Canada: The Foreign Minister and the Femme Fatale

Canadian Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier speaks to reporters after a meeting with his Sudanese counterpart in Khartoum on March 25. (Photo: Isam Al-Haj / AFP-Getty Images)

Until recently, Maxime Bernier, Canada's foreign minister, led an enviable lifestyle, at least in the eyes of most men my age. He was an elegant fellow in his mid forties, a dapper dandy who traveled a lot (unlike some of us) at the taxpayers' expense while handling official state business—a really suave guy, at least on the surface.

This dashing figure—the country's top diplomat—was accompanied most suitably by Julie Couillard, a ravishing beauty that could turn heads at NATO summits or Francophonie (France's answer to the British Commonwealth) summits, which she apparently did do. The minister and his seductive escort, made a perfect pair indeed.

The couple was the talk of the town in the Canadian capital of Ottawa; they provided plenty of grist for the rumor mill in gossip columns about glitzy well-connected socialites. Especially on the day when the former minister arrived to the governor's general residence for his official swearing in ceremony with his lady friend by his side. She wore a very revealing dress showing more cleavage than might be suitable on such an occasion.

Truly this glamorous fairy tale of jet setting and hob knobbing with world leaders (such as President Bush at lavish receptions at the Waldorf Astoria) ended this week with the surprise resignation on Monday night, of Foreign Affairs Minister Bernier, after it was revealed that he (perhaps due to dizziness in the throes of passion) either forgot or misplaced top secret NATO documents at his former companion's home (or in her bedroom?) for some five weeks' time.

The top secret papers left behind at her residence according to local news outlets, contained confidential material related to Canada's military strategy in Afghanistan and its negotiating positions within the NATO alliance pertaining to its future role in the Afghan war.

The ex-minister's "love interest," the disarming 38-year-old Couillard, is a dazzling, perhaps what some fashion photographers might even call stunning looking, former model turned "security expert." On Monday, the same the day the foreign minister stepped down suddenly, the French daily Le Devoir revealed that Couillard is also a apparently a business lady, who heads a company by the name of ITEK global solutions, according to an unnamed source. She, along with an associate (who later committed suicide) with dealings not unknown to law enforcers, the newspaper reported, attempted to secure a contract with the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority in 2004 as the federal government agency was seeking a firm that could make special biometric passes or ID cards that gave certain employees access to restricted and highly sensitive zones (cargo-storage areas, airstrips, etc.) at Montreal's international airport.

But there is more to Bernier's former companion than her entrepreneur skills. To the great misfortune of Bernier and his boss, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, it was revealed in media reports before the scandal broke that Couillard had or may still have links to dubious criminal elements such as biker and drug gangs. The transnational organization in question is the Hells Angels, which is made up in part of harmless Harley-Davidson motorcycle enthusiasts, but according to Federal Bureau of Investigation records, also of something much more nefarious: drug traffickers, extortionists, or as some say, mobsters on fancy motorbikes.

What is odd about the "Bernier Affair," as it's referred to in English Canada, is how such a top government minister could be intimately involved with a (albeit high class and elegant) lady with such a shady past for what appears to have been seven to nine months, without the relationship being red-flagged by Canadian internal security agencies. If it did raise some concerns, as the opposition Liberal Party asserts (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service apparently alerted the government as late as early May to its security concerns), these were apparently not taken seriously enough by Harper until it was much too late.

There are many unanswered questions that the opposition parties are likely to hammer the Harper government with in the coming days or weeks. One might be how Couillard got security clearance to accompany the minister on some trips abroad, such as a United Nations General Assembly meeting last year, and in what official capacity, if any, she was traveling with him. It is well known in Ottawa that it's standard procedure for anyone traveling with government officials such as spouses, aides, relatives or members of the media and yes, even pets, to get a thorough security screening and a rigorous personal date check by the Canadian authorities, such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, before accompanying any delegation abroad. Obviously, until recently, Couillard seemed to sail through these security hurdles without raising suspicion.

Was NATO and Canadian National Security Breached?

Despite her somewhat dubious past Couillard seemed irreproachable as far as the national security agencies were concerned and somehow was allowed to travel with the foreign minister. It is also not clear whether any other classified documents went astray due to a "lack of judgment" by Bernier.

Most disconcerting perhaps for Canada's top military strategists is this: it remains a mystery as to why it took five weeks for Bernier to realize his sensitive documents were missing. Furthermore, one opposition member of Parliament pointed out that there is a strict protocol related to the usage of such secretive material by officialdom. All such documents marked "top secret" are systematically tracked; that is, the exact time they are removed from a secure place and for how long they are gone must be logged and recorded, in addition to the exact time they are returned and by whom. The unusual and prolonged absence of these secret papers seemed not to have raised any suspicions in Ottawa or even any eyebrows at security obsessed NATO headquarters in Brussels—not until five months later when Couillard finally contacted her lawyer, who it was reported, later returned the NATO files to the proper authorities. That is when the story broke and Bernier had no choice but to step down.

So what happened to the documents while they remained in Couillard's house?

This whole bizarre episode is even more odd considering that the Canadian conservative Harper government's election platform was based on stringent security in the post 9/11 era, the strict compliance with law and order (his government has introduced tough new crime bills) and moral probity.

Seals, Tar Sands and Between-the-Sheets Scandals

Just before leaving on a European tour to boost his government's less than brilliant record on the environment, Harper accepted Bernier's resignation, telling reporters, "I'm obviously very disappointed for the government, very disappointed for Maxime." Surely, the prime minister would have preferred for his young debonair protégé, who before the scandal was being considered as a potential future prime minister, to come along on his high profile PR trip. Bernier's charming female companion would undoubtedly not have left the French president indifferent to her charms and other attributes.

This lurid scandal has come at the worst possible time. Harper's minority government is bogged down in Afghanistan without an exit strategy; Canada is shamelessly flouting the precepts of the Kyoto agreement by creating more carbon gas than is allowed by the treaty; the country's trade officials continue to promote the extraction industries of mining and oil exploration in Canada and abroad despite the outcry from nongovernmental organizations.

And as if this hypocrisy had not yet reached its peak, the prime minster went to Europe to tout Canada's supposed concern for nature, while at the same time asking his NATO allies, including France, to overturn the European Union wide ban of seal products imports. That ban was prompted by the concerns of scientists and environmentalists regarding the annual mass slaughter of harp seals on Canada's eastern coastline.

Whether Harper was able to bolster Canada's environmental credentials is questionable. One thing is certain: from now on, the very shaky Harper minority government is going to have to make sure its ministers keep their private lives private, top secret documents secret, and all their shady dalliances out of the public eye.

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