Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion sowed confusion and showcased cracks in Liberal ranks when he angrily denied recently that negotiations are under way on an extradition treaty with China, critics say.
One federal official said that Mr. Dion was simply flustered about semantics when he denied the launch of talks: "Preliminary discussions are a precursor to negotiations and those discussions have only just begun."
Still, another senior Liberal added: "I'm not clear what [Mr. Dion] was trying to say."
In a telephone interview with The Globe and Mail on Friday, Mr. Dion insisted there are no negotiations in the works that could see Canada return Chinese fugitives accused of economic crimes.
"Your paper should check the facts. There is no negotiation. To write like pretending it is, it is wrong. Stop that please," Mr. Dion said.
When asked what kinds of specific guarantees the Canadian government would demand with a formal Chinese extradition treaty, Mr. Dion again became testy. "We never extradite people to countries who have the death penalty. Your question is unfair because never the government of Canada would do such a thing. And why you are implying that is beyond me. That's my answer to your question."
However, Canada has returned more than 1,400 Chinese nationals since 2009, most of whom were involved in illegal immigration. In addition, Canada has an extradition treaty with the United States, although Ottawa insists on receiving assurances that people will not face the death penalty if they are sent back to face the American justice system.
Conservative MP Peter Kent said the Liberals are all over the map in terms of Canada's relationship with China, as Ottawa enters into talks on free trade, justice issues and cybersecurity with Beijing.
"I think there is a disagreement in the Liberal caucus on this," Mr. Kent said in an interview.
Alex Neve, Amnesty International Canada's secretary-general, said Mr. Dion is a clear opponent of the death penalty and setting clear benchmarks for the talks.
"There have been differing views and different understandings expressed by different members of the government," Mr. Neve said. "I have no doubt that Mr. Dion's take on this would be that he would not countenance an extradition treaty that is going to give rise to concerns about the death penalty."
Mr. Trudeau defended the extradition-treaty negotiations during a joint news conference with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and in the House a few days ago, saying it was part of Ottawa's goal to rebuild the relationship with China.
Formal talks were agreed to on Sept. 12 during high-level talks between Mr. Trudeau's national security adviser, Daniel Jean, and a top Chinese Communist Party official.
Mr. Trudeau said the government understood the difficulties in negotiating an extradition treaty with China. "We recognize that Canada and China have different systems of law and order and different approaches and it'll be very important that any future agreement be based on reflecting the realities, the principles, the values that our citizens hold dear in each of our countries," he said alongside Mr. Li.
During the news conference, the Premier publicly urged Mr. Trudeau to sign a formal extradition treaty to seek the return of Chinese fugitives, adding that 40 other countries, including France and Australia, have signed such deals.
While Mr. Li said critics are wrongly disparaging China's justice system as being based on torture, repression and coercion, he argued that the death penalty is still needed to deal with violent crime. Thousands of executions take place in China annually for crimes ranging from fraud to murder.
Mr. Trudeau, who disavowed the use of the death penalty in any circumstances, said humanitarian treatment must be applied in any future agreements.
On social media on Saturday, Mr. Trudeau's principal secretary, Gerald Butts, said the visit of Mr. Li was the culmination of six months of work, aimed at resetting the China-Canada relationship on a "much stronger, stable footing."
"Lots of tricky water to navigate in the future, but a great start," Mr. Butts wrote.