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Andrew Scheer would let Canadians rot in foreign jails before giving up an electoral edge

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John McCallum in 2013. Photo: John McCallum/Flickr

I rarely paid much attention to John McCallum during his years as a federal Liberal cabinet minister under three prime ministers and, on the few occasions I did, he never left much of an impression one way or the other.

But I was shocked last week both by the specious and dishonest attacks by Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's Rebel-Media-trained meme-makers and the way Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland immediately threw the man under the bus in response.

The proximate cause of the calumny heaped on McCallum was an interview with the South China Morning Post. In it, the former Canadian ambassador to China suggested Beijing would be wise not to punish Canada further over the arrest in Vancouver of Huawei Technologies chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou. By doing so, he argued, the Chinese government risked helping to elect a Canadian party likely to be considerably less friendly to China than the one in power now.

In his remarks to the venerable Hong Kong-based English-language newspaper, McCallum also urged China not to inflict any more "punishments" on Canadian exports, a reference to recent official Chinese bans on imports of Canadian agricultural products such as canola and beef.

In addition, he noted the importance of Canadian business people continuing to visit China in preparation for the day when problems between the two countries inevitably blow over. He suggested this would likely happen in time for the 50th anniversary next year of prime minister Pierre Trudeau's opening to China on October 13, 1970.

This was clearly a reference to the two Canadian business people, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who are being held hostage by Chinese officials supposedly for spying in what is a transparent effort to spring Meng from Canadian house arrest.

So, for looking out for the interests of Canadian farmers and two Canadians detained because of Canada's foolish attempt to support the Trump administration's effort to use Meng as a bargaining chip in its own trade dispute with that country, the Conservative Online Rage Machine instantly spun McCallum's words into an invitation to a foreign power to interfere in Canada's election.

This is patent nonsense and clearly not McCallum's intent. Such hysteria would be amusing if three Canadians were not languishing in Chinese jails, the third being the man charged with drug smuggling by the Chinese who had his sentence "upgraded" to ratchet up pressure on Canada to let Meng go.

Never mind that McCallum doesn't speak for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government, and owes it nothing -- it canned him as ambassador last December, for heaven's sake, for daring to state the obvious truth that the U.S. case against Meng is shaky and politically motivated.

Above all, don't forget that, just as he spoke the truth in December, McCallum's assertion that a Conservative government would be hostile to China is obviously true.

Indeed, it's worse than what he said. While Trudeau's Liberals are embarrassingly sensitive to U.S. President Donald Trump's whims, a government led by Scheer would be craven in its toadying to the Trump administration, not to mention dangerously hostile to the Democratic Party administration that will likely replace it. That, obviously, is because they agree with most of Trump's policies.

That would be bad for China, bad for Canada, and bad for anyone concerned with preserving a rules-based world trading system.

For their part, Conservatives clearly would rather let a few Canadians rot in foreign jails on trumped up charges than surrender any electoral advantage in October.

As for Freeland's instant capitulation to this transparent Conservative tactic, it seems likely she was paying too much attention to the diplomatic pros at Fort Pearson, who doubtless resented a former politician's appointment to a prestigious diplomatic post.

Their reputation for enthusiastically representing Canadians in trouble with the law abroad is, to put it diplomatically, somewhat mixed. (Who can forget the department's horrifying neglect of William Sampson, the British-Canadian biochemist imprisoned, tortured, raped and sentenced to death on trumped up charges by the appalling Saudi Arabian regime; Maher Arar, handed over to the United States by Canadian police and shipped off to Syria to be tortured; or Quebec photographer Zahra Kazemi, murdered in an Iranian jail in 2003?)

Freeland would have done better to treat Scheer's obviously dishonest claims and his cavalier disregard for the fate of his fellow citizens abroad with the deep contempt they deserve.

The Conservative's success in stampeding Freeland into attacking McCallum may explain why they have now tried to crank up more hysteria with risible calls for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to investigate McCallum's remarks. CSIS would do better to investigate Conservative support for Alberta separatists, who actually pose a threat to national security.

Friends and relatives of Spavor and Kovrig, not to mention independent-minded Canadian farmers, would be justified feeling grateful to McCallum for his efforts on their behalf, disgusted with Freeland for turning her back on him, and furious with Scheer and his Rebel Media minions for doing what they can to keep obviously innocent men in jail if it serves their political ends.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: John McCallum/Flickr

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