"Champlain's Dream" - Jean-Pierre Blais to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre


Ottawa, Ontario
November 24, 2016

Jean-Pierre Blais, Chairman
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission

To the Public Interest Advocacy Centre’s Annual Dinner

Check against delivery

Good evening.

Before starting my remarks, I’d like to acknowledge that we meet on traditional First Nations territory. I’d like to thank the Algonquin people and pay respect to their elders.

Since I began by term as Chairman of the CRTC four years ago, I’ve had the pleasure to hear from PIAC in a number of our proceedings. Your counsel plays an important role in bringing forward the views of citizens in our hearings, including the one next week in Gatineau.

That said, no one here should interpret my appearance tonight as a sign that PIAC’s intervention in this current licence-renewal proceeding—or indeed any other—carries greater weight than that of any other intervenor. As we always do, my colleague Commissioners and I will draw on the entire public record to render our decision. It’s quite possible that PIAC will not agree with certain aspects of that decision. If that turns out to be the case, so be it.

Last week, I addressed the annual conference of the Canadian Chapter of the International Institute of Communications. I talked a bit about the policy changes we at the CRTC put into effect over the past four years to earn back the trust of Canadians. Trust, I said, is something bestowed upon us by the public as a result of doing good work. It is the by-product of doing the right thing. I’ll borrow a bit from that theme today, but with a slight twist. Last week, I talked about what we did. Today, I’ll talk about how we did things. Because doing the right thing well is even more important than doing the right thing.

Champlain’s Dream

I had the pleasure of speaking at your annual dinner four years ago, not long after I began my term as Chairman. At that time, I spoke a good deal about the public interest. I talked about how protecting the public interest is about much more than simply looking after the needs of individual consumers. It is a far more complex, nuanced and multi-faceted proposition, and one that must also take into account the needs of Canadians as citizens of their democracy and as co-creators of our national voice.

When I made those remarks, John Lawford was kind enough to leave me with a thoughtful gift. It was a book called Champlain’s Dream. For those who don’t know, the book is an excellent account of the life and work of Samuel de Champlain. In it, the American author David Hackett Fischer takes aim at the argument that Champlain was one among many European mercenaries looking to seize lands and exploit Indigenous people. Rather, Fischer’s thesis is that Champlain was much more humanist, accommodating and inclusive. That the explorer had a vision for a colony in which, and I’m quoting here, “people of different cultures could live together in amity and concord.”

If indeed that was Champlain’s vision—and I’m with Fischer: I believe it was—then consider for a moment how antithetical that approach was to the thinking of the French government of the day. Seventeenth century France under kings Henry IV and Louis XIII wasn’t known for its inclusionary policies. Directives were administered from the top down.

Yet here was Champlain, a proud Frenchman who navigated, explored, mapped and chronicled this new land, while also bringing people of starkly different cultures—First Nations, French and otherwise—together to share and introduce ideas that worked for everyone. What bravery. What confidence. What vision! Here was a man espousing 21st century ideas four hundred years previous. On this score, Champlain was undoubtedly ahead of the curve.

John also left a card with that gift. In it, he wrote, “hope the enclosed inspires you to explore the unchartered waters of Canadian consumer interests in culture and communications.”

It absolutely did, John. Let me tell you how.

New regulatory thinking

One of the biggest challenges that we at the CRTC must now manage is that society is no longer monolithic. Of course, it never truly was, but the processes by which we collected evidence in our public hearings made it seem so. Several times a year, regulated entities and consumer and business-interest groups appeared at staid hearings to advance their respective concerns and interests, and the regulations the CRTC issued reflected the limited scopes of opinion on the record.

In some ways, that approach made the act of regulating easy, almost binary. The outcomes of the work we did were either pro-subscriber or pro-business. A or B. This or that. One or zero.

