The announcement put an end to the year’s longest-running guessing game on Parliament Hill: who would succeed Pierre Juneau as head of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.? Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, apparently believing that two heads are better than one, last week divided the job, appointing widely respected civil servant Gérard Veilleux the CBC’s president and chief executive officer and naming veteran television journalist Patrick Watson to the new post of chairman of the board of directors. CBC executives—leaderless since Juneau’s seven-year term expired last July 31—the rest of the media industry, and opposition politicians generally applauded Mulroney’s choices. Said Toronto Life publisher Peter Herrndorf, a former CBC vice-president and Englishnetwork general manager who was touted by the media as a prospect for the job of chairman:
“I’m optimistic. Everybody I have talked to says Veilleux is a very bright, capable guy, and Watson, of course, is a great broadcaster.”
Although the appointments were well received, there has been widespread criticism among present and former CBC executives of the long-expected division of leadership, provided for in a new broadcasting act that the government will likely introduce in the House of Commons by mid-October. Juneau, who as president had also acted as chairman of the board, said at the time of his retirement that he opposed the change because it might create “disunity at the top and the possibility of two doors for the politicians to knock on when they want to intervene.”
Last week’s announcement did not clarify how the power will be shared. In his statement, Mulroney said that Veilleux is moving from his post as deputy chief of the Treasury Board because “we were looking for someone of very clear managerial skills who could run a very large corporation.” The government chose Watson as chairman, said Mulroney, because it wanted “someone who has a very elevated vision of what public broadcasting should be in Canada.” In an interview, Watson said that he is very excited about helping to
shape the network’s future (page 61).
However, the challenges confronting the two men are more immediate and critical than realizing a vision. For months, the directors of the CBC’s 10 regions have been fighting with the Englishand French-network chiefs and
the board of directors over how to accommodate government-ordered cutbacks of $140 million in federal funding—which totalled $911 million in 1988-1989—during the next five years. The regions want the corporation to eliminate network functions such as Radio Canada International, the overseas shortwave service. Some directors want certain regional stations to close.
Veilleux’s background in the finance department and the Treasury Board, the agency that monitors government spending, touched off speculation that a large part of his assignment was to slash the corporation’s budget even further. But Treasury Board president Robert de Cotret, an Ottawa cabinet member, rejected the suggestion. Said de Cotret: “We are sending in somebody who has broad experience in management, who knows government well, who knows the country well.”
The 47-year-old Veilleux, son of an Asbestos, Que., miner, got a commerce degree in 1963 from Quebec City’s Laval University, where a professor suggested that he go to Winnipeg to learn English. There he found a job in the Manitoba government budget bureau. He also met AÍ Johnson, then a Saskatchewan treasury official. When Johnson—who later became CBC president—moved to Ottawa as a senior bureaucrat, he hired Veilleux in 1966 and launched him on a career that has involved policy-making on such issues as constitutional reform, taxation, bilingualism, social security and federal-provincial relations. Of his latest posting, Veilleux said last week, “I did not accept this job to preside over the demise of the CBC.” His task, he said, was to work within the budget restraints imposed by the government “while attempting to maintain the level of quality. We owe it to the people in the CBC to say their piece, to speak their minds. Then I’ll decide.” As for his shared authority with Watson, Veilleux said: “We are not going to give each other orders. We will be working as a team, which we have to be.”
Meanwhile, because Veilleux is not well-known outside Ottawa, most of the reaction elsewhere to the appointments revolved around the 59-year-old Watson, one of Canada’s most prolific TV documentary makers, whose most ambitious undertaking has been the $8-million 10part series The Struggle for Democracy, shown on the CBC earlier this year. “We have never had a broadcaster as chairman of the corporation,” said Denis Harvey, vice-president of the CBC’s English TV network. “Watson is a believer in public broadcasting and in the corporation.” There were similar reactions from the political arena. Said Ian Waddell, the New Democratic Party MP for British Columbia’s Port Moody-Coquitlam riding and its culture critic: “We grew up with Patrick Watson.” For his part, Gerald Caplan, former secretary of the federal NDP and co-author of the 1986 Caplan-Sauvageau report on Canadian broadcasting, expressed approval of the appointments but concern about the Tories’ long-term agenda for the network. Said Caplan, now a public-affairs consultant in Toronto: “I hope both men got commitments from the government that the CBC will get funding and moral support to live up to its mandate.” Veilleux and Watson appear to share a deep commitment to that mandate. And although Veilleux has been placed in charge of the corporation’s day-to-day operations, the question of who will have the greatest impact in shaping the future of the embattled CBC—and its mandate—remains to be determined in the months ahead.
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