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Quebec Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon responds to reporters questions on the COVID-19 pandemic before entering a cabinet meeting at the legislature in Quebec City, May 20, 2020.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec Premier François Legault has lost his top economic lieutenant over conflict-of-interest allegations as the province tries to steer out of the coronavirus pandemic and close a wealth gap with its neighbours.

Pierre Fitzgibbon has agreed to step down as economy minister effective immediately, Mr. Legault told reporters at a news conference in Quebec City on Wednesday. Eric Girard, Quebec’s Finance Minister, will take over his duties in addition to his own, the government announced.

“I find this unfortunate,” Mr. Legault said, adding he and his minister made the decision mutually in order to protect the confidence of Quebeckers in their government. “Finally we want to turn the page on the pandemic to concentrate on things like the economy. This doesn’t come at a good time.”

Mr. Fitzgibbon’s exit as economic chief follows a report by Quebec ethics commissioner Ariane Mignolet that concluded he repeatedly refused to follow conflict-of-interest provisions spelled out in the ethics code for elected members by continuing to own shares in two companies that do business with the government. Ms. Mignolet recommended that Mr. Fitzgibbon be suspended from the legislature until he either sold the shares or resigned his cabinet position and placed the stake in a blind trust.

Mr. Fitzgibbon tried to sell the stakes in the companies, Immervision and White Star Capital Canada Inc., but there’s no liquid market for such a sale at this time, and so he would be doing so at a loss of more than $1-million, Mr. Legault said. He said his minister was unwilling to take a loss of that magnitude.

Recruited personally into politics by Mr. Legault, Mr. Fitzgibbon is an accomplished specialist in business development whose résumé includes management and board positions at Atrium Innovations, National Bank of Canada and Walter Capital Partners.

His withdrawal from the cabinet table leaves Mr. Girard to pilot several major economic initiatives, including Quebec’s electrification strategy – a potentially $7-billion push to develop an industry that can produce the raw materials and finished product for electric-vehicle batteries.

Such development is key to Mr. Legault’s goal of creating jobs and closing what he perceives as an unacceptable wealth gap between Quebec and neighbouring Ontario. Gross domestic product per capita was $54,149 in Quebec in 2019 versus Ontario’s $61,315, according to federal statistics.

Mr. Fitzgibbon has faced four investigations by the ethics commissioner, and in November he became the first Quebec cabinet minister to be censured by the members of the legislature for ethics violations.

Mr. Legault has stood by Mr. Fitzgibbon and has said that Quebec’s ethics rules need to be modernized in order to account for such situations. The government had tried to resolve the situation by mandating Quebec’s treasury department to handle any files involving Immervision and White Star.

The Premier said it was a mutual decision that Mr. Fitzgibbon would leave cabinet. He will remain a member of the provincial legislature.

The departure raises questions about whether business people who might be tempted to enter politics in the future will think twice about doing so. Mr. Legault, a former businessman in his own right, said there is great value in having experienced entrepreneurs and business leaders in government in order to take the lead in negotiations with potential investors and other matters.

“I’m more convinced than ever that in government we need business people like Pierre Fitzgibbon,” Mr. Legault said.

Quebec was one of the hardest-hit provinces at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic but the government has now announced a gradual reopening of businesses over the coming weeks as health restrictions ease in Montreal and several other regions.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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