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Report On Business CBC appoints women’s advocate Alex Johnston VP of strategy, public affairs

Alex Johnston, who has headed women’s advocacy group Catalyst Canada for the past three years, will be responsible for helping implement the CBC’s latest strategic plan.

Regina Garcia

The CBC is continuing to remake its executive ranks with the appointment of women's advocate Alex Johnston as its new vice-president of strategy and public affairs, marking the third private-sector appointment to the broadcaster's eight-member senior executive team in the past year.

Ms. Johnston, who has headed women's advocacy group Catalyst Canada for the past three years, will be responsible for helping implement the CBC's latest strategic plan, which emphasizes delivering content to mobile devices such as phones and tablets, cutting physical building space in half and sharply reducing in-house productions in favour of outsourced programming.

Ms. Johnston said she made the move because she cherishes the CBC and is convinced Justin Trudeau's new Liberal government is committed to keeping it a strong institution.

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"On a personal level, I'm quite sure it would not have been the right role for me if the government piece was not in place where I do believe they see the true value of the institution and want what is in the best interests of Canadians – and I think that is a strong CBC/Radio-Canada," she said in an interview Tuesday.

The CBC faced sharp budget cuts and staff reductions under the former Conservative government of Stephen Harper, and was rocked by a sexual-harassment scandal involving former high-profile radio host Jian Ghomeshi, who is now on trial over sexual-assault allegations.

Ms. Johnston said the CBC needs a period to rebuild, and says part of her job will be helping sell the new strategic plan to "an organization full of people who are smart and passionate and committed" but have been through a lot of turmoil and may not be excited by the prospect of more change.

"As an organization, it's been through a lot in the last four or five years, whether it's the funding stuff or the personnel stuff, and they need to get back to a place where there's hope for the future and not just managing day-to-day," she said.

Ms. Johnston fills a position formerly held by Bill Chambers, who was vice-president of public affairs, which includes responsibility for communications and government relations. He left the CBC last August.

CBC chief executive Hubert Lacroix has significantly revamped his executive team over the past year, bringing three outsiders from the private sector into key roles. In addition to Ms. Johnston, Mr. Lacroix appointed Judith Purves, former chief financial officer of IBM Canada Ltd., as CFO last March, and former Rio Tinto global mining executive Josée Girard as vice-president of people and culture last August, which is the top human-resources management job at the CBC.

He also promoted Sylvie Gadoury to vice-president of legal services last June, which was an internal appointment.

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The appointments mean there are four new faces on the CBC's eight-member executive team, which has three men and five women in the top positions.

Ms. Johnston, a lawyer who previously practised at Goodmans LLP in Toronto, spent her early years in Montreal and is bilingual. She is also the daughter of Governor-General David Johnston.

She said she initially had no plans to leave Catalyst, which has helped champion reforms adopted last year that require publicly listed companies to disclose information about their approach to gender diversity in executive ranks and on their boards of directors. But she was approached for the CBC job and became sold on the challenge.

Earlier in her career, Ms. Johnston was executive director of policy to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, working alongside then-colleague Gerald Butts, who was Mr. McGuinty's principal secretary. Mr. Butts later became a top adviser to Mr. Trudeau, and is now his principal secretary.

Ms. Johnston plays down her Ottawa connections, but says she has enough contact with the government to be certain of its commitment to the CBC.

"I have no greater vantage point at this stage than anyone else, but it's really having a sense of who many of those people are in government and what their values are," she said. "I have a sense that they believe in the institution and I think they put a very strong minister, Mélanie Joly, who they have a lot of confidence in to lead this."

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Catalyst Canada has launched a search to fill Ms. Johnston's position but has not yet chosen a successor. The Canadian office of the global organization has 10 staff and a budget of about $2-million.

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