Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota intends to take on the Liberal government in a court fight over the disclosure of documents related to the firing of two scientists at Canada's highest-security laboratory.
The Speaker's office says the Speaker's legal counsel has advised the attorney general that Rota — who is named as the respondent on behalf of the House of Commons in the Liberal government's court application — will challenge the court's jurisdiction on the basis of parliamentary privilege, unless the government drops its application to block the disclosure of the documents.
Rota told the House of Commons on Wednesday that his argument will be "that the legal system does not have jurisdiction over the operations of the House. We are our own jurisdiction.
"That is something that we will fight tooth and nail to protect."
Opposition MPs said they were shocked by the government's court application.
The Liberal government and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) are refusing to release documents related to the firing of scientist Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng, who were escorted off the premises of the National Microbiology Laboratory in 2019 during an RCMP investigation.
The two were officially fired in January of this year.
Opposition parties joined forces in the Commons earlier this month to order PHAC to turn over all unredacted documents related to the firing of the two scientists.
The Liberal government asked the court earlier this week to prohibit the disclosure of the documents and named Rota, a Liberal MP, as the respondent in the matter.
The Liberal government says it is concerned about the possible impact of releasing sensitive intelligence on international relations, national security and national defence.
PHAC president Iain Stewart said he is prohibited under the Canada Evidence Act from disclosing "sensitive information or potentially injurious information" unless the attorney general and the Federal Court authorize the disclosure.
"Mr. Stewart's intention is to comply with the law. It is not to defy Parliament," he said through his lawyer in a letter tabled in the House earlier this week.
The opposition parties' motion called for the documents to be handed to the parliamentary law clerk, who would confidentially review them and redact anything he felt would compromise national security or the ongoing police investigation.
The motion specified that the Canada-China relations committee could, after consulting with the law clerk, choose to make public any redacted material.
The minority Liberal government defied the House order and instead provided the unredacted documents to the all-party National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, NSICOP, whose members have top security clearance and are bound to secrecy.
The Liberal government argued that NSICOP was the appropriate body to examine the documents without putting at risk national security or compromising any ongoing investigations.
'The House has the power'
Last week, Rota ruled that sending the documents to NSICOP is not an acceptable alternative since it's a relatively new body and not a standing committee of Parliament.
Rota used a rarely used House procedure on Monday to publicly reprimand Stewart for his failure to hand over the requested documents.
"The powers in question, like all those enjoyed by the House collectively and by members individually, are essential to the performance of their duties," Rota said. "The House has the power, and indeed the duty to reaffirm them when obstruction or interference impedes with its deliberations.
"As guardian of these rights and privileges, that is precisely what the House has asked me to do today, by ordering the Speaker to reprimand you for the Public Health Agency of Canada's contempt, refusing to submit the required documents."
Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong, who alleges the Liberal government's refusal to release the documents is evidence of a cover-up, said the Conservatives support Rota's position.
"The Trudeau government's decision to use Canada's independent judicial system to defy the orders of the House of Commons undermines the rule of law and our parliamentary democracy. This should concern every Canadian," said Chong.
"Until the documents are released, Canada's Conservatives will continue to demand answers and hold the Trudeau government accountable. We will protect our national security."