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Illustration of Jean-Pierre Blais, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of Jean-Pierre Blais, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE LUNCH

The CRTC’s Jean-Pierre Blais: The regulator who speaks truth to power Add to ...

For years, the first thing CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais saw when he stepped out of his shower each morning was a framed sketch of the Swedish warship Vasa.

The mighty vessel was commissioned by King Gustavus in 1626 as his personal ship, a seaborne symbol of his country’s rise on the world stage.

As the story goes, the ship was pretty fancy, but the king insisted his builders add a second row of cannons above those already planned. Each cannon was to sit behind a heavy wooden door. Oh, and the doors also had to have menacing lion heads built upon them, to inspire yet more wonder.

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The builders proceeded, even though it was a terrible idea to add so much weight to an already hefty ship. Two years later, it set sail – and sank less than a mile from port.

“The first little breeze that hit tipped it over and killed people,” Mr. Blais says.

The picture now hangs in his Gatineau office as a reminder to himself and his staff that sometimes the role of a public servant is to speak up when something is a bad idea.

“Don’t wait for us to tip,” he says. “If we’re doing something stupid, don’t wait to tell us … Remember that telling truth to power is our job.”

Speaking truth to power has been the signature of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) since Mr. Blais was appointed to a five-year term as chairman in 2012. The CRTC exists to regulate and supervise the broadcast and telecommunications systems in Canada, and reports to Parliament through the Minister of Canadian Heritage.

The tone was set early in his term, as he scolded some of the country’s most powerful broadcast executives in a hearing last year that ultimately ended with a surprising rejection of BCE Inc.’s $3-billion takeover of Astral Media. (The deal was later revised and approved.)

For decades, the country’s broadcast and telecom executives wheeled and dealed their way through hearings, confident they had an ally in the CRTC that would rubber-stamp almost anything they proposed. But since taking over, Mr. Blais has made it clear he believes Canada’s Broadcast Act invests him with powers ignored by his predecessors.

The Bell-Astral rejection was soon followed up with other moves to show off the regulator’s muscle. When Book Television tried to change its licence to allow for more mainstream broadcasting, the answer was no. The CRTC killed three-year cellphone contracts. International roaming fees for most major carriers have been halved, thanks largely to sustained pressure from the regulator. Mr. Blais raised the spectre of unbundling television channels a year before the Conservatives made it sound like it was their idea in the recent Throne Speech.

The moves have boosted the regulator’s position as a consumer advocate, but have also confounded executives at some of the Canada’s largest companies.

On the record, they say he’s a good partner who has the best interests of Canadians at heart. Get them alone, however, and they call him a control freak who is enjoying his time in the spotlight a little too much after a largely anonymous life as a bureaucrat.

He’s not particularly concerned about industry perception, and doesn’t talk in detail about his relationship with the executives he regulates – he’s just happy people are paying attention. The regulator isn’t top of mind with Canadians, he concedes, and whenever consumers do pay attention it’s because the commission is seen as an anachronism that is blocking progress in some way or other.

“When you see online conversations, it doesn’t take long before there is a post that says ‘Get rid of the CRTC,’” he says.

“OK, people are allowed to have their views. I don’t think it’s particularly constructive. But it’s true – the CRTC has reputational baggage. If there’s something I worry about, it’s that you’re entrusted with something when you come here, and that’s the institution’s reputation. I want to build it back up.”

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