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John McCallum speaks during a news conference in Ottawa on Dec. 14, 2016.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canada remains far from formally discussing an extradition treaty with China, the new ambassador to Beijing says.

"We are a long, long way from negotiations, let alone agreeing to such an agreement," said John McCallum, two weeks after taking up Canada's top diplomatic posting in Beijing.

An extradition pact is "not high on my list of priorities. But if the Chinese wish to talk with us about it, we will talk," he added, in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

Read more: Canada deports hundreds to China each year with no treatment guarantee

The Chinese government has sought a way to force the return of people it calls corrupt fugitives, and Canada agreed last fall to discuss it. Since then, however, the abuse of human-rights lawyers in China has brought new attention to the dark side of its judicial system.

The lack of such a deal has not, however, stopped Canada from sending people back to China, without receiving any assurances that they will not be tortured or otherwise mistreated. The Canada Border Services Agency has deported 1,386 people to China over the past three years, according to agency statistics recently provided to The Globe.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale defended Canada's removal process Monday when asked how the government can be sure that those deported to China will not be treated badly.

"There's a due process that is followed in every case," Mr. Goodale said.

"I certainly would be open to any suggestions or advice about how it might be upgraded or improved to make sure that we are getting accurate information."

Both opposition parties called on the government to halt extradition treaty talks with China, citing concerns about human-rights abuses in the country.

"We don't believe it is appropriate to formalize an extradition treaty with the Chinese," Conservative foreign affairs critic Peter Kent said.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair echoed Mr. Kent's concerns, saying there should be no treaty with China "full stop."

Extradition aside, Mr. McCallum described how Canada could energetically pursue a deal with much broader importance, a free-trade agreement with the world's second largest economy. The Trudeau government has yet to formally commit to negotiations, though a second round of exploratory talks is scheduled for later this month and public consultations are under way.

If the Prime Minister commits, Mr. McCallum said, there is no need to take 10 years to complete talks, as China and Australia did. "If we want to do it, we don't want to take forever to do it. And we have a template that Australia has provided us."

Mr. McCallum was named to the position in January by Justin Trudeau as part of an effort to reinvigorate relations between Ottawa and Beijing. Having served as a cabinet minister under three prime ministers, he is the first ambassador appointed to modern China with a political rather than diplomatic background.

The Prime Minister's posture comes amid rising uncertainty in Canada's most important trading partner, the United States, where President Donald Trump has called for renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement and championed an "America first" policy.

China can't take the place of the United States as a trading partner, but "our path is clear, and that is we want to enhance our ties with China," Mr. McCallum said, adding: "From an economic point of view, we would be out of our minds if we didn't seek to be a part of this."

Mr. McCallum, who possesses a politician's knack for a slogan, said his goal in Beijing is "more, more, more."

"That translates into jobs, jobs, jobs, because more exports creates jobs, more tourists creates jobs, more investment by China in Canada typically creates jobs."

Mr. Trudeau and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang agreed last fall to work to double the number of Chinese visitors to Canada in a decade. Mr. McCallum wants to accomplish that in four years. He sees spending by a new tide of Chinese tourists as key to persuading skeptical Canadians that drawing closer to China will bring benefits, particularly in creating new jobs.

"If we have a free-trade agreement, the principle criterion is, is this good for the average Canadian worker?" he said.

Ottawa wants better access to China for Canadian companies in sectors such as agri-food, forest products, clean and environmental technologies, advanced manufacturing and financial services, he said.

Mr. McCallum said issues such as procurement and non-tariff barriers would also need to be addressed, acknowledging that China's lofty defence of free trade isn't always matched by action.

"China's non-tariff barriers are high relative to other countries," Mr. McCallum said, and "some aspects of doing business in China are very unpredictable."

Any push for a trade deal, too, must confront a deeply ambivalent Canadian public. Last year, the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada found that 46 per cent of Canadians opposed free trade with China; support for a trade pact, while up from 2014, remains below 2012 levels.

"My job is partly to persuade China to do things, but my job is also to persuade Canada to get its own act in order," Mr. McCallum said. He expects to return to Canada every six to eight weeks. There are "things that people in Canada are doing which are impeding our agenda over here," he said. He has "come across areas where Canada has been slow to respond, where our public service is languishing a little bit or delaying things."

He said treatment of Chinese state-owned firms "would be on the table" in any trade talks with China's new ambassador in Ottawa, Lu Shaye, who recently said Beijing wants unfettered access to Canada for all of its companies.

But Mr. McCallum said Canada already has solid rules to regulate foreign money. "We have certain rules about national-security tests, about net-benefit tests," he said. "But other things being equal, more foreign investment creates more jobs and that's a good thing."

He nonetheless agreed with his Chinese counterpart, Mr. Lu, who said "democracy or human rights" had no place in trade talks. Trade talks can touch on environmental and labour issues, Mr. McCallum said. But "it's not clear to me that human rights, per se, are a part of a free-trade agreement."

Still, "we're not going to relent" on human-rights issues, he said, describing a desire to "walk and chew gum at the same time," pursuing economic expansion while holding the line on values issues.

"The human-rights component of our foreign policy is fundamental, has been forever. And I don't think we're going to sacrifice that for economic reasons."

Chinese-Canadian Jean Zou has been working to appeal her husband Wilson Wang's prison sentence in China after he was convicted of bribery charges. Zou says Wang was put into the shuanggui system of interrogation while in detention.