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Maxime Bernier - Nice


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OTTAWA - The Conservative government was shaken to its core by the sudden resignation of Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier over a security breach involving secret documents carelessly left at his ex-girlfriend's home.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper told an extraordinary evening news conference Monday that Bernier's controversial relationship with a woman linked to the Hells Angels was not a factor in the decision.

He said it was prompted by an error involving classified documents and sources say they included briefing material for his trip to the NATO summit where Canada announced it would remain in Afghanistan.

"I don't think it matters who a minister is dating," a grim Harper said in the Commons foyer. "What matters here is that rules respecting government classified documents were broken.

"It obviously was not done on purpose. It was a mistake. But it doesn't matter. It was clearly done and that has to be treated appropriately. There are precedents and this obviously is a warning to all ministers."

Bernier becomes the first minister in the Harper government forced out of cabinet by scandal. The foreign affairs portfolio will be assumed temporarily by David Emerson - the ex-Liberal and current Conservative industry minister.

The resignation came a scant two hours before Julie Couillard was broadcast on a French-language television network.

A source told The Canadian Press that the package included a mix of classified material and other briefing notes publicly available through the Access to Information Act.

The package, he said, was preparation material for Bernier's trip to the NATO summit in Bucharest - where Canada announced the extension of its military mission in Afghanistan until 2011.

Government sources say sometime Monday afternoon, the foreign minister glumly climbed the stairs outside the Commons to his boss's third-floor Parliament Hill office to warn the prime minister of what was coming.

Just hours before the axe fell on Bernier, the prime minister had dismissed the whole affair.

"I have no intention of commenting on a minister's former girlfriend," the prime minister said to wrap up a news conference earlier Monday with visiting Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko. "I don't take this subject seriously."

He's taking it seriously now.

The prime minister has lost a minister once described as a rising star who was touted as a future leader. Bernier was exceedingly popular in Quebec and he romped easily to victory in Beauce.

Bernier's departure makes it a near-certainty that the prime minister will have to shuffle his cabinet. Harper announced Bernier's exit just before leaving the country late Monday night on a European diplomatic trip.

Opposition MPs were baying for further details that could prove extremely embarrassing for the Conservative government.

Liberal MP Ralph Goodale said Harper has been "very dismissive" of the Bernier-Couillard affair for weeks.

"That raises some questions about his judgment," Goodale said of the prime minister.

Bernier has been under fire for a series of gaffes in his role as Canada's top diplomat, and the revelation that his girlfriend of the past year had once been romantically linked to several men involved with the Hells Angels had security experts - and political opponents - asking whether she had undergone a security check.

The question remains unanswered.

NDP Leader Jack Layton said the latest revelation was "the straw that broke the camel's back" for Bernier's cabinet career.

It was with great fanfare that Bernier was sworn in last summer to a cabinet portfolio once held by Lester Pearson, Joe Clark and Jean Chretien. Accompanying him to the traditional ceremony was his new girlfriend, Couillard, and images of the photogenic couple were splashed across the nation's newspapers.

But when he was moved from an economic portfolio at Industry to a post that required diplomatic finesse and a grasp of global issues, Bernier's gaffes began piling up.

Bernier met the Haitian president and then got his name wrong. He helped quash efforts to replace the governor of Kandahar by publicly disclosing them. He promised aid for Burma on a plane that wasn't available.

Other ministers were sometimes asked to speak on sensitive foreign-affairs issues while the minister was sidelined.

A Conservative staffer recently said there were concerns immediately after the House of Commons returned from the 2007 summer recess that Bernier was in over his head.

But the prime minister always defended him with vigour - and came to his defence several times as stories about his relationship with Couillard began raising eyebrows.

As late as Monday afternoon, he was brushing aside the latest twist in the Couillard saga.

Federal records show that a security firm linked to Couillard bid for two federal airport contracts - one to monitor the activity of screening personnel, and another to install software at walk-through metal detectors.

That Bernier's ex-girlfriend was married to one biker and lived with another tied to the Hells Angels has been known for weeks.

The government has said Couillard carried no security risk, but it has steadfastly refused to say whether security checks were ever even conducted.

In his first Parliament Hill press conference in months, the question was put to Harper and he blew it off.

A spokesman at CATSA said there was no record of any contract bid by the Montreal-area security firm reportedly owned by Couillard, Itek Global Solutions.

But she reportedly played an active role in her late ex-boyfriend's company - D.R.P. Investigation and Security Agency - which bid unsuccessfully on two airport contracts.

CATSA spokesman Mathieu Larocque confirmed that the company would have had access to federal documents with basic information about airport security.

He said that kind of information would have been provided to all contract bidders, and to members of the public who filed an Access to Information request.

"They're not security sensitive," Larocque said of the documents.

He said D.R.P. bid unsuccessfully on a pair of contracts in December 2004 and February 2005 to install airport software.

One would have helped monitor the activity of screening personnel at locations across Canada, and recorded the time spent by employees at those various locations.

D.R.P. also bid to install equipment at walk-through metal detectors that would gather data on passenger traffic at various times of the day.

The opposition said there's no reason to suspect Couillard - who has never been charged with a crime - of any wrongdoing.

But they said they have a right to ask questions about ties between a drug-dealing criminal network, firms with an interest in airport security, a minister's ex-girlfriend, and the Canadian government.

