In 1641, driven by his wife’s imperious order “Go you poltroon. Go and pull those rogues out by the ears,” King Charles I forced his way into the House of Commons and demanded that five sitting members be turned over to him. The king believed the individuals in question were plotting against him.
But when he entered the House, backed by 80 men at arms, Charles found that his intended captives had fled. He then demanded that Speaker William Lenthall reveal where the men had gone.
The answer he received has, until two weeks ago, defined the role and duties of the Speaker down the years: “May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here.”
I raise this because of an extraordinary action by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government. But first, a little more history.
In 2019, two scientists at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg were fired and had their security clearances revoked. The Winnipeg facility is one of only a handful of Level 4 labs in North America equipped to handle the most dangerous pathogens.
Among other duties, the two scientists, Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, had been working on deadly virus samples. Qiu oversaw the sending of these samples to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.
Amir Attaran, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa, had this to say: “We have a researcher who was removed by the RCMP from the highest-security laboratory that Canada has for reasons that government is unwilling to disclose. The intelligence remains secret. But what we know is that before she was removed, she sent one of the deadliest viruses on Earth … to a laboratory in China … that has links to the Chinese military.”
When news of the firings became known, a majority of MPs in the House demanded to be given all files relating to the matter.
After the Public Health Agency of Canada refused, and withheld more than 250 pages of records, the Speaker of the House, Anthony Rota, ordered the release of these documents. Rota, in passing, is a Liberal MP.
Rather than comply, Trudeau’s government is taking the Speaker to court. The Attorney General has filed papers in federal court asking that the records demanded by Rota remain secret.
The reason given for this unprecedented move is that release of the documents could be “injurious to international relations or national defence or national security.”
The Speaker has said he will fight the government in court, adding: “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.”
It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the damage done by releasing these files has nothing to do with embarrassing another government — in this case, presumably, the government of China. More likely it has everything to do with embarrassing the government of Canada.
If the Winnipeg lab is experimenting with toxins that could be weaponized, for example, admitting that would certainly compromise national security.
But should it be doing such work?
On the other hand, if its efforts are aimed purely at advancing new forms of medical treatment, it’s hard to see why releasing that information would harm anyone. It would indeed be cause for pride.
The prime minister has said that in seeking these documents, the House of Commons has become “toxic.”
What is genuinely toxic is his disregard for parliamentary procedure and his attempt to overpower the Speaker by court order.