Happily, that’s not the case any more. Communications media and technology have created a virtual agora—the traditional marketplace of ancient Greece—that has refreshed the public’s role in the regulatory process. In so doing, they have restored a multitude of views and perspectives to the discussion. Our hearings are no longer forums frequented by only experts in regulatory affairs. They are also places in which Canadians from all parts of the country and all walks of life—from small-business owners to academics, local politicians to senior citizens—can share their opinions and ideas on matters that impact their daily lives: television, Internet, wireless, emergency services, consumer protection, online security—and so on.

Our hearing room in the National Capital Region has been transformed into a classical Greek agora. A national meeting place for the exchange of ideas and debate.

The world has changed how we find the public interest. The complexity and multiplicity of views and perspectives brought to our hearings week after week has left us as regulators with a greater, much larger burden to shoulder. Since the laws, regulations and politics of a nation must reflect society’s expectations, and since those expectations are much more clearly and loudly expressed than ever before, it is now more incumbent on the Commission to do as Champlain did. We have to hear from as many voices as possible and find a solution that strikes the right balance among all those competing interests. We have to get ahead of the curve.

It is hardly new thinking to suggest that the past four years have seen a fundamental shift in the way in which the world communicates. We now live in a post-convergence age in which that which is communicated is completely de-materialized. Everything is about broadband. As a result, we regulators have to change our thinking. Where previously the work we did focused on rules—how many hours of Canadian content had to be broadcast in a day, for example—our focus now must be on outcomes. Our role has to be about ensuring robust infrastructure is in place to accommodate the service streams that are banking, healthcare, government services, media, entertainment, taxation and so on to flow.

What we can’t do is continue to get bogged down by legacy issues. That’s the regulatory equivalent of spinning our wheels in the mud. It ignores the greater issue at hand. We have to embrace broadband connectivity. We have to use it to bring ourselves into the centre of the virtual agora to hear from citizens and issue decisions that create meaningful outcomes for everyone. We have to use it to get ahead of the curve, in other words.

The American architect Buckminster Fuller once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

He was right. (He was also the second world president of Mensa, so it’s hard to argue too much with his thinking.) The new model of communication that broadband has brought upon us all has made old ways of thinking obsolete. PIAC isn’t advancing public-interest issues today in the same way it did in the 80s or 90s. By exactly the same token, the CRTC isn’t engaging Canadians in the same way we did even as recently as 10 years ago. The models our respective groups used in those days are outdated. The new model has made them that way. We’re succeeding in our respective endeavours because we’ve adapted to that change.

I’ll share examples of the ways in which the CRTC has changed its regulatory processes to stay ahead of the curve, to place ourselves at the heart of the virtual agora, and use the intelligence given to us by Canadians to foster new outcomes for their communication system.

Serving citizens and empowering consumers

I said at the outset of these remarks that the job of protecting the public interest—for you at PIAC and us at the CRTC—is about more than attending to the needs of Canadian consumers. Our respective roles are much more expansive because the virtual agora created by broadband enables Canadians to participate in their communication system in new and evermore significant ways. Sometimes the work we do is also about protecting citizens’ rights.

Over the past four years, the CRTC has made significant strides to draw more Canadians into the centre of the virtual agora. We started by opening new channels through which they could participate in our hearings: online chat forums, Facebook and Reddit-facilitated discussions, questionnaires, choicebooks and even Flash! conferences. We did this because we knew passionate individuals would have a great desire to express their sovereignty on issues like wireless contracts, Internet connectivity speeds and the future of television broadcasts.

We also opened new doors for previously underrepresented groups to participate in the public policy debate. During our hearing into video relay services, for example, we recorded our notice of consultation in American Sign Language and Langue des signes Québécoise and posted these videos on our CRTC YouTube channel. We also accepted submissions from Canadians in both these languages and provided simultaneous interpretation in English, French, ASL and LSQ during our public hearing.

We did so because Canadians who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech impaired do not always enjoy the same access to the marketplace of ideas as other Canadians. The public record on these issues—ones that affect their everyday lives—could not be considered complete without such contributions. Our approach of tailoring engagement strategies to the needs of these particular communities was an obvious and effective way to supplement our hearing evidence.

