Canada’s competition laws have been toughened in recent years as the government aims to crack down on predatory business practices, but the most transformative change for the Competition Bureau might have been the appointment of Melanie Aitken as the country’s top watchdog.
As Competition Commissioner, Ms. Aitken has taken aim at a host of high-profile industries – the Canadian real estate sector, credit card companies, gas cartels and cellphone providers.
Monday’s decision to target Air Canada – the country’s biggest airline – is an example of her strategy of pursuing cases that can set legal precedents and act as deterrents to executives in other industries.
“From a consumer perspective, she’s certainly picking all the right cases,” said Steve Szentesi, a competition lawyer at Vancouver’s Hakemi & Co. “She is perceived in the industry as an aggressive, no nonsense commissioner, and it’s fair to say she’s thought of as more capable than others have been in the role.”
Others suggest Ms. Aitken, 44, takes a rather American approach to the job. Former commissioners have kept a low profile, but Ms. Aitken is comfortable having her fights in public. A former litigator, she still pines for the courtroom and its confrontational setting.
Ms. Aitken came to the bureau after being seconded to the Justice Department from law firm Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP to work on competition files. Within two years, she was heading the bureau’s merger division, which would be thrust into the spotlight after a federal judge slammed the agency for overstepping its boundaries when investigating the Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd. takeover of Lakeport Brewing in 2008.
An independent review cleared Ms. Aitken’s department in 2009, and she was soon appointed commissioner. At the same time, Parliament handed the Bureau sweeping new powers, which allowed for fines up to $25-million for anti-competitive behaviours such as price fixing and gave commissioners the power to delay mergers by up to a year while reviewing them.
“There may be new rules, but the perception remains that her litigator background is what’s really driving the Bureau,” Mr. Szentesi said. “She’s had to choose the type of cases that can test the new rules and establish new precedents, and she’s been more than willing to do that.”
Her blunt approach has caused some of her targets to question her motives.
Bill Johnston, former president of the Toronto Real Estate Board, accused her of “career building” when she levelled fresh charges at his organization earlier this month, suggesting she was intent on grabbing headlines at the expense of his industry.
Others accuse her timing releases to gain maximum exposure – going after credit card companies at Christmas, or airlines the weekend before a busy long weekend of travel.
“We’re not that sophisticated,” she said on Monday. “I’m just a law enforcement official trying to do my job. We spend a lot of time trying to reach consensual agreements, it can take several months to do that work and determine what the outcome might be.”