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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 ...

He walks a fine line. Ottawa is a political place, and any bureaucrat needs to be mindful of his reputation. Nobody wants to overshadow government ministers, and Mr. Blais and his staff are cautiously aware of his profile. The chairman is charming, handsome and well-dressed, and as I’m shown around the CRTC’s Gatineau headquarters, employees are buzzing with excitement at the prospect of his lunch interview.

Mostly, they want to learn some personal details about their enigmatic boss, who shows up in three-piece suits and keeps asking people what they think about things.

He bristles at the idea of reporters intruding into the personal lives of public figures, and keeps most details of his life close. But as we sit at a long desk in his office eating sandwiches, cheese and vegetables, some details emerge.

One takeaway is that he’s not the kind of guy who races out of the office to enjoy lunch at a fancy restaurant. We are eating leftovers from a meeting that is wrapping up down the hall. Seriously – leftovers. “Help yourself,” he says, waving his hand at the nicely-set table. “There’s plenty.”

Mr. Blais, 53, is the son of an accountant and a school teacher. He has a sister. He enjoys watching French plays. He built his own deck. He irons his shirts while watching The Voice.

A lawyer by trade who chooses his words carefully, he also erupts in bursts of enthusiasm when he hits on something he finds amusing. Socks are one example – he has a penchant for wearing flashy ones, and when I ask him about that, he walks around the table and hikes up his pants to show off what’s on his feet that day (in this case, rugby socks).

He is fastidious about his clothes. “I could not be authentic taking off my tie,” he says.

“I’ll do it in the right place, but to me, you honour the person you are about to meet by dressing a certain way. That’s just me; that’s how I do things. How many times in offices do you have a way to express yourself other than by what you say? You don’t talk to people in a big complex in most interactions. But you can express yourself by what you wear.”

There are other flashes of insight: His family moved to Toronto when he was young, forcing him to learn English and making him aware of the need for bilingual service delivery from a young age.

Because he spoke French in the home growing up, he has a surprisingly limited English vocabulary when it comes to basic household items. He moved back to Montreal and attended Loyola High School where he learned discipline at the hands of his Jesuit teachers. He’s a speed reader.

He’s also an overachiever whose work ethic can intimidate those around him. He goes to bed at 10 p.m. and is up at 5:30 a.m. to start reading newspapers – he gets La Presse and reads everything else online. He also uses the early mornings to catch up on television, usually DVDs or watching shows he recorded on his PVR so he can jam more viewing time in by skipping commercials. (He does watch live news every day, however.) Every other day, he does this while speed walking on a treadmill set to a 13 per cent incline.

“I don’t know who these people are who are watching 28 hours of television a week,” says the man who is leading a national fact-finding mission into the future of regulated television in this country. “I thought I watched a lot, and there’s no way I watch that much.”

He leaves the office at 6 p.m. after doing his reading for the next day, and the cycle starts again. It’s a punishing grind with little reprieve from the meetings that make up his day, but he is convinced a life of swimming prepared him for the challenges. He swam competitively through high school, even when he suddenly found himself surrounded by taller competitors who were able to beat him by virtue of their height advantage.

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