For us, the job of protecting citizens’ rights also extends to protecting their right to local information. It’s no secret that digital media threaten traditional television, radio and print media business models. It is harder than ever today for broadcasters and newspaper owners to make ends meet. Production costs are increasing; revenues declining. Across the country, corporations are closing the doors on television and local newspapers in the name of shareholder interests.

That’s not OK. Indeed, it runs entirely contrary to the ideas expressed to us by Canadians in our public hearings. Canadians told us they value their local news. That they trust local news reporters to report on items that affect the communities in which they live, to break news of national significance.

In our local television decision, we therefore took the bold step of rebalancing money already in the television system to give large private broadcasters the resources they need to keep local television stations open and fund the production of local news programming. We also created an Independent Local News Fund that will give independent stations access to new money that will help them continue to create local news.

Viewed in conjunction with our Let’s Talk TV decisions that also mandated that local television stations feature prominently in basic television packages, these decisions help maintain Canadians’ connections with local news and information programming, and keep them involved in the democratic, economic, cultural and social lives of the country.

Protecting citizens’ rights also means empowering people. What good are rights if people don’t have the wherewithal to exercise them? Disruptive technologies brought about by broadband may have given more weight to Canadians’ voices in the marketplace of ideas, but even the power of a single post or video shared around the world is not always enough to spur corporations into action. Acting in the public interest means being mindful of that. It means giving consumers the tools they need to level the playing field in any disputes they have with their service providers.

Such a notion was foremost in our minds when we created codes of conduct that governed the relationships between television service providers and consumers, and between wireless service providers and consumers. In both cases, we used previously untested techniques (for the CRTC) to bring a multiplicity of voices into our virtual hearing room and to draft documents that would empower individuals to not only make informed choices about the services they were about to purchase, but also give them redress if they felt they were being treated unfairly by their chosen providers.

We took that idea a step further when we also banned providers’ policies of requiring customers to give 30 days’ notice when cancelling their television, telephone, Internet and wireless service packages.

These, and other innovations—such as requiring television service providers to offer a small basic package that will soon be supplemented by pick-and-pay service options, and regulating the wholesale relationships between broadcasters and television service providers and between large and small Internet service providers—were necessary regulatory outcomes, given the disruptive nature of broadband.

Let’s be clear for a moment: when it comes to information and communications media providers, Canadians have a wider range of choices at their disposal than they ever have before. It only made sense for us as regulators to embrace that multiplicity of choice. In other words, to give consumers the tools they need to partner with the service providers that offer the products and services that meet their interests, needs and budgets. The other option, to ignore the change that is afoot and continue to promote rules rather than outcomes, would have been the regulatory equivalent of wandering through the woods without a map or compass.

There is more to be written in this chapter. Our consultation on differential pricing practices—the practice of service providers offering the same or similar products or services at different prices—is underway. Consumers have told us how they feel about these practices, and we’ll weigh those ideas against the information presented to us at our recent hearing.

Adapting to broadband’s disruptive nature

To this point, I’ve talked in terms of how broadband has become the catalyst for so much change—in the way we consult, in the way businesses offer and deliver services, and in the way Canadians express themselves as consumers, creators and citizens in and of the digital world. Maybe I’ve put the cart before the horse. Because to arrive at a point where Canada’s communication system could support such fundamental change, we at the CRTC had to take a long, hard look at the impacts of broadband, and how the rules we set had to be adapted to accommodate such transformation.

We couldn’t very well warn everyone else to adapt to broadband’s changes if we ourselves didn’t change our thinking to accommodate this important shift.

What I and my 16 colleagues on the Commission and the dozens of senior staff and more than 450 employees in our CRTC offices across the country have done over the past four years is nothing less than modernize our suite of regulations and policies to respond to an entirely new era. This is wholesale change unlike any the CRTC has seen before. And it was sorely needed.

The world is changing. Those businesses that stand atop the mountain as the world’s largest today are far different from those that topped the list even 10 years previous. Companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Disney dominate the media landscape today, and they are where they are because they have embraced broadband as the way forward.

