New heritage minister a mystery

MONTREAL: Who is Josée Verner?

MONTREAL: Who is Josée Verner?

That is the question on the minds of film and TV players currently lining up for some face time with the Quebec City area MP (Louis-Saint-Laurent) who, as the new minister of heritage, now presides over the Canadian broadcasting, production and distribution industries.

Verner, who took over the post from Bev Oda in an Aug. 14 Tory cabinet shuffle, comes to the portfolio at a time when many in film and TV are nervous about the future. Producers hope that she will be more proactive than Oda in resolving the continuing feud between cable providers Shaw Communications and Videotron and the Canadian Television Fund. When those companies refused to pay their monthly contributions to the CTF early this year, Oda was initially silent, and then passed the responsibility of settling the dispute over to the CRTC, which will issue its final report on the fund on Sept. 15.

Verner will also help pick a new president for the CBC – current prez Robert Rabinovitch is scheduled to depart in November – and perhaps even spearhead the long-called-for mandate review of the pubcaster.

But some wonder if she is up to these formidable tasks, fearing that she may focus more of her time on Quebec City’s upcoming 400th anniversary celebrations in a bid to help Prime Minister Stephen Harper win more seats in la belle province.

And even if she does care about film and TV, it remains to be seen whether she has the clout with the PMO that Oda appeared to lack.

The word out of most corners is mixed. Some believe that a minister from Quebec can’t help but understand how important film and TV is to Canada.

‘Coming out of Quebec and the Francophonie, she knows how vital culture is,’ says new National Film Board commissioner Tom Perlmutter. ‘I’m really looking forward to meeting with her.’ Perlmutter never got the chance to meet with Oda.

Of course, her effectiveness might be tied to how long she stays in her post. Perlmutter’s predecessor, Jacques Bensimon, complained that the challenge in dealing with Heritage in recent years is that you don’t have long to get the minister to understand your concerns.

‘During my tenure, I’ve known four [Heritage] ministers in five years,’ he told Playback before leaving the NFB last year. ‘The minute you convince them, they’re gone.’

Oda, who held the job since early last year, replaced Liberal Liza Frulla (2004-2006), who was preceded by fellow Grits Hélène Chalifour Scherrer (2003-2004) and long-serving Sheila Copps (1996-2003).

Veteran filmmaker Rock Demers believes that a Quebec birth certificate is no guarantee that Verner will support culture. ‘No one knows her,’ he says. ‘She’s not like Liza Frulla or Sheila Copps. She really has no profile here.’

Indeed, little is known about either Verner’s formal education or her professional background. Despite the 20 years of experience in communications and public affairs touted in her official biography, the 47-year-old MP doesn’t appear to have any experience in either broadcasting or culture. (Repeated calls to her office for more information and an interview were not returned.)

But the new minister does appear somewhat fickle when it comes to her political allegiances. She worked for former Quebec premier Robert Bourassa, but left the Quebec Liberals’ campaign to help organize Mario Dumont’s right-leaning Action démocratique du Québec during the 2003 election. Dumont failed to make the splash many observers had anticipated that year, and gained few new seats. Verner then left the ADQ team and in 2004 ran for the federal Conservatives. Although Verner lost her seat, Harper brought her to Ottawa as a senior Quebec advisor, her files including economic development and the Francophonie. She was also chair of the party’s Quebec caucus.

Since winning her seat in 2006, Verner was named to the federal cabinet as minister of international cooperation and la Francophonie, where she was often called upon to defend the Canadian International Development Agency’s widely criticized aid efforts in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, those directly affected say they are entering this new relationship with optimism.

CBC spokeswoman Katherine Heath-Eves calls the appointment of a minister from Quebec ‘a good thing.’

‘These are challenging times for Canadian broadcasting,’ she says. ‘We need to map out a cultural policy that’s sustainably financed and promotes our cultural sovereignty and national identity. We will soon be sitting down with her to brief her on the important issues.’