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Politics Ambassadors must stick to the government line and ‘John didn’t do that,’ Freeland says of McCallum’s firing

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Jan. 28, 2019, in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland described John McCallum as a close personal friend and a highly accomplished individual, but said on Monday he had to be fired as Canada’s ambassador to China for breaking with an official government position.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fired Mr. McCallum on Friday evening after the ambassador strayed from the government’s script for the second time in a week. He had expressed hope that the United States would drop its request for the extradition of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., who was detained in Vancouver on Dec. 1.

The Trudeau government has long maintained that the Meng case will be handled by an independent judiciary and that decisions are free of politics, but Mr. McCallum had mused about the role U.S. politics might play in resolving the dispute.

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However, U.S. officials announced new charges on Monday afternoon against Huawei and Ms. Meng, and praised Canada for launching legal proceedings to extradite the executive.

The decision to fire Mr. McCallum was announced in a news release on Saturday, and Ms. Freeland was the first federal minister to provide a public explanation for the decision.

“The central job of an ambassador is to represent accurately the government’s position. John didn’t do that and that is why his position was untenable,” she told reporters on Monday afternoon before the U.S. government held its news conference in Washington.

The Canadian government has jumped from crisis to crisis since Ms. Meng’s December arrest, which infuriated the Chinese government. China then detained two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor. It also invited foreign media to witness the decision to impose the death sentence on Canadian Robert Schellenberg, who had previously received a 15-year prison term for drug smuggling.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said John McCallum was fired as Canada's ambassador to China because he didn't toe the government's line on the arrest of a Huawei executive. The Canadian Press

Ms. Freeland spoke with reporters before Question Period on Monday afternoon as Parliament returned from the holiday recess. In the House of Commons, Conservative MPs criticized the government’s handling of the Canada-China relationship.

During Question Period, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer cited what he called the “debacle with China” as he asked the Prime Minister to explain the timing of his decision.

“Why did the Prime Minister show such weakness and wait so long to fire his ambassador?" Mr. Scheer said.

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Mr. Trudeau did not directly respond to the question. Instead, he said the Canadian government is working to assist the three Canadians affected in China.

“At the same time, we are always there to stand up for the rule of law, for the independence of our judicial system and to speak with our allies around the world to ensure that the world understands that Canada will always defend the rule of law,” the Prime Minister said.

Canadian officials have been working to get Mr. Schellenberg’s death sentence overturned and to free Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. After the Prime Minister fired Mr. McCallum, veteran diplomat Jim Nickel was named acting ambassador in Beijing.

Mr. McCallum’s troubles began last week at a news conference in Markham, Ont., that was restricted to Chinese-language media. During the event, he said Ms. Meng had a good chance of persuading a Canadian court to reject a request for her extradition to the United States, and suggested the U.S. government might cut a deal with China to end the matter.

The comments were widely criticized as contradicting Canada’s statements that the issue is not political and is entirely in the hands of the independent judiciary. Mr. McCallum apologized on Jan. 24, saying he misspoke. Yet the next day, he told a StarMetro Vancouver reporter it “would be great for Canada” if the United States dropped its extradition request.

That night, the Prime Minister asked for and accepted Mr. McCallum’s resignation.

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“I think we all appreciate that this situation last week is unfortunate,” Ms. Freeland said. “It in no way changes our government’s direction, our government’s commitment to working hard on this issue. Our government’s commitment to seeking a resolution, and crucially, the work we have already done, and achieved really significant results, in rallying a coalition of allies to support our position. That is something we want to continue to do. We’re working on it every day.”

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