“He called their bluff, which I guess other commissioners haven’t felt that they had the support on the commission to do.”
If his predecessors were focused on following the letter of the law, Mr. Blais seems equally concerned with upholding its spirit, observers say. And that perspective is likely being informed by both his early career as a private-sector lawyer during the 1980s and his lengthy stint in the public service that began in the CRTC’s legal directorate during the 1990s.
Working his way up the commission’s ranks, he eventually became executive director of broadcasting in 1999. He later worked as an assistant deputy minister in the Department of Canadian Heritage and, most recently, as an assistant secretary of the Treasury Board Secretariat, among his various public sector roles.
Along the way, he earned a reputation for being a stickler for details and having a strong personality that sometimes rubbed people the wrong way.
“He’s still got a fire in his belly, but at the same time, as you know, one of the great lessons that life gives all of us is humility. And he’s there now. He’s at a level of maturity and experience. Because, you know, we were young Turks back in the day,” said Dylan Jones, a former CRTC lawyer who is now chief executive officer of the Canada West Foundation.
Although Mr. Blais is known to seek consensus and to listen to what others have to say, he is a person who is willing to fight for his perspective once he has made up his mind, Mr. Jones said.
“Another way of thinking about it is, if you want to take him on, if you want to sort of sway him, you have to do your homework.”
Even some who worked on the BCE-Astral deal say that Mr. Blais is well suited for the job. Among them is Michel Arpin, a former vice-chair of broadcasting for the CRTC who is now a consultant and provided Astral with advice on preparing for hearings on the deal.
“What the CRTC needs is someone who has ties with the bureaucracy – who knows the Treasury Board; who knows the Finance Department; who has contact the various organizations so that it benefits from the whole system,” Mr. Arpin said. “Well, Jean-Pierre brings that.”
From that vantage point, Mr. Blais has changed the tone of the commission by setting a new equilibrium between the industry and the consumer, said Liza Frulla, a former minister of Canadian Heritage.
In addition to committing to create a new national code to strengthen consumer protections for wireless services, Mr. Blais has promised to use the CRTC’s website to give consumers more tools to assess their options, including what to consider when buying cellphones for kids.
“He is very precise about his dossier,” said Ms. Frulla of Mr. Blais, noting he was her assistant deputy minister. “He’s very conscientious and he is sort of a workaholic in a certain way – but in a positive way.”
Mr. Blais is also distinguishing himself from his predecessors in other ways. Although former chair Konrad von Finckenstein, who left the CRTC in January, has suggested that Canada’s decades-old broadcasting and telecom laws are out of date, Mr. Blais has said he plans to enforce the laws as written. He will leave it to Parliament to spearhead any reforms or the creation of new powers, such as levying fines for broadcasting infractions.
“Parliament gave us a mandate, but it also defined roles and responsibility for the government. We are arms-length but somebody used to say ‘arms-length doesn’t mean that government can’t touch,’” Mr. Blais said.
For his part, Mr. Blais says he feels independent – and those who know him say that independent streak is rooted in his past.
Mr. Blais, 52, was born in Shawinigan, Que., the youngest of two children. He grew up in Chomedey (now part of Laval), and also spent part of his childhood in Pointe Claire and Toronto, as his father’s job transfers often required the family to move.