POLITICS
01/24/2019 14:26 EST | Updated 01/24/2019 14:44 EST

Trudeau Won't Fire John McCallum, Canada's Ambassador To China, After Controversial Remarks

The government's focus on getting detained Canadians back home, he says.

Andrew Vaughan/CP
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the crowd as he attends Fundy Royal MP Alaina Lockhart's nomination event in Quispamsis, N.B., on Jan. 23, 2019.

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is dismissing calls to remove Canada's ambassador to China from his post, saying such a change wouldn't help two Canadians detained by Chinese authorities get home sooner.

Meeting with reporters Thursday in Quispamsis, N.B., Trudeau was asked if he intended to recall or sanction John McCallum for opining on how a Huawei executive being held in Canada might avoid extradition to the United States.

Trudeau replied that his government's focus is on getting detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor home safely from China and ensuring their rights are respected.

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"Making a change would not help release those Canadians a day sooner," Trudeau said.

On Wednesday, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called on Trudeau to fire McCallum for the remarks, which he said raise grave concerns about the politicization of the Meng case.

McCallum's candid comments this week about the case of Huawei's Meng Wanzhou raised eyebrows and fuelled speculation they were a political ploy to end Ottawa's deepening diplomatic crisis with China.

China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said her government has "noted the relevant remarks by Ambassador McCallum" and reiterated its demand that Meng be released from her unjust detention, which she blamed on Canada and the United States.

"We have made our stern position clear," Hua said Thursday, in translated remarks from her ministry's website.

"In order to change the current situation, the Canadian side needs to face up to the issue squarely, take China's solemn concerns seriously, and take measures to correct its mistakes."

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She noted Canada was acting on an extradition request from the U.S.

"We hope that the Canadian side will make the right choice instead of risking endangering itself for other's gains," Hua said.

In the days that followed Meng's Dec. 1 arrest, China detained Kovrig, a Canadian diplomat on leave, and Spavor, an entrepreneur, on allegations of endangering China's national security.

Trudeau has called their detentions arbitrary and Western analysts believe their cases are part of an attempt by Beijing to pressure Canada into releasing Meng, whose arrest has angered the Chinese government.

In a Toronto-area news conference on Tuesday with Chinese-language journalists, McCallum said he thought Meng has strong legal arguments that could help her avoid extradition. He also listed several possibilities that could help her with her case.

Darryl Dyck/CP via AP
Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou arrives at a parole office with a security guard in Vancouver, B.C. on Dec. 12, 2018.

At the top of McCallum's list was a possible defence on the grounds of political interference following comments by U.S. President Donald Trump last month that he might intervene in Meng's case if it would help him nail down a trade deal with China.

McCallum also said Meng can argue against the extra-territorial aspect to her case and the fact the fraud allegations U.S. officials made against her are related to Iran sanctions that Canada did not sign onto.

In Beijing, Hua told reporters Meng's case was a "serious mistake from the very beginning."

"The extradition request the U.S. raised to Canada is essentially related to its unilateral sanctions on Iran. It does not comply with the international law and is not legitimate," she added.

Canada following the law, PM says

Trudeau stressed Thursday that Canada is following the law.

"We will always stay grounded in defence of the rule of law and the integrity of our justice system, which of course includes the capacity for people to defend themselves enthusiastically which will be fully afforded to Ms. Meng and in her rights within the Canadian justice system," Trudeau said.

"Our focus remains making sure that the Canadians arbitrarily detained in China have their rights respected and, indeed, that they have an opportunity to get home as soon as possible."

Following Meng's arrest, China also sentenced another Canadian, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, to death in a sudden retrial of his drug-smuggling case. Schellenberg had initially been sentenced in 2016 to 15 years behind bars.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has asked for clemency for Schellenberg and has called his death penalty "inhumane."