Canada's foreign minister quits over security blunder

Canada’s troubled foreign minister has resigned after it emerged today that he left secret documents at his then girlfriend’s house.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said today that he had accepted the resignation of Maxime Bernier, who came under fire in recent weeks after it was reported that his ex-girlfriend Julie Couillard had previous relationships with Hells Angels motorcycle gang members and links to organised crime.

“Mr Bernier has learned and informed me that he left classified documents in a non-secure location. This is a serious error,” Mr Harper said.

The documents were left at a private residence in the spring, Mr Harper said. He did not say what the documents were or if they were shared with others.

But he insisted Mr Bernier’s relationship with former model Ms Couillard was not a factor in the decision.

“It’s only this error. It’s a very serious mistake for any minister. We must always accept responsibilities for the documents that are classified,” Mr Harper said. “The minister has immediately acknowledged the gravity of this mistake.”

But the resignation came as Ms Couillard prepared to appear on a French-language television station to say that her former lover was careless with classified documents.

Ms Couillard would not comment on the nature of the document except to say that Mr Bernier left it behind at her place.

“Maxime came to see me and he left a document behind,” she said, explaining the document was left by accident.

She said she contacted a lawyer for advice, who told her it was the property of the Canadian government.

“The document was given back,” she said.

Ms Couillard, who said she had never done anything wrong or committed a crime, insisted she was giving the TV interview to re-establish her dignity and credibility after intense media scrutiny following revelations she had links to Quebec bikers.

She said she told Mr Bernier about her involvement with the bikers shortly after they began dating last summer. She said he did not press her on the matter, but seemed somewhat surprised.

In his letter of resignation, Mr Bernier said he had asked the Foreign Affairs Department to conduct a thorough review of the situation.

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

David Emerson, the international trade minister, will take over as interim foreign affairs minister.

Hours before Mr Bernier quit, Mr Harper had dismissed the situation with Ms Couillard.

“I have no intention to comment on a minister’s former girlfriend,” Mr Harper said, wrapping up a news conference earlier yesterday with visiting Ukrainian president Victor Yushchenko.

“I don’t take this subject seriously.”

Opposition Liberal MP Ralph Goodale said Mr Harper had a lot of explaining to do because he had dismissed the story for weeks.

Mr Bernier has come under fire for a variety of gaffes, including promising aid for Burma on a plane that was not available.

He first drew the attention of Canadians when he appeared at his swearing-in ceremony last August with provocatively-dressed Ms Couillard on his arm.

Ms Couillard had lived with Gilles Giguere, a well-known Montreal crime figure for three years beginning in 1993. He was gunned down in 1996 when he decided to become a police informer after being arrested with a cache of sub-machine guns and marijuana.

In 1997, she began dating and later married Stephane Sirois, who admitted to being an enforcer for the Rockers, a Hells Angels-affiliated biker club. He later turned informant and gave evidence against a dozen of his former colleagues in a 2002 trial.

Ms Couillard and Sirois divorced in 1999.

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