The senior Mountie in charge of the controversial long-gun registry is being replaced on the eve of a vote about its future, the RCMP has confirmed.
Both Liberals and New Democrats are accusing the Conservative government of trying to silence dissent as a result since the officer is strong proponent of the costly program.
CBC reported the move Tuesday night, saying that RCMP Chief Superintendent Marty Cheliak, head of the Canadian Firearms Program, is being " bounced" from his post to French language training.
NDP justice critic Joe Comartin said this sends a "terrible message" about democracy. "If you in any way challenge them you're gone," he told The Globe on Wednesday.
The Grits agree. "I think it's pretty clear it's deliberate. This is a pattern," Liberal public safety critic Mark Holland said. "Any time somebody stands up to them, any time they have a differing opinion, they are either fired or moved somewhere where they won't make as much noise."
The Harper government's response? It says to check with the RCMP. "They make their own staffing decisions," PMO spokesman Andrew MacDougall told The Globe.
Later, the Mounties issued a statement. "Currently, Chief Superintendent Marty Cheliak is on leave, following which he will be pursuing French language training. Chief Superintendent Jeff Francis is acting Director General of the Canadian Firearms Program."
The statement notes that Supt. Cheliak has been director of the program since last August. "This is an Assistant Commissioner position, and is designated bilingual. Chief Superintendent Cheliak does not currently meet the linguistic requirements of the position."
The RCMP said it is "not likely" that Supt. Cheliak will return to his post. Sergeant Julie Gagnon said a replacement director will be named Wednesday.
As a result of the move, Supt. Cheliak will not be able to attend the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police annual meeting in Edmonton next week. He was to present a major report at that meeting that was expected to underline the effectiveness of the registry.
Supt. Cheliak presented part of his findings to a Commons committee in spring. The committee was examining the private members' bill by Manitoba Tory MP Candice Hoeppner, which is aimed at scrapping the registry. But the senior officer's remarks bolstered the opposition's case for keeping the registry.
On Wednesday, the NDP lauded Supt. Cheliak as a "very impressive guy" who knows the registry better than anyone on the force. He honestly believes that we've got to keep it in terms of an effective tool for fighting crime," Mr. Comartin said. "But I also think very intimately for him [it is]a tool that helps protect his line officers."
Mr. Comartin expressed concern about Supt. Cheliak's future in the force. He said RCMP Commissioner William Elliott should come out to show his support for the officer or, failing that, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews should reassure the public that "his career path is still solid."
The NDP MP is also concerned that the report on the long-gun registry will no longer see the light of day. The public safety committee had asked to see the study, Mr. Comartin said, but the government held it back to be translated.
The vote on the gun registry's future is to take place Sept. 22. The first vote is on a Liberal motion to kill the Hoeppner bill. If that fails, there will be a vote on scrapping the program.
It is not clear which way any of it will go. Twelve NDP MPs initially supported the Hoeppner bill on second reading. Eight Liberals did the same but they have been since been whipped, meaning they're under orders to vote against it with their caucus on third reading.
The New Democrats are not whipping their vote, and Mr. Comartin suggested about six of his colleagues could vote with Ms. Hoeppner. He had hoped to present the report at the party's summer caucus meeting in Regina next month to make his case for keeping the registry.
The shuffling of Supt. Cheliak comes on the heels strong criticism Tuesday from veterans' ombudsman Pat Stogran, who says the government is not doing enough to support soldiers suffering various ailments. The Conservatives has chosen not to renew Mr. Stogran's term.
He's the latest in a series of government officials appointed to watchdog agencies or departments who have not had their positions renewed or have been forced to resign. The list includes Munir Sheikh, who left his post as chief statistician, over the long-form census kerfuffle.