They reacted indignantly to the suggestion that they're gossip-mongering about Bernier's love life.

"The prime minister says he is not taking it seriously. Well, I'm starting to have difficulty taking the prime minister seriously," said Liberal MP Michael Ignatieff.

"I don't care about (Couillard's) skirts, I don't care about her cleavage, I don't care about her past. I don't care about any of it, it is none of my business quite rightly - but this stuff is not only my business, it is the business of all Canadians." -

Text of PM Harper statement on resignation of Foreign Affairs Minister Bernier

OTTAWA - Earlier this evening, I accepted the resignation of Maxime Bernier as Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Last night, Maxime Bernier became aware that he had left classified government documents at a private residence earlier this spring. I became aware of this security breach late this afternoon".

The documents in question have been returned to the Government of Canada and Mr. Bernier deeply regrets this error.

I have asked Minister David Emerson to take on additional duties as Minister of Foreign Affairs on an interim basis. I have also asked Minister Josee Verner to take on additional duties for La Francophonie."

A copy of Mr. Bernier's letter of resignation is attached.

-

Text of resignation letter of Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier

OTTAWA - Prime Minister,

This is to inform you that I am resigning my post as Minister of Foreign Affairs, effective immediately.

I informed you late this afternoon that last night I became aware that I had left behind classified government documents at a private residence.

Prime Minister, the security breach that occurred was my fault and my fault alone and I take full responsibility for my actions.

I have asked the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to conduct a thorough review of the situation.

Thank you for the trust you have shown in me. I will do everything I can to serve the government well in my capacity as Member of Parliament.

Yours truly,

Maxime Bernier

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MARGARET WENTE - Why have the media gone so nuts over l'affaire Bernier? Simple.

They get to run that picture again and again! The one with the fabulously good-looking boob. Okay, two boobs. One is barely contained by a dress that appears to be made from a handkerchief, and the other one is walking along beside.

This being Canada, good old-fashioned sex scandals don't come along that often. So we've got to make the most of it. A classic sex scandal must have three ingredients: a voluptuous femme fatale, a horny (preferably married) senior politician, and state secrets worth spilling. This one rates no more than 2.5 out of three. But hey! It's good enough. It's even good enough for the British papers.

If only we had more biker molls and cleavage, they might run more stories about Canadian politics.

If only Julie Couillard hadn't worn that dress, Maxime Bernier might still have his job. But it could have been worse. One of her other boyfriends wound up dead in a ditch. Ms. Couillard seems to be attracted to high-flying, risk-taking guys who can't see the hit coming.

Naturally, the opposition parties are demanding answers. They're out to milk this scandal as hard as they can. What secrets were in those documents? Why did nobody notice for five whole weeks that they were missing? What if they fell into the hands of the Taliban? Personally, I don't think we need to be too worried. Who was Ms.

Couillard going to pass the secrets to? As my friend Jack Granatstein remarked, the bikers would have been "puzzled." Also, those secrets seem to have been just the run-of-the-mill kind, not the top-top-secret kind.

On the other hand, you could argue that Mr. Bernier shouldn't have been trusted with anything more secret than a tourist map of Bucharest. He was a well-known lightweight with more than a passing resemblance to Ted Baxter, the puffed-up anchor man from The Mary Tyler Moore Show . Mr. Bernier may be phenomenally popular in Quebec.

He may even be the sexiest MP on the Hill (where the bar admittedly is low). But he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

The square-jawed foreign affairs minister fell hard for Ms. Couillard, a former model/aspiring actress/real estate agent with no visible means of support, no pun intended. He asked her to be his official girlfriend about five minutes after they met. This would entitle her to first-class travel, at public expense, and a chance to meet interesting people. "I can't switch girlfriends like I change shirts, so you have to be my official girlfriend for at least a year, in spite of what might happen between us," Mr. Bernier said, according to her.

Some people were quite impressed with Ms. Couillard's attributes.

"Well, well, well," George W. Bush apparently said to Canada's new foreign affairs minister. "Haven't you been keeping good company." Sadly, the PMO was less impressed. While Stephen Harper was accusing the opposition of being a bunch of nosy old busybodies, one surmises that the PMO was delivering not-so-subtle hints that Mr. Bernier's relationship with Ms. Couillard was not a good career move. So he did what men do. He dumped her and fled. He left behind a few state secrets and a dirty shirt or two.

The secret documents made her feel very nervous and frightened, even though she never read them. For five weeks she pondered what to do. One option was to call him up and say, "Hey, jerk, you left your briefs here." Unfortunately, nobody was going to pay her $50,000 for that.

Not for lack of trying, Ms. Couillard didn't make a cent from Mr. Bernier's fecklessness. But boy, did she get even! Not only did she end the guy's career, she made his boss look like an idiot, for hanging on so long to such a loser. And she reminded us how embarrassingly shallow Mr. Harper's Quebec talent pool really is.

Not a bad day's work, in all. Never, never, never underestimate a woman scorned.

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MARGARET WENTE - Why have the media gone so nuts over l'affaire Bernier? Simple.

They get to run that picture again and again!

I said the exact same thing to FreakByNight while in line at German Town yesterday.

I seem to remember your comment including the word "rack", although I thought you were referring to the shelves of lunchy goodness at German Town - the best soup & sandwich takeout joint in downtown Ottawa for those of you not from the Capital.

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