A simmering internal feud at the highest levels of Canada's broadcast and telecom regulator has boiled over with one commissioner launching legal action over allegations of harassment and raising questions about the authority of chairman Jean-Pierre Blais.
An application filed with the Federal Court in Ottawa on Tuesday suggests there are serious tensions between Raj Shoan – who is the commissioner for Ontario for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) – and senior management at the regulator, including Mr. Blais.
Mr. Shoan is one of seven CRTC commissioners, including Mr. Blais, all of whom were appointed by the federal cabinet.
The case provides a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the commission and its power structure.
The court filing does not include a detailed account of the dispute, but suggests Mr. Shoan clashed with Mr. Blais and his senior staff over the extent of the chairman's power over CRTC commissioners.
The case stems from a harassment complaint against Mr. Shoan and a subsequent third-party investigation, which found he did commit harassment. The court filing seeks judicial review of Mr. Blais's decision to accept the results of the investigation and place limits on Mr. Shoan's professional communications, requiring him to go through CRTC secretary-general John Traversy to co-ordinate any phone calls with commission staff as well as copy Mr. Traversy on all e-mails to staff.
The application asks the Federal Court to overturn Mr. Blais's decision on the basis of alleged factual and legal errors in a March 17 report by Laurin and Associates, a mediation and conflict management firm that conducted the investigation. The filing also alleges the investigation process was biased.
Finally, the application alleges Mr. Blais was in the wrong "by repeatedly attempting to supervise and direct Commissioners, via CRTC staff, through the creation of internal procedures that were and are contrary to the CRTC Act."
It does not elaborate on that claim, but suggests that a dispute over such internal procedures led to the harassment complaint, which was made last September by Amanda Cliff, the CRTC's executive director of communications and external relations.
None of the allegations in the filing has been proved in court.
The application says Ms. Cliff's complaint was based on "various e-mail exchanges … over several months in which [Mr. Shoan] challenged the policy and legal bases for many of Cliff's proposed courses of action." It states the complaint was based solely on the e-mail correspondence, and the two "have never spoken alone in person."
The Laurin and Associates report concluded that Mr. Shoan "humiliated [Ms. Cliff] in front of colleagues by sending the e-mails to her staff, colleagues and Commissioners." It also found commission staff was subject to Mr. Shoan's "aggressive behaviour" and that he "threatened Cliff by informing her he was prepared to make an official complaint about her conduct" to a public-sector integrity watchdog.
The application does not include the e-mails in question or provide detail on the conflict. However, it challenges many of the report's findings, including that Mr. Shoan "attempted to undermine [Ms. Cliff's] credibility … by copying all Commissioners (on only four occasions) and some CRTC employees on some e-mails."
It also disputes the report's finding "that [Mr. Shoan] refuses to recognize the Chairman's authority and takes issue with the reality that [Ms. Cliff] and staff obey the Chairman's instructions and directions."
A representative for the CRTC declined to comment on the court filing Tuesday. However, in a brief e-mail circulated to staff at the commission, Mr. Blais said he recently learned that Mr. Shoan "has decided to bring a confidential matter to the courts." The chairman asked staff not to speak with media and stated, "At this time, I want to reiterate my personal commitment to a harassment-free and respectful workplace. Let's keep our focus on the important work we are doing for Canadians."
Mr. Blais, a long-time public servant and lawyer who became chairman in 2012, has worked to move the CRTC in a consumer-friendly direction. That is largely in line with the federal government's policy on telecom and broadcast issues, but Mr. Blais has also become a high-profile figure in his own right and recently clashed publicly with BCE Inc. over media coverage of the CRTC's pick-and-pay television ruling last month. (BCE owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.)
The CRTC can have up to 13 commissioners, including the chairman and two vice-chairs of telecom and broadcast, all of whom are appointed by the federal cabinet. Senior staff of the commission, including executive directors and the secretary-general, report directly to the chair, but commissioners do not.
Mr. Shoan previously worked at both the CRTC and Industry Canada in policy and legal roles and was director of regulatory affairs at the CBC before he was appointed to a five-year term as commissioner on July 3, 2013.
Since then, he has written several decisions challenging the commission's majority rulings, dissenting on three occasions and concurring with the result but disagreeing with the majority in two other instances.
Asked for comment, Mr. Shoan, 39, said in a statement he denies the allegations of harassment. "My hope is that the judicial review will result in an objective assessment of the issues and a strong rebuke against a culture of control and the quashing of dissent within the CRTC," he added.