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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.”

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.

“When you are spending four hours a day in a pool, it provides you with a lot of discipline in your life,” he says.

“We would leave home at five in the morning to swim in freezing cold water, then drive back to school and I’d have breakfast in the car. All day there, then they’d drive me for evening workouts. Another two hours there. Then home, supper and homework and then start over again. That meant every minute of the day, you didn’t waste.”

Time is a recurring theme in Mr. Blais’s life, and like the sketch of the Vasa, there’s a keepsake in his office to remind him of the commission’s multiyear plan under his leadership (which includes a deep review of the future of the television industry). He collects nutcrackers – he suspects he has more than 150 – and one dressed as the wizard Merlin sits close to his desk.

The legend holds that Merlin walked backward through time, already knowing how things ended up as he looked in on the struggles of man.

“Merlin is there to remind me of that vision for the five years because Merlin already knows how it turned out,” he says, slightly embarrassed as he admits his staff advise him against speaking about Merlin very much because it could make him seem like a crazy person.

“It’s just a reminder. I think that’s good, right?”

CURRICULUM VITAE

CAREER

2012: Chairman and chief executive officer, CRTC.

2011: Assistant secretary, government operations sector, Treasury Board Secretariat of Canada, National Capital Region.

2004: Assistant deputy minister of cultural affairs, Department of Canadian Heritage.

2002: Assistant deputy minister of international and intergovernmental affairs, Department of Canadian Heritage.

1999: Executive director of broadcasting, CRTC.

1998: General counsel, broadcasting, CRTC.

1994: Legal counsel, CRTC.

1993: Sessional lecturer, École des Hautes Études Commerciales.

1985: Attorney-at-law, Martineau Walker.

EDUCATION

1993: Master of laws, University of Melbourne.

1984: Bachelor of civil law, bachelor of common law, McGill University.

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