Hubert Lacroix was seething. In early November, 2014, the president of CBC/Radio-Canada had just gotten his hands on the book Ici Était Radio-Canada, an incendiary attack by ex-employee Alain Saulnier, who had been dismissed two years earlier as head of the public broadcaster's French-language news and current affairs. The book, Lacroix recalled this week, contained dozens of issues which he believed ranged from factual inaccuracies to outright libels. So he consulted a lawyer and prepared to sue.
"At the last moment, this lawyer, who will not be named, looked at me and said, 'Okay, so you're going to be very happy when you file this writ, because you're going to have vengeance, and you're going to pursue this. And then the caption is going to be, 'CBC Radio-Canada sues the ex-person running his newsroom.' At that time, we were heavily into all sorts of other issues" – the Jian Ghomeshi scandal was exploding; the broadcaster had just cut 400 jobs and staff were in open revolt; and CBC's long-time antagonists at Quebecor Media and elsewhere would have smacked their lips at the story – "and I chose not to. Held my tongue."
By some measures, and to the frequent disappointment of staff, Lacroix has been holding his tongue since he took office 10 years ago. But this week, during an introspective exit interview in his downtown Montreal office, approaching the final month of his government-mandated term, he loosened the gag and opened up: About his critics, his rough-and-tumble tenure, accusations of being a puppet of the Conservative government, his successes as well as the disappointments at what he failed to achieve, being a lame-duck leader, and the terrifying experience of heading into the work force at age 62.
Every president of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation faces challenges, but Lacroix's tenure was unusually crisis-filled, from a series of budget and staff cuts (in 2009, 2012 and 2014, totalling about 1,900 jobs); the loss of the NHL broadcasting contract; the Ghomeshi scandal and the ensuing revelations of a toxic workplace culture designed to placate hosts; and a conflagration within the human-resources department which sparked a series of lawsuits by former employees. Even after the Liberal government last year restored $150-million in federal funding, the public broadcaster continues to struggle with falling English-language TV ratings and commercial revenues.
Lacroix used to be a law professor. So: What mark would he give himself? "Huh," he responds, stalling. "I'm a very tough marker." So is the rest of the country, he is told. He gets up and shuts the door, then picks up a cloth to wipe his glasses. He sits down, looks out at the choppy St. Lawrence River.
"If the marks are 'Pass' and 'Fail'? I think I passed," Lacroix says finally. "I'm actually pretty proud of the place I'm leaving the public broadcaster in today. It's never been as watched, listened to and read on both sides of the house [i.e., English and French services] as it is right now."
He is referring to "reach," a term increasingly favoured by media companies to describe the number of people who encounter their content, even fleetingly, on a regular basis, rather than the traditional metrics of "market share" – or, for TV and radio broadcasters, "average minute audience."
What about a letter mark? "I'm hesitating, because there are so many pieces to CBC/Radio-Canada. I think I'm very proud of the work we did with the guild, reinventing the relationship."
In a phone interview, Marc-Philippe Laurin, the former head of the CBC/Radio-Canada branch of the Canadian Media Guild, praises Lacroix for forging new bonds with the rank and file, and adds that he wonders why anyone would want the "thankless job" of president. But Carmel Smyth, a long-time CMG executive, offers a scathing assessment: "We don't know what his true agenda was. What we do know is he allowed a hostile government to whittle down what could be the largest showcase and incubator of Canadian talent, culture, media, without putting up a visible fight."
These are the sorts of swipes that most upset Lacroix. Nobody knows the details of the private discussions he had with the government, he says. When the feds cut $115-million in 2012, "the first number was closer to $175-million," which he convinced the Department of Canadian Heritage would have done "irreparable damage to the broadcaster."
"So, when the announcement comes out, you're disappointed because it's 115 more than zero. But then, what do you do? Get really mad at the Minister?
"I never, never wanted to fight the government on the first page of the newspaper, because there's a substantial amount of money [at stake]. I don't want to jeopardize that by just beating my chest and feeling good and making my employees feel good."
He admits he is disappointed at failing to convince either the Harper or Trudeau governments of the importance of stable, multiyear funding, or of being able to make much progress on the proposal last year to make the broadcaster ad-free. That will now fall to his successor (who should have been named by now, but has not), as will other vital files: a push for greater staff diversity, the central role CBC is supposed to take in the Trudeau government's new cultural-policy vision of Creative Canada, and a continuing digital transformation.
The past few months have been difficult, especially for a hard-charging executive like Lacroix (who has run 18 marathons and has taken recently to running only half-marathons because of his time commitments to his daughters, aged nine and six).
"The management, in the last six months of the term, is not easy. Basically, they'll wait me out. I get that," he says. "Everyone looks at you and says, 'Mm, hmm' – nods their head, and realizes that you're a lame duck!
"If I'd known that, how emotionally difficult this is, I might have hesitated even longer at taking over a job of this kind. Not the CBC job, but a job with a term. It's a frightening exit."
Last April, for the first time in his life, Lacroix created a CV. "It scared me, because I felt that I was writing my epitaph," he says. "That I was actually dead and I was writing what I'd done. I didn't like that."
He says he doesn't know his next move. But he won't be writing a book. "I'm not going to play the Alain Saulniers of the world. That is so fuckin' unfair," he snaps. "I have too much respect for the people who are here, who make difficult decisions, who make great programs. And the person that comes in might decide she wants to turn the organization left. And you know what? I'll say: 'Good for her, she's got the information and that's her judgment call.'"