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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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Economy

Luxury goods tax on super-rich could hit electric vehicles: expert

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By Marie Woolf in Ottawa

A new tax on yachts, luxury cars and private aircraft designed to hit the super-rich could also cover vehicles meant to help the environment, a tax expert warns.

The luxury goods tax, which will come into force on Sept. 1, will cover cars and SUVs, as well as private planes and helicopters, worth more than $100,000.

The federal tax will also cover yachts and boats — including motorboats — worth more than $250,000.

But senior tax lawyer Héléna Gagné says the new tax could also hit some electric and hybrid vehicles, including Tesla and BMW models, which cost more than $100,000.

The federal government has been encouraging Canadians to invest in clean technology and zero-emission vehicles, which can carry a higher price tag than cars that run on fossil fuels.

Gagné said the thresholds for the tax could also affect people who would not be regarded as wealthy, but have saved up to buy a private plane for a hobby.

“It seems to be assumed that it is only the wealthiest who will be impacted by the luxury tax but it is not necessarily the case,” said Gagné, a partner at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. “It can also impact indirectly taxpayers who may not consider themselves as being among the wealthiest but who may decide to purchase an electric vehicle with a retail sales price that happens to be over the $100,000 threshold.”

Adrienne Vaupshas, a spokeswoman for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, said the measures, originally proposed in the 2021 budget, are not designed to hit the middle class.

She said the threshold for the tax for boats was deliberately set at $250,000 so it would cover superyachts and not middle-class families buying boats.

Vaupshas said it was “only right and fair that the very wealthiest are asked to pay their fair share.”

“The government was re-elected on a platform that included a commitment to bring forward a luxury tax on yachts, private jets, and luxury cars and implementing this measure is a priority,” she said.

The tax was originally proposed in the 2021 budget. It will cover luxury cars, planes, and boats bought for personal use and leisure. Commercial vehicles, including small planes selling seats, and emergency vehicles are among the classes of vehicle exempt from the new tax.

The tax amounts to either 10 per cent of the taxable amount of the item or 20 per cent of the amount over the price threshold — whichever is less.

The NDP has been putting pressure on the federal government to do more to tax the super-rich. Measures to increase taxes on the wealthiest people in Canada, however, were not included in the Liberal-NDP confidence and supply pact.

NDP critic for tax fairness and inequality, Niki Ashton, said at a news conference last month that she wants the federal government to close loopholes she says are being used by the super-rich and corporations to avoid paying billions in taxes.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 11, 2022.

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International

Ex-police officer gets 7-plus years in prison in Jan. 6 case

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By Michael Kunzelman in Washington

WASHINGTON (AP) — An off-duty Virginia police officer who stormed the U.S. Capitol with a fellow officer was sentenced Thursday to more than seven years in prison, matching the longest prison sentence so far among hundreds of Capitol riot cases.

Former Rocky Mount Police Sgt. Thomas Robertson didn’t speak in court before U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper sentenced him to seven years and three months in prison. Cooper also sentenced Robertson to three years of supervised release after his prison term.

Federal prosecutors had recommended an eight-year prison sentence for Robertson. The sentence he got equals that of Guy Reffitt, a Texas man who attacked the Capitol while armed with a holstered handgun.

Robertson gets credit for the 13 months he has already been jailed.

In April, a jury convicted Robertson of attacking the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to obstruct Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral victory. Jurors found him guilty of all six counts in his indictment, including charges that he interfered with police officers at the Capitol and that he entered a restricted area with a dangerous weapon, a large wooden stick.

Robertson traveled to Washington on the morning of Jan. 6 with another off-duty Rocky Mount police officer, Jacob Fracker, and a third man, a neighbor who wasn’t charged in the case.

Fracker was scheduled to be tried alongside Robertson before he pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in March and agreed to cooperate with federal authorities. Cooper is scheduled to sentence Fracker next Tuesday.

Prosecutors have asked Cooper to spare Fracker from a prison term and sentence him to six months of probation along with a period of home detention or “community confinement.” They said Fracker’s “fulsome” cooperation and trial testimony was crucial in securing convictions against Robertson.

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