Pa Bell

by L. Surtees,
ISBN: 0394221427

Post Your Opinion
Blue-Chip Apparatchik
by Anthony Rudnick

ONCE IN A WHILE members of the establishment surprise people by skirting the edges of bohemianism. Pierre Trudeau, when he was prime minister, titillated the media for years with flamboyant gestures that tweaked the noses of the stuffy and the self-serious. By contrast, A. Jean de Grandpre never suffered from a desire to shock the nation's bourgeoisie. In fact, the former chairman of Bell Canada Enterprises Inc. was the epitome of a blue chip apparatchik. Although virtually unknown outside Canada's incestuous corporate elite, he was directly responsible for every single telephone-rate hike in the 1970s.

Lawrence Surtees, a seasoned Globe and Mail business reporter, presents all the facts about A. Jean de Grandpre in this 496-page tome. At first, Surtees's narrative manages to sustain the reader's interest in the mogul's life and work.

Unfortunately, the interest doesn't last.

Born in 1921 to a well-heeled Montreal family with deep roots in Quebec, de Grandpre seemed destined at an early age to succeed. His parents were tireless social climbers whose ambitions transcended the isolated quietude of French-Canadian society in the inter-war years. According to Surtees, de Grandpre conformed brilliantly. As a student at the famous Jesuit College Jean-de-Brebeuf, he excelled in all subjects and, ironically, counted Pierre Elliott Trudeau. as a schoolmate - along with several other famous Quebecois who graduated in the college's famed class of 1940.

After studying law at McGill University, de Grandpre graduated in 1943 and quickly established himself as an expert trial lawyer who worked tirelessly on behalf of his corporate clients, most of them insurance companies. His reputation for emotionless aggression and legal incisiveness made him a natural candidate for Bell Canada, a company that badly needed regulatory talent. In 1965, he became Bell's corporate legal counsel, and thereafter was locked in a long series of battles with the federal government over the monopoly's right to increase telephone charges, diversify into other industries, and restructure itself into a huge holding company with interests in manufacturing, high technology, and real estate.

This is also the point at which Pa Bell begins to plod along with a distressing lack of dramatic tension, as de Grandpre climbs the corporate ladder and takes over the company as president, and later chairman. Surtees expends enormous literary energy showing de Grandpre in action against the feds - but there is something inherently boring about telephone regulations.

Probably the most interesting parts of the book deal with de Grandpre's politics. Not surprisingly, he was a reactionary during Quebec's Quiet Revolution. As Surtees drily remarks:

Unlike the Citelibrists who were galvanized by the infamous asbestos strike of 1949 in Thetford, Quebec, de Grandpre worked for the system. His outlook led to retainers to act for employers, rather than employees.

This is about as critical as Surtees gets in Pa Bell. For the most part he seems content to record de Grandpre's career like a dutiful monk, without even asking one or two tough questions. Is A. Jean de Grandpre, for example, really a great empire builder? Or is he just a fancy paper shuffler who cobbled together a lot of assets and created a massive and unwieldy holding company?

These are important matters that are not properly discussed. And that's why the book rather eerily reminds one of the memoirs of Andrei Gromyko, the former Soviet foreign minister; it is a similarly lifeless exposition that avoids serious analysis and criticism.


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