservatives will not participate in committee investigation of Winnipeg lab firings'

O’Toole says Conservatives will not participate in committee investigation of Winnipeg lab firings

The minister put most of the blame for what happened on Qiu and Cheng for being “dishonest” about their connections to China, but acknowledged there were failures on PHAC’s part as well.

Story continues below advertisement

“I do think there was a lax adherence to security protocols,” he said. “I think that there was an inadequate understanding of the threat of foreign interference. I believe that an earnest effort was made to adhere to those policies, but not with the rigor that was required.”

At the time Qiu and Cheng were working at the Winnipeg lag, Canada was fighting for the release of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from Chinese detention. The two men weren’t released until 2021.

The government, as well as CSIS and the RCMP, also had information that China was attempting to influence diaspora communities in Canada and interfere in Canadian domestic affairs, including elections.

“I think in 2019, the extent to which China was attempting to influence the scientific community or to interfere in domestic Canadian affairs was not known to the extent as it is today,” Holland said.

However, he added he is “absolutely certain — and you will see it in the documents — that no sensitive information left the lab.”

—With files from Global’s Alex Boutilier and David Baxter