A tribute to Gerald Trites: Canada's strongest proponent of XBRL shifts gears

Gerald Trites looks back at two decades of working with and advocating for the use of eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL) in Canada.

After more than a decade as Canada's leading advocate for machine readable electronic reporting through eXtensible Business Reporting Language, commonly referred to as "XBRL," Gerald Trites has retired as head of XBRL Canada. "Helping businesses and regulators recognize the potential of XBRL has been both an incredible opportunity and a great challenge," he says. True enough. In fact, most of those involved in the work would agree that Canada's XBRL journey has been something of a rollercoaster experience.

One example: After many years spent passionately advocating for an electronic reporting file format that allows investors to better analyze data and make informed investment decisions, Trites says he's gratified that most of Canada's largest issuers are now required to file using XBRL. The twist? The new rule affecting Canadian companies is the result of an SEC requirement for its foreign private issuers, rather than a Canadian directive. While the path to Canadian XBRL securities filings was circuitous, Trites applauds the result: better transparency and comparability in business reporting for the more than 300 Canadian companies listed in both Canada and the United States.

Trites' own XBRL journey started in the early 2000s. At the time, the retired KPMG partner was a professor of accounting and information systems at Nova Scotia's St. Francis Xavier University and a volunteer member of the profession's Information Technology Advisory Committee (ITAC). "XBRL was just taking off and was being touted as the next big thing in reporting," he recalls. "It was an exciting time."

Trites was asked to write a paper on the audit and control implications of XBRL for ITAC. As part of his research, he reached out to Eric Cohen, one of the originators of XBRL and a founding member of XBRL International. It was the start of many collaborative efforts to come. Among these was a 2006 international white paper authored by Trites on the assurance implications of XBRL, a paper Cohen calls "foundational."

For Cohen, the story of Trites' XBRL legacy is still very much in the making. "He has been an inspiring and tireless advocate for XBRL in Canada," Cohen says. "But in my view, Jerry's contributions go beyond that important work. Assurance on XBRL has become a huge issue today. For me, it would be difficult to say that Jerry's 2006 white paper won't be seen as most important."

After CPA Canada (then CICA) established XBRL Canada, Trites got a call to head up the organization. "I'd just retired from 10 years of teaching," he says. "So, I thought about it—for a few minutes. Then I said, 'Sure, I'd love to.'"

Over the next 12 years, Trites raised awareness of XBRL and its benefits with accountants and key stakeholders in Canada and internationally. He often partnered with Cohen and with the international body to hold webinars, seminars and workshops for members, businesses and regulators. "Canada hosted two meetings of XBRL International during that time, which attracted members from around the world and raised the profile in Canada," he says.

In 2008 the Canadian Securities Administrators introduced a voluntary filing program for XBRL. But just as XBRL's momentum was building, the Accounting Standards Board announced that Canada would transition to IFRS. "In the end, the securities commissions decided that the marketplace had gone through enough disruption with the move to IFRS," says Trites. "That's fair, but the decision has had the effect of putting Canada behind other countries."

To say Trites has trouble retiring is an understatement. After a career of vast contribution that spans three retirements, his professional life is taking another shift. Trites has launched a new magazine for financial professionals that bucks the current trend of short articles and top-ten lists. ThinkTwenty20 offers a deep dive into contemporary issues that affect CPAs, providing analysis and insight into trends and movements affecting finance functions.

He will no doubt add to his considerable bibliography, which includes many technical books and research papers as well as a foray into romantic fiction. "I enjoy writing, and don't plan on quitting that anytime soon," he says.

And in his spare time? "I'm adding a little more balance to life, taking greater advantage of my home near the ocean in Mahone Bay, sailing and spending more time with my wife Margaret."