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Competition commissioner Melanie Aitken on tackling the big names

Melanie Aitken did not go quietly. The day before she stepped down as Canada's competition commissioner in September, she warned against "coddling" corporations that are considered to be national champions. It was classic Aitken. In seven years at the Competition Bureau–the last three at the helm–she took on some powerful opponents, from telecom's Rogers Communications and Bell Canada to the Canadian Real Estate Association. Interviewed a few hours before leaving the bureau, this game-changer, still in her mid-40s, did not say where she'd be working next.

Do you get to sleep in tomorrow?

I have an 11-month-old, so it seems unlikely.

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Were you commuting from home in Toronto to Ottawa every week when he was born?

It was not a period when I could take time off. I had fantastic people supporting me at the bureau. We got through the first difficult couple of weeks, and after that it was okay. I have a seven-year-old boy too. Sometimes I would go home one night during the week to see my boys. The 11-month-old goes back and forth–yes, he's a commuter, too.

How do you explain your rock-star departure from the Competition Bureau?

When I became commissioner, we had just got a very clear direction from Parliament that they wanted us to become a more effective enforcement agency, and they had given us tools to make it happen. I focused on the essential mandate: a principled and objective enforcement of the law. So we've brought some matters [to legal action] and, more importantly, we have resolved other issues consensually, which is always our preference.

So why leave two years before the end of your term?

At the outset, I identified clear goals on how to reinvigorate enforcement, and we have accomplished in large measure what we set out to do in terms of setting a different tone and putting the bureau in a good position to deal with the challenges ahead. It's time to move on.

Will you end up back in private practice?

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Honestly, I haven't looked for opportunities yet. Very possibly it will have something to do with law and be in the private sector. I really want to sit back and think about the possible next things that I could do–after consulting with some pretty amazing mentors.

How do you respond to allegations that you were a media hog who went for big, easy headlines?

I've heard that issue raised, but the media only focus on some cases, and those are just a fraction of the work we do. We work in all sorts of different industries on much lower-profile matters–for example, a price-fixing conspiracy dealing with refrigerator compressors, and a waste disposal site in northeastern B.C. There are many, many cases that attract no attention whatsoever, but they do have a real impact on businesses or consumers.

So was it your job to heighten public awareness?

On the one hand, you are trying to get an individual or a company to stop doing something, but there is also an opportunity for a more general deterrence message. For example, there was the Bell Canada case in the summer of 2011, for misleading advertising. They were hiding important elements of the prices of phone, Internet and TV services in fine-print disclaimers, and they were advertising prices that simply weren't available. By entering into a consent agreement to pay the maximum fine possible–and, most importantly, stopping the conduct–they helped us send a signal to others in the industry.

Do you read things outside the law?

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I was an English major and I have a habit of rereading the same books, and not so much current literature. I enjoy 18th-century English literature, and I reread some 19th-century works as well.

What will you take home from your office at the bureau?

I'm not one who focuses on furnishings and I never redid my office. Last week, my staff gave me a picture of the Ottawa canal that is going to have a place of honour wherever I end up. Other than that, there is my handbag, and off we go.

A handbag? That sounds a bit like Margaret Thatcher.

It's not that kind of handbag. It is cooler than that–trust me–and it is a little beat up. I am honoured to have had this job and I have a seal hanging on my wall–the one you get when you are appointed by Order-In-Council–and I will take that too.

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About the Author
Senior Writer, Report on Business

Gordon Pitts is an author, public speaker and business journalist, with a focus on management, strategy, and leadership. He was the 2009 winner of Canada's National Business Book Award for his fifth book, Stampede: The Rise of the West and Canada's New Power Elite. More

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