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Compromise proposed to allow opposition MPs to see documents on fired scientists

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OTTAWA — The Liberal government is proposing a compromise over a long-running dispute with opposition parties over the disclosure of secret documents related to the firing of two scientists at Canada’s highest security laboratory.

Government House leader Mark Holland proposed Thursday that a special ad hoc committee of MPs from all parties be allowed to view both the redacted and unredacted documents. Non-partisan government officials would advise if some sensitive information should be redacted.

In the event of a disagreement over what should be made public, a panel of independent arbiters — made up of three former senior judges agreed upon by all parties — would decide how the information could be made public without compromising national security, national defence, or international relations.

The panel’s decisions would be binding and could include the full or partial release of documents or writing summaries of sensitive material.

Holland noted that this is the same process adopted in 2010 by Stephen Harper’s former Conservative government to allow opposition MPs to view unredacted documents related to the alleged abusive treatment of detainees turned over to Afghan authorities by the Canadian military.

“We believe this proposal constitutes a good-faith effort by the government to resolve this matter,” Holland said in a letter to his opposition counterparts.

“It recognizes the role of the House of Commons to hold the government to account. And it also respects the government’s obligation to keep certain information confidential to protect Canadians. We are proposing a transparent, responsive and reasonable approach that is in accordance with laws that protect sensitive information.”

There was no immediate response from any of the opposition parties.

In the last parliamentary session, opposition parties banded together to pass repeated motions demanding that the Public Health Agency of Canada turn over all unredacted documents related to the firing of scientists Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng.

The pair were escorted out of Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Laboratory in July 2019 and subsequently fired last January.

Opposition MPs repeatedly asserted the right of the Commons and its committees to order the production of any documents they please, while former PHAC head Iain Stewart repeatedly argued that he was prevented by law from releasing material that could violate privacy or national security laws.

The battle culminated in June with Stewart being hauled before the bar of the Commons to be reprimanded by Rota over his repeated refusal to comply with the order to produce the unredacted documents. He was the first non-MP to be subjected to such a procedure in more than a century.

The government applied to the Federal Court of Canada a few days later to prevent the release of the documents, which it maintained would be injurious to international relations, national defence or national security.

It dropped the case when the election was called in August since the order to produce the documents, along with all other business before the House, was terminated with the dissolution of Parliament.

However, in one of the first moves when the Commons resumed sitting last week, the Conservatives asked Rota to rule that the government was in contempt of Parliament when it launched the court proceeding. Rota has not yet ruled on the matter but should he agree, the Conservatives intend to move a motion, supported by other opposition parties, to issue a warrant to seize the documents.

The demand for documents includes material related to the transfer, overseen by Qiu, of deadly Ebola and Henipah viruses to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology in March 2019.

Stewart, who is no longer the head of PHAC, had assured MPs that the transfer had nothing to do with the subsequent firings of Qiu and her husband and that there was no connection to COVID-19.

The coronavirus first appeared in China’s Wuhan province and some believe it may have been released accidentally by the virology institute, triggering the global pandemic.

Despite Stewart’s assurances, opposition parties continue to suspect a link and have remained determined to see the unredacted documents.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2021.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press

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Crowd gathers north of Toronto to cheer on trucker convoy heading to Ottawa

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TORONTO — A large crowd gathered outside a mall north of Toronto on Thursday as a group of local truckers prepared to join a convoy to Ottawa in protest of the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for cross-border drivers.

Some in the crowd threw cash and food up to truckers in their vehicles at the Vaughan Mills mall while others hoisted Canadian flags and signs protesting the government as the truckers gradually rolled out.

Mike Fabinski, a truck driver from Barrie, Ont., said the vaccine mandate means he won’t be able to work cross-border routes any more.

“You want to be vaccinated, go ahead, your choice. I don’t want to be vaccinated, that’s my choice,” he said.

Fabinski said he’s been a truck driver for 20 years but has not been able to travel to the U.S. since the federal mandate came to effect on Jan 15.

“I was going non-stop until they started last Saturday,” he said. “Now I cannot go. I cannot work no more.”

The federal government ended truckers’ exemption to the vaccine mandate two weeks ago meaning Canadian truck drivers need to be fully vaccinated if they want to avoid a two-week quarantine when they cross into Canada from the U.S.

Some with extreme, far-right views have latched onto the protest against the mandate. One online video includes a man expressing hope the rally will turn into the Canadian equivalent of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former president Donald Trump.

On Thursday, some in the crowd that came out to support the truckers said they planned to join the convoy and make the trek to Ottawa as well.

Dean Brown said he supported peaceful protest intended by the convoy and rejected suggestions that it could lead to violence.

“The people who are in charge of this (convoy) are blocking people who are insisting or suggesting violence,” the 57-year-old Toronto man said.

“It’s all about peace. It’s all about freedom. It’s all about getting the Canadian way of life back. We are not here to turn it to violence.”

Ontario Provincial Police were urging drivers to be patient as several groups of truckers planned to drive across the province to Ottawa before a so-called “freedom rally” on Parliament Hill planned for Saturday.

Police spokesman Sgt. Kerry Schmidt said drivers should prepare for delays on Toronto-area highways, including Highway 401, Highway 400 and the Queen Elizabeth Way.

Police in Ottawa have said they are planning for as many as 2,000 demonstrators, and while protest leaders have been co-operative, there are concerns that far-right extremist groups that have attached themselves to the convoy could spark violence.

The Canadian Trucking Alliance, which has denounced the convoy protest, estimates that roughly 15 per cent of truckers — up to 16,000 — are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2022.

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press

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Bodies of family from India trying to cross into U.S. by foot identified

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Officials in Ottawa say they have confirmed the identities of four Indian nationals whose bodies were found frozen in Manitoba near the Canada-U. S. border last week.

The High Commission of India has released a notice saying the four who died were Jagdish Baldevbhai Patel, a 39-year-old man, Vaishaliben Jagdishkumar Patel, a 37-year-old woman, Vihangi Jagdishkumar Patel, an 11-year-old girl, and Dharmik Jagdishkumar Patel, a three-year-old boy.

Investigators believe the family of four was attempting to cross over the border by foot on Jan. 19 during severe winter weather and died from exposure.

The family’s immediate relatives have been informed, says the release.

“The Consulate General of India in Toronto is in touch with the family of the deceased and is providing all consular support. The High Commission offers its sincere condolences to the family and friends of the victims.”

The release says a special team, led by a senior consular officer from the Consulate General of India, is in Manitoba to help with investigations on the Canadian side and to offer services for the victims.

Manitoba RCMP found the four bodies near Emerson, Man., after U.S. border patrol agents advised them they had picked up a group of Indian nationals on the U.S. side.

One of the individuals was found with a backpack full of items for an infant. He told investigators he was carrying the backpack for a group that got separated from his.

Investigators have said they believe the deaths are linked to a human smuggling scheme.

Steve Shand of Deltona, Fla., faces counts of transporting or attempting to transport illegal aliens. He was released from custody on Monday.

Police in the western state of Gujarat in India have begun delving deeper into the deaths of four Indian migrants.

Ashish Bhatia, director general of police in Gujarat, says investigators are trying to determine whether there was a travel agent in India who helped the group.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2022.

The Canadian Press

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