Prime Minister Stephen Harper says it's none of his business that his Foreign Affairs Minister once dated a woman with alleged previous ties to biker gangs.
"I hear that one of my cabinet ministers has an ex-girlfriend," Mr. Harper told reporters at a hastily called scrum Thursday.
"It's none of my business, none of Mr. Duceppe's business, none of Mr. Dion's business," he said, referring to the leaders of the Liberal and Bloc Québécois parties.
"Mr. Dion and Mr. Duceppe are quite a group of gossipy old busy-bodies," the Prime Minister added.
Maxime Bernier echoed that sentiment as questions about his romantic life and potential violations of national security dominated Question Period Thursday.
"Never would I have thought I would get such a nasty and low attack from an opposition party," Mr. Bernier told the Commons.
"This is about my private life, the private life in the past of my ex-girlfriend. People's private lives are none of your business," he said.
As the Globe and Mail reported Thursday, Julie Couillard, who recently dated Mr. Bernier, was once a potential target of the Hells Angels kingpin Maurice (Mom) Boucher, who considered ordering her killing, according to court testimony.
"At one point the suspicions were so high that there was a contract on her … She was going to get it. She came close to getting it," one of her former partners, a biker turned informant, testified in 2003.
Ms. Couillard came to the public eye last August when Mr. Bernier brought her to Rideau Hall the day he was sworn to the Foreign Affairs portfolio.
An example of how close a relationship they had forged came two weeks later when Mr. Bernier applied to designate her as the person eligible to travel with him on his MP's budget. He described her as "my spouse."
Government officials said Mr. Bernier only found out about her past when the news media began asking questions about her being romantically involved with two characters in Quebec's 1990s biker turf war.
'This is about national security'
The Conservatives refused Thursday in the House of Commons to answer any questions about Mr. Bernier's relationship with Ms. Couillard, including whether he knew about her background at the time he was sworn in as Foreign Affairs Minister, or whether he had discussed it with Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day.
At one point, Tory MPs booed so loudly during a question by Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale that the Speaker had to intervene. Peter Milliken ruled such queries were in order.
"This is not about Madame Couillard. This is about national security," said Mr. Goodale.
"This is a fundamental issue of democracy and if the government is not prepared to let the people of Canada have their say and ask decent legitimate questions, then this government stands exposed as government that is denying fundamental democracy."
Government House Leader Peter Van Loan accused the Opposition of engaging in gutter politics.
"I'm not surprised that the Liberal party continues to engage in deep personal attacks that are not matters of government business," he said.
"If we're going to spend the time in this House of Commons inquiring into people's personal lives, I think people can conclude that whatever politicians are engaged in that are entirely wasting the taxpayers money and aren't fit for public office."
"Everyone is entitled to a private life, a home life, be they ministers, journalists or dentists," added Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon, the government's Quebec lieutenant.
"I don't think we should interfere in people's private life - not yours, not mine, and not Mr. Bernier's."
For months, Ms. Couillard's unusual background had been a source of gossip among opposition politicians and news media in Ottawa.
Until Thursday, the Prime Minister's Office had referred the matter to a spokesman for Mr. Bernier. The spokesman, Neil Hrab, said that the minister is no longer with Ms. Couillard and that it was a "private matter."
Mr. Bernier learned of her past relationships after they broke up, federal officials said. "He was genuinely not aware until there was media interest," one official said.
Government sources said they broke up months ago.
But other sources said the pair remained close, with Ms. Couillard appearing as the minister's date at the Politics and the Pen gala in February.
And in late March, Mr. Bernier and Ms. Couillard were seen by several MPs dining at the popular restaurant Hy's with Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day and his wife, according to a Parliament Hill source. When contacted by a Globe and Mail reporter last month, Ms. Couillard made no allusion to the end of her relationship with Mr. Bernier.
"Everyone who is with a minister has to undergo a security check. Was there a security check?" Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe said to reporters yesterday. "Did the minister know? Did the RCMP check? Was the Prime Minister aware? I think it's very important."
Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said the fact that Mr. Bernier holds a sensitive cabinet position made the issue even more acute.
"Mr. Bernier needs to explain [himself]because we want to know if there were any matters of national security involved," Mr. Dion said.
An RCMP spokeswoman said the Privy Council Office is in charge of background checks.
PCO spokesperson Myriam Massabki confirmed that according to protocols put in place in the late 1980s, the Privy Council conducts security checks - but only on prospective cabinet ministers before their appointment.
"Background checks are conducted only on candidates to cabinet. It is not done on spouses or immediate family," she told The Globe and Mail.
Ms. Couillard once was the girlfriend of Gilles Giguère, who was killed in 1996 before facing trial for firearms and drugs possession.
By 1997, Ms. Couillard was to marry Stéphane Sirois, a member of the Rockers, a puppet gang of the Hells Angels.
In a 2003 trial, Mr. Sirois testified that Mr. Boucher told him he had to choose between the gang and Ms. Couillard because the biker boss didn't trust her.
"He thought it was her who pushed Giguère to work with the police, that she worked with police. There were suspicions floating around," Mr. Sirois testified.
He later added that, "The exact words said by Maurice Boucher were that at one point the suspicions were so high that there was a contract on her too. She was going to get it. She came close to getting it."
Mr. Sirois testified that after they married he confided to her about Mr. Boucher's suspicions. She was skeptical and began asking questions of a confidant of Mr. Boucher, the loan shark Robert Savard, the court heard. Mr. Sirois said the situation forced him to offer the police his help.
The 38-year-old Ms. Couillard, who works in real estate and lives in the Montreal area, was labelled "mysterious" and "the talk of the town" in news reports when she first appeared with Mr. Bernier.
Mr. Bernier's request to make her his designated traveller was endorsed by Conservative Whip Jay Hill on Sept. 24 and passed on to the Speaker of the House. A source said the request was accepted by the Commons board of internal economy.
Contacted yesterday, Ms. Couillard said Mr. Sirois, whom she divorced in 1999, was an unreliable witness.
"What Stéphane Sirois said about me, as far as I'm concerned, has no credibility," she said. "Some people are after Maxime Bernier and it's my name that'll be dragged in the mud," she added before refusing to comment further.
Ms. Couillard has no criminal record.
In December, 1995, when she lived with Mr. Giguère, the Wolverine anti-biker police squad took the couple into custody. She filed a complaint with the Quebec Police Ethics Commission about the way a police squad burst into the couple's bedroom and cuffed them.
She also gave an interview in the lurid crime tabloid Allô Police, which ran under inch-high headlines: Arrested In The Bedroom! The Spouse Of The Mobster Gilles Giguère . . . The Actress Julie Couillard Condemns The Wolverine! Mr. Giguère and two other men with ties to the Hells Angels, including Mr. Savard, were charged in connection with an extortion case. Ms. Couillard was released and was not charged.
By February, 1996, the case collapsed for lack of evidence. Two months later, Mr. Giguère was the victim of a gangland slaying, his body discovered in a flooded ditch by the side of the highway.
With reports from Brodie Fenlon and Canadian PressReport Typo/Error