May 27, 2008 in Nation/World

Canada’s foreign minister quits over document handling

Rob Gillies Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

In this 2007 file photo, Maxime Bernier arrives to be sworn in as minister of foreign affairs accompanied by Julie Couillard in Ottawa. Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

TORONTO – Canada’s embattled foreign minister resigned after leaving classified documents at a private residence, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Monday, calling it “a serious error.”

Harper said he accepted the resignation of Maxime Bernier, who came under fire in recent weeks amid reports that a former girlfriend had previous relationships with men linked to the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang.

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

Harper said that Bernier’s controversial relationship with the woman was not a factor in the resignation.

But it was announced as Bernier’s former girlfriend, Julie Couillard, was preparing to go on a French-language television station to say that Bernier had been careless with classified documents.

“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. The minister has immediately acknowledged the gravity of this mistake,” Harper said.

The documents were left at a private residence, Harper said in a statement. He did describe the documents, say if they were shared with others or provide other details.

Bernier wrote in a letter of resignation that he became aware Sunday night that he had left behind classified documents at a private residence. He wrote that he asked for 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,” Bernier wrote.

In her interview, Couillard said Bernier left a document at her home, which she declined to describe.

“Maxime came to see me and he left a document behind,” she said, adding it was returned to the government.

Couillard insisted she was doing the interview to re-establish her dignity and credibility after intense media scrutiny.

The former model said she told Bernier about her involvement with Quebec motorcycle gangs. “Maxime knew about it,” she said.

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

Just hours before Bernier quit, Harper had dismissed the whole affair.

“I have no intention to comment on a minister’s former girlfriend,” Harper said earlier in the day. “I don’t take this subject seriously.”

Opposition Liberal Member of Parliament Ralph Goodale said the prime minister has a lot of explaining to do because he had dismissed the story for weeks.

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

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

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