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Quebec Environment Minister Breton resigns

Quebec Environment Minister Daniel Breton gestures as he responds to an opposition member's question on Nov. 21, 2012 at the legislature in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

It wasn't the conviction for employment-insurance fraud, nor the failure to pay provincial income taxes. Nor was it the raft of speeding tickets. In the end, it was his refusal to pay his rent that did the minister in.

Daniel Breton was forced to resign on Thursday as Quebec environment minister over news reports this week that he owes thousands of dollars to landlords in Montreal.

Although Mr. Breton, formerly a respected environmentalist, was never charged with or convicted of a criminal offence, Premier Pauline Marois had to let him go. The image of the province's political class has taken a beating in recent months, with new allegations of corruption surfacing almost daily at a public inquiry. The Parti Québécois has pledged to repair that image, and can ill-afford to turn a blind eye.

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The news reports also noted that in 1988, Mr. Breton pleaded guilty to three fraud charges after making false statements under the unemployment insurance act, and in 2007 was fined $400 for failing to file his tax return. Ms. Marois said she had known about the EI and tax matters, but the rent issue came as a surprise.

Unlike most of his colleagues, Mr. Breton entered politics after years in low-paying jobs as an environmental activist, and he lived in one of the poorest areas of Montreal. He liked to drive fast cars even though he never owned one himself. He was stopped by police once for speeding down a highway at more than 250 kilometres an hour.

"I know what it is like to lose a job, to lose an apartment, to live without knowing if we will have a meal to eat at night," Mr. Breton said in a brief statement announcing his resignation from cabinet. He will stay on as a backbencher. "I will show my solidarity and compassion with the people of my riding who are among the poorest in Quebec."

Mr. Breton, 40, had appeared anxious to bring his own brand of leadership to the environment portfolio, and was accused last week of obstructing the impartiality and independence of the province's environmental assessment board.

The news reports said Mr. Breton failed to comply with a December, 2009, order from the province's landlord and tenant board to pay 13 months, or $6,320, in unpaid rent. In June, 2005, he was evicted from another apartment for failing to comply with an order to pay his landlord $425 for a month's rent. Including interest, Mr. Breton now owes more than $7,000 in unpaid rent. He has not explained why he did not pay.

Ms. Marois said she was informed of Mr. Breton's brushes with the law and that he was in a precarious financial situation after the Sûreté du Québec conducted a routine background check on him when he was being considered for the cabinet appointment. She said she was also informed about Mr. Breton's unpaid speeding tickets and ordered him to pay them immediately. She was also told that his driver's licence was suspended in 2011. But Ms. Marois insisted she knew nothing about the unpaid rent until the story broke in the media on Wednesday.

"With respect to the unpaid rent, Mr. Breton did not inform me," Ms. Marois said in the National Assembly.

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The reports also said that when Mr. Breton moved out of the apartments, he left them dilapidated, with dozens of empty wine bottles and garbage scattered everywhere.

The Premier said she didn't regret naming Mr. Breton to cabinet. "We are all allowed to make mistakes and to be pardoned," she insisted. She may now be tempted to use the vacancy to address strong reservations in the business community about having a vocal environmental activist at the head of a key ministry.

Liberal Party interim leader Jean-Marc Fournier questioned Premier Marois's judgment in appointing to cabinet someone with such a background. "Why did she shut her eyes and appoint him anyway?" Mr. Fournier asked.

The Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Québec have been calling for Mr. Breton's resignation since he was accused last week of obstructing the environmental assessment board. Mr. Breton's departure was viewed as a victory by the two opposition parties but a major loss by environmental groups who fear a return to a less activist and more pro-business vision.

"Daniel Breton was a man of conviction who mastered the environmental issues," said Ugo Lapointe, spokesperson for the natural-resources coalition Pour que le Québec ait meilleur mine. "As a minister, he symbolized the hope of many for a better world."

The Premier said she will hold the post for the time being, but is expected to appoint a new minister soon.

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