At first, Jean-Pierre Blais did not want the job.
When headhunters approached him late last winter, they sought his advice on who would be a suitable candidate to lead Ottawa’s watchdog on the telecommunications and broadcasting industries. Mr. Blais supplied them with some names. Then the headhunters came back.
“At one point they said: ‘Well, would you be interested?’ And that’s when I laughed them off because I knew how daunting a job this is,” said Mr. Blais. “Even back then, I knew that the public trust had disappeared, that technology was creating a stress on the system, that there was a lot of tension in the system because of the vigour of competition.”
But then came a change of heart. After weeks of reflection, he agreed to apply for the job – a decision that is now altering the course of the Canadian communications business.
Less than five months into his five-year term as chair, Mr. Blais, a veteran public servant, is on a mission shake up the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission by sharpening its focus on consumers and the people who make Canadian content. He has vowed to win back the trust of a cynical public, which has come to regard the CRTC as a champion of big business – or, worse, an archaic institution that had outlived its usefulness.
Mr. Blais believes the CRTC has gone astray – an admission that has delighted consumer advocates but stunned the industry.
Any doubts that he would change how the CRTC does business were put to rest in October, when the commission issued a unanimous rejection of BCE Inc.’s proposed $3-billion takeover of Astral Media Inc., on the grounds that it was not in the public interest.
That surprise decision, the biggest bellwether of change since Mr. Blais took the helm in June, has left all communications companies, even opponents of the deal, scrambling to reconsider their regulatory strategies. Many industry executives, who declined to speak on the record, have privately admitted they misjudged the sea change at the CRTC, while underestimating Mr. Blais’ commitment to empowering consumers.
BCE has publicly admonished the CRTC, alleging it has rewritten the rules on the fly and has created a sense of market uncertainty through its outright rejection of the deal. Mr. Blais, however, denies he has changed the rules. He also dismisses suggestions that he is an activist regulator, stressing that regulation will remain the exception rather than the rule. Even so, he notes, the CRTC “won’t hesitate” to intervene to protect Canadians.
“We haven’t changed our minds that large companies are part of a healthy ecosystem. And small ones and medium ones, too,” Mr. Blais said. “So, there is a point that you say, ‘Yeah, large is good but there is a limit.’ Okay, so we will judge that on cases, in every instance.”
Still, when Mr. Blais began his term June 18, there was a perception that he would be a friend to big business because of his previous support of media mergers. In fact, BCE was among those singing his praises this past June. Mirko Bibic, BCE’s chief legal and regulatory officer, called Mr. Blais “well suited to lead an institution that has to grapple daily with a rapidly evolving technological and competitive environment.”
Companies now consider him an enigma and are flummoxed by his decision to break with past CRTC practices. For instance, most previous chairmen have allowed companies to use public hearings to “bargain” with the CRTC over the terms of takeover deals – often by adding more money to the “tangible benefits” package acquirers must pay into the broadcasting system. Mr. Blais has now set the expectation that companies present their best deal from the get-go.
“He had to make a decision at the front where his power was going to come from. And if he is going to say ‘power to the people’ then you have to use the opportunities to make that clear. And one of those was a complete denial of Bell-Astral,” said John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.
“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.
His father was an accountant at Alcan, his mother a schoolteacher who taught him Grade 1. While his parents currently reside in Ste Elie de Caxton, near Shawinigan, his elder sister and her family have settled in Mississauga, Ont. He resides in Gatineau, Que.
He attended Loyola High School, a Jesuit Catholic school in Montreal whose alumni list also includes Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. Mr. Blais studied at Loyola during the ‘70s and was an over-achiever, not preoccupied with fitting in.
“My memory of JP is of a serious, focused and driven individual who was quite confident and sure of himself. He certainly was not a class clown or a ‘jock,’ ” said former schoolmate Steve Dunlop in an e-mail. “I am not surprised to see him now as chairman of the CRTC, nor would I believe he would be intimidated at finding himself at the ‘centre of the storm,’ as it were.”
And Mr. Blais did find himself at the centre of a major kerfuffle as editor of school yearbook. The long-standing tradition was that each graduate’s photo was accompanied by comments, notably bon mots about student antics. The principal, however, decided to censor the comments and the yearbook was eventually printed without any of them, causing an uproar.
“None of us were aware that the comments had been removed until we received the yearbooks,” Mr. Dunlop said. “The student body was never consulted on the matter, so [Blais] got a lot of heat.”
Mr. Blais, though, did provide the comments for his class’s 25th reunion after hanging on to the original documents for all those years.
“From what I know and remember about JP, he has not changed too much – he comes from the school of the well-prepared: he does his homework, is most articulate and is a proficient communicator,” said Charles Grenier, another Loyola schoolmate.
When asked if he is worried that he has set an expectation that ordinary Canadians’ concerns will be reflected in all the CRTC’s decisions, Mr. Blais acknowledges the threshold is high.
“I think you have to have the courage of ambition and the courage to set high goals. I’m not saying that I’ll always be able to do it. But if you aim for bronze that is probably what you’ll get.”