NATIONAL

MAXIME BERNIER'S FEMME FATALE

Revelations from a mob-linked ex-girlfriend gave the PM the axe he needed to cut loose his foreign minister

JOHN GEDDES,PHILIPPE GOHIER June 9 2008
NATIONAL

MAXIME BERNIER'S FEMME FATALE

Revelations from a mob-linked ex-girlfriend gave the PM the axe he needed to cut loose his foreign minister

JOHN GEDDES,PHILIPPE GOHIER June 9 2008

MAXIME BERNIER'S FEMME FATALE

NATIONAL

Revelations from a mob-linked ex-girlfriend gave the PM the axe he needed to cut loose his foreign minister

JOHN GEDDES

PHILIPPE GOHIER

Of all the politicians in Ottawa, Maxime Bernier looked least likely to be upstaged by his date. Tall and tanned, fit from running nearly every day, Bernier’s physical presence draws eyes in almost any room. Even in his more hapless moments as a cabinet minister-moments that arrived with unsettling frequency until his resignation this week—he managed to keep up a confident bearing. The suits helped, those impeccable three-button pinstripes. And the shirt-and-tie combos, especially fine checks paired expertly with bold diagonals. Not the sort of attire Peter Van Loan, say, could carry off.

Yet Bernier was not only upstaged, but finally unseated, by his former girlfriend. At first it was merely a matter ofjulie Couillard’s decolletage when she accompanied Bernier to his swearing-in as foreign minister after last summer’s cabinet shuffle. The sundress worn by the mystery girlfriend wasn’t regulation Rideau Hall-wear, and the Prime Minister’s Office reportedly registered a tut-tut of disapproval.

But that was only fodder for gossip in a glamour-starved capital. (Who was that}) What was revealed this spring about Couillard turned out to be more serious than the cut of her neckline. In early May, after weeks of rumours, news broke that she was closely linked to notorious members of Quebec biker gangs back in the nineties. “Gossipy old busybodies,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper called Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe for even bringing it up.

But this week’s revelations forced Harper to act. Her relationship with Bernier having unravelled by sometime this spring, Couillard agreed to sit for an interview with the French-language TVA network. She divulged that Bernier had once mistakenly left official documents, apparently briefing notes for the early-April NATO summit in Bucharest, in her Montreal home—for five weeks. Anticipating questions that couldn’t be waved off as mere prurience, Harper cut his losses. He stressed, though, that Bernier had to resign for his carelessness with files, not his choice of companions. “It’s only this error,” Harper said. “We must always accept responsibilities for documents that are classified.”

Only this error? In fact, Bernier’s record made it impossible to consider his latest lapse in isolation. If taking up with Couillard raised doubts about his personal judgment, his political acumen was in question after a string of slip-ups. On a visit to Afghanistan in April, Bernier told reporters the governor of Kandahar might have to be replaced over corruption allegations. That indiscretion undermined months of delicate work by Canadian diplomats, who had been trying to get the governor removed without embarrassing the Afghan government.

More recently, Bernier declared after a meeting in Rome with the head of the UN’s World Food Program that a Canadian government C-17 cargo plane would help with aid flights into cyclone-ravaged Burma. None of the new transport aircraft, it turned out, were available and Canada was forced to scramble to rent a Russian plane to fulfill his hastily made commitment.

But Harper had resisted all calls for Bernier’s ouster until Couillard made shielding him impossible. The reason: Bernier’s considerable political value in Quebec. His father, Gilles Bernier, was a popular Tory MP during the Brian Mulroney era. Maxime Bernier, a former Montreal insurance executive and one-time tax-cuts advocate with the Montreal Economic Institute, was an instant star when he won back his father’s Beauce riding south of Quebec City in 2006. He even brought organizational ties to the Action Démocratique du Québec, the provincial party federal Tories were counting on to help them win more Quebec seats next time out.

All those putative assets are now rendered worthless by a story that proved too juicy to quell. Couillard’s links to organized crime figures stretch back 15 years. Beginning in 1993, she spent three years dating Gilles Giguère, right-hand man to Robert Savard, a loan shark connected to Hells Angels leader Maurice “Mom” Boucher. In 1995, Giguère and Couillard’s home was raided

by the Quebec police’s Wolverine anti-biker squad. Giguère and Savard were among those charged in connection with an apparent extortion plot involving a Montreal real estate agent.

