QUEBEC - An environmental activist who railed against Alberta's oilsands has been forced to resign from his Quebec cabinet position following reports of alleged ethical transgressions.
Daniel Breton's transformation from activist to environment minister lasted less than two months. His departure Thursday removed one of the most ardent left-wing voices from a Parti Quebecois cabinet that has recently veered toward the centre.
A misty-eyed Breton delivered a brief statement to reporters in Quebec City on Thursday, announcing he would focus on working in his riding.
Media reports this week said Breton persistently missed rent payments and drew two legal reprimands over the last decade; lost his driver's licence after multiple speeding tickets and didn't always pay his fines; and was convicted in 1988 of EI-related fraud.
Those reports compounded an existing political headache for him: a legislative committee had already planned to examine a more recent case involving Breton, who was accused of interfering in an arm's-length agency after he took office several weeks ago.
He said he was leaving for the good of the government.
''I am doing this because I don't want to be a hindrance to her (Premier Pauline Marois') work as well as the government's,'' Breton said.
In his statement, alluding to his personal-finance problems, Breton said he knows what it's like to be short on money and go through hard times. He said he will get back to working in his riding, which has poor neighbourhoods.
''Showing compassion is what I will strive to do in the next few weeks and months,'' he said before leaving the news conference without taking any questions.
The former NGO leader, provincial and federal Green party activist, and 2008 federal NDP candidate was among the more prominent recruits in a PQ that campaigned from the left in the recent provincial election campaign.
The PQ entered office with promises to ramp up resource royalties, intervene more heavily in the economy to retain Quebec businesses, extend a shale-gas moratorium and shift a flat health-care tax to the rich. A number of its pledges, however, have since been shelved, delayed, or watered down.
One example was Breton's recent attack on a proposed oil pipeline. He criticized Enbridge's plan to reverse the flow of an existing pipeline to allow western oil to be consumed in Eastern Canada.
Breton described the plan as an Albertan attack on Quebec's control over its territory. Several hours later, in a subsequent public statement, he tempered his tone. Within days, Marois was touting the economic advantage of Alberta oil at a premiers' conference.
Marois and Alberta Premier Alison Redford announced the creation of a joint working group to study the project, on top of a review by the National Energy Board.
On Thursday, the premier defended her initial decision to appoint Breton.
Marois said a background check had turned up details of speeding tickets and the long-ago Employment Insurance fraud conviction, but that she only learned of the frequent rent non-payment this week. She said Breton had also informed her of unpaid fines before his appointment.
"We told him, 'Pay them right away. You can't be a minister if you don't pay your fines,'" she said, describing a conversation with her incoming minister several weeks ago.
But she added that naming him to cabinet was the right thing to do.
"Who hasn't had a fine for driving too fast? Who hasn't omitted to submit a certain report?" Marois said, referring to his failure to file a tax return for a year where he had no income. "I believe I did the right thing naming him — because of his expertise."
In fact, the government had been defensive of Breton up until Thursday morning. A front-page headline in Le Devoir newspaper said, Breton Still Has Marois' Confidence.
So what changed?
Marois said she'd just learned about the consistent non-payment of rent. And she said that when Breton came to her to offer his resignation, because he said he risked becoming a political liability, she agreed.
"I accepted his decision because I felt it was the right decision to make," Marois said.
She also told reporters: "It's not a happy day. I'm deeply saddened by what's happened."
A number of PQ sympathizers also appeared chagrined.
Social media carried a number of comments from people lamenting that a minister could be turfed so quickly, essentially for having money problems, when ministers in the previous Liberal government could cling to office long after they had been accused of more serious ethical transgressions like meeting with known mobsters.