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The big problem with the Winnipeg lab affair was obvious from the start: too much secrecy

What the documents about the Winnipeg lab scandal show is interesting and relevant. But the biggest problem here might the one that was apparent from the start: the sheer amount of secrecy that enveloped this situation.

Three years is too long to wait for clarity

A man and woman sit side by side on a couch, smiling at the camera.

The release of 623 pages of documents on the firing of two scientists from the National Microbiology Lab in 2019 understandably generated excitement around Parliament Hill on Wednesday, setting off a race to discover and frame exactly what kind of scandal they revealed.

What the documents tell us is certainly interesting and relevant, and will help us fill in a picture that has been frustratingly incomplete for more than three years.

But the biggest problem here might still be the one that was obvious from the start: the sheer amount of secrecy that enveloped this case. And the release of those 623 pages — even partially redacted — only renews questions about how much of that secrecy was actually necessary.

Political stubbornness is at least partly to blame for the long delay in releasing the documents. The federal government was reluctant from the outset to explain what had happened. In response, opposition MPs — constituting a majority in the House of Commons — demanded that the government turn over documents about the scientists to a House committee.

The Liberal government invoked privacy and security concerns and instead sought to send the documents to the special national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians — a committee that exists outside Parliament but whose members have national security clearance. The Conservatives objected to that arrangement and responded by pulling their members from that committee.

WATCH: Fired scientists shared information with China, documents say

The stand-off ultimately resulted in the House voting in June 2021 to hold the president of the Public Health Agency of Canada in contempt for refusing to comply with its orders.

The government then suggested that an ad hoc committee of MPs, assisted by a panel of arbiters who could make decisions on the release of information, be given access to the documents. The proposal was based on what was done in 2010 when Parliament demanded that Stephen Harper's Conservative government turn over documents related to the treatment of Afghan detainees.

The opposition was unmoved. A few days later, the Liberal government asked the Federal Court to block Parliament's order. The courts might have been expected to endorse Parliament's authority and prerogative. But the dissolution of Parliament for an election in the fall of 2021 brought the parliamentary and legal processes to a halt.

How MPs finally got to see the documents

Partisans will view one side or the other as the villain in that sequence of events — the government for not being transparent and flouting the will of Parliament, or the opposition for being unreasonable or irresponsible in its demands.

It's also possible that both sides were motivated by at least some amount of justifiable concern — that the government had legitimate cause to demand as much protection as possible for information that could involve national security, and that the opposition was well within its rights and responsibilities to demand as much transparency as possible to hold the government to account.

Ideally, the two sides would have landed quickly on an arrangement that satisfied those concerns and priorities. But it wasn't until May 2023 that all parties finally agreed to the ad hoc committee the government proposed two years earlier.

WATCH: PM accuses Conservatives of weaponizing national security

That committee of four MPs, with three former justices reviewing the documents to determine what could be released publicly, has finally produced some disclosure.

What those documents show offers reasons for concern about the behaviour of the two scientists and how well the lab enforced its protocols. Opposition MPs have every reason to ask whether more could have been done at the time and what has been done since to improve security policies.

But while those MPs are clamouring for a political scandal, the big problem is the simple fact that this business is only being aired out now — and not three years ago.

Was all this secrecy necessary?

In a letter attached to the documents, the four MPs — Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, Conservative MP John Williamson, Bloc Quebecois MP René Villemure and NDP MP Heather McPherson — acknowledge that some amount of secrecy was justified, particularly for documents from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. But they also said that the "majority" of documents from the Public Health Agency should be released.

"The information appears to be mostly about protecting the organization from embarrassment for failures in policy and implementation, not legitimate national security concerns," the MPs wrote.

Officials from the agency probably could point to a stack of internal legal opinions and policies that supported their decisions about what could be released publicly. (Health Minister Mark Holland says public servants are in charge of deciding on redactions, and argues that is how it should be.) And maybe agency and security officials had concerns about how opposition MPs originally proposed to handle those documents.

WATCH: Conservative leader says National Microbiology Lab scientists should not work with China

But the mere fact that this much information has now been released shows that it didn't absolutely need to be kept secret in the first place. Which suggests, once again, that this government is too quick to come down on the side of withholding information.

The last fight over documents, more than a decade ago, offered a similar conclusion. When secret documents related to the handling and treatment of Afghans detained by the Canadian Forces were handed over to an ad hoc committee of MPs and a panel of legal experts, the end result was at least a little more disclosure than would otherwise have occurred.

Partisans will cry cover-up, but it's possible that the problem is actually more systemic and cultural — a tendency toward excessive secrecy that has built up over generations, even as successive governments have promised new levels of transparency. Canadians tend to default to reticence. And we have created governments in our own image, ones which default to keeping their confidences confidential.

Governments have legitimate reasons to keep some things secret. Real questions need to be asked about how Parliament can responsibly handle secret information.

But the biggest question is why it took more than three years for this week's disclosure to happen.

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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