Canada’s Responsible Government in the Cross Hairs

After almost 154 years, historic firsts in Canada are rare. But on June 21st, the Liberals made history – and it’s not good news. The Trudeau government filed an application in Federal Court to sue the House of Commons Speaker, Anthony Rota to block a House order to produce documents to a Parliamentary committee. Never before has the authority of Parliament been challenged in this way. The government has attempted to downplay the issue as an inconsequential debate over where sensitive documents should be provided. Unfortunately, it is much more serious than that. The issue is not only about Canada’s national security; it also strikes at the heart of Parliament’s ability to hold the Prime Minister and the executive branch in check. Canada’s system of responsible government is in the cross hairs.

The pandemic has exposed global vulnerabilities to biological threats and shown that progress in biotechnology could be exploited for hostile ends. That is why the security breaches at Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Lab must not be ignored. Two scientists were fired from this lab after the Canadian Security Intelligence Service recommended that their clearances be revoked. Furthermore, scientist members of China’s People’s Liberation Army were granted access to work in the lab and deadly Ebola and Henipah viruses were transferred from this lab to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The House of Commons committee on Canada-China relations decided to review these national security breaches. The government was ordered to provide over 250 pages of critical unredacted documents to this committee to support the study, but refused to do so.

Instead, Trudeau directed the President of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), Iain Stewart, to provide the documents to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP). But NSICOP is not a House of Commons committee, governed by the rights, accountability and transparency of Parliament. Instead, it is an arm of the executive branch acting solely as an advisory committee to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister appoints the members, dictates what they study, and approves all reports before they are published. NSICOP is a committee that the Prime Minister controls and can subsequently silence.

I am honoured that the Prime Minister appointed me to serve as a member of NSICOP to advise him and the cabinet on national security policies and approaches. But by law, NSICOP has no authority to act as a check and balance on executive power or to hold the government to account. NSICOP is prohibited from reviewing active investigations and is not where national security breaches, like those incurred at the Winnipeg National Microbiology Lab, can be investigated.

Trudeau’s argument that the documents can’t be released to a House of Commons Committee for national security reasons is wrong. There is no higher authority than Parliament and clear security protocols to protect sensitive information were defined as part of the House order. Furthermore, sending the documents to NSICOP rather than the Canada-China Committee was not the Government’s decision to make. Statutory committees do not take priority over the rights of the House.

As a result, a House majority vote found the government in contempt and directed, Mr. Stewart to appear before Parliament with the records. He appeared but did not provide the documents. He has been found in contempt of Parliament, but the Speaker has not yet ruled on the consequences. This has led to the unprecedented move by Trudeau to challenge the authority of Parliament in court to ensure the documents never see the light of day.

This is now a battle between the Prime Minister and Parliament’s representative, the Speaker. To his credit, Mr. Rota has stated that “the Speaker’s office will defend the rights of the House. The legal system does not have any jurisdiction over the operations of the House. We are our own jurisdiction. That is something we will fight tooth and nail to protect.”

This government has shown their contempt for Parliament and disregard for the longstanding rights and responsibilities of MPs. The Prime Minister cannot simply cast aside orders directed by Parliament. He must abide by the will of Canadians as exercised by their 338 elected representatives. The court must deny Trudeau’s request and protect our responsible government. Canada’s national security and the future of our democracy depends upon it.