One of Canada's highest-profile former competition commissioners has switched sides, and will use her insider's knowledge of the country's regulatory system to help companies across North America avoid running afoul of competition laws.
Melanie Aitken held the top Competition Bureau job for three years, but resigned unexpectedly in 2012 with two years left in her term. During her tenure she embraced new powers handed to her by the federal government to pursue high-profile targets such as the real estate industry, credit card companies and the country's largest cellphone providers.
She will announce Monday that she has rejoined Bennett Jones, where she was a partner prior to joining the Competition Bureau, to co-chair the company's antitrust and competition practice. She will be based in Washington, where she moved shortly after leaving the Competition Bureau for personal reasons.
"The focus will be on advising foreign businesses and investors with Canadian ventures and connecting Canadian businesses with opportunities in the U.S., China and elsewhere," Ms. Aitken said. "Out of the D.C. office, we will exclusively practise Canadian law on the whole range of issues confronting international businesses in their dealings with Canada."
As competition commissioner, Ms. Aitken was able to rule on whether large mergers could proceed or whether the terms would need to be altered to ensure no abuse of power could occur. (The bureau is now being run on an interim basis by John Pecman, who's been there for more than 28 years.)
The bureau recently said companies would need to give the agency a heads up prior to any deal involving a Canadian company that either has assets or revenues exceeding $80-million, when the combined company would have assets or revenues worth more than $400-million in Canada.
While some criticized Ms. Aitken for seeking the media spotlight during her tenure, she argued she was simply taking advantage of the new rules which gave her tools such as the ability to suspend mergers for up to a year to investigate them further, and also granted her the power to issue penalties as large as $25-million for anti-competitive behaviour such as price fixing.
Her Competition Bureau background will be particularly useful when working out of the United States, she said, because of her "considerable experience in not only the Canadian agency but in my interactions with agencies, counsel and companies carrying on business around the world."
She tangled with international companies like Visa Inc. – which she pursued for the way the company forces retailers to accept certain versions of the company's credit cards even though they come with additional costs for the retailers – and United Continental Holdings Ltd. caught her attention when it proposed merging flight operations with Air Canada on some routes between Canada and the United States.
Ms. Aitken won't be appearing in front of her old colleagues anytime soon – there's a cooling-off period she must follow that will prevent her from appearing before the Competition Bureau until September.
"That is standard and won't materially affect my ability to advise clients and help them design the solutions for their Canadian challenges or projects," she said. "Plus, I have awesome partners to work with, who are among the folks I most respected in their dealings with the bureau when I was there."