OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper is brushing off security concerns over the relationship between a top cabinet minister and an ex-girlfriend with past ties to the Hells Angels.
Opposition parties demanded to know Thursday whether security checks were conducted on Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier's then-girlfriend and whether he ever shared classified information with her.
Harper dismissed the matter as the work of opposition "gossipy old busybodies," and said Bernier's recent relationship with Julie Couillard is nobody's business.
But some security experts took issue with that, saying questionable personal links could leave the minister - and Canadian interests - vulnerable.
Couillard, 38, accompanied Bernier to a cabinet swearing-in ceremony, to his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, and government insiders say she frequently gave him political advice.
Sources say Bernier's girlfriend never accompanied him on his trips to the Canadian base in Kandahar, Afghanistan and a top-secret Canadian military base in the Arabian desert.
She was previously linked romantically to Gilles Giguere, an associate of Hells Angels boss Maurice (Mom) Boucher, and was once married to Stephane Sirois, a member of the Rockers biker gang.
Reached by The Canadian Press by phone, Couillard would not comment on the controversy.
"I don't have anything to say right now," she said before hanging up.
Couillard is listed on the website of the Quebec real-estate agents association as working with the Montreal firm Kevlar Real Estate Investments Inc.
But when a Canadian Press reporter entered the office and asked for her Thursday, three Kevlar employees retreated into a back room and re-emerged after several minutes to say Couillard had never worked there.
Like the prime minister, Bernier cast aside questions on the matter.
"Never did I think I'd get such a nasty and low attack from an opposition party," Bernier said in response to a Liberal question.
"This concerns my private life, the private life in the past of my former girlfriend, and the private lives of people are none of your business."
Liberal deputy leader Michael Ignatieff shot back: "Questions about ministerial judgment and national security are not a private matter; they are everyone's business."
Ignatieff said the issue is whether the proper security clearances were conducted, and whether Couillard saw documents relating to the national security of Canada.
The debate sent the House of Commons atmosphere tumbling into the decorum of a biker party. Members shouted coarse insults at each other across the aisle and the Conservatives attempted to drown out opposition questions with loud, sustained booing.
The controversy has raised questions about the process of background checks for people closely associated with cabinet ministers.
A spokeswoman for the Privy Council Office, which is in charge of background checks, told the Globe that security checks are conducted only on prospective cabinet ministers, not on their spouses or immediate family.
But a former Liberal cabinet minister disputed that explanation, saying his wife's 1960s protest activities were raised with him when he was sworn into cabinet. He declined to be identified.
And an expert in public security rejected the government's characterization of the affair as a private issue.
"It's a serious matter because cabinet ministers are privy to the most sensitive information available to the government of Canada," said Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto historian who studies security and intelligence.
The public first learned about Bernier's relationship with Couillard in August 2007, when the couple, holding hands, walked into Rideau Hall where Bernier was sworn in as minister of foreign affairs.