Prime Minister Stephen Harper says the recent removal of the Canadian Firearms Program's director was not a political decision, despite opposition MPs' claims his ouster fits the Conservative government's "pattern" of dealing with dissent.

tp-cheliak-cp-619032

RCMP Chief Supt. Marty Cheliak, seen here in this 2005 file photo, is being moved from his position as head of the Canadian Firearms Program. ((Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press))

Harper's comments on Wednesday came after the RCMP confirmed Chief Supt. Marty Cheliak, director general of the firearms program and a strong supporter of the long-gun registry, is being replaced after nine months on the job.

When questioned by reporters at an event in Lunenburg, N.S., Harper said the RCMP makes its own personnel decisions.

"This is an RCMP staffing matter; it's not a political matter," the prime minister said, adding that the government's position on the gun registry is "well known."

"This government strongly favours the abolition of the long-gun registry for farmers and duck hunters," Harper said. "It is wasteful. It has been ineffective. But in terms of staffing decisions in the RCMP, these are made by the RCMP themselves."

The Liberals and NDP have called for Cheliak to be reinstated and accused the government of political influence ahead of a key vote in the fall on the Conservatives' attempt to scrap the federal long-gun registry, which is administered by the CFP.

Liberal MP David McGuinty said Cheliak's removal shows that Harper's Conservatives are more than willing to "suppress independent voices to achieve political success." 

If the prime minister is unwilling to reappoint Cheliak, McGuinty said whoever replaces him at the firearms program "had better keep their head down." He cited the government's recent decision not to renew the contract of Veterans ombudsman Pat Stogran as an example.

"Every time somebody here in this town does their job and speaks truth to power, they're punished," McGuinty told reporters in Ottawa.

NDP justice critic Joe Comartin said Cheliak's removal is aimed at silencing critics of the government's move to scrap the federal long-gun registry, especially within the ranks of Canada's police forces.

"It's clearly a message that they're sending out to the police forces … to shut up," Comartin said.

In a statement Wednesday, the RCMP said the director general's job is an assistant commissioner's position and designated bilingual.

Cheliak, who is on leave before heading to the language training, "does not currently meet the linguistic requirements of the position," the statement said.

The statement said Chief Supt. Geoff Francis is now acting director general and Cheliak's replacement will be announced internally later in the day.

Chief Supt. Pierre Perron, director general of the RCMP's criminal intelligence division, will replace Cheliak as head of the CFP, the CBC's Brian Stewart reported.

"He's very much a fresh officer coming into embattled territory," Stewart said, noting Perron has no past experience with the firearms program.

Elliott should 'move on': union

tp-elliott-william-cp-80692

Complaints over RCMP Commissioner William Elliott's management sparked a workplace review of the force. ((Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press))

Meanwhile, in an interview with CBC News on Wednesday in Ottawa, Charles Momy, president of the Canadian Police Association, said it is time for the RCMP commissioner to "move on."

"Maybe it's time for the government to really take a look at replacing Bill Elliott, potentially, and bringing in someone that is fresh," Momy said.  

Elliott, appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2007, is the first civilian to lead the Mounties. He is already facing a workplace assessment triggered by complaints of senior RCMP officers over his management style.

The CFP oversees the administration of the Firearms Act and regulations. In 2006, the responsibility for the CFP was transferred to the RCMP.  

Cheliak had reformed the program and lobbied forcefully, including before a parliamentary committee, for a continued long-gun registry, something the Conservative government has been determined to scrap.  

But Canadian police are adamant that the registry, which requires gun owners to register each rifle or shotgun, is needed to protect the lives of police officers and citizens.

Opposition hiding division: minister

Politicians and some high-ranking police officers are questioning Cheliak's removal on the eve of September's expected battle in Parliament over Conservative MP Candice Hoeppner's private member's bill to scrap the current registry.

Earl Campbell, chief of the Miramichi Police Service and past chair of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, told CBC News on Wednesday he is "dumbfounded and disappointed" by the decision to remove Cheliak, and can think of no other reason for the decision except for politics.

Earlier Wednesday. Hoeppner's office told CBC News the story has nothing to do with her and the MP would not be offering comment.

The CBC's Stewart reported on Tuesday that Cheliak was set to unveil a major report before the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police at its annual general meeting in Edmonton and get a president's award for his work on the long-gun registry.

But Stewart said Cheliak was told by the RCMP he's not going to be sent there.

The NDP's Comartin said he believes the government is trying to prevent MPs from seeing the report before the bill faces another vote in the fall.

"We don't have this information and we believe it's crucial for Parliament to have this information before we vote," he said.

In a statement, the office of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, the minister responsible for the RCMP, said the force "has complete autonomy to direct its own personnel matters."

With files from Brian Stewart