The regulations we set had to adapt in a similar fashion. Canadians are consuming more content and in new ways than they did even three years ago. By 2015, nearly 80% subscribed to download speeds of at least 5 megabits per second, and downloaded a whopping 93 gigabits of content a month. They used that extra bandwidth to connect with more entertainment media than ever before, to do business in novel ways, and to access a range of services—government, health care, education, banking and others.

As a result, the decisions we took were made with the vision in mind of redefining Canada’s communications system to accommodate broadband, and enabling Canadians to join the virtual public policy agora and become even greater participants in the digital economy.

Our decisions opened the door for fibre-optic facilities to be available to more service providers, and more customers by extension. They are improving the delivery of next-generation communication services—broadband and 4G wireless—across hundreds of rural and remote Canadian communities, including those in the North. Our decisions are replacing Canadian television creators’ and producers’ protectionist ideas about points and quota systems with progressive notions about telling the best stories about Canada to the world. They are also redefining what Canadians will come to expect as basic standards for Internet access, public alerts and 9-1-1 emergency services.

We did all these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard, if I may paraphrase John F. Kennedy. They had to be done. We couldn’t continue to foster a rules-first environment in the regulatory wilderness when so much of the landscape had changed. We had to change our thinking to accommodate broadband and think in terms of creating outcomes: empowered consumers, dynamic marketplaces, country-wide access to robust systems infrastructure.

Many have taken aim at the changes we’ve made. They’ve complained about the knock-on effects of changes to quotas systems, of the costs associated with shorter cellphone contracts, and of the comprehensiveness with which we transformed the television industry. They’ve complained about much more, besides.

I urge anyone who feels swayed by these complaints to ask themselves in whose interests these individuals, groups and businesses act. What do they have to lose by railing against change? Chances are, they complain loudly because they’re about to lose some or all of the entitlements on which they have grown comfortable over the past years and even decades. More than likely, they speak with their own interests in mind, rather than those of the public.

I can tell you that if we as regulators were to always side with these voices, we would do more than just a grave disservice to individuals in the post-disruption age. We would be ignoring the mandate entrusted to us by Parliament to regulate the communication industry in the public interest. I, for one, simply will not let that happen.

Restoring the public’s trust

You may recall that four years ago, the idea of the public’s trust in the CRTC was forefront in many people’s minds. At that time, the CRTC had scored embarrassingly low on a survey of those institutions most trusted by Canadians. That was a slap in the face for us, but now I look back on it, it was a blessing in disguise. It challenged us to do better.

I said previously that the CRTC’s way of doing business until that time was largely binary. We built a record of evidence for our hearings that was largely based on contributions from the same groups, and we issued decisions that reflected those limited views. That’s not to understate the regulatory work we did. It was without a doubt complex and as inclusive as possible, but evolutions in technology—and a newfound spirit of creativity—have since empowered us to build on traditional approaches to engaging Canadians.

Over the past four years, we’ve pulled out nearly all the stops we can in an effort to bring as many Canadians into the middle of discussions about television, wireless services, Internet, emergency services—and more.

During our Let’s Talk TV conversation, for example, we used previously untested devices—a choicebook, Flash! conferences and Vine videos—to bring more than 13,000 Canadians into the middle of a discussion about the future of television. Their feedback informed a number of forward-looking changes to the TV system: the availability and composition of the small basic television service, pick and pay and small channel bundles, a TV service provider code, the elimination of 30-day cancellation policies, and stiffer consequences for broadcasters and distributors that make simultaneous substitution mistakes.

During our hearings into the wireless code, we invited Canadians to help write the document itself. We published a draft version of the code on our website, and we asked Canadians for further comments on the document. Were the ideas it contained appropriate? Did they go far enough? What else could be added or changed? Those were the kinds of ideas we challenged Canadians—those most affected by the code—with.

During our proceeding into basic telecommunications services we invited Canadians to complete a questionnaire that explored the services they need to participate in the digital economy. We struck a chord. More than 30,000 people shared their thoughts and ideas.