Couillard spent 18 hours in police custody after the raid but was never charged. She later filed a complaint, and told a now-defunct crime tabloid, Alio Police, that officers were excessively heavy-handed. The case was eventually dropped for lack of evidence. But four months after the raid, Giguère’s bullet-riddled body was found in a ditch about an hour northeast of Montreal. At the time of his death, Giguère was set to go on trial on a number of charges after police found four machine guns and some 20 kilos of marijuana in Montreal’s east end. Giguère’s associate, Savard, was killed in 1996.

In 1997, Couillard married Stéphane Sirois, at the time a member of the Rockers, a violent puppet gang tasked with protecting drug territory from outside competition. In his testimony at a 2002 biker mega-trial, Sirois admitted having been a member of the Rockers’ so-called “baseball team,” a crew of thugs that used baseball bats to terrorize rivals and bar owners who didn’t want drug-dealing in their establishments. Just prior to his marriage to Couillard, Sirois was warned by Boucher that he had to choose between his biker life and

his relationship with her. Boucher suspected her of collaborating with police. (While testifying at a 2003 biker trial, Sirois said Boucher had been suspicious enough of Couillard “that there was a contract on her.”) Sirois nonetheless went ahead with the marriage, forfeiting a lucrative biker-run cocaine and marijuana business.

After Couillard and Sirois divorced in 1999, he returned to the Rockers, this time as a police informant. But between 2004 and 2005, she again lived with a man linked to crime, Robert Pépin. At the time of their relationship, Pépin faced theft charges. He later pleaded guilty to selling stolen goods. Apparently through Pépin, Couillard got into the security business. A company she headed bid unsuccessfully in 2004 for a Canadian Air Transport Security Authority contract to set up an access-card system for airports. In fact, before she revealed that Bernier had left government documents in her home, Couillard’s security-business aspirations were emerging as the focus of opposition attention.

She admits her old flames weren’t “choirboys,” but complains she is suffering from guilt by association. “I’ve never done anything wrong,” she told TVA. “I’ve never been charged with a crime.” She says she told Bernier about her old crowd soon after they met

at a Montreal dinner party last summer. By last fall, she was a force in his political life. Couillard helped him practise speeches, say Conservatives familiar with their relationship. She pressed advice on managing his media image. No one checked into her background, but then a background check was not required. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service looks into the pasts of candidates for cabinet posts, but not their spouses, family members, or friends. When Couillard’s biker links came to light, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day rejected calls for CSIS to check into MPs’ partners as “a little bit excessive.” That explains the lack of formal scrutiny. Why Quebec’s usually aggressive crime reporters, or its close-knit political class, took months to realize Couillard’s backstory is another question.

For all the uproar, some Tories suggested that by going public, Couillard might have done Harper an unintentional favour. She provided a way to make a clean cut with a problematic minister. Bernier had annoyed the Prime Minister’s inner circle by positioning himself as a potential next Conservative leader. “Stop this,” Ian Brodie, Harper’s chief of staff, reportedly ordered, after a story in Montreal’s La Presse called Bernier the “dauphin.” But Bernier’s staff pushed back, saying it was a rare bit of good press for a Harper minister. After that, some Harper aides started referring to Bernier’s office, not admiringly, as “the shadow PMO.”

If he aspired to create an alternative power centre, though, Bernier more often conveyed an air of confusion. After only about three months as foreign minister, for instance, he was on his third communications director. Junior political staffers also tended to come and go fast from his office. Foreign service professionals were often unimpressed, some noting that Bernier tended to fall back too often on modest protestations that he didn’t know much about foreign policy and had a lot to learn—months after his appointment. Even Tories who defended him admitted privately that he seemed far more engaged in his previous portfolio, Industry, where he pushed a pro-ff ee-market agenda in telecommunications policy.

Concerns about his performance now give way to worries about any scandal aftershocks. Typically, an affair like this ends with a minister’s resignation. Couillard’s story, however, is anything but typical. Tories are hoping it doesn’t have another chapter. M

With Paul Wells and Aaron Wherry

Paul Wells

Aaron Wherry