In Canada, prime ministers do not publicly fire ambassadors.
From time to time, they are removed from their posts for reasons of job performance or policy differences, but the axe is wielded by the foreign affairs minister or, more likely, by the deputy minister or a subordinate.
And the cause, if any is given, will be obscured in a fog of bureaucratic opaqueness.
Until John McCallum, that is.
Canada’s man in Beijing is the diplomatic version of a unicorn. He is the only ambassador in the modern era that I can think of who was personally and publicly sacked by the prime minister.
What sin did McCallum commit? All we know for sure is that it involved the extradition proceedings against Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei Technologies executive, who is under house arrest in Vancouver – at the request of the United States, which says it wants to put her on trial for violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Meng’s plight is a huge cause celebre in China where authorities have retaliated by detaining two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, on national security grounds and sentencing a third, David Schellenberg, to death for drug smuggling.
From the outset in early December, the Trudeau government has argued that the Meng case does not involve any political considerations, that it is strictly a legal proceeding – a matter of honoring Canada’s extradition treaty with the United States.
That’s an untenable argument – and McCallum knew it. It became untenable more than a month ago when U.S. President Donald Trump got involved, saying he would intervene in the case – forget the charges against Weng – if that would help him to secure a trade deal with China. That’s pure, raw politics.
In Canada, sensitive extradition cases invariably have a political dimension. They are meant to take politics into account. It’s why the final decision is not made by a judge but by the minister of justice – and he or she is a politician who, while obliged to uphold the law, is committed to carrying out the government’s will.
The messages coming out of the Trudeau government are mixed and muddled. Some insiders say McCallum went rogue last week. Other insiders, who seem to be equally well (or ill) informed, say McCallum had the blessing of the Prime Minister’s office when he told a gathering of Chinese-language journalists in Markham that Meng had “strong arguments” she could use to persuade a Canadian court to reject the U.S. request for extradition. And he speculated that the Meng dispute could be settled if China and the United States struck a trade deal.
Isn’t that precisely what Trump was suggesting a month earlier? How did repeating the president’s suggestion make McCallum a rogue ambassador?
With Conservative leader Andrew Scheer demanding he be fired, McCallum came under pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office. He backed away. He claimed he “misspoke” in Markham.
Trudeau stood by McCallum initially – until last Friday when the ambassador repeated essentially the same remarks to journalists in Vancouver. That night, Trudeau demanded and received his resignation, and announced it the next day.
So what really happened? My suspicion – and it’s no more than that – is that the prime minister himself or probably one of his inner-circle advisors had a bright idea: let’s use Ambassador McCallum as a back channel to get a message to China’s leadership. If they will ease off on the three Canadians, Trudeau’s people will see to it that Meng Wanzhou is not extradited to the United States.
Something went wrong. Maybe McCallum muffed the message. Maybe Washington objected. Maybe Beijing wanted much more than veiled assurances from an ambassador, albeit a former cabinet minister who enjoyed direct access to the PM.
Where are we left? With the Commons back in session, we have the Conservatives baying for Liberal blood, a government that doesn’t appear to know what to do, three Canadians in dire straits in China, and a newly unemployed unicorn.