Finally—or perhaps initially—during our hearing into the Bell/Astral merger in 2012, we took the bold step of bringing the public into our discussions with witnesses. I read aloud the comments of Canadians and asked company executives to respond. They were initially taken aback. I’m not sure they had even read Canadians’ comments. It’s a different story now. They’re quoting Canadians in their submissions directly. That’s a win for the public. They’re right where they belong: in the centre of discussions about issues that affect them most.

We took this approach a step further the following year, during our hearing on the wireless code. As testimony was being delivered in our hearing room, Canadians were invited to share their thoughts—in real time—via an online discussion forum, and I challenged intervenors to address these comments as they spoke. That technique initially caught some presenters off guard. They didn’t expect to be tested by the public in such a way, but the public jumped at the chance to bring their concerns into the middle of the discussion.

By offering new and creative ways for Canadians to participate in our hearings, we’ve transformed our approach to building the public record. It’s now more based on the public’s input than ever before—as good public policy should be. We're listening to individuals as they express sovereignty over the ideas that most affect their daily lives. We’re hearing all those voices and we’re creating outcomes that accommodate as many as possible, rather than making incremental adaptations to existing rules.

John, I hope you’ll be pleased with all this. We’ve taken Champlain’s Dream to heart.

I’ve always said that trust is something bestowed upon you when people around you see that you’re listening and that your actions reflect this fact. Maybe that wasn’t always the case for the CRTC. Perhaps we failed to earn Canadians’ trust because we didn’t always do the right thing for them. Because we didn’t listen or respond in appropriate ways.

No longer. We’re a far different organization than we were even as recently as 2012. We’re more responsive, forward thinking and much more inclusive. It’s true that part of that change was forced upon us by broadband. Even if we wanted to, we could not have ignored the flood of voices that joined the public policy agora. We welcomed those voices, and invited still more to join. And more and more, we are going to where the discussions are taking place, as was the case with our Reddit consultation.

Such an approach has benefitted Canadians and benefitted the communications system. Selfishly, I’ll add that it has benefitted us, too. It’s made us better creators of public policy. Better architects of change. We’ve followed Fuller’s advice and created a new model of public inclusion that’s made the existing model obsolete. We’ve shown ourselves to be a more responsive and understanding organization when it comes to meeting the public’s needs and wants.

Certainly, our peers in government tell us we are on the right track. Since 2014, we have won 10 awards for our exceptional public policy work: one APEX (the association of 2,300 executives in the federal public service) award, four from the Community of Federal Regulators, and five Public Service Awards of Excellence for our work on using official languages in our consultations, for engaging Canadians when we drafted our wireless code, for our ongoing commitment to integrating developmentally challenged employees in the workplace, and for our efforts to modernize the television system and to modernize telecommunications in Canada’s north. But the greatest acknowledgement of our innovations by our peers has been that they have emulated our methods.


Today’s networked environment has created fundamental shifts in just about every aspect of our lives. For us as regulators, it’s done several important things, and none more significant than shifting sovereignty from the hands of the state into the hands of individuals.

Broadband has created a new, virtual, agora into which we all flock every day. There, we read, we listen and we talk on subjects not limited to commerce, but also politics, healthcare, entertainment, security, sports, finance, religion, global affairs, and so on. For those that act in the name of the public—us at the CRTC, you at PIAC and many others—this shift has brought a multiplicity of voices into our normal conversations. Where even ten years ago, just a few voices spoke up in the crowd, today everyone has an opinion and the means to make that opinion directly heard by influencers and decision makers such as ourselves. The crowd has an important role to play in public policy development. Not the mob, but the crowd. Those innovative Canadians that are often referred to as “ordinary” are in fact, extraordinary messengers of truth.

If you take away only one lesson from my remarks today, make it this: follow Champlain’s dream. The seventeenth century explorer will always be widely remembered as one of Canada’s most important pioneers. What he’s less well known for was his inclusive approach to consultation, his humanist values and his belief in collective action. Thanks to broadband’s capacity to bring people together in the virtual agora, Champlain’s values and ideas stand taller today than they ever have in the past.

Thank you.

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