TORONTO (AP) — Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, who helped Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper nudge a liberal-leaning country further to the right, unexpectedly resigned Tuesday with plans to work in the private sector.
Baird, 45, shares the same hyper-partisan temperament as Harper, who has kept tight control over his cabinet during his nine-year tenure and rarely let ministers stray from script. But Baird was one of the few allowed to speak freely, and even on behalf of the prime minister. He often escorted Harper's wife, Laureen, to official events when Harper couldn't attend.
"I will miss this place very much," Baird said in a speech to Parliament. "The time has come to start a new chapter in my life."
An official who is close to Baird said he will be exploring opportunities in the private sector. The official said that Baird simply felt it was the right time to move on after a successful career in both the Ontario provincial legislature and federal parliament. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Since taking office in 2006, Harper and Baird, previously the environment minister, have promoted the potential of Alberta's oil sands, the world's third largest oil reserves, despite environmental objections. Baird has been a staunch supporter of Israel and an outspoken critic of Russia.
Harper is expected to run again in the next election, scheduled for October, although he has now lost one of his most trusted lieutenants.
In his speech Tuesday, Baird called Harper a friend and a mentor and said he will help the prime minister campaign for the October election. Baird received a standing ovation before Harper and his colleagues shook his hand and hugged him.
"It is with great regret and affection that I today accepted the resignation of one of the finest ministers that I have had the privilege of working with, John Baird," Harper said in a statement. "John has always been willing to do a lot of heavy lifting in my various cabinets and has assumed daunting new responsibilities with unsurpassed energy, commitment and professionalism, never losing sight of the fact that he was serving the Canadian people."
Baird had little international experience before becoming foreign minister in 2011.
Palestinian protesters hurled eggs and shoes at Baird's convoy last month during a visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah to meet with the Palestinian foreign minister.
In recent days, Baird has been working to secure the release of Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy from a Cairo prison. Baird said it was "imminent."
Former Liberal opposition leader Bob Rae tweeted that he admired Baird's energy, humor, and willingness to listen and engage.
"John Baird is bombastic, mean spirited, vicious, eloquent, generous, smart, cantankerous, hardworking, ingratiating, effective, human," Rae tweeted.
Baird sparked a diplomatic furor in 2009 when he sent a short text to a friend that read simply: "Thatcher has died." Harper had his spokesman prepare an official statement to mourn the passing of the former British prime minister after word spread through a crowd of about 1,700 people at a black-tie event in Toronto that Harper was attending. The spokesman contacted officials in Buckingham Palace and in British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's office.
But in fact, it was Baird's beloved tabby cat, Thatcher, who had passed away. Margaret Thatcher died four years later.