Canada’s troubles with China are temporary and relations with the rising superpower will return to sunnier times, including borders once again open to immigration and investment, John McCallum, the former ambassador fired from his position last year, has told clients of a major Chinese immigration company.
Mr. McCallum served in the federal cabinet, including as immigration minister, before he was named Canada’s ambassador to China in 2017. He was fired in 2019 after repeatedly speaking in support of the release of Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei executive accused of fraud in the U.S. and arrested in Canada, where she is in the midst of extradition proceedings.
But his experience and connections have made him a coveted speaker for Wailian Group, a Shanghai-based company with a 20-year history of smoothing the path for people to immigrate to Canada. Last fall, Wailian paid to have Mr. McCallum speak to clients in five Chinese cities, according to a person familiar with the arrangement. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the person because they are not authorized to speak publicly.
On Saturday, Mr. McCallum delivered remarks to another event organized by Wailian, this one online, in which he pitched Canada as a worthwhile destination for people from China, and cited his friends in the current cabinet to offer reassurances.
“Basically, I think China-Canada relations will be good going forward,” Mr. McCallum said.
Canada’s economy needs Chinese students, tourists and investors, he said, and the Liberal government is eager to reopen Canada’s borders to large numbers of new arrivals. He based his comments in part on a recent conversation with Marco Mendicino, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, who “plans to admit large numbers of immigrants to Canada in 2021,” Mr. McCallum said.
The government has not publicly disclosed how the pandemic will affect plans to admit 341,000 new permanent residents this year, and 351,000 next year. The global spread of COVID-19 has dramatically slowed the pace of immigration, with many visa and biometrics collections offices closed around the world. At a parliamentary hearing in June, Mr. Mendicino would only promise a “comprehensive update in the fall” on anticipated immigration levels.
Information about the government’s plans, however, is of keen interest to those seeking to immigrate, and to companies such as Wailian, whose business is built around ushering clients through the complexities of the application process.
Mr. McCallum offered reassurances that COVID-19 will create only a temporary pause in Canadian acceptance of new residents. “The Canadian government remains extremely positive about continuing high levels of immigration,” he said, citing his conversation with Mr. Mendicino.
He was equally optimistic about the prospects for Ottawa and Beijing to resolve the “substantial problems” that have arisen following the arrest of Ms. Meng, and China’s subsequent seizure of two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, in what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said is an “obvious” effort to put pressure on the Canadian government.
The current frictions “are less long-term in nature than the U.S. challenges with China,” Mr. McCallum said. While the U.S. and China wrestle for what he called “top dog” status, “Chinese people and Canadian people are good friends,” he said. He pointed to a history that goes back to Norman Bethune, the ideologically communist Canadian doctor who came to China to treat Communist forces and who was famously eulogized by Mao Zedong. Canada also sold wheat to China in the early 1960s, in defiance of the U.S.
Today again, “economic interests will drive Canada and China to continue to work together,” Mr. McCallum said. For example, Chinese students “cover a lot of the costs” for Canadian postsecondary institutions, so “the last thing in the world Canadian universities would want to do would be to lose their 140,000 Chinese students.”
Similarly, Chinese tourists “spend a lot of money, create a lot of jobs. And they are most welcome in this country,” Mr. McCallum said. On investment, too, he said. “I think Canada will be open for Chinese investment in all but the most sensitive sectors.”
Mr. McCallum made no mention of the broader reassessment of China that has prompted a series of liberal democracies – from Australia to Europe and the U.S. – to erect new barriers to Chinese investment and apply new scrutiny to the motives of Chinese students and researchers with ties to their home country’s military institutions.
Less than six months after he was fired as ambassador last year, Mr. McCallum became a senior strategic adviser for McMillan LLP, the law firm.
He first made a public appearances for Wailian last October and November, when he came to China to deliver remarks and pose for photographs. Over two weeks, he appeared at Wailian events in Qingdao, Beijing, Suzhou, Shanghai and Shenzhen. In each city, he spoke to a room with dozens – in some cases more than 100 – prospective clients for Wailian. The company paid for his attendance through an agreement with McMillan, according to the person familiar with the events.
Wailian promotional materials identify Mr. McCallum only as former ambassador and immigration minister, with no reference to McMillan.
Mr. McCallum in turn has called on his federal government connections.
Mr. Mendicino spoke with Mr. McCallum in mid-June, Kevin Lemkay, the minister’s spokesman, said in a statement. He “reached out to Mr. McCallum as a former colleague to discuss immigration and refugee issues,” Mr. Lemkay said, adding: “At no time did Mr. McCallum ever mention this company [Wailian] to the minister.”
Under Canadian law, Mr. McCallum is barred from lobbying the federal government for five years after leaving office. He said his conversation with the minister did not constitute lobbying. Mr. Mendicino “approaches me from time to time for general discussion as a friend and former minister,” Mr. McCallum said in response to questions from The Globe and Mail.
Still, the former ambassador’s comments risk giving a wrong impression, said David Mulroney, who previously served as Canada’s top diplomat to China.
“I would find any public reference in China by Mr. McCallum to a conversation with a current Immigration Minister very troubling,” said Mr. Mulroney. Such a reference could be seen in China as an indication of “continuing guanxi or connectedness, the idea that the former office holder retains a continuing degree of influence. Canadians in that position, like Mr. McCallum, should be very careful about business relationships in China for this very reason.”
Wailian describes itself as a major immigration company, with some 500 employees across 12 Chinese cities. Reached by telephone, a representative for the company described Mr. McCallum as a special guest.
Critics equate past friendly policies toward China to “appeasement” and say it is time for reconsideration of how Western countries interact with the rising superpower.
“It has become impossible to remain ambivalent on China,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, who was Canada’s ambassador to China before Mr. McCallum’s appointment.
Mr. Saint-Jacques pointed to China’s management of the early outbreak of the pandemic, its treatment of the largely Muslim Uyghur population, its imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong and “the way they have treated Canadians and Canada. To turn around and say, ‘Well, this is just a bump in the road and things will get back to normal’ – I don’t understand how someone can say this.”
In his comments to the Saturday event, however, Mr. McCallum called on long-standing arguments for why people from China might choose Canada as an immigrant destination, citing its quality of life, its beauty and its open attitude toward people arriving from other countries.
He was careful to point to its appeal to the well-heeled who might consider Canada a destination for profit as well as immigration. Canadian free-trade agreements make the country a favourable place to relocate to, he said, while “with the United States becoming less friendly to China, I think that increases the attraction of Chinese companies to invest in Canada.”
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