OTTAWA - The Mountie in charge of the federal firearms program has been replaced, triggering heated accusations - and blunt denials - of political interference with the already beleaguered RCMP.
The removal of Chief Supt. Marty Cheliak comes just weeks before Parliament resumes debate of a Conservative private member's bill that would kill the national long-gun registry, raising questions about the timing.
Both the Harper government and the RCMP denied Wednesday any political motivation in bumping Cheliak.
Cheliak was named acting director general of the Canadian Firearms Program, which oversees the gun registry, a year ago.
The RCMP said Cheliak, who is on leave, "does not currently meet the linguistic requirements" of the senior job and will be sent for French-language training.
Chief Supt. Pierre Perron, formerly director general of criminal intelligence for the RCMP, was named firearms program chief Wednesday.
Cheliak told a Commons committee meeting in May that the gun registry serves a genuine purpose and "contributes to police officer safety and the safety of all Canadians" by, for instance, helping police find the owners of guns used in crimes.
Canadian Police Association president Charles Momy wondered why Cheliak would be shuffled shortly before he was to give a presentation on firearms strategy at the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police in Edmonton later this month.
"Couldn't the language training wait another week?"
During a Nova Scotia visit, Prime Minister Stephen Harper denied any hand in the RCMP's move.
"It's not a political matter. The government's position on the long-gun registry is well known .... This government strongly favours the abolition of the long-gun registry for farmers and duck hunters. It is wasteful, it has been ineffective," Harper said.
"But in terms of staffing decisions in the RCMP, these are made by the RCMP themselves."
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson dismissed opposition critics.
"They want to do anything to change the channel to cover up the divisions that are within their own caucuses with respect to the long-gun registry," Nicholson said.
Cheliak is slated to receive an award at the Edmonton conference for his work on the gun file.
He will not take part in conference meetings, but can attend to accept the prize, said Sgt. Julie Gagnon, an RCMP spokeswoman.
Cheliak, who was unavailable Wednesday, is not expected to be at the ceremony, said Mark Pugash, a spokesman for Toronto Police Chief William Blair, president of the association of chiefs of police.
Questions about Cheliak's ouster come during a rocky summer for the RCMP. The government recently hired former CSIS director Reid Morden to conduct an assessment of the police force's work environment after senior Mounties complained that Elliott's leadership style was too abrasive.