A second former Canadian ambassador to Beijing, Guy Saint-Jacques, says he received a call from the foreign affairs ministry in Ottawa that delivered a request from the Prime Minister’s Office to avoid contradictory public messaging regarding China.
Mr. Saint-Jacques, who was Canada’s envoy to China between 2012 and 2016, told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday he found this directive to be particularly odd given that it concerned an authoritarian state. “Especially having served in China and knowing how they try to control messaging there,” he said.
“It was a bit of a strange conversation,” Mr. Saint-Jacques said. He characterized the way the message was delivered as “a bit clumsy.”
Mr. Saint-Jacques’ comments come one day after another Canadian former envoy to China, David Mulroney, said the foreign affairs ministry, citing a request from the PMO, asked him to check with the department before he makes future public statements on Ottawa’s China policy, citing the "election environment.”
Like the call to Mr. Mulroney, the message to Mr. Saint-Jacques was delivered by Paul Thoppil, assistant deputy minister for Asia-Pacific at Global Affairs Canada. Mr. Thoppil phoned Mr. Saint-Jacques on Monday. The call to Mr. Mulroney was July 19.
Journalists frequently approach the two former diplomats for comment, especially as relations between Canada and China deteriorated after Ottawa arrested an executive of Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. last December on an extradition request from the United States. Shortly after Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, China seized two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor, in what analysts, including Mr. Mulroney, have called “hostage diplomacy.”
Mr. Mulroney had said the Global Affairs request made him very uncomfortable and he refused to comply. He said he felt that implicit in Ottawa’s request was the premise he would revise or temper his comments after running them by the ministry. “I am deeply concerned about the way foreign policy is being managed, and don’t wish to be silenced or co-opted,” he said.
“Our office would not have directed the public service to say those things to a former ambassador,” said Cameron Ahmad, director of communications to the Prime Minister.
Speaking about his call, Mr. Saint-Jacques said he was perplexed about why the government was raising the need for unified messaging.
“He wanted me to know that PMO just wanted him to relay the hope that we could all speak with one voice to support the strategy of the government,” Mr. Saint-Jacques said. “Paul told me PMO just wanted me to know that is what they were hoping: that we could speak with one voice.
“I said … I don’t think I have been unhelpful,” he recalled. “I said: ‘Tell me what I said that goes contrary to this? Give me examples.’ ... And he had no examples.”
Mr. Saint-Jacques said as former government officials, he and Mr. Mulroney have a lot of experience in dealing with China and can provide good advice on the topic. He said there’s no question that he’s offering advice from the sidelines in his public comments and that he can’t tell the Canadian government how to act on China.
“At the same time, I am not sure how deep the expertise is in PMO on this.”
On Wednesday, the department of Global Affairs said it regrets how things were communicated to Mr. Mulroney in the call from Mr. Thoppil. Asked for comment about Mr. St. Jacques’ statement, the PMO said it had no more to add than what the government has already said.
Spokesman Guillaume Bérubé said the call to Mr. Mulroney was merely “engagement and consultation” to “ensure informed public discussion of important foreign policy issues so that comments of others such as former diplomats are well informed by current circumstances."
“We welcome the views and advice of informed Canadians such as Mr. Mulroney on these complex issues and regret that this message was not clearly communicated,” Mr. Bérubé said. “There was no intention, nor was there any instruction from anyone, including the PMO, that Mr. Mulroney clear his public comments with the government.”
Mr. Mulroney, responding to the Global Affairs statement on Wednesday, said the call from Mr. Thoppil was not consultation. “The call from Paul was different. First, it wasn’t, in my view, so much an offer to consult and share ideas as to ‘get with the program.’ People in Ottawa don’t invoke PMO frequently or lightly. It is done to intimidate and obtain compliance.”
Mr. Saint-Jacques, speaking further about his call from the ministry, said that, in retrospect, he realizes what likely roused the government’s concern about discordant messaging is what Mr. Mulroney has told reporters about travel to China. In recent weeks, Mr. Mulroney has publicly cautioned against non-urgent business travel there and suggested Canadian tourists avoid “a repressive detention state.”
The Globe reported earlier this week that Global Affairs told Mr. Mulroney it didn’t like his “negative tone on travel to China,” saying it runs counter to what Canada’s embassy in China is advising Canadians.
Mr. Saint-Jacques said the tone of his conversation with Mr. Thoppil appears to have been different from what Mr. Mulroney experienced. He said he can see how Mr. Mulroney might have felt the government was asking him to clear public comments first.
“In my case I did not feel that. But I can understand that one could come to that conclusion when they say we should speak with one voice.”
Mr. Saint-Jacques said he doesn’t see a need to change how he speaks publicly.
He said he told Mr. Thoppil he can’t discern the Canadian government’s current strategy for China.
“I said, apart from seeking support from allies, I must say I am not clear on what is the strategy being pursued by the Canadian government. It may be useful if there was better communication.”
Spokesmen for the Foreign Affairs minister and the PMO nevertheless declined this week to explain on the record why a Global Affairs official would ask Mr. Mulroney to run statements by the department before commenting publicly, why Mr. Thoppil repeatedly told Mr. Mulroney he was passing on a request from the PMO or why the senior bureaucrat would cite the “election environment.”
The PMO said it did not have a response to Mr. Mulroney’s follow-up.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of ordering Canada’s non-partisan public service to do his political damage control.
“As Mr. Mulroney stated, discouraging private citizens with expertise in foreign relations from speaking freely is ‘fundamentally an undemocratic idea’. I could not agree more."
Mr. Saint-Jacques said the PMO should call him directly if it has a problem with what he is saying. “Why don’t they pick up the phone? If they have some beef to raise with me, call me."